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  • 100 in ’11: Franzen, Gabaldon and Gummer

    How to be Alone – Jonathan Franzen

    Summary: A collection of essays – not short stories – on society, technology and human nature.

    Truth be told, I was expecting something more poetic than this. How To Be Alone is very much rooted in reality, rather than the abstract. Chapter after chapter he rails against technology, offering a glimpse into the life of a writer who in many ways prefers the analogue to the digital.

    It opens with a touching reflection on his father’s mental and physical decline, however, and there are other highlights in the form of a chapter on his return to his childhood suburb and the oddity that is being filmed for a TV show; insights into inmates and the business of prisons; and an essay on reading and readers, which I enjoyed most. Readers, research shows, form the habit early on, whether they simply prefer their rich inner worlds, or are genuinely awkward. If they’re lucky, he writes, their parents will forbid them from reading under the covers (like mine) and they will continue reading until university when they finally come across fellow bibliophiles. There’s a certain status, or mindset perhaps, that sets adult readers apart from non-readers, and it’s nothing short of a calling.

    Apart from those three, really, I could have just as well left this book alone.

    Drums of Autumn – Diana Gabaldon

    Summary: Claire and Jamie’s daughter voyages back in time in an attempt to save their lives.

    At this stage, Claire and Jamie are happily set up in the States, but a paper clipping outlining the details of their death leads daughter Brianna to leave the 20th century and travel back 200 years to try and avert it. She and boyfriend Roger are the main focus of this book, which I can’t say is particularly enjoyable. Much of it is taken up in ridiculous, petty drama that escalates from a rape and subsequent misunderstandings (pretty much all of the main characters in the series have now been sexually violated. Awesome) that ensue. While it’s nice to see how Jamie interacts with his hot-headed daughter, whom he never expected to see in the flesh, it’s all a bit tedious, to be honest.

    Parents Behaving Badly – Scott Gummer

    Summary: Inside the wacky world of crazy competitive Little League parents, and suburban family life in general.

    After moving back to the small town they grew up in, Ben and Jili Holden are sucked into the world of Little League – Ben’s father reigned as the local coach while he was alive, but Ben himself knows next to nothing about baseball. At the heart of the story are the characters – ex-jock and power-crazed coach Del, for one, and Cyn, the sexy ultrasound tech who scans Ben’s balls one day and turns up on the pitch the next. Hilarity ensues as Ben struggles to balance making a a $50,000 furniture order for pop superstar Touche, dealing with his daughter Kate, who spends every waking moment texting, curiosity about unrequited high school crush Liza, his growing attraction to Cyn (including a random bump and grind at a Touche concert) and of course living up to the shadow of his father after he takes over coaching Del’s team, when it’s clear he has zero authority.

    I know nothing about baseball, not being American, so much of this went over my head. Nonetheless, this is a smart, sharp novel that is downright hilarious. Gummer ridicules modern music, pop culture, washed up high school has-beens and of course the sporting equivalent of pageant mothers. Parents who tell their kids not to be such pussies, glue mirrors on the bottom of their coffee mugs to blind the opposition from the stands, and generally act as if they’re coaching professional athletes, not 10-year-olds, all get the ribbing they deserve..

  • 100 in ’11: Gabaldon, Naylor and Gibson

    Voyager – Diana Gabaldon

    Summary: Great lovers Jamie and Claire are reunited across the expanse of time.

    What can I say? This is a series for fans. Twenty years after travelling back to the 20th century, Claire discovers that Jamie survived war and makes the dangerous journey back through the stones to his time.

    It’s a bloated novel, taking us from Jamie’s bleak years in prison (thankfully, it skips over a lot of time) up to Jamie and Claire’s unceremorious arrival in America. Along the way, they make the acquaintance of slaves, an awesome Chinaman with a foot fetish who trains a bird to hunt fish for him, and tons of other colourful characters. And for the first time, they leave Europe, Jamie battling his seasickness to voyage across to the Caribbean in pursuit of pirates who’ve kidnapped his nephew Young Ian.

    I was afraid of how young love might translate into mature love – two decades is not a short period of time – but Gabaldon soon has us forgetting their ages. In all honesty, I’m not sure I at 23 could hack half of what these guys endure – but those were different times.

    Intensely Alice – Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

    Summary: Alice struggles with sex, religion and death. Pretty heavy all around.

    I’ve grown up with Alice McKinley. Naylor is like my Judy Blume. These books are always good for a quick read, an hour or two of entertainment, but I’ve well and truly overtaken Alice – she’s still in high school and I’m well out of university. Thus, I read them more out of habit, or obligation, than anything else.

    Alice has always occupied the middle ground between her two best friends – shy, dark-haired, conservative Elizabeth and flirty blonde Pamela. Her antics in this book involve being accosted by a man on a plane, getting up to some innocent mischief on a hen’s night, her first overnight visit with longtime boyfriend Patrick who’s away at college, a few run-ins with police, ponderances on religion and tolerance, and the demise of a friend.

    While I’ve outgrown Alice, I still think these are great books for teen girls, and I’m going to stick it out until the end of the series, which should be fairly soon. I’ve always identified with her gawkiness and insecurities – if she was real, I would want to be her best friend. Although most of Naylor’s other characters are pretty stereotypical, Alice herself is reasonably three-dimensional and kind of the relatable everygirl.

    Neuromancer – William Gibson

    Summary: Superhacker gets one last shot at the caper of a lifetime.

    Let me just put this out there: I enjoyed Neuromancer, but I sure as hell didn’t understand all of it. Which I suppose is often the case with scifi. The author is making shit up as s/he goes, so if you don’t know what the eff is going on, it’s because said writer is talking out of the ass. Vague passages containing references to technology that kind of sound like they make sense but actually don’t say anything concrete? Check. On the other hand, Gibson also broke ground and coined a ton of phrases that we use today and are familiar, which is a relief.

    While the opening line is undeniably fantastic (The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel) the same can’t be said for all of Gibson’s prose (His eyes were eggs of unstable crystal, vibrating with a frequency whose name was rain and the sound of trains). Rather, his strength is in pace, timing and action.

    Case was once a star hacker in a futuristic post-war world ruled by corporates, who got busted stealing from his boss and paid the price. His abilities stripped, he ekes out a living on the streets of Japan. But he’s hauled up in front of the mysterious Armitage who gives him his mojo back in exchange for Case venturing into the matrix for one last covert op involving an old-fashioned key and a creepy all-powerful family who keeps cloning itself generation after generation. Who is Armitagereally working for? Who is the mysterious AI, Wintermute? And what’s up with that razorgirl Molly Millions, assigned to work alongside Case? (Kudos for the strong woman, though I was disappointed that sex had to be brought into the equation. Always, huh? Why do females always have to exist in relation to males, rather than stand alone?)

    I’m a big fan of Isaac Asimov’s spare writing style. Gibson’s is much more free-flowing, and his plotting less definitive and expositional, but still colour me impressed.

  • 100 in ’11: Eggers, Rubenfeld and Brandt

    A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers

    Summary: Two brothers attempt to find their way in life after the death of both parents to cancer in quick succession.

    It must be nice to be more or less financially set. But not at the cost of being orphaned. Dave Eggers lost both his parents in his early twenties to ugly cases of cancer. In the aftermath, he and younger brother Toph move to California with their sister Beth, where they start building a new life in San Francisco. In between sliding around in their socks on hardwood floors, violent games of catch, his on-again-off-again girlfriend, the daily struggles of surrogate parenting, Eggers starts up an indie magazine that wants to change the world.

    As memoirs go, this is raw, funny, fresh and all too self-aware. By turns poignant and (painfully) hilarious, the stream-of-consciousness tirade sometimes becomes too much, and the ending, to me, was lacking. But I still stand by my conviction that serious or not, the title is entirely appropriate. Read it.

    The Interpretation of Murder – Jed Rubenfeld

    Summary: A psychological murder mystery, ever so slightly based in fact.

    People fascinate me, I’ve said that often enough. And there’s plenty of light psychology to be had here, owing, of course, to the presence of Freud in this novel. It’s known that Freud did not hold America in high regard, and Interpretation is a fictitious account of what might have happened on his 1909 trip to put him off so.

    Tasked with hosting Freud and Jung during their visit, Stratham Younger is quickly drawn into the bizarre case of Nora Acton, who has been assaulted but has no memory of being attacked – in which he draws on Freud for guidance. At the same time, forces are conspiring to discredit Freud ahead of his scheduled lectures, while Jung is acting evermore irrational and suspiciously.

    Along the way, there’s a bit of analysis on dreams, childhood memories and the Oedipal complex, particularly in relation to Younger’s favourite play, Hamlet. Fast-paced and full of intrigue, it’s also a beautiful snapshot of New York at the turn of the century when carriages vied with cars on the streets and debutantes and cotillions still ruled the social scene. Heck, I even learnt a bit about underwater construction and the bends.

    One Click and the Rise of Amazon – Richard L Brandt

    Summary: Jeff Bezos was destined for greatness, it seems. And it appears he’s only just getting started.

    Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is classically driven, like many ambitious tycoons. (Having just read the Steve Jobs biography, I couldn’t help but draw parallels). From his childhood spent buried in books and pulling things apart, to his rapid ascent as a programmer on Wall St, the cool-headed Bezos always knew he wanted to start a business. He methodically eliminated all other options before settling on bookselling (this love of logic and lists extends to all areas of his life). And then he set to it.

    While a technical person, Bezos comes across as extremely business-savvy. Of course, the inevitable faults eventually come out, and they’re not surprising – disgruntled, unfulfilled staff who didn’t buy into the Amazon cult (Bezos reckons every new hire should set the bar even higher, and put even the lowliest employees through a gruelling selection process). But mostly, he comes off as a person who cares more about product and profit, hence the insane  number of other businesses he’s acquired over the years (I was astounded).

    It’s a basic biography, no more – while I found it interesting enough, if you knew anything much about Bezos beforehand, it may not be worth the time.

  • 100 in ’11: Roberts, Frary and Gabaldon

    Shantaram – Gregory Roberts

    Summary: The tale of an Australian prison escapee who flees to India and carves out a life for himself in Bombay

    Some characters truly are larger than life, and Lin, aka Shantaram – based on Roberts’ own experiences – is almost too fantastic to believe. From inmate to slum doctor to gangster, he arrives in Bombay intending only to stay for a few days, and ends up hooked by its heart and soul.

    Shantaram is long, but it has the makings of masterpiece. Roberts brings India to life in full colour – its spirit, its heat, its filth – compelling yet repulsive, ugly yet beautiful. Lin endures countless betrayals, deaths of those close to him, struggles with heroin, but finds joy in a few real friendships, his slum neighbours whom he cares for, and learns the business of passport forging and currency hustling under the patronage of one local mob head. My chief complaint lies with his incessant need to tie every chapter up neatly with some deep philosophical observations – it’s unnecessary and grating.

    It’s also telling, I think, of the faults of the prison system. The book begins in Bombay; Roberts does not directly indict his Australian jailers, as I recall; Lin references his time inside to others only when asked directly about it. And as for the brutal violence and appalling conditions that mark his time in an Indian jail, well, that speaks for itself. I have spoken to prison guards, restorative justice reps and lobbyists on both sides in my time, and while I know there is no black and white and no easy answers, I think it’s safe to say our system is not perfect – and it’s unimaginable that such things can be sanctioned (plus of course, the things that aren’t).

    How To Get A Sofa Around A Corner – Mark Frary

    Summary: Smart science for a better life.

    Have you ever wondered how to up your odds at cards, get a wine stain out, or deal to bad breath? This book explains how, applying science – be it physics or chemistry – to everyday matters. And it’s not laborious; think diagrams, drawings and concise explanations, with each dilemma dealt to in the space of a couple of digestible pages. Probably not a reference book, but an entertaining and educational distraction all the same.

    Dragonfly in Amber – Diana Gabaldon

    Summary: Duelling. Balls. Prison. Kings. Gold. History. From life in 18th century France to 18th century Scotland, it’s never dull for Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp.

    Okay, I succumbed. And I’m putting the Claire-Jamie story up there with Tatiana and Alexander and Jessica and Marcus in my top three greatest fictional loves.

    Sequels are never quite as compelling, and this suffers from being bookended with sequences set in the future, in which Claire recalls the rest of her time-travelling experience in the present day. These also swing from first-person to third person, as her daughter Brianna and family friend Roger necessarily provide another perspective while she attempts to convince them of her story.

    Following on from Outlander, Dragonfly follows Claire and Jamie in France as they try to thwart the Stuart uprising. Jamie takes up the mantle of merchant and Claire juggles her duties as a society lady with work at a hospital for the dregs of society. There’s duelling, more jail time, a miscarriage and plenty of plotting, scheming and mortal danger, plus plenty of rolls in the hay thrown in. Highbrow guilty pleasures all around. And you might learn some history too.

  • 100 in ’11: Shriver, Hosseini and Isaacson

    The Post-Birthday World – Lionel Shriver

    Summary: The ultimate what-if scenario; Irina’s two very different possible lives play out, one in which she succumbs to an adulterous attraction, and one in which she doesn’t.

    Here’s the deal: Irina is dopey and spineless. Her defacto, Lawrence, is dull, emotionally stunted and won’t marry her. She’s forced to choose between him and Ramsey, the snooker-playing cad who offers a life of colour, excitement and hot sex. He’s also terrible with money, immature, jealous and temperamental. And that’s the choice, really – a happy-enough existence, or a turbulent one of high highs and low lows? What would you choose?

    Shriver plots very tightly; Irina’s divergent futures parallel each other closely, usually mirroring the other. While it works well (they are alternated chapter by chapter) it’s also predictable; I  wonder if the book would have been stronger had her alternate realities diverged more strongly. And it’s not a short book. It could definitely have had the axe taken to it; some of the exhaustive pool passages could have been trimmed, or the vaguely political ones. But by the very end, Shriver makes it pretty clear which side she’s on. Irina ends up in exactly the same position either way, except for one crucial point. And that disappointed me. A novel based on this premise, IMO, should be ultimately ambiguous.

    The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

    Summary: After Amir witnesses an unspeakable atrocity on his childhood friend/servant Hassan, who endures it for his master’s sake, his guilt haunts him for years to come, through Afghanistan’s war and over the ocean to his new life in San Francisco.

    Afghanistan’s history is pretty depressing. And so is Amir’s sorry story. Unable to deal with his guilt, he drives Hassan literally out of the city, and doesn’t get the chance to begin to atone for his sins until decades later. He’s drawn back to his home country to try to set things right in a small way and slay his demons once and for all.

    What’s wrong with The Kite Runner? Hosseini prefers to tell even more than show. He beats you over the head with cliches and foreshadowing and symbolism. The first person viewpoint didn’t help in that regard – one of the many reasons I preferred A Thousand Splendid Suns. That said, it’s a nice history lesson, an ode to the once-great Afghanistan of old, and a tearjerker. It also always breaks my heart to read about immigrants starting over in poverty in a new country – that saddened me possibly even more than the atrocities in Kabul and elsewhere.

    I don’t want to give you the impression that I hated this book; I enjoyed it. And to Hosseini’s credit, for all my criticism of his heavyhanded plotting, the conclusion was decidedly not neat and tidy, but delightfully grey. But I think it could have been so much more, with a less contemptuous and cowardly narrator, and less long-suffering, endlessly loyal secondary characters.

    Steve Jobs – Walter Isaacson

    Summary: An intriguing, if not intimate glimpse into the workings of a flawed and mercurial genius.

    It’s not often I read biographies. But I actually wanted to read this one, and when a copy popped up on my work desk, I was stoked. And because I didn’t get to do it justice in my 200-word review, you’ll get the full unpolished monty here.

    I think we all know the Steve Jobs story. It’s great stuff; you couldn’t make it up if you tried. But it gets better; Isaacson has managed to extract some fabulous quotes, eg: “She [mother Clara] just wanted him to be healthy, and he would be making weird pronouncements like, ‘I’m a fruitarian and will only eat leaves picked by virgins in the moonlight.”

    (One of my 100 in 1001 is to do NaNoWriMo, which I probably won’t pull off, but I reckon I could do a fair job of a biography. It’s just longform journalism, after all.)

    As well as following the narrative of Jobs’ life, it offers an insight into the tech world and the tensions of Silicon Valley- open vs closed, Apple vs Microsoft, Apple vs Google, Disney vs Pixar, etc. It doesn’t shy away from his failures: NeXT, the Lisa, Antennagate, etc. What it does leave out is the Foxconn suicides – while I don’t believe there’s anything unique about Apple’s use of cheap labour, I do think the major negative publicity surrounding worker deaths warranted a mention.

    It’s not a particularly flattering picture of Jobs. He was a genius at what he did – almost everyone who knew him agreed on that. He drove others to perform beyond their expectations – his reality distortion field, as they call it, sucked others in, hypnotising them almost. While not a technical guy, he pursued perfection at all costs, demanding beauty in his products and in his personal life – house, plane, boat. He married technology and design like nobody had before.

    But he was ruthless. He’d dismiss others’ ideas, then claim them as his own a day later. He cheated Woz (whom I think of as a giant teddy bear) out of money in the early days and denied founding member Daniel Kottke any stock. He wanted to let employees go on the spot without severance. He saw things in black and white, dismissing those who weren’t A players, and everything was either genius or a piece of crap to him. No middle ground. He had no time for social niceties. He was volatile and complex and played favourites with his children. And of course, he eerily echoed his own father’s abandonment of a child at 23. And he did not endure his illness well.

    But to his credit, it was never about the money. I especially loved the moment when Jobs told the head of Oracle to stop thinking about making more money, because he already had more than enough to last him a lifetime. It’s these anecdots, collected by Isaacson and supplemented by exhaustive interviews with family, friends, business contacts and material from other published interviews, that really start to offer insight into his essence, his quirks, his drive.

    Steve Jobs was an enigma. Some say his issues came down to his adoption and feelings of abandonment. Others say he may have been undiagnosed bipolar. Did Isaacson truly get inside his head? I’m not sure. On the other hand, I’m not sure he himself, nor anyone who knew him, could truly say they fully understood Steve Jobs

  • 100 in ’11: Gabaldon, White and David

    Outlander – Diana Gabaldon

    Summary: Claire Randall is thrown back in time to a war-torn Scotland of the 1700s, and torn herself between husband Frank, back in the future, and gallant redheaded warrior Jamie.

    I can’t remember the last time I thoroughly enjoyed a book so much. Let’s be honest; I’ve been reading some pretty literary (relatively) stuff – Outlander was a rip-roarer from start to finish, albeit a little long. I wouldn’t compare it to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – which should never have seen the light of day in its final state – but a little more editing wouldn’t have hurt.

    It’s obvious Gabaldon loves the characters of Claire and Jamie and that’s infectious for a reader – this comes through very strongly, and the great thing about this couple is that it’s a marriage of equals. While he’s very much a product of his time – protective and gentlemanly – she’s equally strong willed, independent and feisty, and enjoys some great dialogue thanks to her quick, sharp tongue. They’re both as stubborn as each other and are soulmates from the beginning.

    Gabaldon is a fantastic storyteller…although a bit too fantastic at times, perhaps –  her plotting doesn’t quite measure up to her writing.  Also worrying is Jamie’s punishment of Claire for putting their troops in mortal danger and his violation at the hands of villain Captain Randall – an ancestor of Claire’s husband.

    But all in all, it’s a bit of a bodice-ripper, a bit of a guilty pleasure, a historical romance – highbrow chick lit? In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I’m reluctant to read all the rest in the series, as they have really disappointing reviews.

    Charlotte’s Web – EB White

    Summary: A naive piglet learns some lessons about the ways of the world, with help from a colourful cast of characters, including one very onto-it spider.

    Yes, I did make it to the ripe old age of 23 without ever having read Charlotte’s Web. I have, however, remedied this oversight. And how glad I am! This is simply charming. Wilbur, the runt of the litter, is saved thanks to the pleas of Fern, and soon settles into farm life at her uncle’s. There he meets the garrulous geese, the wily rat who shares his food, and of course, Charlotte. It’s Charlotte who takes a shine to this white piglet and who takes it upon herself to save him from the Christmas slaughter by weaving words into her web that astound the farmer and his family, convincing them that Wilbur is something special.

    While I understand this is a children’s book, I would have liked to have heard more about Fern. While she dotes on Wilbur at the beginning, she begins to drift away, and apparently takes an interest in  a local boy. I felt that coming back to her towards the end would truly have brought the book full circle.

    Bought – Anna David

    Summary:  One unhappy, unfulfilled celebrity-chasing journalist embarks on an investigation of LA’s underworld – the world of modern courtesans, or prostitutes who take goods in lieu of cash.

    As a journalist, I got a fair few chuckles out of narrator Emma’s misadventures on the press line at the red carpet – being a “party reporter” must surely be one of the more demeaning beats out there. Trying to survive on forty grand a year in Hollywood, perpetual rejections of her feature ideas, drifting away from her former best friend and perpetual singledom has soured this modern woman. But when she discovers her ex is involved with a high class prostitute – one who accepts not cold hard cash, but bounty in the form of clothing, dinners out, and having her living expenses covered – she smells a good story.

    In fact, Jessica, the ferociously beautiful Eurasian on Matt’s arm, befriends Emma and introduces her to her fast world of sex, drugs and black Amexes. And that’s where Emma proceeds to lose her perspective and objectivity entirely. She’s sucked into a bizarre dimension where she can’t be sure of what’s real. Highly intelligent and highly educated, Jessica is an expert in manipulation – particularly of men – and is of the game-playing philosophy of dating. She’s also rather unstable. While Emma emerges more confident in herself, thanks to Jessica’s coaching, she’s also left virtually friendless. Unlike most chicklit, she doesn’t get the (nice) guy in the end, and doesn’t keep her job. But she does clarify her principles and realises that while some women are happy to wield their sexuality and be “bought”, she can’t live that way. A quick, engaging and satisfying read, David perfectly captures the dilemmas of 21st-century womanhood.

     

     

  • 100 in ’11: Capote, de Jour and Summers

    In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

    Summary: The true tale of the Clutter family murders, dramatised in novel form.

    It’s an interesting concept, the nonfiction novel. It tries to be a documentary – after all, Capote covered this story as a journalist – but took this opportunity to retell it more creatively. And it’s a wrenching story. These were good people – as good people as you can get – and they were slaughtered for naught. But it’s just as dreadful to read about the grim lives led by killers Dick and Perry, inasmuch as Capote can get inside their heads. Capote has a talent for bringing characters to life, even without necessarily knowing all that much about them (he never met the Clutters, for example). It’s also clear that he identifies somewhat with Perry; he delves more deeply into his psyche, and we get a sense of his character more strongly than Dick’s.

    Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl – Belle De Jour

    Summary: The inner thoughts of a high-class London call girl.

    Belle de Jour’s book is based on the popular anonymous blog she kept during the year and a bit that she spent as a well-paid London prostitute. Sex has obviously always been a big part of her life; for example, she falls into this line of work after being taken home by a wealthy couple for a threesome, for which they slip her, well, a little bit more than the taxi fare home. Many of her friends are men she’s had relationships with (the rather S&M details of some I’d rather not have heard), and of course, The Boy, her current flame who seems more than a little emotionally unstable. But her sharp observations of life as a sex worker are sassy and engaging. Particularly entertaining is her hooker’s A-Z, where her snarky wittiness really shines. Belle is obviously intelligent, and you will most likely be intrigued as to what she studied that failed to lead to a job. It perhaps sounds as if she was an arts graduate, but Belle de Jour is of course, actually Dr Brooke Magnanti, who is now a bit of a champion for sex workers.

    Some Girls Are – Courtney Summers

    Summary: The ultimate tale of high school frenemies.

    There were two things I found difficult to believe. One, Regina’s name (great name for a character, but SO not a popular girl’s name). Secondly, the sheer scale of the nastiness and bullying that went on – both the meanness that Regina and Anna unleashed on those unfortunate enough to be their targets, and the vitriol and physical abuse Regina suffers at the hands of her ex-best friend once she falls from grace. You will marvel at the new hateful extremes that a teenage girl can go to in order to hurt another human being simply for the hell of it. And conversely, you’ll be heartwarmed to see the capacity for forgiveness held by the people Regina once crushed, despite having no reason to give her the time of day. This is a quick, rip-roaring read – immediate, wrenching and fast-paced.

  • 100 in ’11: Franzen, Hamilton and Capote

    The Corrections

    The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

    Summary: Two generations of the Lambert family struggle with the burden of daily life.

    Sounds pretty unexciting, huh? The Corrections was a strange, and strangely compelling read. It seems so ludicrous – from Chip’s job scamming American investors into pouring money in Lithuania by means of a phony website, to Denise sleeping not only with a married woman, but that married woman’s husband as well, or Gary’s cold money-grubbing and his poewr struggle of a marriage to harpy wife Caroline. Then, of course, there’s their parents, Enid and Al, the latter of whom is losing both mental and physical control as Parkinson’s takes over his brain. Ultimately, they are all reunited for one last Christmas together, as per Enid’s wishes, and forced to face the truth about their collective situation. Every single character is hateful, annoying and frustrating (to varying degrees), but there’s something about Franzen’s black humour that kept me reading.

    Blood Bones and Butter

    Blood, Bones and Butter: the education of a reluctant chef – Gabrielle Hamilton

    Summary: An idyllic bohemian childhood abruptly ends with a divorce, the catalyst for young Gabrielle striking out on her own and making a place for herself in the world.

    As you would expect, Hamilton’s memoir is filled with sumptuous memories of food, tied in closely with family. A sense of belonging is something she actively tries to cultivate in an attempt to recreate the memories of her youth prior to her parents’ split – an event that led her to take on dishwashing jobs and eventually move to New York to work in bars and restaurants (one year she pulled in $90,000 working around the clock as an underage waitress, and spent it all on drugs) and catering companies. Eventually, she completes a Masters in literature, but realises that food is where her heart lies, and when the opportunity to open her own restaurant presents itself, she seizes it – despite never having even worked as a restaurant chef before, or having any business experience.

    Hamilton is as talented a writer as she is a chef (she apparently beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef but had no desire to be on TV). Her no-nonsense take on being a woman in the industry is refreshing, as is her outlook on food (no foams, no pretentious sauces, just genuine, comforting fare that people actually want to eat). For me, though, one of the most intriguing aspects of the book was largely left unresolved – that of her loveless marriage. While she identifies as a lesbian in one chapter and has relationships with women, she ends up marrying an Italian doctor and having two children with him; his south Italian family provide her with some of those roots she yearns for, but it seems a union doomed.

    Other Voices, Other Rooms – Truman Capote

    Summary: A strange coming-of-age tale packed with quirky characters that lacks resolution.

    Other Voices, Other Rooms follows young Joel Knox as he’s packed off to Alabama to live with his father’s family following the death of his mother. His new life is packed with quirky characters: his paralysed father who communicates by throwing balls down the stairs; his long-suffering stepmother; and wacky Cousin Randolph, who drinks too much and likes to dress up as a woman, to name just a few.

    Capote has talent. He was my age when he wrote this. His polished prose seems to sparkle effortlessly and its dreamy quality is beguiling. But at times it verges on the outright bizarre; some of the rambling toward the end of the novel is simply confused (confusing?), the gothic, supernatural elements lead nowhere, nor in fact is there any resolution to be found, whether it’s in regard to Zoo, the bright-eyed young maid, Idabel (aka Harper Lee), his tomboyish neighbour, his bedridden father, or even Cousin Randolph.

     

  • 100 in ’11: McCafferty, Bender and Shriver

    The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender

    Summary: An unhappy suburban family starts to unravel, as told by their precocious young daughter, who can taste the cook’s emotions through food.

    I’m told Bender is a superb short story writer. I was hooked on the first page thanks to a throwaway line about ingredients lined up for baking on a counter – “butter blurring at the edges”. Just beautiful. Unfortunately, what started out as a promising book lost its way in a spectacular fashion.

    While Bender’s prose is exquisite, its also wholly unconvincing from the narrative viewpoint of a nine-year-old. Overnight, Rose’s life is altered when she discovers she can taste in every meal the feelings of the person who made it. And unfortunately, we are all far less happy than we outwardly project. Eating is essentially ruined for Rose, and she switches to a diet of packaged, processed food as much as possible – the only food she can stomach is the sandwiches made by her best friend’s parents, compiled with love and a caring hand. Meanwhile, her distant parents and brother continue to grow further apart, with particularly devastating consequences once her sibling’s own supernatural secret is revealed. And that is when the story descends into the realm of sheer madness and pure WTF-ery. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

    Bumped – Megan McCafferty

    Summary: Madness reigns in an alternate future where only teenagers can reproduce thanks to a potent virus, including two twin sisters struggling to find their place in this sexually-charged society.

    Harmony and Melody are beautiful, intelligent, talented and all around perfect twins separated at birth; Harmony was raised in a strict Christian community and comes looking for Melody in an effort to save her soul and convince her to return to her town and live in purity with her. Meanwhile, Melody grew up with academic parents who have dollar signs in their eyes and have groomed her to become a lucrative breeding machine given her desirable traits. But at 16 – just two years from infertility – her agent has yet to find her a boy to ‘bump’ with. Just as Harmony shows up on the scene, however, a deal is stuck with superstar reproducer Jondoe – and a mistaken-identity caper ensues.

    Megan McCafferty has my eternal admiration as the creator of the Jessica Darling books. Bumped is very different in subject matter, but
    her talent for wordplay continues to shine through with no shortage of intentionally hilarious acronyms and slang (although the sheer number of  made-up terms she drops is excessive and somewhat grating). I wasn’t a fan of the open-ended ending, either, but it seems there’s a sequel in the works, so that, in my eyes, is forgivable.

    So Much For That – Lionel Shriver

    Summary: Shep Knacker’s dream of retiring to the Third World is torn to shreds when his wife Glynis reveals she has cancer, and needs him to stay put for health insurance purposes.

    There is so much going on in this novel, it’s hard to know where to start. Everybody is unhappy and browbeaten and tough to like, from single-minded Shep who allows everyone from Glynis – who refuses to buy into his dream – to the useless Randy, to whom he sold the company he built from the ground up, and is now driving back into nothing, to walk over him. His mooching artist sister Beryl. His similarly dependent daughter Amelia. His withdrawn son Zach. His best friend Jackson, who seems to have inferior man syndrome (and oh, the action he takes in an effort to remedy that…) and rails on about the failures of government and capitalism to anyone who’ll listen.  And of course, prickly, lost Glynis herself, whose worst qualities are only brought out by her cancer.

    I adore Shriver’s ambition and intensity, although her tendency to ramble on and propensity for long-winded, far-fetched dialogue detracts somewhat from the overall effect. The novel shines in depicting modern misery, in the nuances of marriages and relationships, particularly in relation to illness, and of course an indictment of the American healthcare industry, driven home by the simple device of starting each new chapter with Shep’s latest Merrill Lynch account balance. Meanwhile, it also tackles the dichotomy of moochers vs mugs – those who game the system, and those who play by the rules (guess who wins and who loses?). That’s largely delivered through Jackson’s monologues – subtle as a hammer – but also simply through Shep’s support of everybody around him. Thankfully, the end is most satisfying, despite him depleting his life savings to prolong Glynis’ existence. Worth a read.

  • 100 in ’11: Gilmore, Ancowitz and Franzen

    Something Red – Jennifer Gilmore

    Summary: The poignant tale of one extremely socially and politically aware family set on the cusp of a new decade as the Cold War rages and punk finds its feet.

    Something Red functions as an exquisite portrayal of one Jewish-American family’s experience. Gilmore seems equally at home tackling adolescent angst as middle-aged discontent; she tenderly and non-judgementally introduces us to to a pair of former radicals, their larger-than-life parents, their sex-obsessed jock son and bulimic daughter. Each is deeply unhappy and troubled in their own way; Dennis is trapped in a career he’s losing faith in, Sharon joins a cult-like group in search of fulfilment, Ben feels no higher calling in life and Vanessa despises her own body. The author jumps from character to character, timeframe to timeframe, meandering along threads of memories and following them to the end.

    Ultimately, however, I felt that apart from their children – who were just beginning to really grow – the  none of the older Goldsteins were going anywhere – and that’s frustrating in a novel. The end in particular baffled me. Some twists are good. Others come out of left field and seem to serve no purpose, like this one.

    Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

    Summary: The up and downs and  life and times of one midwestern family set against a Bush-era backdrop.

    While I would shave a sliver of a star off this for the freaky and frankly disturbing phone sex passage, Freedom is a modern masterpiece. For those fascinated by human psychology, this novel is full of lushly imagined, fully-formed and deeply flawed characters to get your teeth into.

    There’s selfless environmentalist Walter, who ends up taking a job with links to coal and oil; superjock turned (un)happy housewife Patty; Walter’s best friend and musician Richard who apparently looks like Gaddafi (which to my mind isn’t a plus) but has some kind of hypnotic pull on Patty, complicating his already volatile relationship with Richard; ruthless son Joey who just may turn out to have a heart and consience; and daughter Jessica, who actually doesn’t get any page time of her own. Perhaps most interesting of all, though, was Connie, Joey’s childhood love and eventual wife, who’s deeply intriguing for all her instability and coolness (but like Jessica, is relegated to the sidelines).

    It seems to me that Franzen intuitively understands, but doesn’t necessarily like, human nature. Which turns out to be a good thing. Freedom’s timeline is fluid, moving back forth as it does between characters’ viewpoints and moments in time, but in this case it works – I’d go as far as to say it was unputdownable. This is realism, pure and simple: ugly and frustrating but thankfully ultimately redemptive.

    Self Promotion for Introverts – Nancy Ancowitz

    Summary: A reminder that it’s perfectly okay to be introverted, with some generic tips on making the most of it.

    I had big hopes for this book, but ultimately, there is no magic solution. I did enjoy her introvert vs extrovert lexicon (which I lifted a few lines from here), tips for public speaking (applicable to everyone) and suggested questions to ask in job interviews (the more unique ones being to do with mission, values, and how the company is doing against its objectives).

    Ancowitz’s guide is interesting and fairly practical, peppered with anecdotes from both introverts and extroverts for colour (most entertaining are her vignettes about approaching famous people for quotes, particularly Bill Clinton) but there’s nothing mindblowing to be found. In fact, there was nothing especially new that I haven’t seen elsewhere in books or online. And while it was published fairly recently, the trouble is of course that things are moving so fast in the digital space that the social media chapter already feels awkwardly dated. Ultimately, whether you’re an introvert, extrovert or something in between, it comes down to playing to your strengths, being authentic, and persevering.