REVIEW: The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

The Silver Linings Playbook

This simple, short book was honest, heartfelt and easy to read – in fact, I couldn’t put it down. Which is something – but not everything. In fact, it may have just been the short chapters, as much as anything else.

We meet Pat Peoples, the first-person narrator and protagonist, doing push-ups in his bathrobe as his mother arrives to take him home from a mental institution.

Pat is an easy character to sympathise with, but some of the other characters – the emotionally distant, football-obsessed father and the kind, wise little Indian therapist – were at risk of being two-dimensional stereotypes. But then again, as the narrator was mentally ill and saw his life as one long movie, maybe this was intentional and simply lost on me?

Even given his mental illness (which is never specifically named or diagnosed), Pat’s narrator voice was a little too childlike for me, and I found it difficult to imagine his previous married life as a teacher, as well as his present-day adult relationships. In fact, he reminded me of the boy narrator in Extremely Loud and Incredible Close, who many readers interpreted (while, again, it was never specifically said in the book) as having Asperger’s. I’m pretty sure that’s not the same disorder 35-year-old Pat was supposed to have, which I imagined to more likely be depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Maybe brain damage?

I enjoyed the book’s references to American literature through Pat’s eyes – including Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – as he tried to better himself to win back his ex-wife. And I really did enjoy this book – otherwise I wouldn’t have demolished it in two bus commutes. Next stop? A date with Bradley Cooper at the cinema.

REVIEW: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

This was the allocated book of my first-ever meeting with a newly formed local book club. By the time I started it, I thought I’d left it too late to finish before the meeting – then I read it compulsively in about three days. I finished it in tears as sunlight encroached across my living room floor on a long Sunday morning.

In short, the novel is about a young boy, Oskar Schell, who loses his father in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Oskar is a precocious nine-year-old, and his father encouraged his inquisitive mind by often setting him tasks and puzzles. So, when his father dies and Oskar finds a key in an envelope with the word ‘Black’ written on it hidden in a vase, he sets out to solve what he hopes is his father’s last journey of discovery for him – by travelling throughout New York meeting everybody with the surname Black.

It was at this point that the book became a little far-fetched – even when you find out that Oskar’s mother had become aware of her sons journey and, despite not knowing the full details, pre-contacted his ‘Blacks’ ahead of his arrival would she 1. really have allowed a nine-year-old in post-911 New York to travel across the city alone (or, as it turns out, accompanied by an elderly stranger)? or 2. as a grieving and apparently very busy lawyer, had the foresight and will to play a behind the scenes role in the entire elaborate scheme for his sake, without actually knowing what he was looking for or what the result would be?

However, other than that criticism – and with suspended disbelief – the plot was engaging and the characters that you met in the Blacks of New York were often symbolic and usually very moving. Oskar’s grief (his “heavy boots”) is believable and sad – particularly the secret he carries on his little shoulders of having heard his father’s final voice messages, found himself unable to answer the ringing phone in the crucial moment and having hidden the answering machine from his mother. He sometimes bears the guilt by “giving [himself] a little bruise” which is heart-breaking in both its gravity and innocence.

Oskar’s story runs parallel with that of his grandparents – narrated largely through letters, and often set in WWII Germany. The relationship between Oskar’s German grandparents is highly unusual, sometimes a little confronting but moving in its own right and Foer’s main outlet for experimental prose – not all of which was easy to follow.

Another technique used by Foer in this book was imagery and representative fonts/text – a la The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and (I’m told, having never read it) Diary of a Wimpy Kid. So, for example, when we’re told Oskar’s mute grandfather writes one word in the centre of the page, the next page has just one word in the centre of the page (possibly another reason this was such a quick read). Or, when Oskar is looking through his secret collection of print outs and magazine cut-outs, we see the same pictures on the page that he describes. Some in the book club  said they found this distracting, and I can see their point to an extent. But I appreciated the effectiveness of the technique in some instances – particularly in the epistolary sections, and as a reminder of some of that shocking and infamous imagery that came out of 911, which I have to confess I found myself morbidly revisiting online whilst reading this book. However, I also thought the technique sometimes unnecessary and borderline pretentious - as if Foer was just doing it because he could, rather than to complement the text or add meaning.

There is a movie adaptation of this book starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock as Oskar’s parents. I haven’t seen it yet and am reluctant to, one reason being because it combines two central characters into one, and another because I can’t imagine how a book so reliant on the written word for effect could translate well onto screen.

Next Book Club book is The Other Hand by Chris Cleave.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

I once heard watching bad TV described as being like sitting in a lukewarm bath: You feel too sleepy and lazy to remove yourself from the situation, but it’s far from enjoyable. Using the same metaphor, I’d describe reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez as like being in a steaming hot bath. With a glass of wine. On a cold winter’s night. Whilst reading Gabriel García Márquez.

You get the point.

This book is magical in every sense of the word, and reading it was constantly a pleasure. Even the morbid or tragic scenes were larger than life and somehow enchanted with beauty. And while it was easy to get tangled up in the complex web of Remedioses, Arcadios and Aurelianos through the generations of the central Buendía family, even this came to feel meaningful and intentional by the end of the book as representative of the non-linear, circular passage of time.

One thing you must do before embarking on this book (or any of Márquez’ works, for that matter) is to suspend your disbelief – don’t ask too many questions, just go along for the ride. His writing is almost purely visceral, it comes from the heart and should be read that way – like a dream.

Oh, and I’ll never look at a flock of yellow butterflies in the same way again.

Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan

Whenever he spoke on TV or at an event, an audience member would beg Carl Sagan just to say it, please! But his use of the phrase ‘Billions and billions’ was a misquotation, he insists early on in this collection of essays and articles. Ever the scientist, he’s sure he would never say something so vague or unspecific (what does it even mean? Four billion? Four hundred billion?). But like many other famous misquotations before him – ‘Play it again, Sam’; ‘Elementary my dear Watson’; ‘You dirty rat’ – it stuck. Probably because when he did use the word (in a more accurate context, of course) he made an effort to pronounce it with an “explosive” ‘b’, he says, so as not to confuse it with its poorer cousin, millions.

There’s an old joke, Sagan tells us, in which a lecturer explains that the sun is predicted to expand and consume the earth in around five billion years. A nervous audience member raises their hand and asks, ‘Excuse me, did you say the sun will burn up the earth in five billion years?’

‘More or less,’ replies the lecturer.

Phew,’ the audience member sighs with relief. ‘I thought for a minute you said five million years.’

Like it’d make any difference to us.

The content of this book is vast – it covers everything from climate change, to the nuclear arms race, abortion and finally Sagan’s own encounter with painful death as a result of a rare blood disease; myelodysplasia. His final essay is written from his hospital bed, followed by a heartbreaking, posthumous epilogue written by his wife that set my bottom lip trembling.

Each chapter could be read on its own and provides great conversation starters – but I relished (and therefore recommend) reading this cover to cover, especially if you’re new to Carl Sagan’s writing, as I was. It felt like an opportunity to get to know one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century after which his death at the end, while expected, arrived like a bit of a sucker punch. But it’s inspiring to think that his words and ideas are enduringly relevant and inspiring today as they were in the 80s and 90s, and will continue to be so far into the future. Possibly even when the Voyager Golden Record a spectacular project in which he was closely involved – is hopefully discovered by extra-terrestrial life some time in the next billion years.

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

British TV Series 'Jeeves and Wooster' (Bertie Wooster, left, played by Hugh Laurie; Jeeves, right, played by Stephen Fry)

“Wodehouse, who adored the Pekingese breed of dog, liked to judge people on whether they were sound on Pekes. Evelyn Waugh, who like the Hitch and myself, revered the Master, judged people on how sound they are on Wodehouse,” said Stephen Fry in his eulogy of Christopher Hitchens late last year.

I’m ashamed to say that I wouldn’t be judged too highly by any of those men on that count – the name Wodehouse was only vaguely familiar as someone I knew I should know more about.

So I obediently made my way to the local library to see what they had in stock, which turned out to be one hard-cover copy of The Code of the Woosters, in the ‘large print’ section (just a little embarrassing to read on the bus).

Since then I have also come across several other Wodehouse books in the local bookstore, one of which had an endorsement printed on the cover, again from Stephen Fry (who played Bertie Wooster’s butler Jeeves in the British TV series Jeeves and Wooster based on the books): “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.” (Source)

Which I was happy to read after finishing my first Wodehouse book, but not before embarking on this blog post. Of course Jeeves’ irony and Bertie’s penchant for malapropisms had me genuinely laughing out loud. And the image of eyeballs bulging in shock, paintings brought down on the bumbling villain’s head and the overzealous yet inept policeman were all highly familiar to me – themes and characterisations which were probably, it occurred to me, pioneered by Wodehouse himself.

To finish, a confession: I sometimes embark on books from the classics shelf with a some trepidation: Will something in the old-world language, context or sense of humour be lost on me, so that I am unable to give it the appreciation it purportedly warrants? Well, I can safely say that I experienced no such problem with my first encounter with Wodehouse. It was lighthearted fun; clever, situational comedy that I will return to.

And, thanks to Fry, I’ve been let off the hook for making any further analysis.

Johnno by David Malouf

How did I get almost a quarter of a century into my life and only just become acquainted with such an important, talented Australian writer as David Malouf? I suppose I shouldn’t let it concern me too much, rather excite me with the promise of similar surprises in store.

Often described as semi-autobiographical, this was Malouf’s first novel – published in 1975 (during a six-month sabbatical in Florence, Italy). It begins with the narrator (who remains unnamed throughout the book, except for the nickname ‘Dante’) returning to Brisbane from London with the death of his father. Sorting through things in the family home, he happens across an old school photo and thus begins his reminiscence of his old friend, Johnno.

The book follows the complex relationship of the two and was, I felt – particularly towards the end – a story of unrequited love.

Johnno could be said to have three central characters – Johnno, Dante and the city of Brisbane. The shadowy damp of the Queenslander homes and the idiosyncracies of  wartime Brisbane of Malouf’s 1940s childhood are palpable throughout the novel. In fact, I finished the book feeling as though I’d got to know the otherwise unfamiliar city more than the mysterious human characters themselves.

Calling this book semi-autobiographical seems ironic to me. It is in fact a fictionalised biography of Johnno (based on Malouf’s real-life friend John Milliner who died in similar circumstances to the fictional Johnno in 1962, as revealed in the epilogue), but little is revealed about the first-person Malouf character, Dante – except as he relates to Johnno. The fact he is only known by the name given to him by Johnno is testament to that. If this book is autobiographical, it is only in the sense that it is the story of the part of his life that was touched by his friend.

This is a short book and therefore a relatively quick – but extremely rewarding – read. It’s the type of book you could easily pick up again and again, and take more from it with each reading. Johnno is poetic but unrestrained. Funny, but heartbreaking. I highly recommend it.

PANIC by David Marr

image collage: PanicPanic cover image

It is highly telling of the nature of the language that surrounds refugees in Australia that as a child, before I knew the correct definition of the phrase ‘asylum seeker’, I thought it was some sort of dangerous weapon of war – probably because of another phrase I knew from my brother’s video games: heat-seeking missile. So, when the press reported in large fonts or alarmed tones that ‘asylum seekers’ were headed for our shores, the ensuing panic seemed wholly justified to my young, wide-eyed self. Had I known the true definition of the term – to seek shelter from persecution – I may have been a little more perplexed about the anger and fear generated by, as Marr puts it, these “wretched men and women arriving on our shores in leaky fishing boats”.

Panic by Australian journalist David Marr is a collation of much of his writing from the past decade, with postscripts for the present date in each chapter, plus an overarching introductory chapter explaining and examining the premise of the book: to bring light to (or, as he says, “bell the cat” of) Australia’s capacity to generate irrational bouts of fear (moral panics), and for those fears to be used by politicians and the press to manipulate the voting public.

I felt like I was bursting out of my skin with frustration reading this book. Not by Marr’s writing – he presents his opinions logically and eloquently – but with the injustices and often ludicrousness of the issues he discusses. I could think of more than a few people who would benefit from reading his ‘other side of the story’ – largely the story put forward by a few loud and powerful voices of the likes of Alan Jones with such red-faced, frothing gusto.

Chapters in this book cover everything from the rise of Australia’s One Nation party leader, Pauline Hanson (“a white woman sticking up for old White Australia” – not that it’s all that old; the racist-by-definition policy was only dismantled in the 1970s); to the absence of any constitutional rights in Australia “to protect us all from the madness that sweeps nations from time to time”; Aboriginal land rights; the Cronulla riots; homosexuality and gay marriage; the failed war on drugs; and the moral panic ignited by Bill Henson’s controversial photography (Marr has also written a book about the latter topic).

I breathed a sigh of relief when Marr mentioned of the Chaser stunt (watch it on YouTube here) during APEC in 2007 – an effective and hilarious up-yours to the powers at be, and clear demonstration of the purely rhetorical nature of the highly visible lockdown that made Sydney look like a prison. “Howard looked foolish,” Marr says. “Australia laughed all the way to the polls. Panic can’t take a joke.”

Another consequence of the Chaser’s prank was to remind us that if there’s one way to counter this climate of fear its through humour – and that’s something most Australians are just as capable of as they are at clinging to the status quo. Here’s hoping the former prevails.

The Punch comic

Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

16 December 2011: Re-posting this review in memory of Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011. You were always an inspiration. An atheist in a foxhole. RIP

Christopher Hitchens, whose previous targets have even included Mother Teresa and Princess Diana … No, I’m kidding. This recycled introduction to one of our age’s most courageous and accomplished writers is put forth in the preface to his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian. The habit of writing reviews from clippings of other reviews is, Hitchens says, the “surreptitious way in which dissenting views are marginalised, or patronised to death.” And so, on that note, I’d encourage readers to get their hands on Love, Poetry and War – a compilation of Hitchens’ essays covering some of his more controversial (yet always well-reasoned and argued) views.

I read Letters to a Young Contrarian while living in Århus, Denmark and studying at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, at a time when I found myself among a disconcertingly small minority of students who didn’t think the publishers of those notorious cartoons depicting Mohammed deserved in some way the backlash they (and a lot of other unconnected and innocent Danes) received. Similarly, I was excited to meet the several Dutch students in my rather cosmopolitan class and discuss one of their politicians whose book, Infidel, I had recently read. When I mentioned Ayaan Hirsi Ali, they looked at me as though I’d just raised my hand in the Nazi salute and cried Heil Hitler! She’s a racist, they said. An islamaphobe! But surely, I thought, if anyone has the right to fear the ideas inherent in Islamic dogma, it’s a woman who has endured abuse and oppression of the worse kind at its hands? If there’s anyone we should be listening to, it’s her?

Finding myself far less equipped to defend my bourgeoning opinions than someone like Christopher Hitchens, I was delighted when his book turned up as a gift from a faraway loved one in the post.

Living a long way from home, the epistolary style was perfectly timed – I was writing more letters and emails to old friends and family than I ever had before. These letters from Hitchens, addressed to the reader in the second person, seemed like an extension of that and felt thrillingly intimate, as if he was writing directly to me.

Not that I would necessarily call myself a Young Contrarian. One of Hitchens’ traits that I admire and wish I could emulate more is his courage of conviction – and willingness, where necessary, to be disliked; to have enemies. I sometimes find myself far too eager to please – or, more realistically, avoid confrontation – which means I resort to softening my views or holding back in order to keep the peace. It’s something I hope to work on, and am inspired to do so by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, and many of his colleagues and peers.

I was genuinely saddened when I heard of Hitchens’ oesophageal cancer, from which it seems his long-term survival is unlikely. I recently heard him say that he envies the young generation today – for the changes they will see in the world, the developments in science and technology and, I imagine, the opportunities they have ahead of them to express their mind, challenge hypocrisy and, importantly, to tell the truth.

Winston Churchill is quoted as having once said: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

I may just pick up my copy of Letters to a Young Contrarian again soon to reignite the flame. Because, if there’s one way I can show my respects to a dying writer I admire, it’s to retain the courage of conviction he espouses, even when contrary to the mainstream, and even if I make a few enemies along the way.