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.

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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.

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.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I had no idea what to expect from the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s renowned science fiction series when I picked it off the ‘staff recommended’ shelf in a Sydney CBD Dymocks bookstore. The little note underneath it said the book ‘defined a generation of science fiction’. I had been shopping for a copy of Asimov’s The End of Eternity (as recommended by a friend) but it wasn’t in stock. And, besides, the Foundation series sounded enticing.

I’m admittedly a little cautious of reviewing an award-winning series with a well-established cult following, particularly as a reader relatively new to the genre. But then, I enjoyed this novel and would like to read the rest of the series – and don’t need to know the characterisation or storyline of Star Trek inside and out for that to be the case. And that’s the perspective from which I’ll be writing about Foundation. Just like a review of Harry Potter might only be useful for a lingering sceptic of that series’ worth, so too would I like to present Foundation to readers new to, or even wary of, science fiction.

Foundation is set in the distant future – when the study of the planetary origins of humanity, the Origin Question, is a mere intellectual curiosity (“…it is thought that originally the human race occupied only one planetary system … Of course, no one knows exactly what system it is – lost in the mists of antiquity…”). In this future, a seemingly omnipotent Galactic Empire has formed – but ‘psychohistorian‘ Hari Seldon has predicted (using an invented mathematics discipline of sociology, probability and statistics) that the demise of the Empire is inevitable. He therefore sets up two Foundations solely to reduce the impact of the millennia of barbarism and chaos that will follow. The first volume of the series is set in the first Foundation, established under the guise of developing an encyclopaedia of all knowledge to ensure its survival during the futuristic dark ages. The role of the second remains a mystery.

The book then skips through the centuries and to the several crises Seldon predicted to occur (called Seldon Crises) in the lead up to the establishment of a Second Empire. Each section of the book hones in on the individuals and the plots involved with solving these crises. And if there was one thing I struggled with reading this book it was keeping up with the new characters and centuries that carried the plot forward.

Reading a futuristic novel written before the digital revolution saw the curve of our technological development take an exponential leap is interesting to say the least. Asimov is applauded for his daringly imagined future, but from where I stood, its late-1940s/ early-1950s origins were obvious.

While intergalactic travel is taken for granted, and the Foundation has managed to build atomic reactors “the size of a walnut”, I found most other developments were simply those domestic appliances that so excited the 50s with the word atomic latched on (atomic washing machine, atomic air conditioning, even an ‘atomic’ carving knife). The themes of nuclear tension are also clearly placed in Asimov’s Cold War context – which planets ‘still’ have nuclear power, which have nuclear weapons and nuclear warships? “Atomic blasters point both ways,” becomes a favourite quote of Master Trader Hober Mallow.

Stepping aside from the sci-fi futuristic conceptions, the political content of the story is also fascinating. According to Wikipedia, the premise was based on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Part of the Foundation’s course is to develop a religion of technology – training ‘priests’ in its use as dogma, rather than teaching them how it works. “[Religion] is the most potent device known with which to control men and worlds.” The populations of the Four Kingdoms that the Foundation comes to rule therefore worship the technology they need, but never really understand it, leaving them reliant on the Foundation (which develops a standing of something like the Vatican – specifically, an historical Vatican that keeps its ‘flock’ illiterate). Towards the end of the book, however, it appears that ‘trade’ (mostly of ‘atomic’ knick knacks of the aforementioned kind) will usurp religion as a controlling force – i.e. the move from ‘spiritualism’ to materialism. It’s difficult to assess Asimov’s own standing on all of this, although there seemed to be an overriding idea that religion is false but useful.

The next book in the series, Foundation and Empire, introduces a new villain and the second Foundation – on the other side of the Galaxy, where psychohistory still thrives. Asimov also published prequels to the original trilogy, but I am going to save them for later, and read the series in the order it was originally published, rather than chronologically. And I am still on the look out for The End of Eternity.

And who knows, maybe there is still room for Mr Spock in my life?

Fallen by Lauren Kate

On October 31 I tweeted about the recent Man Booker prize controversy surrounding the introduction of a readability judging criteria. Need there be a difference, I asked? A similar sentiment was expressed far more eloquently by poet laureate Andrew Motion, who argued that the inclusion of readability as a new judging criteria “opens up a completely false divide between what is high end and what is readable, as if they are somehow in opposition to one other, which is patently not true”.

He is right, of course. But as this debate circulated (and after my related Twittering) I was also reading the teen cult book Fallen by Lauren Kate, which is, I feel, direct proof that while readability and quality are by no means mutually exclusive, they can also quite happily stand alone.

Somewhere into the first chapter of Fallen I decided I probably won’t read the rest of the popular four-book series – and yet that wasn’t because I found the first installment a drag to read. It frequently produces cringe-inducing clichés and is terribly predictable (I mean, really, trick us a little bit more before the disarmingly good-looking boy produces the serpent necklace and announces himself in the first quarter of the novel as the bad guy), but then again, I’m not a 13-year-old girl, and it’s from that perspective that this book should be judged – and it is from that perspective that it has been hugely successful.

But that brings us back to the relationship between readability and quality. According to the Fallen website (hosted by publisher Random House), the series is “intensely addictive” – and I can’t deny that. I looked forward to pulling it out of my bag every afternoon on the train commute home, in the same way I look forward to the next episode of my (until now) secret soap-opera obsession, Greys Anatomy. But let’s look at that word addictive. Like sugar. Or heroin. I once heard watching television described as sitting in a lukewarm bath, which seems to fit with my experience of reading this book: you become increasingly restless and uncomfortable, but lying there is just too easy to really think about doing anything else. The question is, is that a bad thing? Is it worse than reading something so impenetrable that you get through a chapter and realise you’ve somehow been thinking about something completely unrelated the whole time?

Maybe I should re-read some of the books from my old favourite series, The Babysitters Club and see if I’ve simply lost the ability to relate to my 13 year old self. Except that I only have to think about other books I enjoyed at around that age: the Tomorrow When the War Began series (and, also from John Marsden, Letters from the Inside, So Much to Tell You, Dear Miffy), or Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, and it’s clear which books have had more of an impact and stayed with me far longer – and which I would likely enjoy just as much today as I did a decade ago. Perhaps that’s the difference.

Or maybe I’m just jealous of Lauren Kate’s enormous success, because I can’t argue with what is surely indisputable proof she’s done something very right with Fallen. So good on her.

Making History by Stephen Fry

The fabulous Stephen Fry first came to my attention during a heartfelt speech he gave on religion at the Intelligence Squared debate I was watching for another writer I admire, Christopher Hitchens.

I then realised this same man graces my television every Tuesday evening as host of QI, and then – low and behold – it turns out we even have one of his books on our shelf. Who it belongs to or where it came from I can’t say, but I extracted it with relish, and was immediately engrossed.

Fry’s presence in the pages is evident from the start. You can almost picture him giggling to himself as his larger-than-life characters gradually materialise on the page. The discernible presence of the author might not be ideal, but to learn more about Fry, to gain some insight into the man, is the reason I picked up his book, so I was delighted to find him right there speaking through the silly, lovable Michael Young (aka Puppy) about the past, the future, life, love , hope and regret, and asking, most importantly, what if?

When Michael Young’s history thesis is laughingly rejected by his cheesecloth and rope-soled sandal-wearing professor on the same day his girlfriend disowns him, he meets an intriguing man and makes a decision that will turn not only his life, but the entire world on its head.

Sprinkled with such gems as “the last granules of dream fizz away” and “the cheering of the men grew and swelled inside him until it burst from his eyes in a flood of hot, disgusted tears” and “you could hardly blame a kid who grew up in Cambridge for redesigning himself as a class warrior”, Making History will have you laughing out loud just as soon as it has you vying for revenge or blinking back an unexpected tear.

Broaching the subject of time travel is fraught with difficulties and the potential for unanswerable questions. In this case it works, because this is a book that – like Fry – doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Next on my list of books to read: The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography.