Book Review

'The Circle' - Review

There’s a one-word endorsement from The Times on the front cover of The Circle by Dave Eggers – ‘Unputdownable’. Aside from my lack of surety that unputdownable is even a word, my reaction to this pithy assessment is binary – yes-no, one-zero, agree-disagree - which is pretty funny given The Circle’s subject matter.

In Eggers’ fictional yet just-over-the-horizon world, the Circle is the largest and most pervasive internet company on the planet headquartered in an impressive, manicured and ordered city-state-style campus near San Francisco. Think Mountain View, Menlo Park or Cupertino and you’d be very warm.

Anyone with a mobile phone anywhere in the world with wi-fi (and that’s everywhere it seems) has a Circle TruYou account which is so much more than a social media platform.  TruYou aggregates all of a person’s online presences and transactions into one – one identity, one profile, one password, one set of ubiquitous and free online tools – everything one needs to negotiate (and be tracked) in this brave new perpetually online, uber-connected and algorithmed-beyond-all-reason world.

As Mae Holland, the main protagonist in the story says of the Circle, ‘It’s the chaos of the web made elegant’, that and virtually compulsory. Add to this equation another Circle innovation - SeeChange cameras that are tiny, cheap, easily installed and always connected - and the Circle’s corporate push to have all elected officials wear one of these for complete transparency.  Not too far into the book the cult-like, ubiquitous, ‘all that happens must be known’ credo of this Circle-world starts to come into unsettling focus.

Helped by her college friend Annie, Mae lands the job of her dreams at the Circle declaring ‘it’s heaven’ the first time she walks onto the campus. Pretty soon she never wants to leave the campus which really is a world of its own, specifically designed to encourage/coerce ‘Circlers’ to stay inside its gates with free food, curated events every night and on weekends, a myriad of social interest clubs and support groups, and even dormitory accommodation.

It’s here, while Mae undergoes orientation to her new place of work, that my binary reactions to this book’s ‘unputdownable’ claim started bubbling up. Actually, saying I agree/disagree with unputdownable is too clean-cut.  My reactions to three particular events in the early part of the book are better described as ‘don’t want to watch but can’t look away’.

The first time this happens is when Mae attends a ‘Dream Friday’ session where Eamon Bailey, one of the Circle’s so-called ‘three wise men’, demonstrates SeeChange cameras. During the presentation Bailey shows footage from Cairo where several dissidents have placed cameras along the route of a protest rally.  Bailey exhorts the congregation of eager Circlers to imagine the possibilities for enhanced democracy and human rights when these always-on cameras broadcast everything to the world.  No longer will riot police deployed by oppressive regimes be able to drag activists down dark alleys to administer rough justice without witness or impunity. The assembled Circlers roar their approval as the mantra of ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN appears on the screen.

Then the scene switches to something a little closer to home. With one-click Circlers see Bailey’s own elderly mother padding down a hallway in her house wearing nothing but a towel.  To a chorus of laughter Bailey freely admits that he placed SeeChange devices throughout his mother’s home without her knowledge because, “she wouldn’t have let me do it otherwise”. Any privacy or outright creep-factor concerns are far outweighed by the benefits of Bailey being able to ‘keep an eye’ on his increasingly frail mother who lives alone. The assembled wholeheartedly agree.

The second time my can’t-watch/can’t-look-away reaction popped up is when Mae is sent for a routine health check as part of her orientation. Her assigned doctor is already in possession of Mae’s medical records and is already aware that her father suffers from multiple sclerosis. Mae is asked to drink what looks like a wheatgrass smoothie and after she’s drained the glass, the doctor informs her that she’s just swallowed a sensor that tracks and analyses her vital signs. The data is visible to Mae via a bracelet monitor which she wears all the time and, naturally, that real-time data is also received and stored on the Circle medical centre’s database. Spooky doesn’t quite cover it.

The third time something like this happened while I was reading The Circle I almost disproved the theory that the book is unputdownable.  I felt actual physical discomfort when, not too long into her new job, Mae gets a visit from Denise and Josiah from HR to ‘counsel’ her on lack of input to the social media life of the Circle.  D and J know Mae went off-campus at 5.42pm the previous Friday and did not return until 8.46am on Monday morning. Mae’s father had had a turn and, understandably, she’d headed home to help her mother deal with the situation. Over that weekend, however, Mae missed a couple of on-campus events but worse than that, her Circle social media feeds had gone dark.

Under the guise of caring for Mae and her family’s welfare, Denise and Josiah explain that while social media activity is not a pre-requisite of employment at the Circle, it is, nonetheless, an important measure of a Circler’s commitment to the job.  Mae is sure she’s about to be fired but saves the day by quickly acquiescing to the assertion that she’s been incredibly selfish, causing worry and hurt to her Circle-family by not sharing her every waking moment both on and off campus.

For someone who regularly ditches the always-on demands of social media in favour of actual work or home duties liking washing clothes and cooking meals, Mae’s exchange with the HR drones made my flesh crawl.

And it gets worse from there. Before long Mae’s life within the Circle extends outside her place of work to invade and inveigle the lives of her parents and her old boyfriend, Mercer, with creepy, voyeuristic and ultimately tragic consequences.

And it’s here we see the stark juxtaposition between those inside the Circle, like Mae, Annie and several thousand other Kool-Aid drinking ‘Circlers’; and those on the outside, desperately trying to get in or trying desperately to avoid being sucked into the Circle’s all-encompassing, global connectedness, ‘all that happens must be known’ vortex.

In the wash-up, however, I guess I’m more often in the agree camp than not in relation to The Times’ claim that The Circle is ‘unputdownable’.  It is eminently so due undeniably to the way in which Dave Eggers has written it. The book is an intricately detailed, inexorable march of a story overlaid with blink-and-you’ll-miss-something compulsion. A bit like a Twitter feed in fact.

The Circle is not so much a cautionary tale for our times but a billboard on a busy highway screaming THIS IS ALREADY HAPPENING!

The Circle movie, directed by James Ponstold, starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and Karen Gillan, has just been released in Australia.

 

Click on the cover image to buy your copy of the book from Booktopia.

Harry Potter Versus the Ghosts of Literature Past: What Makes a Classic?

Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen.  These names are the first in a very long list of authors associated with ‘literary genius’ that are shovelled down our throats in English classes at school.  I should stress here that I am an English girl who received a very English education.  This included years of patting ourselves on the back for what a good job we did studying a book that, more often than not, has been studied since its release some two-hundred-years ago. And I mustn’t forget to mention the seriously biased teaching of these books and how they glorify colonialism. That’s not to say that I don’t tear up when Jane finally marries Rochester or I crack a smile while reading one of Shakespeare’s comedies.

This list got me thinking. Why is it that the only ‘great writers’ we first think of are all dead, writing the same generic characters? The damsel in distress, the brooding Byronic hero, the young pauper setting out on a quest for adventure and fortune?  These are just a few characters I have read time and time again in the classics, and I’ve seen them trickle down through history.  You’ll find them in most books in your local Dymocks store, just ask for E. L. James or Stephanie Meyer.  I think there is a worrying backwards focus in the way we teach English nowadays which has resulted in a literary dry spell in terms of originality and diversity.

Why are we so reluctant to celebrate modern authors in line with the classic authors of the centuries before us?  In their day, writers such as Austen, Shakespeare and Dickens were heralded for their modern, intelligent and witty use of language, yet we are so reluctant to redefine these terms to suit the 21st century.  It seems that the quality of modern writing is the elephant in the room; and don’t let the use of ‘mastery’ we so often see in book reviews today fool you.  One of the books for me growing up that I felt deserved to breach this canonical list was Harry Potter. At first I was dubious about a series that focused on magic, but  once I started to read, I was laughing and sobbing like no other book had made me before  Here, the term ‘mastery’ can be used, and deservingly so.

Having only just reached its 20th anniversary, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has sold over 400 million copies and been translated into 68 languages since its release in 1997, but is still – despite Rowling’s obvious talented writing and gigantic fan base – in some regards thought of as a ‘kiddies’ book.  This puts Rowling’s status as ‘good but not as good as the classics’, or in other words, not good enough to be taught at schools, which seems an injustice when the series is globally adored and revered in the literary world.  Harry Potter should be considered a new classic, not only because of Rowling’s frankly amazing imagination and wonderful way with words, but the immense franchise the books have created, now worth some $25 billion dollars.  The reason for this overwhelming success: J.K. Rowling is a bloody good writer.

What makes Rowling so great is that she challenges the stereotypes found in the colonial era and the ‘great age of literature’. The female characters throughout the series are wonderfully powerful, strong, and confident.  She considers deeper themes than fickle love interests like life and death, identity and purpose.  And to anyone who argues that Rowling is racially unrepresentative, all I say is look not only at the international readership but consider the diversity of characters across Harry Potter, including African, Egyptian, Chinese and Indian.  The decision to cast Noma Dumezweni, an English actress of Swazi descent as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child last year provoked huge backlash because people apparently didn’t want to see Hermione as a black woman.  Criticisms of the inclusivity of Rowling’s writing don’t stop here: the series has regularly been dubbed anti-Christian owing to its celebration of all things ‘occult’.  It seems the social and religious conservatism of the classics is trying to cling on for dear life.

Perhaps it’s my frustration and boredom with the books we learn about in school being recycled year after year. Do you really expect a modern, suburban student to sympathise with a Scottish loon hallucinating daggers?  Or a sad old English guy wandering as lonely as a cloud?  I love literature so much I decided to put myself in thousands of dollars’ worth of debt so I can read more of it, and I think there are some books everybody should know, even if they don’t read.  But you can’t complain that young people nowadays don’t care about reading. Literature is supposed to be enjoyable. Instead, young people are being bored to death by reading books that no longer have cultural relevance, all for the sake of celebrating the ‘classics’. Is it because J.K. Rowling’s writing isn’t that great or popular that Harry Potter isn’t discussed in schools? No. It’s because the series works against a historical religious stronghold on society and a strict check-list of requirements for a book to be good. What we need in schools today is someone to close the gap between those who love to read and those who have to read.  Someone who can breathe excitement into a story, someone who at the core is representative of today’s multicultural societies.  Someone like J. K. Rowling.

Get your copy of the special 20th edition Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone from Booktopia today!

'My Cousin Rachel' - Review

Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel could quite rightfully be described as a genre-buster. Don’t let the Bronte-esque style of the writing and the stitched-up 19th Century setting fool you into thinking this is another handsome yet turgid English period piece. My Cousin Rachel is, all at once, a work of literature, a mystery-thriller, a romance-tragedy, as well as being quite the feminist observation of the patriarchal mores of the time and place in which it is set.

In 1951 when the book was first published, and even today, genre-busters present a dilemma when it comes to ease of categorisation.  Unfortunately, by labelling a book with a one word descriptor as to its ‘genre’, a pigeon-holing quite often occurs. While commercially successful, two of du Maurier’s previous works, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, had been consigned to the category of romance or ‘women’s fiction’, a term that many critics at the time used as little more than a slur. My Cousin Rachel managed to transcend that relegation, albeit very slightly, when The Guardian described it as ‘a consummate piece of story-telling’ at the time of its release.  Well, by God, it is so much more than that.

If I were in charge of choosing the genre with which to tag My Cousin Rachel, I’d definitely go for ‘mystery-thriller’ because that is my abiding impression.  And it is a mystery novel in every sense of the word, from the gothic literary tone at the very start of the book (a bit reminiscent of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw) to the tightness of the twisting plot and the dropped-in clues along the way that exquisitely enhance the sense of foreboding. The book’s ending is not so such much a door closing on an intricate drama but another door opening onto a dark room of vexing and conflicting presumptions.

Sadly, as a mystery-thriller, it’s difficult for me to provide you with a plot line here that will inform but not spoil the experience of reading the book nor seeing the recently released movie.  But I shall do my very best.

Philip Ashley (played by Sam Claflin in the film) was orphaned at a young age and brought up by his cousin Ambrose, a wealthy Cornish landowner.  Philip grows up in a world almost completely devoid of women. Ambrose has never married, nor seen the need for it; there are no women servants because the butler believes they bring trouble, and the only females in the household, by Philip’s own admission, are dogs.

Philip loves Ambrose as a father and Ambrose loves and trusts Philip as his own son and sole heir. When Ambrose is forced to travel to warmer, Italian climes due to his health, the pain of separation is palpable for them both. This quickly turns to jealousy when Philip learns via letter that Ambrose has married their distant, recently widowed cousin Rachel (played by Rachel Weisz), who has lived in Italy her whole life. Soon after the nuptials, however, Ambrose’s letters become infrequent and increasingly troubling. Alarmed, Philip travels to Florence, only to learn that Ambrose has died while he was in transit, and his widow has vanished with all of Ambrose’s belongings.

Grief-stricken and very suspicious as to the nature of Ambrose’s death, Philip returns home to Cornwall where he is now the master of the estate, although he is not due to come into his inheritance until his twenty-fifth birthday some months hence. All returns to normal until Philip’s godfather Nick Kendall (played by Iain Glen) is informed by Rachel that she has arrived in England with the intention of visiting the Ashley estate. Having built his cousin Rachel up in his mind as some sort of ugly, conniving and possibly murderous character, Philip is taken aback by the beautiful, cultured and gracious woman that appears at his door. He’s even more surprised at the beguiling effect she has on the servants and, indeed, anyone, male or female, with whom she comes into contact.

The just released movie of My Cousin Rachel is a very fair representation of the story of the novel, so I suppose it is possible to see the film and not bother reading the book.  I’ve done that many times myself when I think a book won’t suit my reading taste and I just want to get the gist of the story.  However, in the case of My Cousin Rachel and despite the film production’s aplomb, I would strongly urge you not to eschew reading the original text.

While highly enjoyable, the film version of My Cousin Rachel doesn’t quite do the mystery-thriller genre of the book justice. As always happens in screen adaptations of books, certain plot trajectories and intricacies must be changed, distilled or dispensed with for reasons of condensed viewing time.  The trick here for the screenwriter is to take care over which plot intricacies to change, distill or dispense with, or indeed what to add in to, presumably, make the on-screen ending more complete for the viewer. However, the ‘closure’ afforded by the film version of My Cousin Rachel does not exist in the book, a change that waters down both the intrigue and the tragedy of the story.

Alas, I cannot justify this assertion without revealing too much.  What I can tell you is that My Cousin Rachel is an excellent and compelling read, and the movie a well-cast, beautifully rendered and worthy representation of same.  Whether you see the film without reading the book, or vice versa, you are likely to be on the edge of your seat either way.

My Cousin Rachel is now showing around Australia and I saw it at my favourite cinema, the Hayden Orpheum in Cremorne, Sydney.

My Cousin Rachel - book coverClick here to buy your copy of My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier from Booktopia.

'Before I Go to Sleep' - Review

There are some books that once started, there’s simply no stopping. In my experience, these books are few and far between, so when you do land yourself with a novel that invades your brain and engages you to the point where literally all you can do is plonk yourself down with a cup of tea and devour its pages, go with it. Don’t put off the reading for other (possibly more important) things,  dive into the pages and finish that glorious book.

I had such an experience last week when I started reading S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep. I had bought this book some time ago and left it sitting on my bookshelf for far too long. In all honestly, I started reading Before I Go to Sleep not thinking much of it at all. I wasn’t expecting to be thrilled by this novel; really I just wanted to get it off my enormous TBR list. And maybe this lack of expectation played a part in my experience of reading this book. I had heard very little about it before opening its pages. I knew it had received some acclaim when it was published, and had later gone on to be a film starring Nicole Kidman, but that was it. I was not expecting to get so hooked on this book. I truly loved it. The plot, the writing, the perceptions of Christine, the protagonist. I loved it all. I started this book on Thursday evening, and finished it on Friday afternoon. It took me less than 24 hours to read the 359 page paperback.

For those of you who haven’t read or heard of Before I Go to Sleep, it follows the story of Christine and her husband Ben. After an accident left her with severe memory problems, Christine lives life day to day. Every morning she starts over fresh and can’t remember anything of the day before. In fact, most mornings she wakes up thinking it’s 20 years in the past. Her life is recounted for her by Ben. Things begin to change when Christine begins seeing Dr Nash, a man convinced he can help her regain her memory.  Reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s 2000 film Momento, Before I Go to Sleep was a psychological thriller that made me question the authenticity of every experience, every memory and every relationship.

I loved the experience of reading this novel.  Before I Go to Sleep was not the best novel I have ever read, but the entertainment I derived from it was wonderful, and I truly loved how engaged I was in this book. As I said, finding a book that truly grips you and has you desperate to keep reading is something that doesn’t happen often enough. There’s something so satisfying about finishing a book that really interests you. Finishing a book at all always comes with some sense of accomplishment, but closing the pages on a story that has completely infiltrated your mind and captured your imagination is a completely different sensation entirely, and one that I search for in every new novel I read.

If every book I read was as engaging as Before I Go to Sleep, I would be a very happy woman. Although, I wonder if having mix in what I read, with some good, some great and some plain awful, is what allows me to appreciate the good when it’s in front of me.

 

Click here to buy your copy of Before I Go to Sleep by S.J Watson from Booktopia.

before I go to sleep cover

'A Dog's Purpose' - Review

I got a letter from a dog once. Sammy the Labrador.  Entitled ‘Be Good Not Naughty’, the letter informed me that dog training services were now on offer at a kennel we’d recently booked our own pup into. Sammy extolled the virtues of the training, saying his mum and dad ‘never go mad on me anymore’ because now he’s ‘a good dog, not a naughty one’.  The letter was written completely in Sammy’s voice and to this day, it was the most memorable and effective piece of direct mail I’ve ever received.

Now, picture that letter as a book written entirely in the voice of one dog over four separate incarnations and you’ll get close to the genius that is A Dog’s Purpose.  I say genius although some may describe the writing style as facile and simplistic.  To those people my retort would be ‘cool your literary jets - the narrator is a dog after all’. Any book that manages to make the reader laugh and cry while considering the meaning the life, deserves to be written and read.

A Dog’s Purpose is a wonderful tale (no pun intended) told entirely from a dog’s perspective. But the book doesn’t only dwell in the realm of cute, furry and funny, it goes well beyond that to explore some of life’s biggest questions, ‘why am I here?’, ‘what happens when we die?’ and ‘will there be bacon?’

These questions are explored in all four incarnations of our canine narrator, first as the stray Toby, then as Bailey, Ellie (a girl-dog this time) and finally as Buddy.  Each incarnation imparts certain lessons that build on one another until the denouement when Buddy finally puts together the reason for his serial existence.

A Dog’s Purpose has recently been released as a feature film with the screenplay co-written by the author of the book, W. Bruce Cameron.  I didn’t know that when I saw the film but it makes sense. The movie is also told completely from the pup’s perspective and many of the lines straight from the dog’s mouth (so to speak) are exactly the same as the print version.  That makes for a nice sense of continuity for those who have read the book before seeing the movie while those that haven’t would be none the wiser.

The storyline was mostly the same too with only minor changes for the purposes of distilling a 320 page book into a 100 minute feature film. However, that distillation seems to do away with the book’s subtle yet emphatic daisy-chain of lessons learned by Toby/Bailey/Ellie in their lives, culminating in Buddy’s final awakening about his purpose.  This is a great shame to my way of thinking.

The book gives the reader a strong sense that the experiences of each of these dogs are leading to ‘the big answer’.  As a serial reader of many ‘what’s-it-all-about-Alfie?’ spiritual texts, I recognise that pattern and have come to expect and look forward to it. But this gentle epiphany-ridden journey was not as evident to me as a viewer of the movie version of A Dog’s Purpose, despite the film being very enjoyable.

To me it was another disappointing example of nuance being lost in translation from text to screen. Instead of the slow build experienced by the reader, the viewer ends up being pummelled in the last scene with worthy yet clumsily rendered advice from a dog about the secret of life. ‘Be here now’ is the final message of the film, vastly different from the written word, delivered on screen as if from some guru, albeit a four-legged one.

That heavy-handedness aside, there are many scenes in the book and in the film that are subtly and powerfully portrayed.  One that springs to mind is when our canine narrator observes that humans are very complicated beings. In his own simplistic, doggy way, Bailey implies that humans make things that should be simple, like love, kindness and doing what makes you happy, much more complex than they need to be.  Therein lies the genius of A Dog’s Purpose – that we two-legged types might receive some insight into those big life questions through the eyes of a human’s best friend.

Which reminds me of that old joke - what do you get when you cross an insomniac with an agnostic dyslexic? Someone who lies awake at night wondering if there really is a dog.

a dogs purpose cover

Click here to buy your copy of A Dog’s Purpose by W.Bruce Cameron from Booktopia.

'The Dinner' - Review

“There are two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant  of other people’s cultures, and the Dutch.” - Nigel Powers, in Austin Powers: GoldmemberAfter Dinner one can forgive anybody even one’s own relations” - Lady Caroline, in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance

Both of these quotes are completely apt for a review of The Dinner, by Herman Koch, a Dutch author writing about a dysfunctional family set around a dinner, as the title would suggest.

I have always enjoyed a good restaurant meal with beautiful food and companions who enjoy conversation and a drink. Can’t beat it really, especially in the long format.

In the process of experiencing the meal as time goes on, you become one with the event itself and yes, you can forgive anyone and anything…until the next morning that is, when the piper has to be paid.

You always start out with good intentions but as you call for more wine things can sometimes get out of kilter.

When I started into Herman Koch’s The Dinner, it seemed to be all about a meal and past meals. Memories were evoked of the halcyon days as a young journalist going out to long lunches and dinners to discuss the world and what meant to us all. That’s how I slipped into the plot of this book for a chapter or two.

The book is set up as a meal and its various courses starting with the aperitif, and then on and on.

I had a feeling I was going to enjoy the book. The style is almost Salinger-esque, a strongly descriptive, first-person analysis of a dysfunctional situation with an unexpected sarcastic humour that made me laugh out loud.

However, as I progressed I started not to enjoy this tome so much. The constant analysis of the situation was getting up my nose in a big way, combined with the tedious nature of the narrator - who could best be described as a sociopath residing somewhere on the spectrum -  made me want to put the book down. But I persisted.

The author cites Tolstoy’s opening paragraph of Anna Karenina on the nature of families and happiness, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” to underline the story of dysfunction between brothers, their wives and more importantly their children. The narrator is filled with jealously. He is a failed teacher, he is vastly overshadowed by his older brother, a Prime Ministerial aspirant. When combined with his violent and irrational behaviour it provides for a volatile mix.

The narrator is sniping and critical of each and every action and reaction of this elder brother and that too becomes wearing as we progress through the courses.

The constant pickiness of the narrator, critical of everything and everyone, the waiter who points out the specials on the menu using his pinky finger, his brother, the food, the restaurant, the staff etc., etc., begins to wear the reader down after a while.

But then the real story starts to emerge. First that the narrator is, to use the vernacular “not the full bottle”,  and second that the families have a secret, a terrible secret which threatens the futures of all members of the family. The dysfunction of the family is seen through the eyes of the narrator who has - how shall we put it - forgotten to take his meds.

It’s a brutal tale told by someone who would probably buy the t-shirt I saw advertised the carrying the motif Walk away, this service engineer has anger issues and a serious dislike of stupid people”. The certain belief that they, and only they have the hot line to the truth and that everyone else is an idiot often helps to shade their own failings.

The book provides a few twists and turns and by the end I was somewhat enjoying what the author had done here. I can see how this novel could be adapted for screenplay, and can imagine it will probably become a successful movie. It provides us with our worst fears and shows us how one family dealt with them.

So I would probably give it four and a half out of ten.

the dinnerClick here to grab a copy of The Dinner by Herman Koch from Booktopia!

'The Museum of Modern Love' - Review

“And maybe this was art, she thought, having spent years trying to define it and pin it to the line like a shirt on a windy day. There you are, art! You capture moments at the heart of life.” Sometimes the things that move you the most are the ones that are hardest to talk about. There are things which can affect you so profoundly that when you search for the words to describe their significance the words simply escape you. In the quiet moments of reflection after finishing the Stella Prize winning novel for 2017, Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, I found myself hit with an array of emotions, joy, sorrow, inspiration and hope. This books does what all books strive to do, and achieved that which so many others have failed to grasp. Heather Rose created a novel that was compelling and magical, while at the same time remaining so very real and relatable.

The performance artist, Marina Abramović sits at the centre of the story like the sun at the centre of the solar system, the characters orbiting around her. Her art, life and sacrifice formsthe catalyst for their own internal reflection and contemplation of their varied experiences of love, loss and the bittersweet pain of longing. Based on Marina’s true performance The Artist is Present, Rose recreates the 736 hour and 10 minute long silent piece in which Marina sat immobile in the atrium of the MOMA while spectators took turns sitting opposite her. With art as their shared interest, the fictionalised characters of The Museum of Modern Love are drawn together by the perplexing gravity of Marina’s work.

Rose has done such a superb job of creating beautifully life-like characters, which are endearing, broken and perfectly flawed.  In many of the novels I have read of late, I have felt that the authors have fallen into traps of creating characters who seem to be over-inflated caricatures of the generic – there’s a sense of the artificial in these characters who are either far too perfect to even be considered real, or so detrimentally flawed that the reader struggles to make a real connection with them. The trope of characters in The Museum of Modern Love completely subverted my expectations. These characters were real, moving and breathing beneath the pages, their joys and sorrows spread across the 286 pages of this phenomenal work of fiction, connecting with me in a very real and deep way that I hadn’t experienced from a novel in some time.

These days, my main time for reading is on my daily commute. The 45 minute train ride that bookends my days provides the perfect setting to fall into whatever I’m reading. It wasn’t until it was too late that I realised The Museum of Modern Love is not the type of novel that I should read in public. I had made it no further than 29 pages when I began to be overcome with emotion. Like so many of those who sat across from Abramović through the period of The Artist is Present, I was shocked to discover myself weeping at the beauty of the art before me. The particular passage that broke the floodgates came from the story of my favourite character, Jane, a widower whose husband has passed away from cancer. In an attempt to deal with her grief, Jane travels to New York and becomes enthralled with The Artist is Present. The passage in question is one too beautiful not to share:

"He worried a lot about Heaven in those last days. He wanted to know, before the morphine shunt took him from her, where she would meet him. If there were steps, he'd be there. He'd be waiting. But where? If there was a cottonwood tree... an olive grove?... 'What will you miss Janey?' he asked her. 'Tell me what you'll miss.' Your whistle when you come in the door, she had told him. Your shirts on the clothesline. The evenings when we watch the fireflies dance under the harvest spotlights. Your heart. The things only you and I remember about the children. The way your skin is always warm. Your coffee mug half empty on the veranda railing at 7am. She could have gone on but he was tired and it had been enough. The real answer to his question was everything. She would miss everything. What she didn't know, what she took for granted about living with Karl and being a wife, was far larger than the things she could name."

This story that circulates around one extraordinary artist and her 75 day performance piece dives into the lives of characters that are incredibly varied. In a broad sense, these characters are really only connected by their fascination of Marina’s work. Yet upon closer inspection, it’s clear that what binds them is deep love. Love of art, of people, of routine. The intensity of Marina’s dedication forms an emotional thread that traverses the entirety of the story, appearing through the lives of each of the characters. As I’ve probably made abundantly clear, for me, this book was all about the characters. So tangible and deep, these beautifully flawed people conveyed a deep sense of connection. I finished this novel with a deep appreciation of the sentiment that we are all one, connected through our physical experiences in ways we cannot possibly imagine.

“She loved him. She loved everyone in the room. She loved everyone alive and everyone who had ever lived to bring them all to this time, all of the millennia that had gone and the millennia of people yet to come.”

 

Click here to buy your copy of The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose from Booktopia.

museum of modern love cover

The Zookeeper's Wife

When I first saw the subtle, ethereal cover of The Zookeeper’s Wife with the words ‘A War Story’ set against a small but startling red background, I assumed this was a novel. And if the intriguing cover was anything to go by, I was willing to wager this would be a thumping good read.

There’s nothing I love more than historical fiction novels where I learn through imaginary characters.  As much as the experiences of the make-believe characters are based on actual happenings, the characters themselves are only fictional.  Call me a wimp but this distinction is a great comfort to me when reading war stories, in particular. When the going gets tough for the characters in which I’ve invariably become invested, the left side of my brain can acknowledge the horrors and hardships as being historically factual while my brain’s more emotional right side takes shelter under the blanket defence of ‘it’s just a story’.

No such luck with The Zookeeper’s Wife, I’m afraid.  This is not a novel but an astonishing work of non-fiction by poet and naturalist, Diane Ackerman, acclaimed author of A Natural History of the Senses. This is a painstakingly researched, highly detailed reconstruction of the real story of Antonina Żabiński, wife of Jan Żabiński, instigator and keeper of the celebrated Warsaw Zoo.

Located in urban Warsaw, this zoo was a standout in European ‘city zoos’ because of the diversity of species and the innovative environments in which the animals were housed, mimicking as much as possible their natural habitats. While Jan is the documented zoological brains of the operation, Antonina is surely his willing accomplice, one who possess a ‘shamanistic empathy’ for animals.  In a diary entry quoted in the first chapter of the book, Jan describes his wife as having, ‘…a precise and very special gift, a way of observing and understanding animals that’s rare…a sixth sense.’ As such, Antonina’s talents are much in demand as the zoo nurse - calming the fractious, treating the sick and injured, and most tellingly, nurturing and protecting orphaned animals.

As the story opens, the white villa in the Warsaw Zoo grounds is not only home to Jan, Antonina and their young son Rhyś but to a menagerie of other critters in various states of repair or development. Alas, this harmonious human/animal kingdom existence was short lived. The invasion of Poland by the Germans in September 1939 brought incessant bombing of Warsaw, resulting in the destruction of the zoo and annihilation of the bulk of the animals.

Almost as soon as the war starts, Jan becomes active in the Polish underground while Antonina keeps the home fires burning at the zoo villa. With their unique approach to human and animal co-existence and the villa’s location amongst what remains of the zoo’s customised animal cages – the Żabiński’s managed to hide more than 300 people from the Nazi’s over the course of the war.

Based on diaries, notes, sermons, memoirs and even media interviews with the Żabiński’s and many of their contemporaries, Ackerman tells this amazing drama through Antonina’s eyes, as if she were a character in her own story. Simultaneously, however, Ackerman keeps the reader firmly rooted in facts.

For example, in one paragraph Ackerman writes as if Antonina is a witness, like a character in a fictional work complete with dialogue and personal observations.  Then in the very next paragraph, the author describes a scene as if it is from the pages of a reference text – ‘As Antonina’s eyes travelled the room, she would have seen fixtures popular during the 1930s, a time when Baltic décor ran from Victorian to Art Deco and modernist…’.

This technique certainly demonstrates the author’s extensive command of her subject matter from every conceivable angle, be it detailed botanic descriptions of diverse flora in a forest to the calorie-count of rations based on ethnicity enforced by the German occupiers of Poland.  (In case you’re interested, German people got 2,613 calories a day, Poles 669 and Jews only184.)

The deftly applied technique of juxtaposing novel-like descriptions with reference text detail makes it impossible for the reader to lapse into the more comfortable refuge of fiction. The Zookeeper’s Wife may read like a novel but it is, in fact, a stark, true account of wartime Warsaw and all its horrors.

I loved this book because of this detail and its strong foundation of facts and eye-witness accounts.  That’s not to say it was a comfortable read for me – far from it. It was excruciating to absorb Antonina’s descriptions of the minute-by-minute terror of being discovered sheltering Jews in wartime Poland when, as Ackerman describes in her author’s note, ‘handing a thirsty Jew a cup of water was punishable by death’.

Likewise, Antonina’s roiling concerns for her son Rhyś who, at a tender age, is thrust into a terrifying, violent and unpredictable world where lives depend on secrets being kept and the places once thought of as ‘safe’ are anything but.

Ackerman’s razor sharp accuracy and detailed descriptions informed me about Poland’s unique situation and subsequent suffering during the war. This is overlaid with the singularly strange environment of the Żabiński’s Warsaw Zoo, where the lines between people and animals are frequently blurred. Jan and Antonina’s pre-war connection with one Lutz Heck, director of the Munich and Berlin Zoos and, paradoxically, a big game hunter who becomes a favourite of Hermann Göring, shines an unexpected and very harsh light on the Nazi’s obsession with racial purity in both humans and beasts.

I thought I’d seen (and read) it all when it came to the systematic barbarism the Nazi’s applied to their quest but through the pages of The Zookeeper’s Wifes we’re introduced to a wider playing field and previously unexplored depths to this depravity.

And now this book has been made into a movie by the same name, starring Jessica Chastain and directed by New Zealander Niki Caro of Whale Rider fame. In researching this post I came across a review by Jacob Soll in the New Republic hailing the film as the first ever feminist Holocaust movie. If Antonina’s voice is as strong and clear in the film as it is in the book, I’d have to agree.

 

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Click here to buy your copy of The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman from Booktopia.

Big Little Lies & Role Reversal

This isn’t going to be some whinge about how the TV mini-series isn’t faithful to the book, although there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Big Little Lies isn’t. The location change to Monterrey instead of Sydney is a shining example.

To my mind, this change of scenery tranquilises the severity of the domestic violence, school bullying, adultery, sexual assault and ultimately murderous themes of both works.  It’s not that I can’t believe these things actually happen in Sydney – they surely do - it’s more the fact that we Australians are spoon-fed an unending stream of American productions that focus on this type of darkness (think acronyms here - SVU, NCIS, CSI).  Heck, even the news of the latest real-life gun rampage seems to confirm that America is a location where this sort of stuff happens with vastly more regularity than here. I believe setting the book in Sydney was Moriarty’s master stroke. It’s dark twists and turns were somehow more shocking because of their usually sunny location.

But I digress.  I did say this wasn’t going to be a diatribe on the differences and merits of the book over the TV version and it isn’t.  No – what really surprised me was my reaction to the real and imagined age disparity in the casting of the two couples central to the story. These are Nicole Kidman as Celeste and her on-screen husband Alexander Skarsgård as Perry; and Madeline’s Reese Witherspoon and her on-screen husband Ed, played by a much younger-looking (but actually not younger than Reese) Adam Scott.

Normally I don’t care about those often awkward, age-disparate on-screen pairings that require a giant leap of faith on the part of the viewer.  God knows we’ve seen enough of them. Who could forget Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Key Largo, Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford in Up Close and Personal, Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas in A Perfect Murder and even our own Nicole with Sam Neill in Dead Calm!

I also have no problem with actresses like Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon as executive producers, securing rights to books like Moriarty’s Big Little Lies with meaty female characters and then casting themselves in those plum roles in the screen version. Why not run the racket so you can start rigging it when the game’s been stacked against you for decades?  Actors of the male persuasion have been doing that for years (think Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper and more recently Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, producers of the acclaimed Night Manager).

More power to the women, I reckon.  But if I thought this empowerment might translate into less jolting age pairings of major characters, in the case of Big Little Lies, I was clearly mistaken.

In isolation, Nicole Kidman is ideally cast as the gorgeous, intelligent and wealthy Celeste, she of the seemingly ‘perfect life’.  That is until you put her next to her on-screen husband Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård. While he is only nine years Kidman’s junior, alas (as beautiful as she is) Nicole looks so much older than Alexander.

Neither of them are miscast but their pairing made me focus more on how they looked together than how they played the parts of two people at the centre of one of the most disturbing concepts of the book and the show. That bothers me.

Then we come to Reese Witherspoon’s character, Madeline, who’s on-screen second husband Adam Scott (as Ed) is actually three years older than her and yet the pairing still doesn’t seem to work.  This may be due to the fact that, in the book version of the story, Madeline is a divorcée previously married to Nathan (played by James Tupper in the TV show) who, BTW, looks more aligned to Madeline in the age-stakes.

Maybe Adam Scott’s Ed is meant to look younger than Witherspoon’s Madeline in the TV version of the story because she is supposed to look like someone who’s been married before and is, perhaps, a little older than a previously unmarried first wife might be. But that can’t be right. As noted earlier, TV show narratives don’t always stick to the storyline of the books they’re based on. So, I guess we can rule that out as a reason for the apparent (but not real) age difference between Ed and Madeline in Big Little Lies.

Ironically, Reese Witherspoon is no stranger to this age-disparity thing. In 2004 she played the lead role of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. At the ripe old age of 27, Witherspoon was cast as the mother of Robert Pattison, aged 17 at the time.  The scenes between the two were cut from the final version of the film, which is probably fortunate as it didn’t impede a second outing for this pair in Water for Elephants in 2011. This time, Reese, Robert and their 10-year age difference, were cast as lovers.

I know what you’re thinking – I’m too stuck on the ironies of this age thing in Big Little Lies. Please believe me when I say I really don’t care.  Why should it even bother me that women characters are, these days, more often being paired with younger men when so often, it’s the other way around?

I guess is comes back to my need for credibility in on-screen drama – credibility that is underpinned by appropriate casting that helps me suspend my disbelief about the fictional storyline. For some reason this is particularly so when the screen story is based on a book I’ve already read. I fully accept that the screenplay I watch will not mirror the exact storyline of the book for such reasons as timeframe, nuance or plot intricacy that impedes ‘watchability’. I’m happy to be surprised, delighted even, by the accurate screen representation of people and things I loved in the book, as well as the adjustments and additions to the print storyline that make the viewing more compelling.

But sometimes, little things like age-disparity in the casting (perceived or otherwise) seriously undermines my ability to believe in the screen story and indeed, my interest in what happens to the characters themselves. Instead of getting lost in the fascinating depths of Celeste and Perry’s complex and violent relationship, I find myself pre-occupied with an entirely superficial and yet very distracting age difference.

And instead of applauding Kidman and Witherspoon for successfully subverting the culture of man/girl on-screen couplings in Hollywood, I confess to being a little disappointed. As executive producers of Big Little Lies, couldn’t these acclaimed actresses have demonstrated just a bit more finesse in the casting department?

Click here to buy your copy of ‘Big Little Lies’ by Liane Moriarty from Booktopia.

Doing It - Women Empowering Women

There are some books that influence you so profoundly that it would be a crime not to share them. My experience with Doing It: A Sex-Positive Anthology edited Karen Pickering, was one such time. This book is a bold and inspiring compilation of essays from a group of fierce and unapologetic feminists who openly discuss pleasure, desire and the important role sex plays in the lives of women. This body of work deconstructs the preconceived societal notions that form our opinions around sex and pleasure. As Karen Pickering says, we hear a lot about what women should be like, or how they can be more appealing as sexual creatures. Women are frequently seen as objects of sexual desire and gratification, but this perception ignores the fact that women are as sexual as men. They are not bystanders to their own sexual experiences. Model and actress Emily Ratajkowski, a vocal feminist and believer in the implicit freedom of sexuality that all women deserve, said this on sexuality: "The implication is that to be sexual is to be trashy because being sexy means playing into men's desires. To me, 'sexy' is a kind of beauty, a kind of self-expression, one that is to be celebrated, one that is wonderfully female. Why does the implication have to be that sex is a thing men get to take from women and women give up?"

There’s a lot of implied shame around being a woman. Women who are brave enough to expose their true selves to the world are often criticised and put down for acting ‘unlady-like’. Women who dare to approach sex in the way that men do, with empowerment and with the correct belief that their bodies are their own and they are free to do whatever they please with them, are deemed sluts or whores. If they don’t show ‘enough’ interest in sex, they’re deemed prudes, nuns or virgins. Take Emma Watson, for example, and the recent debacle over her cover shoot for Vanity Fair, publicizing the release of Beauty and the Beast. Watson stands on the cover, arms crossed, shoulders draped in a knitted throw, looking totally gorgeous. The pages had barely settled after this edition of Vanity Fair hit newsstands when people started to voice their opinions on Watson’s choice of apparel on the cover. The main question seemed to be this; how can Emma Watson be a feminist is she bares her chest on the cover of a magazine? It would seem to me that the answer to this question is painfully obvious, as Watson herself has said; feminism is about liberation and freedom, the right for a woman to have agency and control over her body. I think a better question would be why shouldn’t a feminist, or any other woman (or human for that matter) be able to express themselves in a way that makes them feel comfortable and, god forbid, sexy? Emma Watson, a talented actress, vocal feminist and activist, and overall an educated and intelligent person, has been cut down to no more than a piece of meat by public opinion for the mere crime of exposing a little bit of under-boob. It seems in this society women can’t take a breath without being told who or what they are, with no ability to control their own identities.

“Women love sex. So why do we have such a difficult time accepting them as sexual creatures?”

The attitude towards women who are in touch with their own sexuality and choose to express it is often to scorn and belittle them. A woman has less of a right to connect with her sexual self than a man does.

Karen Pickering says that her love of building communities for women was part of the impetus behind the book. The safe-space created by Doing It which allowed the contributors and readers alike to share their experiences is one of the most poignant things about this work. Too often are women silenced and made to believe their experience or opinions simply don’t matter. One of the most beautiful feelings was diving into the pages of this book and being enveloped in shared experiences and feelings, realising that a woman is not an island.

I am young, and as such am constantly reminded how much I have to learn about the world, but I think one of the most important things I drew from this book was how much I still have to learn about myself. I have been living with the false mentality that merely existing is to know yourself. My mind told me that simply by being alive I must know myself to the fullest scope; there should be no need for self-exploration or discovery because by being me I should know me. I read this book at a time of upheaval; I had just broken up with my boyfriend of over three years and moved into a house with four new roommates. With all these changes I found myself unsure of who I am or where I stand in my own life. Reading Doing It opened up a whole new can of worms in the self-questioning department. This book made me realize how much more I still have to learn, and to understand that there are parts of myself that I am still yet to explore. When reading this book I began to comprehend how closed off I am about my own sexuality, it was as if a veil had been lifted and I began to see that I was purposely ignoring the sexual components of myself in fear to avoid discovering something I may not have liked, or which may have been judged by those around me.

Talking about sex makes me uncomfortable, in fact, this review has probably been one of the hardest I’ve written, and I felt myself constantly questioning what to discuss and in what manner to discuss it in. Although I still feel as if I have a lot to learn about myself as a sexual being, and have many a bridge to cross before I feel more comfortable with discussing sex. I feel that the multitude of experiences and perspectives presented to me within the pages of Doing It, helped me feel a little more comfortable about the nature of sexuality, and develop a more real and tangible understanding that we are all sexual beings in one way or another and that sex and sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of.

That’s often the beauty of a good book, its ability to give us introspection, to apply someone else’s perspective to our own lives and make deductions based on the new lenses through which we’re seeing ourselves for the first time. Before this book, I would have said I don’t enjoy non-fiction, much preferring to lose myself in a story derived from imagination. After Doing It, I have a new appreciation for the real-life, for books written of experience and the importance of reading things that draw attention to the real world, to the issues that plague the existence of so many.