Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Award Winners (page 1 of 3)

Murphy – Samuel Beckett

I’m getting closer and closer to the pointy end of my reading list, which makes it harder and harder to pick my next read! I decided to do something different this time, and let my husband pick for me. He chose Murphy, by Samuel Beckett, because (in his exact words): “It’s exceptionally weird, and he was mates with [James] Joyce, so it’s the next best thing to forcing you to read Ulysses.” Isn’t that sweet? *eye roll*

The inscription in this pre-loved edition reads: “To Dad, Fathers’ Day 1973, from No. 1 Son”. Whoever Dad is, he apparently enjoyed Murphy, because it’s very well worn – I had to tape the back cover on to hold it together as I read.

Murphy was first published in 1938, the third work of fiction by Beckett (but the first one to be released). He wrote it painstakingly, by hand, in six small exercise books over the course of 1935 and 1936. He had a devil of a time getting it published; no one wanted in Europe wanted a bar of him, and he got no love in America either. Now and then, a publisher would offer to take it on if Beckett was willing to undergo a rigorous editing process, to make the book more marketable, but the smug prick turned them down every time, insisting the book was perfect as it was. In the end, he had to get his mate – the painter Jack Butler Yeates – to put it on the desk of a publisher friend at Routeledge. That’s how Murphy came to be another story in the file of Magical Nepotism.

Between the time of Routeledge accepting his manuscript as-is, and Murphy hitting the stores, Beckett was stabbed in the chest and nearly killed while wandering the streets of Paris. Apparently, he’d refused a kind offer of companionship from a notorious local pimp, who had much the same attitude towards rejection that Beckett had himself. Beckett nearly died, and had to call on another friend, this time James Joyce (yep, the same one), to oversee (and pay for!) his medical treatment. He made the final amendments and approvals to the manuscript proofs from a French hospital bed. This is a very on-brand story for Beckett, which tells you everything you need to know about the man, really.



It’s got a cracker opening line, perhaps my favourite part of the whole book:

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

Murphy (Pg. 1)

Normally I’m not a fan of opening with the weather, but for a line so delightfully snarky, I can make an exception. Anyway, Murphy follows the story of a solipsist named (you guessed it) Murphy, who lives in a condemned apartment in West Brompton and later moves to London. Funnily enough, shortly before putting pen to paper, Beckett himself had moved from Dublin to London – the advice to “write what you know” pays off, once again! If we’re to believe, as has been reported, that Murphy draws heavily on Beckett’s real-life experiences, geographically and otherwise, then you’ll soon see that Beckett must have lived a very strange life indeed…

See, the story opens with Murphy sitting naked, tied to a chair, rocking back and forth in the dark, apparently having placed himself in that position. It’s his attempt to enter “a nonexistent state of being” (something akin to sensory deprivation, or deep meditation perhaps), and he finds this state particularly pleasurable. He has withdrawn from the world in gradual but increasing increments, in pursuit of these (shall we say) unconventional desires. Now, bear with me, I’m going to have trouble explaining what happens from then on because this book is, as my husband so eloquently described it, exceptionally weird. Just trust me: if you’re finding this hard to follow, you’re not the only one.



Even though he’s off his trolley, Murphy has at least one friend: Neary, whose party trick is stopping his own heart, a phenomenon he calls “apmonia”. Basically, he can induce cardiac arrest at will. WTAF? And Neary and Murphy sit around talking about their heart attacks and special-naked-rocking-chair-time, until the conversation eventually shifts around to their love lives. Murphy is engaged to one Miss Counihan, but in conversation with Neary, he decides – to hell with her – he’ll escape to London where he can have all the special-naked-rocking-chair-time he pleases, without her nagging him. Of course, he tells his wife-to-be that he’s taking off to find a respectable job, and she… just… believes him? Smh.

It’s not until after he’s been gone quite a while, without a word of correspondence, that Miss Counihan starts getting suss. She’s now shagging Neary (who has no qualms about cutting his mate’s grass), and they decide together to hire a bloke to track Murphy down. Miss Counihan is hoping that the dick, named Cooper (who, it must be said, is also a few pickles short of a party), will prove that Murphy is either dead or sleeping around, so that she can move on with her life guilt-free. Yeah, she’s a real peach; they deserved each other, to be honest.

That’s when the character of Celia Kelly is introduced: a sex worker, and Murphy’s concerned Friend-With-Benefits. I think Beckett invented her character purely for the opportunity to dig his elbow into the ribs of the censors. In describing her profession, he says: “This phrase is chosen with care; lest the filthy censors should lack an occasion to commit their filthy synecdoche”. Ha! But even so, you really feel for this girl, perhaps more than anyone else in Murphy, because she’s hopelessly in love with him even though he’s bonkers. He’s only slightly more than indifferent towards her, and yet she has enough powers of logical persuasion to convince him to get a job.



And what a job it is: Murphy begins working as a nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, finding a refuge from the strains and pains of the real world in a literal asylum. He befriends the long-institutionalised patients there, and figures if he hangs out with them long enough, he’ll find a way to send himself insane and escape reality altogether. He’s so happy in his new work that he ditches Celia, and promptly forgets all about her. What a guy!

Celia joins forces with Miss Counihan, Neary, Cooper, and some other blow-in called Wiley. They all hurry-up-and-wait for Murphy to snap out of it. I can’t even begin to fathom the delusion that went into deciding on this course of action, because Murphy has never done anything not weird. And just as you think the story is approaching some big confrontation or resolution, Murphy dies. Yep! He’s burned to death in his room due to some whoopsy-daisy with the gas line (or maybe he died by suicide and that was his chosen method, Beckett didn’t really make it clear). Either way, he’s dead, and his friends don’t waste a lot of time mourning. They charge Cooper with putting Murphy’s remains to rest, which he does by spilling the ashes during a bar-room brawl and just leaving them there, among “the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit”. So, a happy ending for all involved!

Reviews of Murphy were (very) mixed, and sales were (predictably) poor. Just 568 copies were sold upon its release in 1938. A further 23 were sold in 1939, 20 in 1940, and just 7 in 1941. By 1943, Murphy was out of print altogether. Beckett didn’t see any success or find any substantial audience until the release of Waiting For Godot, and since then Murphy has lived entirely in its shadows. I felt, reading Murphy, that Beckett was naturally more inclined towards being a playwright than a novelist, because his prose (bizarre as it was) read very theatrically – I could picture it being performed on a stage.



I’m sure there’s a lot of brilliant stuff in here – Beckett was obsessed with chess, for instance, and even I (a relative dummy) can see some of the ways he exploited the artistic possibilities of the game in Murphy – but damn, it’s a tough row to hoe. Normally I’m a fan of nihilistic black humour, but the way Beckett stewed it in absurdist existentialist ramblings just wasn’t to my taste. Luckily, there are plenty of people far smarter than me who are able to get more out of it, like the folks who awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.

Murphy is a hard book to read, even being as short as it is (just 158 pages). I had to keep convincing myself to pick it back up; this is one I definitely would have abandoned if not for Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s neither character-driven, nor plot-driven – in fact, I’d say it’s not “driven” at all. It’s just a weird meander in the dark through some dodgy parts of town. My ears picked up a bit when Murphy started working in the asylum, but my interest waned very quickly. On the whole, I was rather underwhelmed. Luckily, my husband anticipated this reaction, and laughed heartily when I told him what I thought. I think I’ll stick to picking my own reads from now on…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Murphy:

  • “I had to read this for class. The plot is all over the place and it is really boring. There is nothing memorable about this book and it as mundane as watching a squirrel collect nuts for the winter…on second thought, watching a squirrel collect nuts for the winter is like going to Disney World when you are 4 years old compared to reading this book. I had to read this for English 196 and I can’t wait to sell this back to the book store even though I got it on ebay…so in essence, selling it to the bookstore…..good riddance!!!” – M. R. Randall

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Well, well, well: wasn’t this a pleasant surprise? When I picked up this copy of The Grapes Of Wrath (another secondhand bargain, once belonging to a “William Lang” who was kind enough to keep it in pretty good nick for me), I didn’t have high hopes. I’d just read two white-men-talking-to-each-other-about-power stories back-to-back (reviews here and here), and I figured I’d be in for more of the same. But, once again, this project up-ends my expectations: I loved Steinbeck’s story, more than I could have imagined! I think it’s another happy coincidence, coming to a book at the right time; this story of a migrant family pulling themselves up out of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression seems eerily relevant and poignant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world.

Steinbeck was no slouch in the writing game. The Grapes Of Wrath took home a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was cited prominently when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. The story begins with Tom Joad, a recent parolee, returning home to Oklahoma. On his way, he runs into Jim Casy, a former preacher, and they decide to travel together. When they make it to Tom’s family home, they find the farm deserted, and an old neighbour tells them that the Joad clan has gone to stay at another farm nearby, the banks having evicted almost everyone in the area.

In fact, the Joads – who are pretty much penniless, the Dust Bowl having destroyed their crops – are loading up a truck they intend to drive to California. They’ve heard there’s work aplenty there, and the pay is decent, so it seems as good an idea as any (and, well, they ain’t got a lot of options). Even though leaving Oklahoma will violate his parole, Tom jumps in with them, and convinces Jim to come along for the ride.



I was particularly impressed with the way Steinbeck used dialect. It felt very readable, fluid, natural – and even though he was effectively writing about “hicks” and “rednecks”, to use the pejorative terms, he didn’t once condescend to Southerners or make a spectacle of them.

The Joads quickly learn that they aren’t the only family who had the idea to look for work in the Golden State. They encounter many migrant groups living in makeshift camps along their route, all with horrible stories about the true nature of the life and work on Californian farms. One-by-one, the Joads start to exit the story: Grandpa dies, then Grandma (with poor old Ma Joad riding with her corpse in the back of the truck for hours before alerting the others, to ensure they made it to California without delay), eldest son Noah leaves them, and then Connie bolts too (he’s the husband of the pregnant Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon – and yes, that’s her real given name, but she’s most often referred to as “Rosasharn”). Oh, and the dog dies. The Grapes Of Wrath is a pretty traumatic read, on the whole.

You might be thinking that Tom Joad is the hero of this story, but you’d be wrong. Ma Joad is the star of the show. She’s now one of my favourite characters in all of American literature. It’s under her leadership that the Joad family continues to seek work and make the best of their shitty circumstances. Pa Joad, the “head of the house”, is completely demoralised and basically useless, so Ma Joad takes the reins and does a damn fine job. They would have been completely screwed without her (well, they were still pretty screwed, but less so for Ma Joad being an incredible kick-arse matriarch).



Anyway, when they make it to California, they find a very saturated labour market, meaning most families are forced to work for a pittance and exploited to the point of literal starvation. Steinbeck really went all-out, he shat on capitalism from a great height. Jim Casy takes it upon himself to unionise the workers, co-ordinating a strike, but it all ends in tears when a police confrontation turns violent (Steinbeck also hated cops, it would seem). Tom witnesses Casy’s fatal beating, and takes his vengeance, killing the cop. He winds up back on the run, a murderous fugitive once again.

Ma Joad doesn’t let a little thing like her son’s homicidal tendencies slow them down. She makes Tom promise that he will use his lucky break, having escaped arrest, to fight for workers’ rights and end the oppression that is quite literally killing the working class. The Joads continue on, finding more work at a cotton farm, but this is a things-go-from-bad-to-worse story, so strap in. George R.R. Martin ain’t got nothin’ on Steinbeck, honestly – Georgie has a high body count, sure, but Steinbeck tortures and starves his characters in the most twisted of ways.

Rose Of Sharon’s bun in the oven dings, and she labours for hours on the floor of the shack they’re calling home. Her baby, sadly, is stillborn. I had literal tears welling in my eyes; I’m normally a tough nut to crack, but these scenes were absolutely devastating. Ma Joad holds it together (because of course she does) and lucky she does, because an almighty storm blows up and floodwaters inundate the area. The family has to bail on the shack, and seek shelter in a barn up the road. There, they find a young boy and his father, also not in a good way. The young boy is dying, he hasn’t eaten in forever, and Rose of Sharon – at Ma Joad’s prompting – offers him her breastmilk, saving his life. It is truly one of the most haunting passages I have ever read. And also, it’s The End.



I felt like I’d been punched! The Grapes Of Wrath, with that fucking ending, was so damn good that I started getting angry. Why had no one in my life who had read it warned me what was coming?! Gah!

The only thing that soured my experience of reading this Great American Novel was finding out later that Steinbeck ripped off a woman (naturally). It would seem that he “borrowed” heavily from the notes of Farm Security Administration worker Sanora Babb, who was researching migrant families with a view to writing her own book in 1938. Her boss showed her work to Steinbeck, and the rest is why-do-women-keep-getting-screwed-over-and-over history. The publication and popularity of The Grapes Of Wrath scuppered any hopes that Babb had of getting her own work out there. Her novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, wasn’t published until 2004, and she died the following year.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Steinbeck also has his wife to thank for the book’s iconic title. He was struggling to come up with anything himself, then she suggested The Grapes Of Wrath, having read the phrase near the end of Chapter 25 where Steinbeck described the purposeful destruction of food to keep demand (and profits) high:

“… and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Chapter 25

And she nailed it: that line really captures what The Grapes Of Wrath is all about. It’s a story of the potential for a working class revolt, how the seeds of a revolution are sown. Steinbeck said that, in writing the novel, he wanted “to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this” (“this” being the Great Depression and its domino effect). That’s why the book has been so powerful and popular with supporters of the workers’ movement.



Its publication “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event”, later reports claimed. The Grapes Of Wrath was the best-selling book of 1939, and it was debated and discussed at length in all manner of public and private forums. Many of Steinbeck’s contemporaries attacked his social and political views as expressed through his story of the Joads, but he did not give one single fuck. All the controversy just led to more book sales.

The Grapes Of Wrath feels timeless, because the more things change, the more they stay the same. We can all find something familiar in a story about automation, and climate change, and the feelings of powerlessness and fear they inspire. Save for a few technological advancements, I would completely believe that this was a contemporary novel set in the present day. If you’re in the mood to say Fuck The Man! but also want to read a heart-wrenching and beautiful family story, you need to pick up a copy of The Grapes Of Wrath and get stuck in.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Grapes Of Wrath:

  • “My package arrived empty. I would like a refund, but have nothing to return.” – Amie Majerus
  • “I had to read this book in high school. I hope English teachers aren’t still forcing teenagers to read this book, but they probably are. I still think about the ending sometimes and wonder if there was something wrong with John Steinbeck.” – Janette
  • “Bought this book thinking I would learn how to make a nice bitter wine for a get together for me and my gal pals… But it’s just a book about people traveling in the depression. I was expecting some grapes being angry. Also there are no grapes in this book whatsoever!!” – Amazon Customer
  • “I have been reading books that won Pulitzer prizes. I’m very happy with most of them. This one is terrible. The author, John Steinbeck, commented “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” Thanks for nothing. I don’t want my nerves ripped to rags. And that’s why I give this book the lowest possible score.



    The point of the story is that rich bastards are bastards. Got it. Agreed. Bastards are bastards. Got it. I don’t want to go on this journey. It’s like the old Mr. Bill skits on Saturday Nite Live. Do you remember Mr. Bill? Everything horrible happens to Mr. Bill. That’s what this book is. Mr. Bill.

    

I will happily join your revolution but I will not read your book to the end. It’s too messed up. I don’t want my nerves ripped to rags.” – LF

  • “One of the boringest published novels I’ve ever laid eyes on.” – C. Cross
  • “So, I’m only on page 478 of 619, but I’ve been disgusted at the amount of profanity. So far I’ve found more than 500 uses of profanity! On average every page (with relatively big writing, even) has more than one swear. Yikes!

    

I’m never going to read Grapes of Wrath again, and won’t be recommending it to anyone.

If you don’t like profanity, be careful.” – Jef4Jesus

  • “This book was 600 pages written purly about a bunch of hicks from Oklahoma starving. Thanks, but no thanks,” – M. Landis

P.S. Never forget this pearler of a tweet from publisher Antonio French during the Trump campaign:

Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

What do you know: here we have another staple of high-school reading lists that I somehow never encountered in the course of my own education. This very edition of Lord Of The Flies, in fact, once belonged to “James Wells Year 9”, according to the inside front cover. I’m sure he’s a swell kid, but his highlighting of key passages was really distracting (though it disappeared by about the half-way point so I’m guessing he never finished the book – hopefully, he found a love of literature elsewhere…).

Lord Of The Flies was William Golding’s first novel, published in 1954. It wasn’t an immediate success. It sold fewer than three thousand copies in the first year, and promptly went out of print entirely. Golding eventually found his audience and went on to have a glowing literary career, winning the Nobel Prize For Literature in 1983. He was also knighted, in 1988.

The introduction to this Faber “Educational Edition” makes some insightful remarks about the fact that Lord Of The Flies came so soon after WWII. The world had just seen previously-unimaginable atrocities, far removed from everyday life, and it had made everyone all-too aware of humanity’s true nature. “Ultimately, Mr Golding’s book is valuable to us,” the introduction says, “not because it tells us about the darkness of man’s heart, but because it shows it…” (pg. xii).

The story starts with a war-time evacuation, and a plane-full of British boys crashing on an isolated Pacific island. Golding really drops the reader right into the action; I’m not sure I would have had a damn clue what was going on if I wasn’t already familiar with the plot through the osmosis of pop-culture references. He quickly introduces two boys, the fair-haired take-charge hero Ralph and the overweight asthmatic Piggy. They find a conch, and Ralph uses it to summon all the other survivors. As far as I’m concerned, Piggy is more likeable than the rest of them put together; he insists that they “put first things first and act proper”, which made me chuckle.


The boys are a rag-tag assortment that includes a musical choir, already operating under the leadership of Jack Merridew. These boys don’t take too kindly to Ralph appointing himself head honcho. Ralph’s key policies are that they should have fun, survive, and maintain a smoke signal, apparently in that order (so he really needs to work on his priorities). The choir grumbles, but eventually submits to Ralph’s vision for life on the island; Jack decides they’ll take on the role of hunters, and they spend most of their time trying to kill animals for food. The group maintains a veneer of democracy (at first) by agreeing that whoever is holding the magical conch should be allowed to speak and receive the silent attention of the rest of the boys. I don’t know why everyone spends so much time talking about the pig’s head, when really Golding’s characters spent an inordinate amount of time arguing over that bloody shell…

They create a fire using Piggy’s glasses, a good start, but everything turns to shit pretty quickly. The boys start fighting among themselves, and let the fire languish while they hang out on the beach. Oh, and they imagine up a “beast” that they believe is stalking them from the woods. Jack Merridew lures the boys away from their “work” on the fire, with a view to hunting this supposed “creature”. The smoke signal dies out, duh, and they miss the opportunity for rescue by a passing ship.


Jack, fed up with Ralph’s pragmatism and Piggy’s whining, tries to start a new group. One by one, the boys abandon Ralph to join Jack, lured by the smell of sizzling pork (yes, they manage to kill a pig and cook it, but not one of them thinks to go fishing, for fuck’s sake). The members of the new tribe start doing weird shit, painting their faces and making sacrifices to the “beast”. Not sure what was in that pork, but it was nothin’ good. They end up beating a kid to death – Simon, the poor epileptic who had hallucinated the pig’s head talking to him in one iconic scene.

Jack’s New Tribe(TM) decide that Piggy’s glasses, the only means of creating fire on the island, are the real symbol of power. Finally, they’re thinking sensibly! They steal the glasses from Ralph and Piggy, the last hold-outs of the old group. When Ralph confronts Jack about the theft, a fight ensues, and everyone on Ralph’s side is crushed to death (RIP Piggy). The conch is also shattered in the confrontation, which is Golding’s heavy-handed attempt at symbolising the end of civility and the boys’ final transition to savagery. (Yeah, maybe scratch that thinking-sensibly part…)

Ralph manages to escape their clutches, so they hunt him through the woods, setting fire to everything in the process. He’s just about ready to give himself up for dead when he runs into a British naval officer, whose party had seen the smoke from the raging fire and come to investigate. The boys are “saved”, but they all start crying when they realise what they’ve become. The officer makes fun of them, he’s kind of a dick actually, for acting like they were at war… only to turn around and gaze at his own war ship (awkward!). Yep, Golding kept the heavy-handed symbolism going right to the bitter end.


I really didn’t enjoy Lord Of The Flies. In fact, I kind of resented it. Assigning it to school kids feels like force-feeding them a cautionary tale: “behave the way that the hypocritical adults tell you to, or look how you’ll end up!”. Really, could it be any more patronising? In the beginning, I wondered if maybe I was just coming to this book too late in life (like I did with Fahrenheit 451), but that’s not it: honestly, my anti-establishment tendencies have only softened with age. Had I been required to read this in school, I probably would have ended up sent to the principal’s office for accusing some poor English teacher, in all earnestness, of trying to brainwash us into accepting everything they said without question (yes, I was a bit of a handful). As it stands, Lord Of The Flies wasn’t a winner for me, and I doubt I’ll ever pick it up again. It’s definitely not a book I’d want with me on a desert island, even for the hilarious irony.

I think I might be the only one who’s down on it, though. Stephen King, in particular, is a very vocal fan, and has borrowed heavily from it in his own writing; he also penned an introduction to the 2011 edition, celebrating the centenary of Golding’s birth. And public interest in Lord Of The Flies has led to the release of two film adaptations (1963, 1990). Production of another adaptation, with an all-female cast, was announced by Warner Bros in 2017; before I read the book, I was all in favour of a woman-centric re-boot, but now I feel like the project will be a huge waste. The story of Lord Of The Flies is so deeply rooted in patriarchal bullshit, I’m not sure it can be saved, even if we make them all girls. I’d much rather see that film’s budget reallocated to producing and marketing a story written by women that reflects a genuinely female experience. Someday, when I run the world…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lord Of The Flies:

  • “It isn’t a story filled with hope. The human race is a disgrace.” – James Asherton
  • “‘Food for thought’, and I imagine that anyone who likes this book would also enjoy it if a restaurant hid razor blades in their dish. Like with real food, ‘food for thought’ should be enjoyable, healthy, and should not make you feel sick after consuming it. This book is garbage. It’s unhealthy, and it will likely make you feel sick. I do not recommend consuming this ‘food for thought’. I am not impressed. If someone wants to make a point in literature, there are better ways of going about it. This book is actually just malware for the brain. It’s best not to read it, but if you already did, sort it out the best you can. Good luck.” – S. DANIELSON
  • “The reviews on this book were more fun to read than the actual book itself.” – Lilian
  • “I HATED ALL OF IT. IT WAS THE WORST STINKIN BOOK I HAVE EVER READ. AND I LIKE BOOKS. @$&# PIECE A @$&$” – cat gilleland
  • “This book was only boring because it is not the type of book i like but it was interesting to read.” – jack gartner
  • “Hated it. If your looking for a book that describes the scenery 90 percent of the time. This book is for u.” – Joe Pena
  • “This book doesn’t deserve a review. With all due respect, Golding couldn’t write a good book to save his life. His writing is reminiscent of Tolkien’s; he comes up with a great story, and then ruins it with horrible writing….” – Amazon Customer
  • “I had to read this book for literature class I hated it. my teacher rattled on about the symbolizm in this book.It was so boring and kinda gory.plus no girls, wasnt they suposed to repopulate the world after nuclear war so not possible with only boys. The one thing i found interesting was how they acted like wild animals after they had been on the island a while.that was kinda cool.But it was to confusing” – Amazon Customer

All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren

It’s been a while since I visited the American South in literature. I think my last sojourn was The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, some time ago. That’s how I came to reach for All The King’s Men, the Pulitzer Prize-winner by Robert Penn Warren in 1946. I was actually surprised, looking at the inside cover, to find it was written so long ago; it reads like a far more contemporary novel and as recently as 2006 the New York Times called it “the definitive novel about American politics” (though, that was pre-Trump, so it’d be understandable if their position has changed).

Our narrator is Jack Burden, a former history student and newspaper columnist turned personal aide. He recounts for us the meteoric rise of Governor Willie Stark in the American South in the 1930s. He’s fascinated, and at times disgusted, by the larger-than-life populist leader. Stark transforms over the course of the novel from idealistic lawyer to hardened (and extremely powerful) politico. Burden faithfully documents the evolution of “The Boss”, and the role of his doctor friend Adam Stanton, who is not-very-subtly painted as the polar opposite of Stark. Stanton is the man of ideals, the angel on one shoulder, while Stark is the pragmatic and corrupt devil on the other.

The chapters are loooooong, and intense. Warren really doesn’t give the reader many opportunities to pause and catch their breath. He also uses decidedly non-chronological storytelling, but it’s not a jumpy timeline (think more Mrs Dalloway than The Narrow Road To The Deep North). Warren uses the shifts in time to highlight the connections between characters and continuities in their stories, how Burden and Stark and Stanton’s lives all weave together. That means there are a few stories-within-the-story, most notably a detailed history of Jack’s uncle (whom he researched in pursuit of his American History degree), and also Jack’s own life (which he tells, bizarrely, in the third person). Jack wouldn’t have been much fun at parties, actually, with his penchant for endless nihilistic philosophising. It takes the deaths of a few of his mates, and his biological father, for him to even contemplate the notion that he has to take some personal responsibility for what happens in his life, instead of attributing it all to what he calls “the Great Twitch”. That said, some of his introspective bullshit was actually quite funny:

“‘Can I see the cutting?’ I asked. I felt all of a sudden that I had to see it. I had never seen an operation. As a newspaperman, I had seen three hangings and one electrocution, but they are different. In a hanging you do not change a man’s personality. You just change the length of his neck and give him a quizzical expression, and in an electrocution you just cook some bouncing meat in a wholesale lot. But this operation was going to be more radical even than what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. So I asked could I see the operation.”

pg. 477




All The King’s Men is very dude-centric, if that’s not already obvious: it fails the Bechdel Test in spectacular fashion, with nearly 700 pages of white dudes talking to one another about power, clapping themselves on the back for gaining power, and ever-striving to become more powerful than some other white dude. There are a couple of love interests and mistresses, and these are the only appropriate roles for women in that world, it would seem. Jack devotes quite a long passage to his regret at never having fucked his first love, and of his wife he simply says “Goodbye Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you,” (pg. 462).

Warren fills the hole where the women should be by making a Very Big Deal of biological paternity, and how one’s father affects one’s sense of identity and morality. It’s central to every plot-line and character arc; the book would perhaps be more accurately called All The King’s Daddy Issues. Stark, in becoming a Governor through patronage and intimidation, becomes a surrogate father for all of them: deeply flawed, but influential, and impossible to ignore or reject. The thrust of the story, it would seem, is that Jack comes to realise that no man or father (not the man who raised him, not his bio dad, not Willie Stark) is invulnerable to corruption or temptation. Oh, and it’s impossible to remain a passive observer of anything, no matter how hard you try. Whatever you do, it will catch up with you, etc. Such profound, very wow…



The character of Stark is famously rumoured to have been inspired by the real-life Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. They both earned themselves many political enemies (Long in the real world, Stark in the fictional one) while retaining huge popular appeal with their constituents. They also meet the same end, assassinated by a physician in the state capitol building. Even though the parallels are abundantly clear, Warren strenuously denied that he intended to honour Long through the Stark character, and also rejected the theory that he intended to declare support for the man’s assassination. In fact, Warren claimed that All The King’s Men was “never intended to be a book about politics” (fucking lol, alright mate, odd choice of subject matter then).

There’s a surprisingly happy ending, all things considered. Yes, there’s a lot of death and bloodshed, but Jack gets the girl, reconciles with his father(s), and carries on living the good life. I was expecting something far more bleak, but Warren managed to pull a Happily Ever After out of his hat.

Tl;dr? A bunch of white dudes chase political power in the Great Depression-era American South, in the hopes that it will help them all overcome their Daddy Issues (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t work).

My favourite Amazon reviews of All The King’s Men:

  • “I am a business professor so the long involved descriptions of his angst drove me crazy.” – CP
  • “Somewhat tedious” – Carol Weidensaul
  • “Greek drama set in depression era Louisiana. Sad,” – Martha Failing
  • “This edition appeared to have been translated by a child. I got a real book from the public library. Very disappointed.” – Gwen Luikart
  • “Thought it stunk.” – Barbara J Mason
  • “Had to read this for my AP English class. -10/10 stars, would not recommend, take regular english instead.” – Emmy
  • “I AM ALSO A TINA FRIEND AND HER INSIGHTFUL AND TRUE COMMENTS INTO THIS MONSTROSITY OF A BOOK MAKE ME PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!” – A customer

Divergent – Veronica Roth

I know there’s still a lot of ingrained snobbery and elitism that causes some readers to look down their noses at young adult books, but it’s hard to argue with the power of a juggernaut like Divergent, whatever you might think of the genre. It was a New York Times Best Seller (a couple times over, actually), and a Goodreads Choice Awards winner (Favourite Book Of The Year in 2011). According to Publisher’s Weekly, the combined three volumes of the series sold over 6.7 million copies in 2013 alone. Whatever we might think of it, clearly Veronica Roth’s dystopian world has captured more than a few minds and hearts…

So, just to be clear, I’m reviewing the first book in the Divergent series (also, confusingly, called Divergent), a trilogy of dystopian young adult novels (it’s followed by Insurgent, then Allegiant) set in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Roth’s meteoric rise is all the more enviable when you learn that Divergent was published less than a year after she earned a degree in Creative Writing from Northwestern University; in fact, she’d sold the film rights before she’d even graduated. But don’t let the green-eyed monster overtake you just yet, my honest review is still to come…

See, Divergent doesn’t exactly start strong (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t improve much along the way). Roth opens her story with the old protagonist-examines-her-reflection-in-the-mirror trope, ugh. She gives some kind of half-arsed explanation as to why she’s only allowed to look in the mirror once a month or something, but it still irked me. It’s such a lazy way for a writer to “show” the reader what a narrator looks like, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

This central character, Beatrice (well, “Tris”, as she’s later known), and her family are among the survivors of some unspecified apocalyptic event (and yes, it’s extremely frustrating that Roth doesn’t give us any more details on the back-story, but that’s the least of our problems here). What we do know is that everyone is now divided into five “factions”, based on their dispositions and inclinations. The Abnegation are the selfless ones, the Amity are the peaceful ones, the Candor are the honest ones, the Dauntless are the brave ones, and the Erudite are the smart ones. They’re kind of like the castes in Brave New World, but not quite so hierarchical; each faction has a different role to play in society, and theoretically they should all work together in harmony.



Kids are raised in the faction of their parents (in Tris’s case, Abnegation) until they turn sixteen, at which point they are given an “aptitude” test and forced to choose a permanent faction for themselves at the creatively-named Choosing Ceremony. No, I’m not kidding. Anyone who doesn’t complete initiation into their new faction becomes “factionless” (the creativity just keeps on coming), and is forced to live in poverty on the streets, reliant on charity to survive. Tris’s aptitude test shows that she could belong to any one of three factions, and thus she is “divergent”. An early warning: do not attempt to turn this into a drinking game by doing a shot every time someone uses the word “divergent”, because you will die. Tris pretty much whacks you over the head with her divergence for the rest of the book.

The test administrator warns her to keep her divergence under her hat, so Tris takes her word for it and acts like she’s normal. She chooses to join the Dauntless faction, much to her parents’ dismay, and her brother simultaneously fucks off to the Erudite (so a double-whammy for Abnegation).

Tris’s instructor at the Dauntless compound is “Four”. Roth said he was originally the protagonist in her first draft of the novel, but she switched to Tris’s perspective because she felt it “worked better”. Four tells Tris and the rest of the Dauntless initiates that they’ll be tested again and again, and only the top ten candidates will be accepted into the faction. The guy’s welcome speech could use some work, tbh.



You can smell the relationships forming a mile off, they’re all very predictable. Tris befriends some of her fellow transfer initiates (Christina, Al, and Will), comes into conflict with others (Peter, Drew, and Molly), and falls head over heels in love with Four. And later on, one of her chosen friends betrays her. It’s all rather uninspired and cliche, but we persist!

It turns out that these “tests” for the Dauntless initiates are mostly a series of drug-induced hallucinations while they’re hooked up to technological gizmos. They’re forced to face their worst fears in a simulation, and beat them. Roth said she was inspired in part by learning about exposure therapy in an introductory psychology course. Important note: this is a very gross misrepresentation of what exposure therapy is actually about, and how it works for people with phobias and other anxiety disorders. If Roth has scared anyone off seeking treatment with this story, I will be very, very cross.

Anyway, Tris’s divergent abilities actually give her an advantage in this fucked-up testing scenario, and she (quite rightly) exploits it to make sure she gets that top ten ranking. But of course, no one likes a kiss arse, so the other initiates attack her and do their best to take her down a peg.



Meanwhile, in Grown Up World, the Erudite faction are stirring dissent against Abnegation. See, the selfless ones were given the role of governing the city, because they’re so selfless and all, but the clever ones are pretty fed up with that situation. They accuse the Abnegation leaders of abusing their children (and Four brings Tris into one of his fear simulation thingos, revealing that he was indeed abused by his Abnegation father, so not everything the Erudite are saying is fake news). The dispute reaches crisis point when the Erudite inject all of the Dauntless with a serum that allows them to be controlled in one giant simulation. The Erudite mobilise them as an army, stage a coup, and take down the Abnegation.

To put this in terms everyone will understand, let’s highlight a few of the very obvious Harry Potter parallels: in the Divergent world, the Gryffindors and the Ravenclaws (who are actually just clever Slytherins in disguise) gang up on the Hufflepuffs. You following?

It turns out that the Erudite serum doesn’t actually work on divergent members of the faction, which is why the test administrator encouraged Tris to keep it to herself; if she can’t be controlled, she’s a threat to the system and the whole Erudite plot to gain power. The divergent kids, led by Tris and Four (oh yeah, turns out her boyfriend is also divergent, vomit), rebel against the Erudite, uniting to disable the simulation. Once that’s handle, they escape to the Amity compound – that’s the nice faction, remember them? They don’t get much of a look-in in the story otherwise. Both of Tris’s parents are killed in the fight, the military conflict remains unresolved, and that’s where Divergent ends. To find out what happens next, you’ll have to buy the next book (duh).



I think my feelings have been made abundantly clear already, but just in case, I’ll say it straight: the writing isn’t good. It’s full of lines like this:

“I watch the light leave Will’s eyes, which are pale green, like celery.”

Divergent (p. 96)

I mean, come on! Tris gets sweaty palms, a lot. As in she mentions it on practically every page, and it really wears thin very early on. There’s also a lot of references to necks, and a lot of chapters and sections that start with “the next morning”. I thought initially that Divergent must have been self-published, without professional editing, because really this is the type of shit that would have been picked up by even a first-time editor. But nope! This book went through the full rigors of Harper Collins’s editorial process, and still came out this way. *shrugs*

If you think I’m being too persnickety, let’s take a step back and look at Divergent more broadly: it really doesn’t break any new ground. A young adult book that explores an adolescent’s relationship to adults and authority in a dystopian future is hardly revolutionary. Tris’s whole character arc is simply coming of age through a series of choices, always between conforming and choosing her own path – nothing new there, either. I read one review that sung the praises of how Roth “critiqued the illusion of democracy” (whereby citizens are able to “choose” which faction they join but are indoctrinated through the initiation process regardless of what they choose), but that seems to be an optimistically retro-fitted analysis at best. Roth really doesn’t explore that idea at all; it seemed to me more of a convenient plot point to get everyone divided into groups, given that the idea of a Sorting Hat was already taken.



The religious overtones are interesting, though. Roth says in the first sentence of her Author Acknowledgements: “Thank you, God, for your Son and for blessing me beyond comprehension”, so she’s clearly down with the Squad. There’s a very clear Point(TM) in the intellectual Erudite (read: genetics researchers, stem-cell harvesters, Galileo, etc.) being painted as control-hungry villains, pitted against the righteous, pious, and persecuted Abnegation. It gives me really bad vibes, actually. I mean the Erudites, who are clearly coded as academics and experts, are the “evil” ones, and in the world of Trump and Brexit it seems to reinforce a particularly scary position that experts are part of some kind of conspiracy to screw the everyman. I’m not sure if Roth intended to write a conservative religious call-to-arms, but that’s how it came across to me.

I’m not much good at content warnings, but Divergent probably warrants a few. There’s a lot of violence (including some sexualised violence), a major suicide as a plot point, and plenty of other distressing shit. This makes it all the more baffling that it’s recommended reading for young adolescents – why are we so much more willing to let kids read about men killing each other than we are men kissing each other? It’s a more confronting, more violent version of The Hunger Games. I know it’s gross to lump all female-protagonist-dystopian-future-YA novels into the same basket, but in this case they really are very similar on a lot of levels. I’ve also heard Divergent has a lot in common with The Maze Runner, which is also on my reading list – stay tuned for my thoughts on that front…

As I was putting together this review, I started to feel really guilty that I didn’t like Divergent more, like I was doing a disservice by hanging shit on something that legions of young readers really love. I promise, I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yums, and if you enjoyed Divergent, power to you! No hard feelings! It’s just not for me. I couldn’t help but laugh at times at how truly bad I found it. I thought it was ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the fans Roth has won herself around the world, and the power that a beloved series like this can have in ensuring the continuing literacy of younger generations. (Please forgive me for how old that makes me sound!) As I said in the beginnings, elitists and snobs might look down their noses at a series like this, but I’m not one of them. I won’t be reading any more of Roth’s work, but I don’t begrudge anyone who finds joy in it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Divergent:

  • “Funny as he’ll” – derrick
  • “thia is the sort of series tat doesnt deserve a 3 star rting its so bad sory for bad typing I am uinf a small kindle in bed.” – S. Berestizhevsky
  • “Cool I get to be review 44,444. 4s are my lucky number.

    

Anyway. I guess I am Divergent because this book is just…bad. I couldn’t get through more than 100 pages. It never got better. The premise is just, dumb. It’s basically a rip-off of the sorting hat from Harry Potter mixed with Hunger Games without all the action. The protagonist is supposedly the only person with a mind of her own in the entire book (besides some of the poor homeless/blue-collar workers who we should feel SO sorry for and look down on, in spite of them making up most of our actual society). She is labeled “divergent”, which is unspeakable. And basically, she doesn’t fit in. Poor girl. That’s about it. I don’t know why I even gave it two stars. I guess I’m feeling generous.



    I read that this book was written in a month. Sounds about right.” – Kristen

  • “Oh boy how to begin? This book is garbage! Utter garbage. I’m sorry, this review is literally better written than this book. Don’t waste your money. Also don’t buy books go to a library they’re dying.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Daughter disappointed dont know why” – Amazon Customer

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

I love my Harper Voyager edition of Fahrenheit 451. It’s gorgeous! And it contains a really interesting introduction (yes, I still read those), written by Ray Bradbury for the 50th anniversary. In it, he describes how he wrote the entire book in the typewriter room of his local library. It cost him 10 cents per hour to use the machine, and the earliest draft cost him $9.80 to write, over the course of nine days. “So here, after fifty years, is Fahrenheit 451,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I’m glad that it was done.”

This edition also includes Bradbury’s afterword, and he gives some great insights into the book’s publication history. He explains the various difficulties he found in completing and publishing a book that’s ultimately about censorship. The most interesting tidbit, I thought, was this:

“A young Chicago editor, minus cash but full of future visions, saw my manuscript and bought it for four hundred and fifty dollars, all that he could afford, to be published in issues number two, three and four of his about to be born magazine. The young man was Hugh Hefner. The magazine was Playboy, which arrived during the winter of 1953/4 to shock and improve the world. The rest is history.”

Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451 afterword)

Maybe there really is something to the whole “reading Playboy for the articles” thing 😉 Anyway, if Hugh Hefner’s seal of approval doesn’t mean much to you, consider this: Barack Obama is also on record as saying that “Ray Bradbury’s gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world,”. Who can argue with praise that high?

Fahrenheit 451 is indeed widely regarded as the best of Bradbury’s works. It’s set in an unspecified city (probably somewhere in the American mid-West) at an unspecified time in the future (probably sometime after 1960). The story follows a fireman, Guy Montag, who becomes disillusioned with his job. See, in Montag’s world, firemen don’t put out fires – they burn books.



The plot kicks off when Montag meets Clarisse, his teenage neighbour and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who spouts a bunch of free-thinking hippie-dippie bullshit as they walk home together each day. Then, one day, she disappears without explanation. On that basis alone, pretty much, Montag decides to up-end his entire life. The next time he’s called upon to burn books, a stash discovered in the home of a sweet old lady, he nicks one. He wants to see what all the fuss is about for himself.

(That old lady decides to stay with her books, by the way, even as the flames rise and she is burned to death. She’s the real hero of this story, tbh.)

Montag chucks a sickie the next day, and contemplates a change in career. His wife is not impressed in the slightest; she needs him to keep bringing in the Benjamins so she can buy a new flat-screen TV. Montag’s boss shows up, ostensibly to bust his balls for faking a case of gastro, but they end up having a D&M about the true history of how books came to be banned. When the boss leaves, Montag shows his wife the contraband he’s hiding in the roof, and she freaks out even harder. He wants to have a go at reading them (against his wife’s stern advice), so he reaches out to an English professor he met years ago, Faber, and convinces the old guy to help him.

Now, here’s where Montag gets really stupid: he starts flashing his stash of stolen books around in front of his wife’s friends. Understandably, this gives her the shits, and Montag is pretty much on the couch for life at this point. One of her friends tips off the authorities, and Montag’s boss shows up, this time in the firetruck, and commands Montag to burn down his own house. Montag’s all “yeah, okay”, and he does it… but he also knocks out all his co-workers and kills his boss with a flamethrower. That is the final fucking straw for Mrs Montag, and she leaves him to fondle his books on his lonesome.



Montag’s a bit slow on the uptake, but these developments are enough to finally get it through his skull that he Done Fucked Up(TM). Unfortunately, that realisation dawns at the same time that his bad decision making starts paying off. He runs, floating himself down a river, and meets up with a group of drifters. They’ve got this whole keep-literacy-alive-cabal thing going on, and they’ve all memorised books as an act of rebellion against the state. While everyone sits around swapping stories, war is declared on the city from which Montag has just escaped. They can’t do much but sit there, watching bombers fly over-head and drop explodey-things miles away. Everyone, except the drifters, bites the dust.

They’re pretty nonchalant about their narrow escape, however. They sit down to have dinner (seriously, no wonder they were exiled), and listen to their leader give a lecture about phoenixes and mirrors and what not. Then, they all pick up sticks and head back towards the city under the guise of “rebuilding”. (I’m pretty sure they were all dudes, so they might encounter some problems with the re-populating bit, but no one mentions that particular elephant in the room and the book ends without another word about it).

I must say – and I realise how uncool this is to admit – I didn’t care for Fahrenheit 451. On paper, the premise is compelling and I dig it, but the writing seems like a messy patchwork, as though Bradbury was trying to emulate six different authors at once. It’s got a real young adult vibe, which is probably why it’s so popular as a prescribed high-school read. I probably would have got a lot more out of it if I’d read it for the first time back then. As it stands, for present-day me, it was just… meh. Another one that didn’t live up to the hype. Bradbury perhaps just didn’t spend enough time or give himself enough space to do his great premise justice in the prose.

He had plenty of material to work with, after all. He was inspired by the destruction of the Library Of Alexandria, horrified by Nazi book burnings and Stalin’s Great Purge, and nostalgic for the Golden Age of Radio (he probably listened to Video Killed The Radio Star on repeat for years). Bradbury saw new forms of media as a threat to literacy and books, as though mass media would cause us all to forget how to read. Montag’s wife and her vapid friends were basically his way of foreshadowing the Kardashians. Usually, when we talk about Fahrenheit 451, it’s in the context of a cautionary tale against state-based censorship, but Bradbury did his best to play down those elements, especially later in life; he was hell-bent on retrofitting his mass-media-is-evil message into his best-known work.



Are you ready for a heaping serve of irony? Fahrenheit 451 was subjected to serious expurgation by its publisher not long after it was first released. Ballantine Books released the “Bal-Hi Edition” 1967, targeted at the high-school students with whom they realised it had become popular. They censored words like “hell”, “damn”, and “abortion”, amending seventy-five passages all told. At first, they published both the censored and the uncensored versions side-by-side, but by 1973 only the censored version was being re-printed. Bradbury didn’t even know about any of this until 1979, when one of his friends showed him an expurgated copy. I’d imagine he hit the roof harder than it has ever been hit before, and someone at Ballantine got fired (maybe a lot of someones).

By 1980, they were back to publishing the original, uncensored version. Bradbury has since referred to the practice as “manuscript mutilation”, so I think he held onto that grudge for a good, long while. While the reinstatement of the original text is undoubtedly a win in the battle against censorship, it’s meant that the book has been subject to multiple instances of banning and redaction in schools and libraries. What does it take to convince yourself that banning a book about censorship is a good idea? Smh…

But not everyone’s that silly, and plenty of very clever people have really loved Bradbury’s magnum opus. In 1954, Fahrenheit 451 won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award In Literature. Thirty years later, in 1984, it won the Prometheus “Hall Of Fame” award. And then again, twenty years after that, it won a “Retro” Hugo Award (one of only six Best Novel Retro Hugos ever given). Fahrenheit 451 has also been adapted a few times over. Bradbury himself published a stage-play version of the story in 1979, and (despite his apparent objection to mass media) helped develop an interactive computer version of the game based on the book in 1984. More recently, HBO released a television film of the novel, which revived interest in its timely message.



Anyway, here’s my tl;dr summary: a middle-aged straight white guy in a dystopian future burns books for a living, until he meets a seventeen-year-old hottie and decides to have a mid-life crisis. *shrugs* I know it’s not a popular opinion, but I really wasn’t that fussed on it. I think Fahrenheit 451 is great for high schoolers, and its premise is fascinating, but unfortunately the writing itself just doesn’t live up to the hype. I’ll the shelving this one on my good-to-have-read-so-I-don’t-have-to-pretend-I-did-anymore shelf, and moving right along.

P.S. Almost everyone knows this already, but I figured I’d tack it on to the end here, just in case you missed it: Fahrenheit 451 got its title from a conversation Bradbury had with a fire-fighter about the temperature at which book paper burns. There was a bit of a miscommunication, though; 451 degrees Fahrenheit is actually the temperature at which paper spontaneously ignites (i.e., starts to burn without exposure to a flame). Book burning, of the type depicted in Bradbury’s story, actually occurs at a much lower temperature. But why let the truth get in the way of a good title, eh? I got more cool bookish trivia here, if you want to check it out.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Fahrenheit 451:

  • “If you haven’t read it,you better.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Makes kids hate reading!” – j busby
  • “Only got half way through, was a downer burned books?” – KAREN K. FOOTE
  • “Literary sorts probably jerk off to books like this, but frankly it was just disjointed, poorly-constructed, lazy plagiarism of “1984”. Reads like an elementary student wrote it, to be frank.” – James Potter
  • “this is probably the worst book ever. not only is it horrible, the plot is awful. they are wasting their time burning other books when this is the book they should burning. would not recommend this to anyone” – Alex
  • “Very much the American 1984… and I don’t mean that in a good way. While Orwell’s work is subtle, entertaining, intelligent and incredibly powerful, Fahrenheit 451 spoon feeds you it’s message like a patronising primary school teacher.
    
It leaves no room for interpretation or thought and comes across as a 14 year old’s attempt to write something clever, rather than bringing forth any original or interesting insight. Worse than this though, it fails to be entertaining, and being entertaining, even in a novel with a message (even one as simple as “doing bad things is bad”, which is what 451’s amounts to) should be the primary aim.
    
The writing style is convoluted and childish, the story containing zero original concepts, and the whole thing is just rather uninspiring. I strongly suspect the only reason this book gained so much attention is because of the nationality of its author, as it is perhaps the only American title tackling government in a way unrelated to race or sexism.

    

In short, if you’re considering reading this, don’t. Bradbury is to Orwell what a wet turd is to a filet mignon, so go with the latter. If you’ve already read Orwell’s works then don’t bother with 451, it doesn’t even verge on the same calibre.” – Amazon Customer

  • “There was writing throughout the entire book” – Taylor
  • “This book sucks so much. It is the worst, most pretentious piece of crap I have ever read. I had to read it for school and I couldn’t even finish this poorly written atrocious piece of crap. If this book had a face, I’d punch it in the balls. Zero stars.” – Tyra Howell

An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro: maybe you’ve heard of him? He got the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017, and is widely considered one of the most celebrated contemporary fiction writers in the world today. Seriously, this guy’s resume is unbelievable: four Booker nominations (and a win), the Time Novel Of The Year in 2005, the Costa Book Of The Year (back when they were still called the Whitbreads), he was knighted even! And yet, this book is far from his most popular. I’d go so far as to say it’s the least-known of his entire back catalogue. An Artist Of The Floating World was pretty near impossible to find in second-hand book stores, but I’m glad I persisted.

An Artist Of The Floating World was first published in 1986. I’ll confess to some trepidation when I picked it up. First off, I assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) that it was another fictionalised account of WWII; in fact, it’s set in Japan after the surrender. Secondly, I assumed – with the Nobel Prize and everything else in Ishiguro’s trophy cabinet – that it would be a Very Smart(TM) book (i.e., dense to the point of unreadable). And, once again, not so! It was very accessible, right from the beginning, even without having an intimate knowledge of the time period and setting.

Its title is taken from a literal translation of the Japanese word Ukiyo-e, referring to the art of printmaking, “an artist living in a changing world”. This refers to the narrator, Masuji Ono, an ageing painter who has lived through the seismic shifts of a world war (and we all know how that worked out in his neck of the woods). The novel depicts Ono’s struggle to accept responsibility for his past. An Artist Of The Floating World reminded me of Mrs Dalloway, actually. The action itself only takes place on four separate days (over the course of a year and a bit, 1948-50), but with all of his digressions and trains of thought, the reader gets a much richer story over a much longer time period. That said, it’s a lot more readable than Mrs D, and as such I got a lot more out of it.



Alright, I’ll stop being so vague, here’s the story: prior to WWII, Ono was a promising artist, but he shit all over the traditions of his master and took instead to creating propagandistic art for the far-right political groups that were gathering strength in Japan at the time. He even became a police informer, playing a very active role in an ideological witch-hunt that saw other artists (his contemporaries and colleagues) sought out and shut down by the authorities.

Then, of course, after WWII his actions weren’t looked upon so kindly by the broader Japanese community. With the collapse of Imperial Japan, Ono is widely discredited, considered a traitor who contributed to the country being “led astray”, and the people he once denounced are restored. All of this plays out for the reader through Ono’s memories. At times, it looks like he’s coming to acknowledge his errors in judgement, the role he played in the war effort, and the rightful condemnation he’s now receiving. He never says it outright (that would be too easy, and no fun!), but it’s the vibe he gives off, y’know?

Alas, by the time he gets around to describing a fourth and final day, in June 1950, he’s done a full one-eighty. He goes right back to Cognitive Dissonance Mountain, denying his wrongdoing and refusing point-blank to change his point of view.



Ishiguro really cleverly manipulates the first-person point of view, using the unreliable narrator trope to great effect. He never tells us directly that Ono is high on his own fumes, but he still makes it abundantly clear to the reader that Ono is fallible, in a way that makes you cautious but not entirely disbelieving. Take, for instance, the way that Ono quotes others’ admiration and indebtedness to him, and yet a scene of horrible police brutality as a result of his dibber-dobbering (for which he explicitly takes no responsibility, natch, despite the victim’s later rejection of his apologetic overtures) tells a completely different story. Ono describes the technique and craft of his paintings, mentioning their content only in passing, even though the propaganda is crucial to the reader’s understanding of his story. Ishiguro managed to cram in a bunch of other great stuff as well, even through Ono’s foggy lens; there was a really interesting exploration of the changing roles of women, and the changing nature of marriage, in post-war Japan that I quite enjoyed. It was brilliantly done. He probably deserved that Nobel, eh?

On the whole, An Artist Of The Floating World was a very pleasant surprise. I think it would be a worthwhile addition to my list of award-winning books that you should read. If you liked Memoirs Of A Geisha, you need to put this one on your to-be-read list (in fact, just to be safe, put it right at the top – trust me!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of An Artist Of The Floating World:

  • “Well written. Every sentence perfect. Nuanced depiction of post-war Japan. There is no there there. A forced read.” – Kerry
  • “Very disappointing to receive a book advertised as a hardback edition and get this. BOO” – MJ
  • “Boring. Unconvincing characters. The only redeeming feature is a fictional portrayal of post war Japan.” – Amazon Customer
  • “like it” – Bette
  • “I found it quite boring, the stilted Japanese mannerisms and language, people having conversations where they talk in the third person and never, ever say what they mean. Yes, I know there is all this hidden context etc etc. The main theme of the book, this guy’s big dark secret from the war years didn’t turn out to be all that big a deal anyway.” – ANDREW DRAPER


The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do

You’d be forgiven for picking The Happiest Refugee thinking you’re going to get a light-hearty folksy anecdote from one of Australia’s most cheerful comedians. Indeed, there are plenty of chuckles to be had, but Anh Do’s life hasn’t all been smooth sailing (that is the most awful attempt at a joke I’ve ever made, you’ll see why in a minute, but it’s my blog so I’m leaving it in). I grew up watching Do in televised comedy festival galas and on TV shows like Thank God You’re Here, but I had very little idea about his background before I read his book. So, strap in, folks: this is one hell of a story.

The blurb probably sums it up best:

“Anh Do nearly didn’t make it to Australia. His entire family came close to losing their lives as they escaped from war-torn Vietnam in an overcrowded boat. But nothing – not murderous pirates, nor the imminent threat of death by hunger, disease, or dehydration as they drifted for days – could quench their desire to make a better life in the country they had dreamed about.”

The Happiest Refugee (2010)

That’s right: Anh Do is one of those “boat people” our government has been trying to make us fear for the last decade or so. I’ll tell you right now that I want to shove a copy of this book into the hands of everyone who has ever purchased a “Fuck Off, We’re Full” sticker.

Do was born in Vietnam in 1977, and his family fled to Australia in 1980. The blurb neither over- nor under-sells the horror of their journey. They were attacked by two different bands of pirates, who stole their engines, their jewellery, and pretty much everything else worth taking. One oddly benevolent pirate in the second crew threw a gallon of water on board as they were leaving, which was all that saved the family from dehydration. They were eventually rescued by a German merchant ship.

Now, as Do tells it, his father was only twenty-fucking-five when he packed his entire family (his wife, sons, aunts, uncles, and cousins) onto that leaky boat and took them to sea. There were forty of them, all told, on that fishing boat, just nine and a half meters long and two meters wide. Do Snr captained it out to open water, fixing the back-up engine with a rubber thong and basically running the whole operation, all while he was three years younger than I am now – mind blowing!



Because this is real life, Do’s father – brave as he was in his youth – is not perfect, and Do is really frank about their relationship, including periods of (literally) violent antipathy. His honesty impressed me to no end; when it’s your job to make people laugh, it must be especially tough to tell them about the time you grabbed a knife from the kitchen, prepared to stab your drunken father who was threatening your terrified mother. Their rocky relationship, and the steps forwards and backwards across the course of Do’s life and career, is a central part of his story, and as heart-wrenching as it can be, it’s all told with his characteristic and eternal optimism.

Do’s message seems to be this: work your arse off, and smile, and everything will turn out okay. Powered by elbow-grease alone, he made it through school and university (Business/Law at UTS), forged a decent career as a comedian and actor, pivoted into art (he’s been twice-nominated for the Archibald Prize) and writing, and he’s now raising a happy family with his wonderful wife, a million miles away from the life of poverty and peril that surely awaited him in post-war Vietnam. “I’ve always found that if you apply yourself at the right time with the right intensity, you can accomplish just about anything,” he says on page 113.



The Happiest Refugee has won more awards than you can poke a stick at – including the 2011 Australian Book Of The Year. Like The White Mouse, it’s hardly a literary coup (he’s a comedian, not a creative writing grad), but it’s a cracking yarn nonetheless. It’s one to read when you need a little optimism in your life. I feel like I’ve just met Do in a bar, and had an incredible chat about his incredible life over a few beers. And I couldn’t help but notice it doesn’t have a single one-star review on Amazon! You can’t get higher praise than that!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Happiest Refugee:

  • “I don’t want to fill this out. I just want to close out and start my next reading. Very annoying.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Never read a better book in my life and I’ve read thousands” – craig reynolds
  • “Good immigrant story” – Reading Granny
  • “Top story, top bloke.” – Tezza41
  • “Really long and absolutely great. It just went on and on but you wanted it to,” – Jesse Crisp

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

How often do you read a book where the main character dies 17 times? I’d wager not often, especially if you rule out any sci-fi or fantasy elements. Here, we have no time machines, no medical miracles, and no religious resurrections. Life After Life tells the life stories of Ursula Todd, a girl born on 11 February 1910. It takes the reader through all the twists and turns that her life could have taken, and shows how differently things could have turned out. Cool, eh?

Now, I was a little disappointed to realise that I had, unintentionally, picked up another fictionalised WWII narrative (how many can there BE on the List?). I’ll tell you up-front that I probably would have enjoyed Life After Life and its unique structure more if it had been placed against a different backdrop; I’m starting to get a bit weary with WWII re-tellings. That said, it was still a very interesting read, and it gave me plenty to sink my teeth into. I think the premise is best summed up by the blurb:

“During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of changes to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?”

So, in Ursula’s first “life”, she is strangled by her umbilical cord. Next, she survives her birth into a middle-class Buckinghamshire family, but later dies, drowning at sea. Then, she lives a little longer, only to fall to her death from the roof, where she was trying to retrieve a toy.

I’m going to state the bleeding obvious (even though it took an embarrassingly long time for it to dawn on me as I was reading): a 600-page story about a girl who gets to live her life over and over again until she gets it right… well, it gets a bit repetitive. More than a bit, actually: before I was a quarter of the way through, I’d lost track of the Ursula Death Toll. She’d died at least three times from influenza alone. The sequence repeats itself again and again, but Ursula seems mostly unaware (unlike the reader, who is painfully aware). She just gets an odd sense of foreboding now and then, when she approaches a point where she died in a previous life. It’s like playing a video game again and again, but completely forgetting the experience of having played it before; your subconscious tells you “hang on, there might be a bad guy behind that bush”, and you get a little further each time without really knowing it.

Atkinson doesn’t really address the reader’s logical questions about this repetitive cycle, except to hint at it through Usurla’s therapist. In one of her lives, as a child, she pushed her housekeeper down the stairs. This caused her mother to (quite rightly) question her sanity, and send her to a shrink. The good doc weaves in and out of the stories and lives, always spouting wise shit about reincarnation but stopping just short of giving any real answers.


Ursula’s first crack at her adult life, having finally survived her whole childhood, is pretty miserable: she is traumatised by a rape that she experienced in her teens (resulting in an unwanted pregnancy and an illegal abortion), and she finds herself trapped in an oppressive marriage. Her husband kills her when she tries to escape. In her next life, she ends up on a different path by aggressively defending herself and fending off her rapist in the first instance, which I found really gross. It seemed to imply that rape survivors can be “saved” from their trauma if they just try hard enough. Sorry, Atkinson, but you lose points from that.

A somewhat random storyline pops up a few times, in different lives, where Ursula’s neighbour (a young girl called Nancy) is raped and murdered by a child molester. On a couple of occasions, Ursula uses her foreboding former-life Spidey Sense to prevent it from happening, but the threat is never really explored or explained. I’m guessing Atkinson describes it further in the sequel (A God In Ruins, published two years later and focusing on the story of Ursula’s brother). I wasn’t a huge fan of that, either; it seemed like a bit of a ploy to get readers to buy the next book.

Anyway, later iterations of Ursula’s life see her experience WWII from multiple perspectives, mostly the Blitz in London but also once from Hitler’s compound in Germany. Sometimes she’s a blast victim, sometimes she works for the War Office, sometimes she volunteers as a rescuer, sometimes she has a baby with a Nazi. This is where I do give Atkinson credit: it’s certainly not a one-sided book, and Ursula’s fear of the Allied bombings and her love for her daughter is just as emotive when she’s on the “other” side. And I should mention here, I also loved Atkinson’s use of language. She had a real knack for brilliant similes, my favourite being the corpse that was picked up by his arms and legs only to “split apart like a Christmas cracker”.


I kept hoping/waiting for a big “twist” that never really came. I’m not sure if that’s my fault as a reader (I love plot twists that knock me on my arse, like this one!), or whether Atkinson kept setting things up that never quite came to fruition. I thought Ursula’s long-lost cousin (born to her aunt and adopted in Germany) would turn out to be Hitler. Or perhaps Ursula’s father was actually the murderous child molester. There seemed to be a lot of those types of loose ends that could have been turned into something really interesting, but alas. If you’re a fan of the shock-twist-ending, this isn’t the book for you – none of that shit happens, I’m afraid.

Towards the end of Life After Life, Ursula’s Spidey Sense has grown much stronger, and she starts to recall more definite details from previous lives. She uses this knowledge to try and prevent WWII by (of course) killing Hitler. The whole book builds up to this moment, and yet we never actually find out what happens! Ursula shoots Hitler, but his posse retaliates quickly, and she dies almost immediately after firing the gun. Every time Ursula dies, Atkinson tells us “darkness falls” (ahem-CLICHE-ahem), and the reader’s experience of the timeline stops with her death. So, maybe killing Hitler worked, maybe it didn’t – only Atkinson knows.


So, on the whole, Life After Life is murky. It’s full of plot-lines that aren’t completely resolved, and kind of appear and disappear at Atkinson’s will. The philosophical questions raised by Ursula’s endless Sliding Doors moments aren’t really answered. We don’t even know why or how her life happens over and over again. It’s not fantasy, it’s not science-fiction… it’s a really hard one to classify. I guess I’d say it straddles historical and speculative fiction, right in the middle of the Venn diagram between them. I think Life After Life is a good one for book clubs, because it will undoubtedly spark a lot of debate. It’s hard not to start thinking about your own life in a butterfly-effect-y kind of way (“maybe it’s a good thing I’m running 20 minutes late because in another punctual life I’d get hit by a bus!”, and that kind of thing). Still, there was enough in this book that didn’t sit right with me, and I won’t be seeking out the sequel.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Life After Life:

  • “What a mess. One of the worst books I’ve read in a long time. Writer needed to pick a story and stick with it.” – Carol J. Tady
  • “TOO MUCH.” – Kathryn J. Byerly
  • “This book has all the makings of a fabulous alternative fiction or something, but ultimately all the wonderful vignettes of a life endlessly repeated (and truly the writing and imagery are superb!), got tedious because there was never a real resolution. Something always went wrong until suddenly it didn’t, but by then the book is over and we have no clue what went right and what actually happened.

    This book was either far too long or far too short, I’m not sure which.” – Kindle Customer

  • “The author actually knows English. Imagine that! She is funny and holds the readers attention even though there is a real story.” – Clint
  • “repetitive by nature, boring by design” – Sophia
  • “We tried to do a book club and this was the first book…. This book was so bad, the book club died. This book single handedly killed our book club. And darkness fell.
    Deaths were tedious, ending each chapter with “darkness fell” made a very good inside joke among the cancelled book club but a terrible way to get your readers to take you seriously, I tried to read the book three times and just couldn’t get passed all the deaths of the main character to get to anything substantial…actually the worst book I have ever tried to read.” – Carly Stewart



The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Another confession from the life of the would-be booklover: I haven’t kept up with the Man Booker prize winners. In fact, The Narrow Road To The Deep North was my very first. The Booker is pretty much the most prestigious international literary award that a book can win, so I had high expectations for Richard Flanagan’s sixth novel…

From the blurb: “August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever.” So, we can tell right from the outset that The Narrow Road To The Deep North ticks a bunch of boxes: historical WWII novel, love affair, heavy themes, horrific setting, a sliding doors moment… and, to top it all off, in the Acknowledgements section Flanagan says he was inspired by his father’s experiences as a Japanese POW, so we can probably tick off “write what you know” as well. These are all the criteria for a Man Booker, right?

OK, I’ll stop being sassy. (Just kidding, I can’t turn it off.)

It’s the story of Dorrigo, a POW doctor who can’t stop obsessing over a few lusty weeks with his aunt-in-law back home. It’s another jumpy timeline, which I didn’t love, especially given that in this one there were no helpful year/place markings at the beginning of any of the chapters; the reader is expected to just bloody well figure it out as they read (even though the chapter might be happening ten years after or thirty years before the one preceding). Flanagan really wanted the reader to work for it. He didn’t even bother with inverted commas around his dialogue; I know it’s “artistic” to do that, but it always strikes me as pretentious and try-hard. Hmph.


Anyway, The Narrow Road To The Deep North spirals out around one particularly horrific day on the Burma Railway in August 1943. Some chapters build up to it through Dorrigo’s pre-war childhood and courtship with his wife, while other chapters focus on the post-war lives of Dorrigo, his fellow prisoners, and his prison guards. So, yeah, it’s kind of sprawling and epic; the timeline runs to about a century all up.

(Oh, and you might think that the title refers to the railway they were building, but actually Flanagan borrowed it from a 17th century haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō, whose book “Oku no Hosomichi” translates roughly to “Narrow Road To The Interior” or “The Narrow Road To The Deep North”.)

From the beginning, the book is kind of a mixed bag. Some passages are really great and poignant and immersive, while others seem really over-wrought and ridiculous. The Romeo and Juliet-esque plot twist was a bit much (both Dorrigo and his aunt-in-law, the one with whom he was having the affair before he went off to war, believe the other to be dead, and this little miscommunication fucks up their entire lives). I’m not a romantic, so their whole tragic love story really didn’t “move” me in the way I think Flanagan intended. All the chapters set in Australia basically amounted to a bunch of bellyaching about how Dorrigo really enjoyed fucking women who weren’t his wife. That just wasn’t fun for me, and – taking off my sassy-pants for a minute – I’m not sure it makes for good literature.


On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the sections focusing on the POWs on the railway. That sounds twisted, I know, but those parts were straightforward, no bullshit, and totally gripping. Flanagan did not sugar-coat the realities of war at all, and for me that’s huge points in his favour. There were no ellipses, no fading to black: he described the full physical horror and indignity suffered by the POWs, not to mention their mental anguish, in complete and gory detail. So, as I’m sure you can guess, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is not one for readers with sensitive stomachs (or souls) – I’m a tough bitch, and even I felt queasy in places.

So, it covers off two major themes: the effects of war, and the nature of love. They’re pretty lofty themes, and a lot to tackle in a single book (which is probably why it seemed that Flanagan did the former so much better than the latter). To be quite frank, I think Flanagan would have been better off just chopping off the entire first third off the book, getting rid of it altogether. The story wouldn’t have lost anything that wasn’t reiterated and reinforced later on anyway. It’d be like cutting off a gangrenous limb (the way Dorrigo had to do on the Burma Railway, incidentally).

It’s a better book than All The Light We Cannot See, I’ll give it that; in fact,  it’s probably one of the better historical WWII fiction books I’ve read in that it highlights quite well the ongoing and intergenerational effects of war (setting it apart from the ones that end on V Day). I suppose I can even (begrudgingly) see why it beat out We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the Man Booker in 2014; it’s a more “literary” book in that snooty, elitist sense… but I know which one I’d rather read, and which one I’d recommend more highly. Can you guess? 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Narrow Road To The Deep North:

  • “I picked 4 because of the start of the book. It tired in well, but took a bit to catch my attention. It was dreary and sad and I enjoyed it.” – Megan Vandewall
  • “Why can’t writers just tell a story, instead of trying to be clever? I’m not sure Flanagan actually has a decent story to tell, but this is a piece of junk.” – ggh
  • “The protagonist is an unappealing narcissist with a sophomoric attitude towards love.” – S. Luke
  • “Had trouble reading and staying interested in it. Too much narrative.” – saunabear
  • “Horrible pictures in my mind! Don’t need any more examples of man’s ability to be cruel and stupid. I’m going to go hug my cats.” – Diane Denham
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