Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies (page 1 of 2)

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The path to equality and representation for women is paved with the works of women like Edith Wharton. The Age Of Innocence was her twelfth novel, published in 1920. It went on to win the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The committee had initially agreed to give the award to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, but the judges wound up rejecting his book on political grounds… making Wharton the first woman to win, in the award’s history. She had the hustle, she fought the good fight, and she won in the end, which makes me so damn happy. Plus, The Age Of Innocence is one of Roxane Gay’s favourite books, so…

The most important thing to know when it comes to The Age Of Innocence is that you need to guard against being fooled by its subtlety. On its face, it’s a slow-moving society story of upper-class New York City at the end of the 19th century, but its critique and commentary goes so much deeper than that! You’ve really got to keep your wits about you as you’re reading, because it’s all so subtle – it’s a lot like Jane Austen’s Emma, in that regard. You’ll fall into the trap of thinking you can let your mind drift for a second, because Wharton’s just describing the carriages in the street or something, but next thing you know you’ve missed a crucial insight into the politics of this Gilded Age society, and you’ve got to go back and read it all again (as I did, on more than one occasion). It’s not a fast-paced story, but a lot is communicated very quickly, if that makes any sense. Even the title itself, four simple words, is an ironic comment (with multiple layers) on the polished veneer of “society” in New York, given its nefarious undercurrents and machinations. So, Wharton don’t play, people: strap in.

The Age Of Innocence starts with Newland Archer, rich boy heir to one of New York City’s “best” families, all set to marry the naive pretty-young-thing May Welland. Newland’s at the opera, fantasising about how wonderful his upper-crust life is going to be… until his fiance’s beautiful cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, shows up, and it all goes straight to hell.

The Countess is “exotic” and “worldly” (the number of euphemisms they all find for “slutty” is amazing), everything Newland’s fiance is not. He quickly announces his engagement to their families, figuring that the declaration would “lock him in” and get the Countess out of his head, but (as I’m sure you can guess) it does diddly-squat to temper his arousal.


The Countess announces that she wants to divorce her husband, and her family freaks the fuck out. This is the 1870s, after all, so divorce is a very dirty word. Newland, being a lawyer and a friend of the family (a cousin-in-law to be, ahem!), is charged with convincing her to just stay married to the creepy old Polish guy that beat her and locked her in a closet (or something like that, the reasons for the marital discord aren’t made all that clear). Newland manages to convince her, but it’s tough going; he keeps getting distracted by his boner.

When he finally gets his hand off it, he marries May, but (surprise, surprise) he’s fucking miserable. He works up the nerve to leave her, with a view to following the Countess back to Europe, but when he tries to do his “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, May interrupts him and tells him she’s pregnant. And the Countess knows – May told her a couple of weeks ago (even though she “wasn’t sure” – I guess they didn’t have early-detection pee sticks back then?). The implication, and you might have to read it a couple times over to pick it up, is that May suspected the affair all along and magicked up this pregnancy to put an end to it.

Newland pretty much just gives up on life at that point, and anything resembling joy. He settles in for a lifetime of baby-making and boring New York dinner parties. The novel concludes twenty-six years later, after May dies and Newland takes his son to Paris. The kid, completely innocently, had heard that his mother’s cousin lived there, and he arranges for them to pay her a visit – the cousin being… the Countess! But don’t worry, there’s no romantic reunion happily-ever-after bullshit here; Newland is too chicken to see his former paramour, so he just sends his son up to visit while he waits outside. The end.



Wharton later wrote of The Age Of Innocence that it allowed her to escape back to her childhood in America, a world that she believed had been destroyed by the First World War (a fair call, that particular conflict really fucked shit up on a number of levels). Generally, it’s thought to be a story about the struggle to reconcile the old with the new, and Wharton stops just short of landing on one side or the other. In fact, even though it’s dripping with social commentary and satire, Wharton’s book doesn’t outright condemn pre-war New York society. It’s like she recognises its ridiculousness, but wants to reinforce that, well, it wasn’t all bad. Basically she’s saying that the past was just okay, but the present isn’t all get-out either. Seems fair enough, no?

This book really resonated with me in ways I didn’t expect. You’d think we’ve have come so far as a society over the past century that the behaviours and mores of late 19th century New York would be virtually unrecognisable. But take this, for example: the scene where Newland is trying to convince the Countess not to go ahead with her divorce is eerily reminiscent of the remonstrances received by people who came forward as part of the #metoo movement.

“Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the newspapers – their vileness! It’s all stupid and narrow and unjust – but one can’t make over society.” – p. 96

Plus, there’s a really interesting dichotomy between the two primary female characters (May and the Countess – the latter being a character I once described as one of the best bad women in fiction). Of course, upon its initial publication, reader sentiment was pretty heavily weighted in May’s favour. After all, she was the good little wife, standing by her man and making babies and all that. But in the intervening century, the tables have turned, and now she’s often read as a manipulative bitch who basically trapped a man in a loveless marriage through pregnancy. She’s the woman all the Men’s Rights Activists warn us about. On the other hand, the Countess has become the poster child for The Woman Question and the constraints of gender roles for women in society. To be honest, though, I think they’re both alright; Newland is the one who’s deserving of our disdain, the sooky little fuck-boy…

Anyway, even if you’re not into all this social commentary stuff, The Age Of Innocence is still worth a read, for Wharton’s mastery of the craft of writing alone. Her subtlety, her insight, her cleverness – it’s all sublime. And the story itself isn’t half-bad, if you’re paying close attention. My tl;dr summary is this: a bunch of WASPs in old-timey New York pretend that a bloke isn’t having an affair with his wife’s slutty cousin (even though he very obviously is), and he stays with his wife after he knocks her up (because he’s such a swell guy). It’s a challenging read if you’re used to fast-paced action and sparse prose, but it’s well worth the effort.


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Age Of Innocence:

  • “Excellent book, as relevant today as when it was first published. The song that comes to mind is Dolly Parton’s Jolene.” – Amazon Customer
  • “There’s no violence, no sex and nothing to hold your interest …” – SMMc
  • “#richvictorianpeopleproblems” – Taylor
  • “I do not consider this an annotated book. It only has a few definitions.” – Susan B. Banbury
  • “We purchased one for my mother when she had shingles and was in incredible pain. It helped her, and she raved about it so much that we bought three more! I have arthritis throughout my body, and I’m getting the best sleep I have in years.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I found this very aggravating to read. I just wanted to grab Newland Archer and shake some sense into him. Written by a woman who made the male characters look stupid.” – Jim W
  • “Poor plot and well written” – Marilyn Austin

 

The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene

The End Of The Affair was published in 1951. It is the fourth (and last) in a series of explicitly Catholic novels written by British author Graham Greene… but you wouldn’t know it if you only read the first half. After all, it kicks off with a highly illicit adulterous affair. Hardly the stuff of great Catholic morality tales, eh?

So, let’s get all the salacious details out of the way: yes, The End Of The Affair is based on an affair of Greene’s own (authors just never tire of writing what they know, do they?). He was sticking it to one Lady Catherine Walston, and it ended badly, as the lover affairs that inspire great art often do. The British edition of the novel was dedicated to “C”, but over the pond, a little further from home, the American edition was dedicated to “Catherine”. That’s one way to make your mark on history, I suppose…

Greene based the protagonist, Bendrix, on himself, and Lady C was represented by the character Sarah. They met through Bendrix’s friend (and Sarah’s husband), Henry Miles. The fact that Bendrix is cutting his mate’s grass tells you pretty much everything you need to know about him. Being, as it is, The End Of The Affair, you get relatively few details about the affair itself – it’s over before the story even begins. Sarah had suddenly and unexpectedly broken off her affair with Bendrix some time before, but he is still racked with jealousy and rage. So, he hires a private investigator (as you do, ahem!) to figure out what the fuck happened. Bendrix is basically stalking his ex by proxy, and it’s every bit as creepy as it sounds.


Through flashbacks and vignettes, we learn that Bendrix and Sarah fell in love quickly – it was the kind of affair that burns bright and fast – and he was increasingly frustrated by her refusal to divorce her husband (an impotent and amiable civil servant). Bendrix and Sarah were engaging in a little afternoon delight when a bomb went off (oh, yeah, there was a whole world war going on in the background, by the way), and it was shortly after that incident that she left him. The private dick reads Sarah’s diary from that day – ew, gross, I hate him – and reports to Bendrix that, in the moment of the bomb blast, Sarah made a vow to God that she would cut off her adulterous affair if He would let Bendrix survive the incident. That’s where things start to get religious-y, and the story takes some weird turns.

Sarah, unsurprisingly, has a lot of internal conflict over the whole situation. She checks out a few churches, and tries real hard to get her shit together… but then she quickly dies of a lung infection. And then all this miracle-y stuff happens. I told you it takes some weird turns! The most twisted part, in my humble opinion, is that when the adultress dies, her lover moves in with her husband. Greene explains that like it’s the most natural thing in the world, but it really creeped me out. The rest of The End Of The Affair is just Bendrix trying to reconcile Sarah’s death and her supposed faith, trying to figure out whether there really is a God, yadda yadda yadda. It’s heavy stuff, but the book is really short, so there’s not a lot of time for exposition: he just has a few revelations, but stays mad. The end.


Yes, The End Of The Affair is super-short. In fact, it reads more like a long short-story than a novel. Greene did his best to address major questions about faith, religion, obsession, jealousy, and the obligations placed upon men and women in hetero relationships, in as few words as possible. It really reminded me of that TED talk about jealousy in literature, which is well worth checking out.

My tl;dr summary: The End Of The Affair is a short novel about a scorned lover’s creepy pursuit of his best mate’s wife, who dies mid-way through her conversion to Catholicism. If I had to sum the book up in a single word, I would choose “bitter”: it sounds bitter, it feels bitter, it tastes bitter on your tongue as you read it. It’s not a romantic read, and probably not one to pick up if you’re looking to restore your faith in God (or humanity, come to that), but it’s certainly an interesting cautionary tale: never dump a writer without telling him why, or chances are you’ll find yourself a character in a book like this one.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The End Of The Affair:

  • “My third time out with Greene. The guy’s a bore. The End of the Affair is  like having the Watchtower shoved at you by a Jehovah’s Witness with a really high opinion of himself.” – Fintan Ryan
  • “A boring book about people who don’t like each other very much but had an affair anyway,
    Another story of English men and women who were unable to confront their desires realistically. This is one of the reasons that I read non-fiction.” – Gordon R. Flygare
  • “I listened to this book on tape on a drive from Connecticut to Boston and tired of the man and woman constantly fighting. There was just too much drama in the car that day. I couldn’t take anymore. I haven’t fought that much with my husband over 33 years as took place within 3 hours of that car trip. Never was I so glad to get to my destination and tell the couple not to take themselves and their relationship, so seriously. Would not recommend this book on a car trip. Maybe it’s a better read.” – L. M. Keefer
  • “A woman goes to church like once and has some vague emotional experience. According to Graham Greene, this makes her a Catholic, a true religious woman. I’ve had orgasms with more depth than this novel.” – Lincott

A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

Fantasy is not my first choice for genre fiction. I really struggle to keep track when there are eight hundred different characters, who all seem to have similar names, spread across a huge world that is completely unfamiliar to me… so I was pretty hesitant cracking open A Game of Thrones. I don’t live under a rock, so of course I’m already familiar with the HBO series, and I hoped that having watched it (a couple times over, no less) would help me keep track of what was going on. And, on that note, if you’re one of those people that completely pooh-poohs the television adaptation, we’re on completely different levels. I went so far as to make a solemn vow before I started reading that I would never become one of those arseholes that interrupts every GoT conversation by saying “Have you read the books, though?”, and I fully intend to stick to that. I like the series, and I’m no elitist. So, proceed with this review at your own peril.

And a note on the title: the original publication was, indeed, called “A Game of Thrones”. It wasn’t until after the HBO series premiered in 2011, and the book soared to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List, that the publisher released this paperback tie-in edition that excluded the indefinite article. Better brand recognition, and all of that…

Anyway: A Game of Thrones is the first in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. I was pretty surprised to learn that he first started writing it back in 1991, and the debut wasn’t published until 1996. I had no idea it was that old! I know everyone bitches about how long it’s taking him to finish the sixth and seventh books in the series, but when you look at the timeline of releases so far, and how long it took him to write each one, the long delay is hardly out of character for him, so maybe we should all just back off. Whoops!

So I start reading. Before I’m fifty pages in, I’m already thinking “Yep, I’m very glad I watched the show first!”. I would have had a devil of a time following what was going on if I hadn’t. There are several points of view, and Martin switches back and forth between them super-fast, telling three different storylines simultaneously.



First, there’s Ned Stark, a Lord from the North, who is called to King’s Landing to serve as Hand of the King (the King being an old war buddy of his, if you went through what they did you’d understand). When he arrives in the southern city, he discovers that the King’s children are actually the product of an incestuous FWB thing going on between the Queen and her twin brother. (And don’t bother saying “ewww”, being disgusted by Queen Cersei and Jamie Lannister’s all-family fuck-fest is so 2011.) When Ned threatens to reveal the Queen’s secret, the King is mysteriously “killed by a boar” while hunting (read: low-key murdered), and Ned is executed as a traitor. His family arcs up, and declares war on the whole Kingdom. (Yes, this is the Land of the Great Overreaction.)

Meanwhile, further north, Ned’s bastard son has joined the league of the Night’s Watch, who protect The Wall (a giant block of ice that separates the Kingdom from the Northern wilderness). They’re there to keep out The Others, a kind of Zombie army (i.e., the “bad guys”). The Wall serves as a default penal colony, and all the undesirables from the Kingdom end up there, so it’s a pretty motley crew and not at all what the bastard expected.

And then there’s everything that’s going on Across The Narrow Sea. The Targaryens are the former royal family, ousted by now-King Robert Baratheon (the one that got boar-ed). Generations of in-breeding sent them a bit bonkers, but the two remaining kids – Viserys and Daenerys – seem to be holding up alright. Well, except that Viserys sells Daenerys in marriage, hoping that her new Dothraki (read: savage) husband will give him an army that he plans to use to re-take his throne. He’s a right prick, actually, in case you hadn’t guessed… and an impatient one, as it turns out. Daenerys’s savage husband brutally murders Viserys (is it wrong to have a “favourite murder”? I hope not, because this is mine!) because he keeps nagging him about the whole army thing. Daenerys thinks she’s home and hosed, but she has a bit of a rough trot; her husband dies, her kid dies, and she goes full bad-ass bitch and takes over the whole situation. She marshals her remaining followers and figures out how to hatch three live dragons – the throne is gon’ be hers, make no mistake. The story ends there (gasp!), with the lingering threat of a burgeoning dragon queen.


So, yes, A Game of Thrones has a really intricate and complex plot, but that’s not exactly uncommon for fantasy. The unique circumstances for this book, though, is that you’d pretty much have to be dead not to have at least some idea of what it’s all about, given the popularity of the TV show. I liked picking up on some of the interesting details that I missed in the show (like the symbolism of the stag killing the direwolf in the opening scenes). It was just enough to hold it all together for me, but – like I said – I’m damn glad I watched the show first, and I would have really struggled reading A Game of Thrones if I hadn’t.

The main recurring themes are (1) choosing between stuff (usually the people you love and some kind of honour/duty), and (2) the fuzzy distinction between good and evil. Martin himself has said:

“Having multiple viewpoints is crucial to the grayness of the characters. You have to be able to see the struggle from both sides, because real human beings in a war have all these processes of self-justification, telling ourselves why what we’re doing is the right thing.”

A Game of Thrones hardly revolutionises the fantasy genre in that regard, so I can see why die-hard fantasy fans roll their eyes at it a bit. I’m not really here for the fantasy, though, so it didn’t bother me enough to write it off entirely. And on the other side of it, you’ve got the ones that turn their noses up at anything with a popular adaptation, so you’d think that would really limit its market… but Martin seems to be doing okay regardless, so my heart doesn’t exactly break for him. In the end, I’m here for the politics, the underhanded wheeling and dealing, and he absolutely nails that aspect. If that’s not your style, there’s also a lot of internal conflict and character development to keep you entertained.

I did notice a few typos in this edition, especially towards the end – I guess the editor just got tired? It’s hard to blame him, this bad boy is several hundred pages long…

In the end, it was quite comforting to read a storyline with which I was already familiar (that doesn’t happen often with The List, given that every book is one I’ve never read before and I rarely take the time to watch TV or film adaptations). I really enjoyed A Game of Thrones… but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to someone who hasn’t already seen (and loved) the show. If you didn’t enjoy the show, you definitely shouldn’t bother with the book – what you see is what you get.


My favourite Amazon reviews of A Game of Thrones:

  • “3 of the books are printed upside down from the cover. Very disapointed.” – Alex M.
  • “I enjoyed reading the book and it made the library happy also as the replacement for a book me and my puppy damaged. The price of the book was well worth the purchase. So no complaints.” – “Ichi
  • “Not thrilled at how small they were for real other than that they are books” – Curtis G.
  • “I have had these books and still have not read them but I feel great just having them.  10/10Why did I buy these” – Alex G.
  • “After 3 pages of reading I remembered I don’t actually like reading. Love the show though.” – Stewart S. Smith
  • “Swords and Knives are cool. Liked the book.” – Richard Beck
  • “What can I say, Winter is Coming! Excellent read with the spattering of sex. (More then I like but George didn’t ask my opinion before he started writing the books)” – Hope

 

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Listen up, folks, because I’m about to drop some knowledge: If you’re going to read Little Women for the very first time, you need to find an edition – like this one, from Penguin Classics – with a decent introduction to the text. I know not everyone reads the introduction first, but I do, and if I hadn’t in this case, I would have completely missed the point. I was already pretty familiar with the story, because I loved the Winona Ryder film adaptation as a kid, but as far as literary critique goes I would have been completely adrift without a better understanding of Louisa May Alcott’s background and her motivations behind writing Little Women. (Of course, if an edition with a decent introduction isn’t forthcoming, you could always just read this review before you get started…)

Little Women was first published in 1868, and has historically been dismissed as moralising, sentimental guff. It’s “for girls”, you know? It’s only recently that Alcott’s magnum opus has been considered a valued component of the American literary canon. To fully appreciate the genius of this book, you really need to understand Alcott’s politics and the context in which the book was published. And, in addition to finding a copy with an introduction that breaks it down for you, I would strongly recommend finding a copy of the original text; there was a later edition, published in 1880, that smoothed out a lot of the sharp edges and, in so doing, refined a lot of the language and character descriptions to make them seem more “genteel”. Virtually all readers nowadays pick up the 1880 edition without realising what they’re missing out on – don’t be one of them!

So, onto all this background knowledge I keep telling you that you need: Alcott wrote Little Women at the request of her publisher, who wanted a “moral” book for young girls, with “wide appeal”. The story she came up with follows the lives of the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – as they transition into womanhood. Alcott herself was the second of four daughters, and – believe it or not – the similarities between her and Jo March don’t end there, so it’s pretty clear where she drew her inspiration. In fact, the story was so autobiographical that fans would write letters addressed to “Miss March”, and Alcott – being the good sport she was – would respond without correcting them. The first book was such a huge commercial success that readers (and Alcott’s publishers) immediately began clamouring for a sequel, so Alcott pumped out the follow-up “Good Wives” (though, it must be said, she was not a fan of that title, it was chosen by the publishers and she had no say at all). The two volumes are now sold together as a single edition, bearing the name Little Women.

Now, even though she seems like a good little woman herself, giving the publishers exactly what they wanted, Alcott is on record as having said that she would have much preferred to keep working on her own collection of short stories, which was very different in nature to the book for which she is most famous. So, why didn’t she? Well… she was hard up for cash. She wrote Little Women “in record time, for money” she said, but she hated writing it and referred to the process as “plodding away”.

She sought to address three major themes – domesticity, work, and true love – through this story of a family living in genteel poverty during the American Civil War. Alcott also effectively created the archetype of the “all-American girl”, embodying its different aspects in each of the March sisters: there’s Meg the beauty, Jo the career woman, Beth the dutiful wallflower, and Amy the romantic. The publishers wanted a story about good girls being good, but Alcott’s true message underlying the story is a little different: she’s clearly saying that virtue should be valued over wealth, and that women can overcome the constraints upon their gender through hard work and piety.

Yep, that’s right: Alcott was a feminist, and Little Women – despite its prima facie old-school values, and its controversial ending – is a deeply feminist novel. At the time of its publication, there were almost no models of non-traditional womanhood in popular media for young girls. So, Alcott took it upon herself to pitch many ideas of social change and progressive politics against the familiar backdrop of domestic life. Little Women paints a very familiar picture of the lives of girls in 19th century America, but it also legitimises their aspirations to grow beyond what is “expected” of them. So, three cheers for Alcott – way the fuck ahead of her time!

She gave the March sisters adventurous plots and storylines that had traditionally been coded as male. She wanted to normalise the ambition of women, and showcase alternatives to existing gender roles (which, at the time, were more restrictive than a damn corset). In particular, she addressed the idea that spinsters were “fringe” members of society, without power or influence. If you look closely, you’ll see that the spinsters and unmarried women are actually strong, multi-dimensional characters, the true power brokers of the New England world that she created. Alcott shat all over the idea that you needed a husband and a family to be a “good” woman, and she did so from a great fucking height.


Now, everyone who’s read the book is currently screaming at me: “But Alcott ‘saved’ Jo in the end by marrying her off! That’s not feminist!”. To that, I say that the way in which Alcott did it was so clever and subversive, I don’t blame you for missing it on the first take. Alcott did, indeed, “marry off” her heroine… but not to the dashing, Prince Charming (Laurie), who had begged for her hand time and time again. Nope! Jo instead marries the much older (and poorer!) Professor Friederich Bhaer, a far less romantic ending and one that subverted the expectations of all the young readers who had, until then, never read a love story that didn’t involve a fairytale ending. Fuck yes, Alcott – fuck yes! People who criticise this ending don’t seem to understand the precarious position in which the author found herself. She was straddling the demands of her moneybags publishers – not to mention her very pious and conservative father – as well as her own determination to write a story that upheld her own feminist values. You can’t put a 20th century feminist head on a 19th century working woman’s shoulders, and I say she did a damn good job with what she had.

“For some feminist critics, Alcott’s lifelong effort to tailor her turbulent imagination to suit the moralism of her father, the commercialism of her publishers, and the puritanism of “gray Concord”, kept her from fulfilling her literary promise. For others, Little Women itself stands as one of the best studies we have of the literary daughter’s dilemma: the tension between female obligation and artistic freedom.”

The book is full of sneaky little feminist asides. Of course, there are plenty of characters that represent the social status-quo, in keeping with the morals of the time, but the fact that Alcott managed to include her own agenda at all feels rebellious and awesome. In real life, Alcott was an active participant in the women’s suffrage movement (yay!), and also the temperance movement (boo!), so she practiced what she preached, no matter what her Daddy said. If you need any more proof that she was fighting the good fight, the wonderful introduction to my Penguin Classics edition cites her influence on some of the founding mothers of feminism as we know it today: Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, Joyce Carol Oates, and others.


So, all told, I’m really glad I read the introduction and learned all of this before I started reading the book – otherwise, I could well have fallen into the trap of disregarding Little Women as fluff. As it was, I knew exactly what to look for in the story, and I found it really interesting and enjoyable. Little Women is basically the original YA novel – sure, it can be a bit saccharine and trite at times, but no more so than any other work published around the same time, and when you look closely there are some really valuable lessons hidden away there.

That said, even though I’m calling this a Recommended read(!), I wouldn’t recommend it to teenagers. It’s much better suited to older readers, who have more developed critical thinking skills and can truly appreciate the masterful way that this simple story, about a very loving tight-knit group of sisters, makes some very important points about the role of women in society… points that we could do well to re-visit often.

Tl;dr? Make sure you look beneath the surface of Little Women, because that’s where you’ll find Alcott’s fighting feminist spirit. Onwards, ladies!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Little Women:

  • “PLEASE NOTE THAT I DID NOT ORDER THIS ITEM” – SUE
  • “I would have given it five stars if the last few chapters hadn’t been some what disappointing. The majority of the book brought me immense pleasure and pain. Enjoy. It is worthwhile. Especially if you love Jesus.” – Blodwyn
  • “It was dumb. The women acted like 5 year olds more than half of the time and the mother who stressed the importance of resources, decided to give away food. Genius.” – Matthew
  • “If you are looking for a 400+ page children’s book narrated bu an unenthusiastic female robot… LOOK NO FURTHER… YOU HAVE FOUND IT!!!!” – Amazon Customer

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

Well, it’s about time I got around to reading The Fault In Our Stars. After John Green announced the title of this, his sixth book, it immediately rose to #84 on the Amazon.com best-seller list. And that was just the title! (It’s drawn from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, by the way: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”.) He foolishly promised to personally sign each pre-order, which is how he ended up having to autograph every single copy of the first print run. He even polled the public as to what colour Sharpie he should use, and divvied up the 150,000 copies according to the proportion of the vote that each colour received. That’s peak extra, right there…

Of course, The Fault In Our Stars went on to debut at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List for Children’s Chapter Books, and it remained there for seven consecutive weeks. It’s also appeared on pretty much every other best seller list known to man, it topped the Time List of Fiction Books for 2012, and recent estimates suggest that there are over a million copies in circulation. It has become the definitive sick-lit Young Adult novel… so, like I said, it’s about bloody time I read it.

The story follows the relationship of the narrator, 16-year-old cancer patient Hazel Lancester, and her 17-year-old amputee boyfriend, Augustus Waters. They meet in a naff support group for teenagers with cancer. I appreciated Green’s skipping over all of the “life-changing diagnosis” tropes – The Fault In Our Stars is a book about living with cancer, which comes as a refreshing change of pace. However, my appreciation of the story pretty much ended there, I’m afraid.


Augustus seems to be more an assortment of affectations than an actual character. In fact, you could call him a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in a way, and it left a yucky taste in my mouth. He has this whole “I carry around cigarettes but never actually light them because it’s a metaphor” thing, and I had to forcibly restrain myself from dry heaving every time it was mentioned.

I know the legions of fans out there will hate me for this, but I really wasn’t drawn into the tragic teenage love story at all. In fact, the only parts that really drew me in were the ones about Hazel’s mother. Hazel describes one particular scene where she was in the ICU, close to death, and she overheard her mother sobbing “I won’t be a Mom anymore!”. That got me right in the feels! Maybe I’m getting old…?

All that said, I’m very aware that I’m very alone in my garbage opinion. The Fault In Our Stars has received massive critical acclaim. It was praised largely for its “humour” (ha!), its “strong characters” (double ha!), language, themes, and perspective on romantic relationships between cancer patients. The very few less-than-positive reviews I came across criticised Green’s choice of subject matter, arguing that it’s exploitative – and I can see where they’re coming from. Green would have been very well aware of the attention that his book would receive, and surely he would (should?) have considered the risk of his making real-life teenage cancer patients circus acts in the lives of his fans. Ultimately, though, it seems like he couldn’t resist the temptation to write the topic that would yank (hard!) on the maximum number of heart-strings. In that, he was definitely successful.




He sold the film rights almost straight away, and the feature film was released two years after publication. It was a huge commercial success too, grossing over $307 million worldwide (on a budget of just $12 million, no less). I watched it myself, after I’d read the book, hoping I’d enjoy the story more if I was one step removed from the teenage girl narration (a la The Hunger Games)… but no dice. It wasn’t a terrible movie, by any means, but I’d struggle to recall a single moment or performance that really stood out for me, gun to my head.

In the end, I’d say the main reason to read The Fault In Our Stars is basically just to catch-up with the rest of the world. Like Harry Potter before it, there’s a whole generation coming up behind us with a deep emotional investment in this book – it’s probably going to be the reason that some teenagers decide to study medicine, or Shakespeare, or any other number of things. If the doctor treating me in my nursing home once loved this book, I’d sure as shit like to have something to say about it, in the hopes that it’d make them like me enough to keep me alive a little longer. I’m all about the long game 😉


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Fault In Our Stars:

  • “There is literally nothing wrong with this book except for one awkward sentence about knees that I wish had been worded better.” – Amazon Customer
  • “The best part of the book is that it’s over.” – David Kim
  • “Lovely book. It’s the first time ever I was rooting for the teenagers to have sex.” – Kris Matsumoto Wong
  • “Tolerable, but not life changing” – Kenneth choi
  • “It’s basically twilight with cancer.” – janathan tatum
  • “These 1-star Amazon reviews are better written than this book….” – Lily Pop

 

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Harper Lee is pretty much my hero. Her author bio in the front of To Kill A Mockingbird lists “being alone” as a hobby. She refused most requests for public appearances and interviews from 1964 until her death in 2016. As if that weren’t enough, she refused to write an introduction to her world-changing novel, saying: “introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity…. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without a preamble.” Basically, she didn’t have time for anyone’s shit, and I respect the hell out of that.

To Kill A Mockingbird was first published in 1960, and found immediate success – far beyond Lee’s expectations! She thought it would be a short, quiet novel, and hoped only that it would be treated kindly by the handful of reviewers she thought might look it over. Since then, it has never been out of print. The cover of my edition (published by Arrow Books in 1997) says it has sold over 33 million copies. Best of all, it won Lee a Pulitzer Prize – and, despite his best efforts, her buddy Truman Capote could never top that. It is also widely considered to be a contender for that ever-elusive accolade of The Great American Novel.

The story is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the height of the Great Depression. The narrator, Scout, is an adult recounting a story from her childhood – events that, funnily enough, bear many similarities to events that actually occurred in Lee’s own hometown (Monroeville, Alabama) during her childhood. Scout lives with her older brother (Jem), and their widowed lawyer father (Atticus), and they are visited each summer by a young chap called Dill (who, Lee confirmed, was based on her friend Capote). The three children basically run amok around the town, as you could in those days, and they become a bit obsessed with their recluse neighbour, Arthur “Boo” Radley. Meanwhile, a local judge assigns papa Atticus a very important case, defending local black man Tom Robinson, who stands accused of raping a white woman.

Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand about me: normally, characters like Atticus – the Upstanding Moral CitizenTM types – piss me right off. I have very little time for martyrs in real life, let alone in fiction. And, yet, I fell immediately head-over-heels in love with this incredible, principled man. His steadiness, his sense of justice, his determination, his honesty… I can see how he has become a kind of real-life folk hero for lawyers in the South (seriously, they’ve got an Atticus Finch Society). I haven’t felt this much adoration for a wise old owl character since Dumbledore. I do, of course, take issues with the white saviour trope, and Lee has been rightly (and roundly) criticised for that, but I couldn’t help but admire her regardless. Crafting a character with such moral fortitude, without having them come off as preachy or holier-than-thou, takes a certain kind of mastery – you got to give it to Harper Lee, she fucking nailed it!


Anyway, back to the story: the whole town turns on the Finches, believing them to be “n***er-lovers” (their words, obviously) because Atticus plans to give Tom Robinson a rigorous defence. The community’s feelings intensify when Atticus is able to definitively establish at trial that the accusers are lying – in fact, the white woman (Mayella Ewell, the eldest daughter of the town drunk) was attempting to seduce Tom Robinson, and she was beaten by her father when he caught her. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented for the defence (Tom has a disability that would prevent him from inflicting the injuries of which he stands accused), the jury still votes to convict.

As if that weren’t heartbreaking enough (literally, I was gripping the book so hard my knuckles turned white), Tom is subsequently killed by prison guards when he attempts to escape. Atticus is really shaken by this turn of events, as he truly believed that he could have had Tom acquitted on appeal. The Finches don’t have much time to grieve, however, because Mayella’s father – Bob Ewell – has it in for Atticus, who he believes made a fool of him at trial.

The climax of the story comes with Bob attacking the children, Scout and Jem… and none other than Boo Radley (that reclusive neighbour they were obsessed with a couple years back) comes to their rescue. Bob cops a knife to the chest, and this is where my personal reading of the story seems to differ from everyone else’s. I was of the impression that the identity of Bob’s true killer was deliberately left a mystery – as I was reading it, I got a real sense of ambiguity about the attribution of blame. Atticus believed that his son, Jem, had stabbed Bob, while the sheriff believed it was Boo Radley, and ultimately they “split the difference” and decided that Bob fell on his own knife. However, it would seem (as best I can tell from reading other reviews online, and watching the film) that everyone else agrees Boo Radley definitely wielded the weapon. Personally, I like my ending better, but horses for courses and all of that.



So, obviously, To Kill A Mockingbird is a pretty searing commentary of racial injustice in the Deep South. It also has a lot to say about the loss of innocence. The title itself is a reference to Atticus’s philosophy that it is a “great sin” to kill a mockingbird, because they never harm other creatures and create nothing but beautiful music for all to enjoy. Lee draws on this mockingbird motif a lot, especially when she’s making a point about moral courage and compassion (Tom Robinson, and later Boo Radley, being the metaphorical mockingbirds). Given its themes and message, the novel has (unsurprisingly) often been compared to other modern American classics, such as The Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I must say, though, in my (not-very-humble) opinion, it leaves all of them in the dust – it is just so damn good!

I know that everyone comes for the message about racial injustice, but I’m equally here for Lee’s treatment of gender roles. She was years ahead of the world in terms of intersectional feminism, crafting characters (like Scout’s aunt, and her teacher) that demonstrated how class and gender intensify racial prejudice; those characters that most vocally adhere to gender roles of the time also have deeply vested racist and classist attitudes. Scout, on the other hand, flagrantly violates the expectations of “young ladies”, wearing overalls and fighting boys, in the same way that she violates the script for white children by developing a close relationship with her black nanny, attending a black church, and sitting in the black section of the local courthouse during trial.

I mentioned the film a minute ago: I watched it, not long after finishing the book, and it is also bloody fantastic. Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, and he won an Oscar for his performance (he probably deserved five of them, but I’m not in charge of these things). Lee was so pleased with the film and his performance that they became lifelong friends. It is definitely one of the best film adaptations I’ve seen of any book. There’s another adaptation that sounds really interesting, too: a play performed in Harper Lee’s hometown every year. White male audience members are “selected” for the jury in Tom Robinson’s trial, which is held in the actual town courthouse, and the audience is segregated for the scene. I’m putting that on my bucket list!


Unsurprisingly, given its continuing relevance, To Kill A Mockingbird is still taught in pretty much every American high school. Indeed, I remember some classes in my own Australian high school reading it as well. You’d think that its message of tolerance, compassion, fairness, and courage is one that we’d universally agree should be imparted to students… but, incredibly, this has been challenged and removed from classrooms so often that it earned a spot on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned books. These challenges are usually based on the use of racial epithets (despite the fact their contextual relevance) and other “profanity”, but sometimes they swing the other way – some parents have actually complained that the racism of the time was not condemned strongly enough by the protagonist and her family. She really couldn’t win, but I get the impression that the haters really didn’t get her down. She was living her best life, out of the spotlight, never reading her own press. Ultimately, To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t perfect – as I mentioned, Atticus Finch is a white saviour in sheep’s clothing, and there’s a certain overreliance on stereotypes and caricatures of black Americans in characterisation – but it achieved massive cut-through, so perhaps we should consider it a great start for people interested in learning about racial injustice through fiction.

I always swore that I’d never read Go Set A Watchman. It was billed as “the only other novel that Lee ever published”, a sequel of sorts, but it was little more than a first draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird. I have a number of ethical concerns about how it came to see the light of day. Many friends and others close to Lee have publicly confirmed that she was in no fit physical or mental state to satisfactorily consent to its publication; she was experiencing blindness, deafness, and cognitive impairments towards the end of her life, “coincidentally” around the same time that her new lawyer miraculously “discovered” the manuscript in a safe deposit box. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. And, yet, I loved Lee’s writing so much that I was desperate to read more of it, and I almost wavered… but I can’t quite shake the voice in my head that says it is wrong to read a book that is only accessible due to the exploitation of an elderly woman. So, I’ll satisfy myself with re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, over and over again.

I don’t think it will come as any surprise, but I’m going to say it for the record, anyway: I wholeheartedly recommend To Kill A Mockingbird. Read it out of curiosity, read it for the cultural capital, read it for nostalgia, read it for the questions it raises – just read it! It is accessible and engaging for all readers, of any age, anywhere in the world.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To Kill A Mockingbird:

  • “It’s the book alright. Looks like a book. Feels like a book. It’s all there. Good product.” – judybubble
  • “Tequila mocking bird was awful. Complete miss representation, there was not one mocking bird drinking tequila. The book wasn’t even set in Mexico. And who the heck was Boo Radley. So confused and disappointed. If you are going for a good read try green eggs and ham. It has a fitting title and contains both green eggs and ham throughout the thrilling novel.” – Annonymis
  • “DO NOT READ, I WAS EXPECTING A GOOD BOOK, YET IT IS FULL OF TYPOS, YES TYPOS, I CANNOT READ THIS GARBAGE. I HAVE BEEN TOLD BY MANY THIS IS A CLASSIC, YET IT IS MORE CLASSLESS THAN ANYTHING. PAGE 243, HARPER MISSPELLS MAYELLA, SHE SAYS MAYEILA, A BSOLUTELY DISGUSTING.” – S. Super
  • “Sickeningly boring, the 4.5 star ave. ignites skeptical feelings of doubt in my fellow man’s ability of sound judgment. I almost dropped out of school because of the torcherous dribble of saliva it seemed to precipitate with each read.” – jesse
  • “Author does a completely inadequate job of explaining how to kill one.” – Lauren’s Dad
  • “…. Overall, don’t bother with “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A better title would if been “To Disappoint A Reader.” Simply terrible.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I bought this for my wife. She loves Gregory Peck. Watchedthe movie again the other week ago, and we lasted about 15 minutes, and then switched to Antiques Roadshow or something.FEU” – Freud

 

The Martian – Andy Weir

According to the blurb on the front cover of The Martian, the Financial Times called it “Gravity meets Robinson Crusoe”. Indeed, like Gravity, the most compelling thing about The Martian is its premise: an astronaut becomes stranded alone on Mars and has to find a way to make 30 days’ worth of supplies last for years, 220 million miles away from Earth with no way to communicate. Our brains just aren’t wired to compute that kind of aloneness, so if you decide to read The Martian, be prepared for a bit of a mind-fuck.

Andy Weir began writing The Martian in 2009. He spent years researching (astronomy, space flight, orbital mechanics, botany) to make sure the book was as technically accurate as possible, based on today’s technology. Having been turned down by multiple literary agents in the past, Weir decided to go ahead and self-publish The Martian serially – one chapter at a time – on his own website. Within a few months, he had hundreds of fans requesting an eBook with the whole story, so he cobbled one together and put the first edition online for sale at Amazon’s lowest possible price point – 99 cents.

The Martian eBook quickly sold over 35,000 copies (more than had ever been downloaded for free), which was enough to send it straight to the top of Amazon’s science fiction best-seller list. Of course, this caught the attention of the major publishers. Weir eventually sold off the rights piece by piece (first audiobook, then U.S. rights, then international rights). All told, he made upwards of six figures, and The Martian had a second debut – in the twelfth spot on the New York Times best seller list for hardcover fiction. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2015, a film adaptation starring Matt Damon was released, and it took over $630 million at the box office. Weir is one of those “overnight success” stories that was years in the making…

So, back to the story: American astronaut, Mark Watney, finds himself abandoned on Mars. His crew had to take the drastic step of an emergency evacuation, six days into their month-long mission, due to a dust storm. Watney got blown off course en route to the shuttle, and – believing him to be dead – they left him behind. Whoops!


Once everyone at NASA back on Earth figures out he’s alive, shit really hits the fan. But never fear: Watney is a (remarkably unflappable) botanist and engineer. He figures out a way to grow crops, and he retrieves a communications device from a previous unmanned mission.

The opening chapters are a bit of an info-dump, but that’s hardly surprising given the subject matter. I’m not 100% sure I understood all of the technical specs that Weir threw at me, but I liked Watney’s “voice” as narrator. Even though it was written in the style of a mission log, it was really conversational. Then the point of view changed – to give the story of what was going on back on Earth – and it sounded not entirely unlike a Dan Brown novel.

There’s certainly a lot of interesting Mars facts in The Martian (well… duh). I learned that you can’t make or use a compass on Mars, for instance, because the red planet has no magnetic field. Still, far and away the most important thing I learned is that I am neither smart enough nor tough enough to survive on Mars. Seriously! If Elon Musk gets his way and we start colonising Mars in the next year or whatever, just go on without me. I’ll only slow you all down.

The rest of the story unfolds in a series of (fairly predictable) mishaps and misadventures. After several chapters of Watney explaining (in great detail) how important “the Hab” (an artificial habitat tent thing) is for his survival, of course it blows up. His potato crops die, and it looks for a minute like there’s a real risk that he’ll starve to death before anyone can pick him up. Other disasters include Watney accidentally destroying his communications equipment (he resorts to sending one-way messages to Earth by arranging Mars rocks into Morse Code), and NASA launching a re-supply rocket that explodes in the air. Despite the dire circumstances, there’s only one moment where Watney really panics, as far as I can recall – he has nerves of steel and unfailing optimism, which is jarringly unrealistic but also kind of vital to the plot (I mean, there’s not much of a story in an astronaut rocking in the foetal position on Mars until he dies, right?).




In the end, the crew that left Watney behind are able to return and retrieve him (with just a few other disasters slowing them down). In his final log entry, Watney starts waxing lyrical about the human instinct to help others, and his utter joy at being rescued. I was kind of disappointed that the story ended where it did; to me, the really interesting part would have been Watney’s return to Earth, re-settling after a year of the most extreme kind of solitude (perhaps there’s a sequel in that?).

I’m sure Weir wouldn’t want me to describe The Martian as a comedy, but I must say I found it really bloody funny. It was a little scary at times, sure, and very interesting, but most of the time I found it just plain funny. Watney was a fantastic narrator, and had me laughing out loud on several occasions. He’s so likeable that Australian scientists have actually – like, in real life – named a new species of bush tomato after him (Solanum Watneyi). I’m not even kidding.

I really enjoyed The Martian, but I stop just short of listing it as a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a fun read, but it’s not life changing, and I’m not all that inclined to run out and purchase copies of everything else Weir ever wrote. Pick up The Martian if you’ve read too many classics lately, and you need a quick read with a few chuckles and a feel-good ending.


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Martian:

  • “The highly technical explanations turned my stomach. I like science fiction books, but not this. The Supreme Court would not allow it to be read to death row inmates. The little story there was could not keep me reading.” – Howard J. Fox
  • “Much Mars.
    Such science.
    Wow.” – Jordan Mendez
  • “Mechanical engineering porn. Good stuff.” – Casey
  • “i hate the book because it says the F word in it and I do not like survival books also why I do not like the book is because I do not like space books.” – Lost in the jungle

 

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

I’ve got to be honest: The List doesn’t feature as many Australian authors as I’d like. If you have a favourite, please do let me know so I can put it on The Next List! In the meantime, I’ve picked up The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham.

Believe it or not, The Dressmaker is actually Ham’s debut novel – and yet it’s sold over 100,000 copies since publication in 2000, and it was adapted into a major motion picture (starring Kate Winslet!) in 2015. What’s more, Ham has said that she wrote The Dressmaker by “accident”: it’s the product of participating in an RMIT creative writing course that she had never actually intended to join. She just showed up and started spitting fire, inspired by her mother’s life as a dressmaker in a small country town. Lifelong unpublished struggling writers everywhere are eating their hearts out…

The Dressmaker is set in a (fictional) Australian country town in the 1950s, so everyone has names like “Gertrude” and “Muriel”. The protagonist (Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage) returns to her hometown to take care of her ailing mother – who is more than a little cracked, it must be said. The locals shun her, but Tilly finds one friend in the local cross-dressing cop (of course!). He’s the one who spots her talent for dressmaking. She also has a bit of a flirt now and then with a poor bloke who lives in a caravan up the road.

It takes Ham a couple hundred pages (full of veiled references and allusions) to reveal Tilly’s “dark secret”: the locals blame her for the death of a boy who was bullying her when they were children. That’s pretty heavy, I suppose, but then Ham goes and kills off Tilly’s love interest in the same breath, so it’s a fair wallop for the reader. What’s more, he has the most ridiculous death ever – he jumps into a silo (of all things), believing it to be filled with wheat, when it is actually filled with sorghum. The sorghum can’t support his weight, he sinks and suffocates. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: men are stupid.


Anyway, this second death really sets the locals off, and Tilly is forced to do dressmaking work for people from neighbouring towns. They’re the only ones who don’t care about her small-town scandal(s), and they actually pay her on time, which is very nice of them. This goes on until the community decides to put on a play, and they come to Tilly – hats in hands – asking her to make their costumes. She agrees to do so on the condition that they pay her in full, up-front (fair enough). They pay her using the funds they had saved to insure all the town buildings. Can you see where this is going?

It’s probably a darker ending than you’re imagining (spoiler alert, etc. etc.): Tilly makes the costumes, waits until the whole town has left to perform the play in the next town over… then she burns the whole damn place to the ground. Every single building. All personal effects – even the dresses belonging to her friend the cross-dressing cop – up in flames. Whoosh! The end.

It’s pretty much what we’ve all dreamed of doing (“I’ll show them! I’ll come back when I’m rich and famous, I’ll have my revenge!”), only none of us are crazy enough to actually do it. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a feral version of Sea Change”, which is pretty much spot on. Despite the dark ending, there are quite a few laugh out loud moments. The humour is deeply Australian, though, so I’m not sure how it would translate for an international audience.




Now, when you’re reading The Dressmaker, you can skip over a lot of the seamstress and fashion lingo, if you want. You won’t miss anything as long as you don’t care about being able to picture all her outfits with 100% accuracy. I didn’t bother looking any of it up, and I’m pretty sure I still got the gist. There are a lot of really obvious sewing and clothing similes (“the fog resting around the veranda moved like the frills on a skirt”), but for those an intimate knowledge of dressmaking isn’t required.

Side note: Ham starts to run out of those metaphors and similes about half way through, and has to start using clumsy imagery like this:

“… his toupee had washed off and lay like a discarded scrotum on the grass by his bald head…”

(This was, without parallel, my favourite line from the entire book.)

I took the liberty of watching the film trailer after I’d finished the book. Judging by that alone, the film is a lot more upbeat, and the Tilly character is much more expressive and likeable. Almost every review I’ve read of The Dressmaker says the same thing. So, although it was nice to read a homegrown book for once, I’d probably recommend you give it a pass and check out the movie instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dressmaker:

  • “An absolute steaming pile of rubbish. The author lives up to her surname as she hams it up for the novel. There is a multitude of characters that I didn’t connect with or care about, it might translate well to the big screen but don’t let that tempt you into reading this.” – James Motgomery
  • “I suppose this book is supposed to be humorous, but I found it disgusting. After reading about ninety pages, I was sick of the lurid vignettes of perverts, so I stopped reading. I had expected a story about a young woman who earns her living with her Singer sewing machine. Perhaps that comes further along than I managed to read.” – Linda Appleton
  • “This has to be some kind of satire on life as the characters were totally unbelievable. I give this no stars and think it should be tossed in a fire. Since I have to Star rate it I give it a negative 1.” – Psyched!
  • “No not my type of book. Kept waiting for something nice to happen. Never did.” – diane bradley

 

American Sniper – Chris Kyle

The best part about the Keeping Up With The Penguins project is the ample opportunity for rapid gear-shifts. In this case, I went from classic children’s fantasy to a 21st century assassin’s memoir, in the form of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper.

This copy was proudly borrowed from the library of my mate Drew, which I guess makes him a Keeping Up With The Penguins sponsor of sorts. Top bloke!

So, let’s get the obvious stuff out the way: the book’s full title is “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”. Kyle, the primary author, was a former United States Navy SEAL. His two (two!) ghostwriters list this book as the shiniest jewel in their career crowns, according to their author websites. I suppose the stats back them up on that; American Sniper was published in 2012 and spent 37 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, followed by the release of a film adaptation (directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper) two years later. Them’s some solid signs of success.

What’s the draw? Well, American Sniper tells the story of Kyle’s Texas upbringing, SEAL training, and a decade’s worth of tours in Iraq. During that time, he became “the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history”, killing somewhere in the vicinity of 255 people (160 of which have been “confirmed by the Pentagon”, whatever that means).

Aaaand I think I have to end my “objective” overview right about here, because American Sniper is fucking ugly. In so many ways.

From the opening pages, you can just feel Kyle’s militarised boner pressing against your upper thigh. He’s going to be slobbering in your ear all night about how white men with big guns saved the day. Welcome to your spot in the American Imperialism Circle Jerk.


Lest you think I’m overstating it: by page 4, Kyle is passing moral judgments on the “worth” of Iraqi lives versus American ones. Oh, but he doesn’t call them Iraqis – they are the “bad guys”. They are also “pure evil”, and “savages” (like it’s the 18th century and the generals are handing out a few smallpox blankets to the locals). He also calls them “motherfuckers”, and “whackadoos”. He “wishes he’d killed more of them”. I use all of these inverted commas to emphasise that these are the actual words he used to describe the human beings that he killed. Pro tip: don’t try taking a drink every time he says “bad guys”. It won’t make the writing any better, and you’ll pass out long before you finish the book, so you’ll just have to start again the next morning (with a hangover).

He also calls the Iraqis “targets” now and then, like it’s a bad ’80s action movie. The lack of self-awareness, not to mention basic critical thinking skills, is truly astonishing. Catch-22 it ain’t. Kyle will, on the one hand, try to impress upon the reader that the war in which he was a willing (eager) participant was Absolutely Necessary, because the “bad guys” were coming to kill Americans. Why or how the “bad guys” were going to do that he doesn’t make clear, but regardless he is Absolutely Sure it is the case. As such, he sees no problem in taking out these “targets”, and talking about the joy of it ad nauseam. On the other hand, Kyle seems to lack the mental capacity to attribute those same feelings – fear of strange invaders coming to kill you, doing everything you can to stop them in their tracks – to the Iraqis. He storms and raids their homes, shoots them in the streets, ignores and denigrates the Iraqis who would fight alongside him… and doesn’t understand at all why that might piss them off. After all, he’s forgotten that they’re humans. They’re “targets”. They’re “bad guys”.

If you can get past his dehumanisation of the 25 million people living in Iraq before 2003 (you’re a better person than I am), you’ll still have plenty of other shitty stuff to contend with. His false modesty is the worst. The whole book reads something like: So many people want me to tell my story, and I don’t know why! I’m just an average Joe! Also I really love killing people, I’ve killed lots and lots of people, more than anyone else, did I tell you? I’m really good at it. I’ve basically saved the world from evil savages. But I’m just a guy doing his job, and I can’t believe that sooooo many people want me to write a book… Appeals to group authority abound. I lost count of the number of times he did that before I was 100 pages in: “people” wanted him to write a book, “people” ask him all the time how many bad guys he killed, “people” ask him every day about his favourite gun… ugh.

It’s not just that the writing is exceedingly average (which, of course, it is). Kyle is just awful: literally him, his personality and his way of being in the world. At best, he’s just dull and clichéd. He fancies himself a real-life G.I. Joe. He got his first “real” rifle at age seven, and he talks about guns more often (and more lovingly) than he does his wife. He opines at one point, without a hint of irony, that the British soldiers “speak English funny”. The thrust of every anecdote is that he is a hero, anyone outranking him is an idiot, and the Iraqis are dispensable savages. Rinse and repeat. If you told me that American Sniper wasn’t, in fact, a memoir, but instead the wish-fulfillment first novel of a socially-awkward young white man who spends 100 hours a week playing first-person shooter video games, I’d believe you, without question.




The bit that truly turned my stomach – the point at which Kyle became completely irredeemable in my eyes – was on page 161. He tells the most horrifying story of stealing a child’s video game from the house that he and his team raided and occupied. He talked about it so glibly, without a hint of remorse or regret – indeed, joking about the circumstance and inviting the reader to laugh along with him – that it brought me to tears. He literally stole from the child of a family that he turned out onto the street in a war zone. He turned a crib from that house into a sniper bed; he used it for eight hours, then discarded it, and moved on to the next raid.

He and his team did this a lot, according to Kyle. They would take over entire apartment buildings (“stinking slums”, he called them), give any civilian family they found $300, and tell them to fuck off and live somewhere else. All so they could use a single room as a sniper hole, for less than a day. He talks about it all with such immense pride, it’s fucking disgusting.

“I don’t shoot people with Korans – I’d like to, but I don’t.” – an actual quote from American Sniper

There were several controversies about the book following publication. Kyle described beating a man in the first edition, and the victim brought a lawsuit alleging defamation and unjust enrichment. Then there was an official investigation into Kyle’s claim that all of the book proceeds went to veterans’ charities (in fact, 2% went to charities, while Kyle’s family received $3 million). There were also squabbles over Kyle’s alleged embellishment of his military record and honours (seriously, by this point, who cares? seems to be the least of his crimes).

I make a point of not Googling books before I read them, so it was only after I’d finished American Sniper that I learned about Kyle’s death. He was shot by another (mentally ill) veteran on a rehabilitation sojourn to a shooting range. It’s a tragic story, but it really doesn’t change my opinion, or this review, at all – the book must be judged by its own merit (or lack thereof) after all. It might be callous to say, but Kyle lived by the sword and he sure as shit died by it. I can’t say I was surprised.

So, is Kyle’s story one that should be told? Maybe. On its face, it’s an interesting window into a world that we don’t often see in full technicolour. But to do it this way, without a trace of self-awareness, not a hint of insight, nary a critical thought… is that really the best we can do?

My tl;dr summary: American Sniper is basically Fifty Shades of Grey, except that it’s the love story of Chris Kyle and his guns. It’s a few hundred pages of horribly-edited masturbatory anecdotes about war. If you want to learn the truth of war, seek it elsewhere. I would recommend American Sniper to precisely no one.

My favourite Amazon reviews of American Sniper:

  • “Very good book. I would defiantly recommend to anyone. It was full of action and just very well wrote in my opinion” – Riley Madsen
  • “Great book! So great someone busted out my car window and only stole this book and a cellphone charger.” – Two Dogs
  • “I checked this book out from the library. I was thoroughly enjoying this book until I got to page 199 where Chris Kyle talked about watching porn. That ruined the whole book. Although I appreciate his service for the United States, after reading that, I felt completely disappointed and disgusted.” – K.M. Lessing
  • “I think one can be a patriot and Not be disgusting. This is not that.” – alan babcock
  • “Reminded me of junior high school.
    I don’t plan to see the movie.” – Letha Courtney Harmon

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

It seems fitting that, for the only bona-fide children’s book on The List, I picked up a gorgeous illustrated edition brand-new from my favourite second-hand bookstore. As Alice herself says, “What is the use of a book without pictures, or conversation?”.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865, written under the pen name Lewis Carroll (real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). Carroll had taken a little boat ride in 1862 with his friend Henry Liddell’s three daughters. Because boats can be boring as fuck, Carroll improvised a story about a bored little girl named Alice who goes looking for adventure, to keep the three girls entertained for the ride. They loved it so much that the character’s namesake – Alice Liddell – asked him to write it down for her, and he set about it the very next day.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – the story of a fantasy world down a rabbit hole, complete with anthropomorphised animals, chess pieces, and cards – has become one of the most enduring literary nonsense books of all time. Its characters and imagery are basically inescapable in popular culture: from film, to theater, to rock bands, to costumes, to homewares, precocious little Alice can be found everywhere. Amazon lists the age-range for the book as 8-11 years, but fuck that – it’s a story for all ages, and ageism is for cissys anyway.

I was somewhat familiar with the story already, despite never having seen the Disney film. (I’ll pause for effect here, to allow you to process your shock.) My parents opposed the American cultural imperialism perpetuated by Walt Disney, so I instead grew up with the real-action version on VHS. In the course of putting together this review, I went back and watched clips of it on YouTube, and the nostalgia hit me like a fucking brick!

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you shouldn’t bother reading the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland just because you saw the film a million times when you were a kid. Reading the book is a completely different experience to watching the movie. The cleverness of the wordplay is a lot more noticeable in writing, for starters. I was a tiny bit heartbroken to realise that my favouritefavouritefavourite line from the movie doesn’t work quite as well in print…

“‘Why did you call him Tortoise if he wasn’t one?’ Alice asked.
“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”

(try reading it aloud if you don’t get it)

… but that’s the exception rather than the rule. As you’d expect, given the way that Carroll came up with the story, the best way to experience Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is probably to read it aloud to children. That way, you get the full impact of its genius.

Trying to describe the plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – covering off all the major characters and misadventures – in a couple of paragraphs for a review is basically impossible. Not because the story is difficult to follow, by any means, but because it’s all higgledy-piggledy nonsense, and you just sort of have to go along with it. A girl falls down a rabbit hole, eats and drinks a lot of weird crap, grows and shrinks inexplicably, meets a lot of talking animals, battles evil queens and narrowly escapes having her head chopped off… on and on it goes! It’s both the best and worst acid trip you’ll find in all of literature.




Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is so nonsensical that it basically becomes a blank canvas onto which you can project any type of story you want. For example, my preferred fan-theory-slash-alternate-reading is that Alice is the victim of a severe mental illness (she experiences auditory and visual hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, substance abuse, animal cruelty – it’s all there!). You could also read it as a vegan manifesto, if you want – especially one particular scene where the Red Queen introduces Alice to a mutton joint (“would you cut or eat someone to whom you had just been introduced?” the story asks). Carroll worked in a bunch of lessons on mathematics and logic, if you’re into that sort of thing. Literary scholar Melanie Bayley argued that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland should actually be read as a scathing satire of new modern mathematics emerging in the mid-19th century. That’s not really my bag, but I’m sure Carroll was clever enough to do it! The most obvious allusions, though, are the historical references and the lessons in philosophy:

“‘Contrariwise,’ continued Tweedledee, ‘if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.'”

Clever fucker, wasn’t he? 😉

Carroll also liked a bit of poetry in his prose, and towards the end the verses become longer and more frequent. Everyone comes to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the Jabberwocky poem, but my personal favourite is Old Father William (and I’ve somehow memorised every single word without realising it!).

None of this did Carroll much good in his day. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was very pointedly not named in an 1888 poll of the most popular children’s stories. It received pretty poor reviews, with critics paying more attention to the pretty pictures than to the story itself. It cruised along, almost unnoticed, until the very late 19th century when it won a new legion of fans – including (reportedly) Queen Victoria, and a young Oscar Wilde.


 

Still, Carroll got the last bloody laugh, didn’t he? The book has never been out of print. There are now over a hundred English editions, and editions in no fewer than 174 other languages. And, if that weren’t enough, little smart-arse Alice continues to be a major source of influence and inspiration for art across the spectrum, over a century after that boring boat trip. My tl;dr summary would be this: Alice is probably a delusional alcoholic, but reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a fun little trip down memory lane, regardless. Read it to feel like a kid again!

P.S.: Why is a raven like a writing desk? Carroll got so sick of people asking him that he wrote, in a later edition:

“Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, ‘because it can produce few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought; the riddle as originally invented had no answer at all.”

I, for one, think that this is a super-lame and boring answer. I prefer the solution suggested by Sam Lloyd (a “puzzle expert”, which I can’t believe is a real job): “because Poe wrote on both”. Geddit?

My favourite Amazon reviews of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

  • “NO ILLUSTRATIONS!!!” – Steven Josefowicz
  • “Great great great
    I travelled in space love it!” – insect
  • “Womp wompPay for what ya get. Words on paper.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It’s a classic! Everybody knows that. Right now it is especially meaningful because the characters in Trumps WhiteHouse are so much like the characters in Alice’s “Wonderland.”” – Carol Elkins

 

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