Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies (page 1 of 14)

Hidden Figures – Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is one of those (true!) stories that you immediately want to know more about. As per the blurb, it’s “the phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space,”. Margot Lee Shetterly spent years learning about the ‘human computers’ who worked with paper and pencil to put man on the moon, and shared all she had learned about them in her 2016 non-fiction best-seller.

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Of course, by examining the roles these women played at NASA, Shetterly incidentally traces American history through WWII, the Cold War, and the space race. Hidden Figures highlights the particular barriers for black women in the sciences as well as society at large, from the late 1930s through to the 1960s. She offers a kind note at the beginning of the book about being faithful to that period, with regard to the use of epithets and pejoratives – it was nice to have a heads up, but honestly, that note made it sound worse than the actual text bore out.

The first surprise of Hidden Figures was just how many black women worked as mathematicians and scientists at NASA. There weren’t just a handful of them – there were dozens and dozens.

Many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America.

Hidden Figures (Page 248)

What’s more, Shetterly herself knew many of these women. Her father worked with them so she grew up around them, and she took for granted their roles at NASA, the way children do. “Growing up in Hampton [Virginia], the face of science was brown like mine,” she says (page xiii). This is ‘see it to be it’ in action.

As Shetterly describes it, when these women took jobs as ‘computers’ during WWII labour shortages, workplaces in Virginia were still segregated and the women – especially the black women – were kept at arm’s length. Still, most of them were grateful to have meaningful work (with the dark days of the Depression not so far behind them, and many of them supporting themselves and their children), and NASA paid handsomely for the time.

Gradually, the utility of the women began to outweigh the entrenched (at times, government-mandated) racism and sexism, and by the time Apollo 11 was preparing for launch, they were working in essential roles at the highest levels.

This is all fascinating, of course. Unfortunately, Hidden Figures itself is hard to penetrate. The story is told largely in the historical abstract, with a lot of unnecessary “context” (i.e., extraneous detail). The voice is very detached from the women supposedly at the heart of the story. The rare glimpses Shetterly offers into their personalities and private lives are the most engaging and interesting parts of Hidden Figures. On the whole, though, it’s a disappointingly dry read.

Don’t get me wrong: it should be a good story! It’s just not told in a compelling or engaging way in this particular book. Perhaps more dialogue – interviews with the women themselves, conversations with their co-workers or children – might have made the story more moving, or at least tangible. As it stands, I feel like I just read a Wikipedia entry about them. I think Shetterly was more committed to stating facts for the record than telling a story. That works fine in some formats (see above, Wikipedia entry), but not in Hidden Figures.

I’ve not yet seen the film adaptation, but I’d imagine it would be a much better format for telling this story. Allowing us to engage with the women – even just a few of them – on a human level, ‘put faces to names’, will make the story of Hidden Figures sparkle the way that it should.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Hidden Figures:

  • “Thank God the producers of the movie eliminated over two thirds of the book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “This book was like reading a dry tortuous math textbook. Too many unnecessary characters, too many unnecessary details, and the book jumps all over the place. When I get a book like this I just go the the epilogue, even that was torturous!” – N. Ross
  • “This is the kind of novel a science or history teacher would require you to read.” – Trisha K
  • “This book reminds me of when I was lilttle and my mother would mention some Obit from the village we lived in and then my Dad would follow with his brother’s name and then my Mom would recall their Mother amd then my Father would recall how he worked with his Dad and then my mother would recall them going to school together and then my Dad would talk about the car they drove blah, blah, blah I was ready to take the gaspipe.
    All I can say is the screenwriter who took this pile of crap and made a great movie out of it deserves an Academy Award.” – Amazon Customer

Under The Skin – Michel Faber

It feels strange that Under The Skin was published more than two decades ago (original pub. date: 2000), perhaps because the premise is so futuristic. It was Michel Faber’s debut novel, and while I don’t remember it making a huge splash at the time, it seems to be having a bit of a resurgence of late. If you’re looking for a sci-fi(ish) read for spooky season, this one’s the money!

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My edition of Under The Skin includes an introduction by David Mitchell. He hints at, but doesn’t outright spoil, the big twists of the plot. That’s a great kindness to the reader who reads the introduction first (that’s me!), but unfortunately it means he can’t say much other than “this book is really good, read it to find out why”. I can’t promise the same kindness in this review, so consider yourself warned: Under The Skin spoilers abound…

The story is set on the east coast of northern Scotland. I mention it first, because even though it’s not the focus of the novel, the setting is really beautifully written. Faber manages to bring the cold coast of Scotland to life on the page.

He feeds you the facts of the story gradually. At first, the protagonist – Isserley – seems like a regular woman… albeit, one who gets her kicks having sex with male hitchhikers.

Then, she starts to seem like she might enjoy it a bit too much. Is she a sex addict?

Or maybe she’s murdering them.

Or maybe she’s luring them to a farm so that someone else can murder them.

Wait, what the hell is going on here? (You get the idea.)

Slowly – oh, so slowly – Isserley is revealed to be an extraterrestrial, driving up and down the A9 and picking up lonely himbo hitchhikers for her interplanetary bosses. The “farm” on which she lives is a processing facility. Yes, Under The Skin takes a dramatic Tender Is The Flesh turn, just past half-way through. The aliens are hungry, and Earth is their farm. Gah!

Isserley has been surgically ‘mutilated’, as she puts it, to lure these men to their deaths. She’s been given a magnificent set of breasts (of course), and her spine altered so that she can walk on two legs. In their natural form, she and her comrades are more canine in nature, walking on all fours with a tail for balance, and covered in fur. They consider themselves to be the ‘human beings’, and the people of Earth (which they call vodsels) mere animals.

If you speak passable Dutch, the use of the name vodsel is a spoiler in and of itself, actually – it means “food”. The steaks from the fattened and mutilated vodsels are called voddissin, an expensive delicacy on Isserley’s home planet.

Isserley’s rigorous professionalism and conscientiousness take a hit when she is sexually assaulted by one of the hitchhikers she picks up. And so begins Under The Skin‘s denouement. She becomes disillusioned with her job, especially once she demands to see the processing of the vodsel she captures, and meets a rich boy from her home planet who advocates vehemently for ‘vegetarianism’ (or the alien equivalent, anyhow).

She decides to quit her job, but avoid returning to her home planet (where she faces a life of wretched poverty and deprivation). She wants to stay on Earth, a comparatively bountiful planet with beauty and water and food and all the other things that make life worth living. Faber has one last surprise in store for Under The Skin readers: Isserley’s escape is short-lived. She gets into a car accident with one last hitchhiker, and is forced to self-destruct her vehicle (which will surely kill her in the process) in order to escape detection by the Earth authorities. It sounds gruesome and sad, but it’s actually a surprisingly beautiful ending to a strange and eerie book.

So, as you can see, Faber touches on a lot in Under The Skin. Sexism, factory farming, animal rights, classism, sexual violence, sexual identity, humanity, empathy… It’s bound to make you desperately uncomfortable at times, and maybe second-guess your choice of steak for dinner.

I’ll leave it to the more committed genre readers to comment on its chops as a sci-fi story, but I certainly found myself transported by it. Faber used a lot of the stock-standard sci-fi tropes to make an interesting – if obvious – philosophical point. The first half is creepy as all heck, the second half is like opening a front-facing camera on humanity. I’d say, all told, Under The Skin‘s resurgence is well deserved and well-timed.

P.S. If you’re wondering how it compares to the 2013 movie of the same name starring Scarlett Johansson, apparently it doesn’t. I haven’t seen it, but the reviews would suggest that the director played fast and loose with the idea of ‘adaptation’.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Under The Skin:

  • “It could have had a really decent sci fi ending with warships off the coast, jets flying over, the SAS breaking in, but no. None of that. Just wound up in two pages, and The End.” – Elwood
  • “Just seems like a big chunk was missing from this story. I thought that maybe there was a big message behind the story like a vegan wrote it lol. I dunno it just didn’t appeal to me if thats what Faber was trying to do or even if he wasn’t.” – Erica Paulk
  • “The story unfolds with all the subtlety of a Mike Tyson innuendo and left me laughing out loud at the author’s fustian vegan agenda. It is the kind of novel that leaves you feeling embarrassed for its writer. Enjoy.” – Mark Tristan
  • “Gross and disgusting are really the 2 adjectives that come first to mind. Are we supposed to become vegetarian after reading this? Or is the author suggesting a way to deal with the unemployed?” – Pam Well

My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult

It’s kind of weird that this is my first Jodi Picoult read, especially given how much I love books about moral dilemmas and ethical quagmires (for which she is famous). My Sister’s Keeper is her eleventh novel, but it’s undoubtedly her most widely read and best known – thanks, at least in part, to the controversial film adaptation released in 2009.

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Picoult, indeed, tackles a very thorny issue in this one. The main character, Anna, is thirteen years old at the time My Sister’s Keeper begins. She was conceived as a matched donor for her older sister, Kate. Kate is barely clinging to life after a young diagnosis of acute promyelocytic leukemia. She’s been variously saved over the intervening decade through donations of Anna’s umbilical cord blood, blood-blood, stem cells, bone marrow – and now, one of Anna’s kidneys is on the table.

Faced with the possibility of being forced to undergo a major surgery – with the risk of lifelong complications (or, y’know, death) and no guarantee that it will save Kate’s life – Anna takes drastic action. She seeks out flashy lawyer Campbell Alexander to petition on her behalf for medical emancipation from her parents. That would mean that the decision of whether or not to donate a kidney would rest entirely in her 13-year-old hands.

My Sister’s Keeper is told from multiple perspectives, so you get the full spectrum of insight into the ramifications of Anna’s decision. You hear from Anna herself, as well as her lawyer, her mother, her father, her brother, and her guardian ad litem appointed by the court.

Interestingly, you don’t hear from her sister, undeniably the person most impacted by Anna’s fight for emancipation. There’s a good reason for that in the narrative, and let this serve as your warning that this review, from here on out, is going to get spoiler-y.

During the trial for Anna’s medical emancipation, she reveals that she’s actually acting according to her sister’s wishes. Anna would be willing to continue to act as a donor, except that Kate has asked her to stop; she feels she’s ready to die, but surmises that her parents aren’t ready to let her give up the fight. It’s the big “clang” we’ve been waiting for throughout My Sister’s Keeper, saving it from being an expensive high-stakes teenage temper tantrum.

Oh, and there’s a side-plot playing out, too. Anna and Kate’s brother, Jesse, is a secret juvenile delinquent. In a laughably obvious ploy for his firefighter father’s attention, he’s been secretly setting fires in abandoned buildings all over town. This storyline has a nice little denouement, with a confrontation between Jesse and his father, just before Anna’s big reveal… but it’s never really Finished, aside from a throwaway line in the epilogue. Apparently, that one conversation with his father, and his sister’s death (more on that in a second), was enough for Jesse to turn his life around and enroll in the police academy. *shrugs*

Anyway, back to Anna: the judge rules in her favour, and awards her lawyer a medical power of attorney. The lawyer offers her a lift to the hospital to see Kate and tell her the good(?) news…

… and their car crashes. Anna is declared brain dead, and the lawyer grants permission for her kidney to be donated to Kate. Kate lives not-exactly-happily, but ever after, anyway.

Up until that point, I’d been thoroughly enjoying My Sister’s Keeper. I’d been pleasantly surprised by the Picoult’s deft handling of a mightily complex subject, with decent prose and excellent timing. She says, in the Acknowledgements, that her own child had to undergo ten surgeries in three years, so clearly she had heaps of experience to draw on with the sick-child narrative. But that ending? Ooft. It was too quick, too brash, and too melodramatic.

If Picoult was intent on working in this final twist (Anna’s death), she could at least have stretched out the timeline so it didn’t feel so soapy. I mean, a car crash on the way to the hospital? Come on. It was an unfortunate end to what had been, otherwise, a cracking read.

It only made it all the more baffling to me that My Sister’s Keeper readers were so attached to this ending that they metaphorically set the world on fire when it was changed to suit the film adaptation. The movie presents a radically different outcome, plus it emphasises some sub-plots while writing out others entirely. Most interesting to me: this was all done against Picoult’s wishes. Taking an author’s work and changing it, despite her public derision of that decision? Bold. Very bold.

Anyway, all told, My Sister’s Keeper was a winner for me, right up until the very end. Picoult snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. I’m keen to give another one of her books a go, though, to see if her talents have been better applied elsewhere.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Sister’s Keeper:

  • “I swear the book itself is really good. I felt so many things reading about these characters try to figure life as they know it. But after getting to the end the one message I can give is, do not read this book. Do not pick it up because if you’re like me you loved GOT and then sn 8 happened. That’s the best way to describe this book’s ending.” – Kindle Customer
  • “book sucks” – Mads
  • “if it is going to be melodrama then I will take it in period costume. This was trying to be philosophical but fell on its arty arse… Maybe the only problem with the surprise ending is that they weren’t all treated to the same fate!” – Bibliophage
  • “3 compelling characters only if you count the dog” – Bri Bold
  • “Seriously one the worst books I’ve read. I feel like the author didn’t have the courage to follow the through with the story. I know she has said she had it planned out from the beginning but seriously, you are going to boil the whole story down to a random accident? Then in future everything is okay so don’t get to glum… Cheap, why don’t I just listen to a Brittney Spears song and eat some pop tarts while laying on some 50 thread count sheets to finish the experience.

    Honestly it would be like if at the end of the Joy Luck Club a meteor hit the town and vaporized the mothers, and sisters in China, then flashing forward and showing how that ironed everything out and made the daughters overcome their issues with their mothers. Seriously a cowardly writer, I don’t think I will explore anymore of her work.” – Jacqueline

Persuasion – Jane Austen

I’d decided that Persuasion was going to be my next Austen read even before that trailer dropped, but it was a helpful reminder to hurry up. Before it was a Dakota Johnson rom-com, it was Austen’s last completed novel, written “in a race against her failing health in 1815-16”.

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So, apparently, Persuasion was at least partly inspired by Austen’s own brother, Charles, who bore a lot of similarities to the leading man Captain Wentworth. According to scholar Sheila Johnson Kindred: “both began their careers in command of sloops in the North America station at about the same age; both were popular with their crews; both progressed to the command of frigates; both were keen to share their prize money with their crews, though Captain Wentworth ended up considerably richer as a result of his prize money than did Captain Austen”.

Another fun fact: Persuasion was the first Austen novel to feature an older woman in the lead. (Well, she’s twenty-seven, but by Regency standards that’s practically ancient.) Some Austen academics have drawn the conclusion that this shift, towards older protagonists, was a reflection of Austen’s own age (see above: careening towards death) and her desire to challenge the notion that a woman’s life was over if she didn’t marry before her wisdom teeth came in. One of her biographers, Claire Tomalin, called Persuasion Austen’s “present to herself, to Miss Sharp, to [her sister] Cassandra, to Martha Lloyd…to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring”.

So, we’ve got an “elderly” leading lady in Anne Elliot, and the charismatic captain Frederick Wentworth, who has successfully climbed the career ladder. Now that we’ve met the players, lets see what it’s all about.

Persuasion is basically the O.G. second-chance romance. Anne and Fred were engaged to be married back in the day, but she was pressured into dumping him by her snooty family and friends – and she stayed sad about it for ten years. Now, her family and friends are considerably less snooty (in bank balance, if not in attitude) and facing a significant reduction in circumstances when Fred comes back to town. It would seem he’s been living his best life without Anne, and she is MORTIFIED.

It hardly constitutes a spoiler to say they end up together (fight me), but we take many a long and winding road to get there. Fred spends a lot of time ignoring Anne and flirting with her in-laws, Anne’s cousin comes out of the woodwork and sets his sights on her, there’s a near-fatal head injury and plenty of dinner parties.

Persuasion is much darker than Pride And Prejudice or Emma. Austen was so scathing, such a savage, that at times I literally covered my mouth as I was reading. There’s not as much of the sparkling dialogue; it’s far more introspective, and I suppose that’s why it seems meaner (even today, in the age of Twitter, we all think things we wouldn’t dare say out loud). I found it harder, too, to keep track of all the characters and their relationships to one another – perhaps as a result of their minimal on-page interaction.

I think, like much of Austen’s work, Persuasion has a slow-burn effect. I can’t say it blew me away at my first reading – but nor did any of her others. Over time, though, I’ll find myself thinking about it more and more, and referring back to it more and more, and before I know it I’ll be a convert. (Hopefully not before the new adaptation comes out – I want to be able to enjoy it without poking holes.)

Persuasion is really one for the true fans, often too severe to be funny (and occasionally fat-shamey, by the by) and subtle in its treatment of quite dramatic turns. I wouldn’t recommend starting out with this one, if you’re new to Austen, but if you’ve already read her others, you’re well placed to give it a go.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Persuasion:

  • “I find her writing dry, humorless, dull, and always the same themes. It’s the constant talk about class, and who is good enough for whom, and the woman and man who just can’t seem to get together until the very end when they admit their mutual love. It’s all very tedious.” – LINDA LEVEN
  • “Chinese water torture? Sounds like a welcome diversion from this boring redundant work of “art” to me. I feel for the trees that were wasted in the process of creating this horrendously boring soap opera in paperback. It is possible that I missed something while reading this work because I spent most of the time trying to stay awake. However, in the future if I want to read something of this caliber I would write NBC and ask for the script of their least watched daytime “soap”. In conclusion, not only do I NOT recommend this novel, but I pledge to do my best to begin an anti-Persuasion League, to prevent the widespread development of narcolepsy in high school students who are forced to read worthlessly painful novels.” – James Gibbs

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

It’s some kind of miracle that Never Let Me Go wasn’t spoiled for me before I finally got around to reading it. Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian alternative reality novel was published nearly 20 years ago, and I’d heard some vague hints giving rise to suspicions about the Big Twist, but I still went in with no firm idea as to what was about to happen. That’s important, because you’re not supposed to know Never Let Me Go is dystopian science fiction until Ishiguro wants you to.

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Ishiguro drip feeds the story to the reader, mentioning something offhand and then paying it off satisfyingly quickly (usually in the next chapter). It makes Never Let Me Go very just-one-more-chapter-y, which is a good thing if you’re looking to be sucked into a book, but not so good if you’ve got an early morning and it’s past your bedtime. If you want to go in unspoiled and enjoy that experience for yourself, exit this window now.

It all begins with Kathy H, who describes herself as a “carer”, talking about looking after organ donors. As she describes her twelve years in the role, she starts reminiscing about her days at Hailsham, a boarding school where the teachers were called “guardians” and the children’s art was selected for display in a gallery owned by a mysterious woman known only as “Madame”.

In her time at Hailsham, Kathy became particularly close to two other students, Tommy and Ruth. Kathy was Tommy’s confidant, supporting him through periods of bullying and depression, but through the usual social politics of adolescent, he ends up being Ruth’s boyfriend instead.

The first clang! reveal comes around 80 pages in, where it’s revealed that the children of Hailsham are effectively being farmed for their vital organs. That’s why the teachers- excuse me, guardians – have been so intense about not smoking and taking care of their bodies.

All the children know about their futures – and all we, the readers of Never Let Me Go, know – is gleaned through rumour and supposition, and the occasional slip-up where one of the adults in charge reveals something they “shouldn’t”. One of the guardians, Miss Lucy, is fired and removed from the school for telling the students too much.

That’s why horror author Ramsey Campbell called Never Let Me Go one of the “best horror novels since 2000”, a “classic instance of a story that’s horrifying, precisely because the narrator doesn’t think it is”. In large part, Never Let Me Go is a boarding school novel, a dark academia story about cliques and gossip and young romance, but the world that it’s taking place in is completely bonkers.

The next clang! comes at 140-ish pages, where Ishiguro reveals that all the children at Hailsham (and other similar schools around England) are cloned. So, this is kind of like the real-life situations where parents genetically engineer new babies to act as organ donors for their existing children who are crook. It’s dicey territory, ethically – to say the least.

As Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy age in Kathy’s recollections, they move out to a kind of halfway house and they start venturing out into the real world. This leads to some pretty harsh realisations: that they’re not going to have the kinds of lives or careers they see people leading in magazines or on television, that they’re going to have to undergo surgery after surgery only to die (or “complete”, as they euphemistically call it) very young, that they likely weren’t cloned from the creme de la creme of society (i.e., that underprivileged people – “human trash”, Ruth calls them – were exploited for their DNA).

Never Let Me Go comes to a head when Ruth “completes”, and Kathy and Tommy believe they finally have a shot at being together. They seek out the mysterious “Madame” from their school days, to see if maybe she can give them a stay to delay their donations so that they might spend more time together. Now, this is where Never Let Me Go first really disappointed me. I didn’t like the big clump of exposition that came around page 240. It’s a huge info dump where Madame and Miss Emily (the former Hailsham principal) explain to Kathy and Tommy why the school existed, and how society views them. It’s straight out of a B-movie playbook, akin to a hacky villain monologue in the penultimate scene.

Still, there’s a lot of very clever stuff in here – it’s easy to see why Never Let Me Go is favoured by Book Clubs For Smart People, you could talk it over for hours. Look at the role of “carers” like Kathy, for instance, in the reality Ishiguro has created. For the clones, being a “carer” is the only alternative to becoming a donor oneself, the only version of agency they have in their lives. The whole system is engineered to prevent them from thinking too much about what is happening to them and rebelling in any way (not to mention that it keeps a safe, convenient distance between the people who donate and the people who benefit from the donation). You don’t have to look too hard to find the parallels in our actual reality.

For some reason, even though they’re very different, Never Let Me Go made me think about Tender Is The Flesh. I think it might’ve been the contrast between the reader’s experience of the clones as human (having one narrate the story was clever!) and the apparent view of the world they inhabit that they aren’t (or, even if they are, that they aren’t afforded the same rights and privileges) that brought it to mind.

It’s easy to see, in terms of tone and style, that this is the same author who wrote Klara And The Sun. They’re like two halves of the same whole. I can basically guarantee that if you liked one, you’ll enjoy the other. I can’t speak to the 2010 film adaptation – I haven’t seen it yet, but of course now I want to – but this is an intense, smart, compelling read with a lot to say about the reality we live in.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Never Let Me Go:

  • “It’s a real downer book about sex, clones and dying. I do not recommend it.” – Louise P
  • “i let go of this book after chapter 1, it sukcs” – Gage Miller
  • “It was neither entertaining nor thought provoking. Run from it. If you’ve give this book as a gift to someone, shame on you. This book is the Emperor’s New Clothes.” – Steve Miller
  • “This author must hate humankind. This book is a grim slog through the trivial lives of doomed, boring characters who repeatedly fail to rise above their own pettiness. Ugh. Recommend it to someone you don’t like.” – Ron Daily
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