Saturday, 18 May 2013

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: Book review

To drink with this:

Chocolate Bourbon milkshake

This is a book individual enough to deserve its own custom-made cocktail.
I’m thinking frothy creamy milkshake combined with malted chocolate and slightly salty bourbon. A moreish guilty pleasure which nevertheless you’ll relish every second of.

What’s what

I heart YA 4ever; but there are some books which just work better at certain points in your life. I wish Rowell’s Eleanor and Park had existed when I was sixteen. I was entranced by it now and would have inhaled it as a teenager. Quirky misfit girl with wild red curls meets cute with the only Asian boy in small US town, who has a rabid enthusiasm for 80s pop culture. This was my life at sixteen! In my head maybe but still.

She couldn’t repay him. She couldn’t even appropriately thank him. How can you thank someone for The Cure? Or the X-Men? Sometimes it felt like she’d always be in his debt. And then she realized that Park didn’t know about the Beatles. Pg 101

Ok, this book isn’t going to change your life. But it will fill you with that inner glow you get only from a good story well told. And if there is one thing Rowell does well, it is bring the swoon! This is the most romantic book I’ve ever read, its steamy teenage glances surpassing Gone with Wind and The Time Traveler’s Wife. Do you like The Notebook? Ok, so if you think that piece of ridiculousness is romance you don’t even know what love is girl! Please give in and let this book teach you.

You saved my life, she tried to tell him. Not forever, not for good. Probably just temporarily. But you saved my life, and now I’m yours. The me that’s me right now is yours. Always. Pg 312

Told in alternating point of view chapters from the perspectives of Eleanor and Park in turn, this book takes them from hostile strangers to teenagers who are crazy about each other but subject to the pressures of the world around them. These are completely believable and adorable characters - their love story is set to comic books and the Smiths and it is just precious. All that and this book contains what most surely be the sexiest hand-holding scene in all of literature.

Park touched her hands like they were something rare and precious, like her fingers were intimately connected to the rest of her body. Which, of course, they were. It was hard to explain. He made her feel like more than the sum of her 76

There is a domestic violence angle to the book which I wasn’t as sold on; but what do I know? Maybe my own small-town teenage years were just ridiculously privileged by comparison. Either way, I finished this book and immediately wanted to start reading again. This has God-among-YA-readers John Green’s seal of approval, and it definitely has mine too.


Oh-so-lovable. I am glad this book exists in the world.

On the big screen

Wouldn’t work. Too many nuances and too much depending on internal narration.


This is romance for teens done right and so much better written than most of what’s out there.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Don Juan by Lord George Gordon Noel Byron: Book review

Drink with this:


Has Spanish flair but somehow doesn’t really feel that European at all. Sherry has acquired a reputation as grannyish and stuffy but has an impressive pedigree. According to wikipedia it is now being heralded as ‘a neglected treasure’.

What's what

I want a hero: an uncommon want, When every year and month sends forth a new one, Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant, The age discovers he is not the true one; Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,pg 78

Don Juan is as much about Byron as it is about its eponymous hero. I couldn’t help picturing Russel Brand reciting verse to me as I was reading but I managed not to let that ruin the experience.

Perfect she was, but as perfection is Insipid in this naughty world of ours… pg 3

Can we finally claim Byron for Scotland by the way? I know he’s half English but he makes it pretty clear in his epic poem that he has a much stronger sense of Scottish identity: I 'scotch'd not kill'd' the Scotchman in my blood, And love the land of 'mountain and of flood.' Pg 237 Don Juan is witty and self-aware and pretty awesome; I’m happy for it to be considered part of the Scottish literary canon!

It’s not hard to see how Byron got his reputation as a libertine. For its day Don Juan was awfully bawdy! Byron says a lot through hints and partial omissions; nevertheless I think Victorian literature has left me ill-prepared for the works of the 18th century and their rampant sexuality. What’s interesting is how little Don Juan deserves his reputation as a womaniser; if anything he is portrayed as a blameless innocent seduced by a series of a conniving and sluttish women. (which, Byron would say, is ALL OF THEM.)
Wedded she was some years, and to a man Of fifty, and such husbands are in plenty; And yet, I think, instead of such a ONE 'T were better to have TWO of five-and-twenty, Especially in countries near the sun: And now I think on 't, 'mi vien in mente,' Ladies even of the most uneasy virtue Prefer a spouse whose age is short of thirty. 'T is a sad thing, I cannot choose but say, And all the fault of that indecent sun, Who cannot leave alone our helpless clay, But will keep baking, broiling, burning on, That howsoever people fast and pray, The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone: What men call gallantry, and gods adultery, Is much more common where the climate 's sultry. Happy the nations of the moral North! Where all is virtue, and the winter season Sends sin, without a rag on, shivering forth pg 11

The sexist humour is rife, but depressingly it’s no worse than what one hears now on a daily basis. The national stereotypes Byron employs are also all too familiar - I’m not sure if they were already examples of trite and lazy characterisation when he was writing but they certainly seem that way to a modern reader.

No sooner was it bolted, than—Oh shame! O sin! Oh sorrow! and oh womankind! How can you do such things and keep your fame, Unless this world, and t' other too, be blind? Pg 29

That said, Don Juan is incredibly quotable - when I came to write this blog post I had over ten thousand words of quotes. That’s a dissertation worth of Byron right there! The sentiments Byron expresses still ring true and feel insightful. I had previously read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and not rated it much, but Don Juan had humour and verve.

Few things surpass old wine; and they may preach Who please,—the more because they preach in vain,— Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, Sermons and soda-water the day after. Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; The best of life is but intoxication: Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk The hopes of all men, and of every nation; Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk Of life's strange tree, so fruitful on occasion: But to return,—Get very drunk; and when You wake with headache, you shall see what then. Pg 72

The first few books are exhilarating and almost heady. It is easy to get swept along in Byron’s obvious mirth and relish for his topic. Towards the end the poem does tail off a bit when Juan reaches the UK - Byron’s satirical descriptions of his hero’s travels here seem like failed social commentary.
'T is pity though, in this sublime world, that Pleasure 's a sin, and sometimes sin 's a pleasure; Few mortals know what end they would be at, But whether glory, power, or love, or treasure, The path is through perplexing ways, and when The goal is gain'd, we die, you know—and then— What then?—I do not know, no more do you— And so good night.—Return we to our story: pg 24

Byron has a healthy scepticism about God, religion and the point of it all. Amidst the epic verse this is a very cynical work, which Byron fully acknowledges. He has a hatred of critics and is very self-conscious about his project - this is meta-fiction before it existed.

What is the end of Fame? 't is but to fill A certain portion of uncertain paper: Some liken it to climbing up a hill, Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour; For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill, And bards burn what they call their 'midnight taper,' To have, when the original is dust, A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust. Pg 39

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Don Juan is still under twenty when the poem ends. Byron exalts youth and beauty throughout, and there is a sense of panic at encroaching old age, and the urge for posterity, to live on in some way.

Too old for youth,—too young, at thirty-five, To herd with boys, or hoard with good threescore,— I wonder people should be left alive; But since they are, that epoch is a bore: Love lingers still, although 't were late to wive; And as for other love, the illusion 's o'er; And money, that most pure imagination, Gleams only through the dawn of its creation. Pg 267

The ending may be abrupt and come almost in the middle of a scene, in the middle of Juan’s English escapades; but it is also beautiful, with a melancholy and humorous last line:

Whether his virtue triumphed, or at length His vice—for he was of a kindling nation— Is more than I shall venture to describe, Unless some beauty with a kiss should bribe. I leave the thing a problem, like all things. The morning came, and breakfast, tea and toast, Of which most men partake, but no one sings. Pg 365


Hilarious, both intentionally and otherwise. Definitely still worth a read.

On the big screen

There is a 1926 film with no spoken dialogue, but the most kisses in film history apparently. (191 for your information.)How could anyone compete with that?


In its day it was considered racy but now we get to read about hand-kissing all we want and still call it classic literature!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella: Book review

Drink with this:


Served in pitchers at even the scuzziest of bars, *cough, Wetherspoons, cough*, it’s the cocktail for girls who want to get drunk quickly on something pink and sweet. Vodka, peach schnapps and cranberry juice, diluted by watering ice cubes and a lonely shrunken slice of lemon. Sugary and inoffensive, it will get you giddy but you’ll feel a bit sick after a few.

What's what

Loyal readers, I sense this may be a schism-causing review. I am willing to bet good money (NOT REALLY, I HAVE MINUS POUNDS TO MY NAME) that nobody reading this review within a week of its original publication has ever read a Sophie Kinsella book.

So why, you ask, am I writing about her latest novel, the suggestively titled Wedding Night? The reasons are several my friends: I must acquaint you with a world you know not of, in which women eagerly anticipate the publication of each instalment of Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, in which these women read no books from year to year which cannot be purchased at Asda.

I am too pretentious and have too many highfalutin aspirations to every truly be one of those women, but I do like to slum it from time to time in the pink shelves at Foyles, and I am not ashamed to say that I have read every book Sophie Kinsella has written. I have in fact enjoyed several so much that I pre-ordered Wedding Night so it would zoom straight to my Kindle the very day it was released.

After she’d gone out, we would intone the phrase to each other like some kind of religion. I thought it was a general toast like ‘Down the hatch’ and shocked a schoolfriend many years later, at a family lunch, by raising my glass and saying, ‘Well, drown the pain, everyone.’ Pg 36

Unfortunately this novel was far from Kinsella at her best. It had all the hallmarks of her usual work - witty interior monologues, feisty female characters, hijinks abroad and plenty of hunky men. (I know the word hunky is totally 90’s, but sometimes it just fits.) However the character development was thin at best, and the already flimsy plot - girl has sudden break-up, gets back together with old flame and decides to get married straight away, sister is horrified and tries to prevent them consummating the marriage by any means possible - becomes increasingly ridiculous and even boring in its implausibility towards the end of the book.
‘Don’t come back,’ he’s saying, waving his roll-up in the air. ‘I tell all you young people. Don’t revisit. Youth is still where you left it and that’s where it should stay. What are you returning for? Anything that was worth taking on life’s journey, you’ll already have taken with you.’ Pg 356

The book alternates between the point of view of main character Lottie, and her sister Fliss. Annoyingly though, their voices barely differed and although we were meant to believe their personalities were completely different, this never really came across through the writing style. I was happy that the main guy, who seemed a bit of a jerk, actually turned out to be a complete jerk. Successful characterisation! There were also some genuinely funny moments, and I did enjoy the theme of being unable to revisit the past; but sadly it just made me reflect that maybe my days as a Kinsella fan are no more.


Could almost have been written with an eye to the beach reads shelf in W.H. Smith.

On the big screen

Wouldn’t be surprised if a film adaptation was already in the works. It could be decent with a Hollywood budget. If of course by ‘decent’ we mean something any self-respecting human being would refuse to part with money to see.


It’s a cut above Jane Costello and most of the other chick lit out there but it’s not reinventing the wheel, or even the fluffy romance novel for that matter.

Friday, 3 May 2013

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg: Book review

Drink with this:


Sweetened dairy based cocktail, with whipped eggs and the liquor of your choice. It can be sophisticated - I had one with a massive bourbon kick in a retro milk bottle at this place, my absolute favourite restaurant in London:

It can also be over saccharine, and so creamy it will make you gag, with associations of holiday season over-indulgence. The picture below somehow feels typically American to me and something I can imagine Edie Middlestein consuming.

What’s what

Oh you books trying to be The Great American Novel, why can’t I quit you? Is it your pessimism and creeping malaise that keeps me coming back for more? Your elegiac portraits of a country I barely know being colonised by strip malls and soulless corporations? Or maybe your embittered and dysfunctional characters? Damn you and your addictive ways!

The Middlesteins has been described as the Jewish Corrections but you’ll be disappointed if you go into this expecting writing as piercingly good as Franzen’s. The novel opens in media res, with the Middlestein family members discovering that Richard Middlestein has left his ailing wife Edie after more than twenty-five years of marriage. Edie is obese and is dying from diabetes and its various complications.

Edie Middlestein, patron saint of Chinese joints everywhere. Well, thought Robin, if my mother lives in this alternate universe in this strip mall, at least it’s nice that they think she’s so amazing. “He’s got quite a story,” said Edie, and she nodded approvingly at the value of such a thing. A story! pg 139

The focus of this book is intensely narrow. There is a sense at times that it is reaching, purporting to say more about America, and about the nature of obesity and need, and yet it focuses exclusively on the interior lives of a few of its central characters. And even this access is incomplete - we only get one chapter from Edie’s daughter Robyn’s point of view and little resolution to her story. At times though the omniscient narrator drops in a choice phrase skipping us forward years or decades in the characters’ lives - these moments are highly effective, giving the impression of an epic stretch of time and lives laid out for our examination, with the highlights brought to our attention.

And then there he was, in a suit (it was his only suit, but she didn’t know that yet), and he was smiling (his happiest days were behind him the minute he met her, but he didn’t know that yet)pg 60

Attenberg’s characters, much like those of Franzen or Updike, are not particularly likable. Is this just the nature of this type of writing? Are we all so damaged and confused that contemporary state of the nation novels need to be populated with these horrible miserable people? Everyone in The Middlesteins is flawed and unpleasant and there are misunderstandings and communication failures galore.

They stopped and stared at each other, and there were a million things of a confrontational nature that still hovered between them, but Benny wondered if they were worth the battle, and then decided they were not, or that his father wasn’t worth it anyway, and he would deal with how sad that made him feel some other time. pg 158

Nobody in this book understands anybody else around them, and the reader is not permitted understanding of Edie. The plot and the other characters pivot around her, and yet we never get to inhabit her present day point of view. This is a clever strategy on Attenberg’s part, as the reader like the other characters can only wonder why Edie is killing herself with food; but it is also risky. I felt very emotionally detached from this novel until 80% of the way through, when it gathered me in to its pudgy, uncomfortable embrace.

There was a person there to connect with, a jawline, a smile, a clarity in the eyes. No flesh hung from her cheeks and chin as it did now. She was in focus, we could see her, we could see who she was—or who we thought she was anyway. Where had that Edie gone? pg 236

There are many sad and brilliantly acerbic lines throughout yet frustratingly we are never really given any insights into why Edie is so overweight. Attenberg suggests the obvious - that food is a way to subsume her feelings of need and longing, universal feelings which those around her drown out through drugs and sex and alcohol and control.

Middlestein and Beverly, two lonely people, successes, failures, a widow, a husband, caught up in something resembling love. pg 224

By the end I was a convert to this novel but I’m still not convinced it gets to the heart of any great American truth. If nothing else though, it has one near perfect chapter - the bnai mitzvah, with its witty and observant details, its collision of Jewish tradition and teenage trends, of the best and worst of family.


Compulsively readable throughout, despite the moments of disgust and dislike, which eventually turn to a profound sympathy and identification with all those messed-up Middlesteins.

On the big screen

Little happens here in terms of plot - the narrative is all internal, and there are few visual set pieces. I don’t see this working as a movie.


So it has Franzen’s seal of approval but I think it’s pretty low-rent when held up against The Corrections or Freedom.