Author: aliensarewatching

High School Writing 101

This is my review of Push, by Sapphire.

I want to emphasize that this book is a work of fiction. In some of my other reviews, I’ve noted that I don’t like rating memoirs, because it feels like assigning a numerical value to someone’s life and experience. I have no such qualms with this book. And now that this disclaimer is done, on with the review!

This is the story of Precious, a teenaged girl who is a victim of social injustice. She is an illiterate 16-year-old, but is determined to make something of herself. As the story progresses, she makes new friends from different walks of life, and builds a happier life for herself through sheer willpower, and with the support of her teacher.

I listened to this book as an audiobook, and was very engaged throughout. The pacing is consistent, and the story and language are not too subtle to appreciate through narration. My problems with the book are mainly from a storytelling/ fiction writing perspective. There’s simply too much going on in this plot.

For instance, here are the Problems that Precious faces:

  1. Her father and mother both sexually abuse her.
  2. She is pregnant with her father’s child- the second child that  they’ve conceived
  3. Her first daughter by her father was born when Precious was twelve. With that combination of risk factors, her daughter is born with Down’s syndrome.
  4. Precious is functionally illiterate, since she does not have a good family support system, and her studies have been disrupted by pregnancy.
  5. She is kicked out of school for being pregnant (not clear why this should only be an issue with the second pregnancy)
  6. She is obese, as she tries to numb her emotions with food. Her mother is also morbidly obese and forces food on Precious often.
  7. She is a racial minority (African-American), which shapes her image of herself. She often claims that her life would be better as a white woman, and that men are more attracted to lighter skin tones.
  8. She and her family are poor, and her mother tries to manipulate their living situation to make sure that she receives benefits for both Precious and Mongo (her first daughter)

Any one of these problems would have been a challenge; all at once just seems unconvincing. Here are some more unrealistic plot points:

  1. Precious shows extraordinary enthusiasm and determination towards learning, and progresses from the alphabet to reading and writing poetry in the span of six months. However, she has been going to school her whole life (minus a couple of years of pregnancy) and never learned to read, despite being fond of some of her teachers in the public school system
  2. Said teachers in the public school system failed to notice that this 16-year-old could not read, and did not report to child services that a 12 year old (and later, 16 year old) was pregnant
  3. Noone asked Precious to see a doctor during her pregnancy, or took her to see a doctor, even though she was a minor whose previous child had a serious genetic abnormality
  4. Precious’ grandmother was willing to take in an infant with Down’s syndrome, but did not ask why her 12-year-old granddaughter had had a child, or try to look after her
  5. Precious’ homophobia was unrealistic given that she was exposed to a lot of diversity- the fact that she came round to the idea so quickly was also odd

I did enjoy this book. But if Sapphire had gone for a less over-the-top description of tragedy, I’d have appreciated it all the more. Precious could have done better. 3/5 from me.

 

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Take off those rose coloured glasses

This is my review of Hillbilly Elegy, by JD Vance.

Isn’t the whole point of a book to change your worldview? I remember hearing, and reading, that books can expand your horizons, but it has been a long time since I’ve gotten that feeling from a book- until this one. I’m happy with this selection.

JD Vance is an Ivy league educated lawyer, but he didn’t come from a background of wealth and privilege. His upbringing represents an America that is often underrepresented by the news and the media. The global audience- and indeed, the rest of the USA- are often unaware of the struggles of the lower-class in the midwest.

This book does an excellent job of educating people while avoiding falling into the trap of buying sympathy. He is patriotic without being jingoistic. The analysis of how his Republican leanings were influenced by his childhood and family is almost academic, and helps to understand his perspective. As an ethnic minority, and a woman, and an immigrant, and an engineer on the west coast, it’s sometimes hard for me to relate to the experiences of red-supporters in the midwest.

I appreciated this book because it showed me that I may be a minority, but I’m definitely not underrepresented- I have money and safety and am not disadvantaged. Just having the ‘right’ skin colour does not make life easier in this country. The USA has its own social evils to overcome, but democracy can help the country take steps towards equality and prosperity and good health for everyone.

5/5, recommended for anyone who is curious about the lives of others, and the lives of ‘others’.

Anti-romance

This is my review of Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. It is riddled with spoilers, mostly because it is a slice-of-life story, with no clear plot arc when it starts out. Even revealing that it is a tragedy and not a fairytale is a spoiler; so why not go all-out and tell you that one of the main characters dies in the end.

Oscar Wilde once wrote (I think it was in The Importance of Being Earnest, but am too lazy to look it up now): “The very essence of romance is uncertainty”. So what happens when there is no uncertainty? When you’re married, and have two children and a 9-5, and a cookie cutter home in the suburbs? That’s exactly what this story is about. And as Shakespeare has taught us, the story that is not a romance must be a tragedy.

Frank and April Wheeler are the aforementioned middle-class husband and wife. They have two friends, a neighbourhood couple who help babysit once in a while. Frank has developed an unfortunate habit of repeating his stories. Overall, they are far from the adventurous young couple they had been when they first met. April had been an aspiring actress, and Frank had been an intellectual, artistic young man.

In an attempt to reclaim her lost dreams, April and Frank become involved in a local organization’s play. Neither of them know it, but it’s the beginning of a downward spiral. The play is a disaster; the subsequent disappointment and anger make them realize that their marriage is failing. Until they stumble upon a brilliant plan- they would move to Paris! Now that their children were school-aged, April could go back to work. Secretarial work in Europe would pay enough to support them, so Frank could remain unemployed for a while and discover himself.

In the face of uncertainty, their romance is rekindled. Until April discovers that she is pregnant, throwing a spanner into the works and halting their excited preparations. With an infant, April could not go back to work, and their plan would have to be shelved for another 5 years. She doesn’t want the baby, but Frank, in a burst of instinctive masculinity, refuses to consider an abortion. They are at a deadlock, with a countdown timer until the last day for a safe at-home abortion.

I’ll end the summary there, with a cliffhanger to pique your interest. The plotline is aggressively humdrum, but depressing enough that suburbia is now my worst nightmare. It’s very hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong in Frank and April’s lives. They both had to give up their dreams, but neither had very well-defined dreams to begin with.

There’s a very insightful scene in the book, in which they tell their landlady that they wanted to see their house as they would be relocating. They invite her over for coffee, and she is surprised to find them calm and happy, having a relaxed conversation while waiting for her to arrive. Is there an implicit understanding that young parents must be eternally flustered, messy and slightly impatient? Or does it take a certain amount of intrinsic happiness to be able to find joy in waiting for a realtor? There’s a lot of food for thought in this one. 4/5 from me.

what’s your favorite period movie?

This is my review of Carrie, by Stephen King. It was on the long, long list of books to be reviewed, and I recently watched the movie.

Carrie is a slim book, but it packs a punch. It is narrated via news clippings and letters, and tells the story of the destruction of a small town in Maine. By a young girl’s menstrual rage (hence the pun-ny title to this review).

Carrie White is a teenager who has lived her whole life in the shadow of her violently religious mother. One unfortunate day, she gets her first period during gym class, AKA the most inopportune time to Become a Woman. Her mother, unfortunately, skipped the SexEd lectures on account of her belief that all women are sinners. She was already an outcast amongst her classmates, and they pounced on the opportunity to mock her.

This could be a horror novel by itself (and was probably my worst nightmare back in high school), but Carrie’s humiliation had an unexpected side effect: it revealed her telekinetic powers. For several weeks after, she experiments with her power and develops her skills.

Then comes the night of the Senior Prom. A beautiful, unforgettable night. Carrie even has a date! But as she walks onstage as Homecoming Queen, someone pours a bucket of chicken blood over her, bringing up the gym class incident again. Carrie loses her cool and destroys half the town. The End.

Both the book and the movie are genuinely frightening. The book does not skimp on the graphic details, and the movie contains nudity and gore. This is not the teen drama that one would expect, given the subject matter. King has done a masterful job of converting an almost simplistic storyline into a memorable classic.

It also made me profoundly grateful for my friendly highschool classmates, who neither poured blood on each other, nor electrocuted each other with the force of their minds. 4/5 from me.

A textbook medical thriller

This is my review of Charlatans, by Robin Cook.

Back when I was thirteen or fourteen (it seems like it was an embarrassingly long time ago), I discovered Robin Cook in my local library. I had worked my way through all the children’s books that I had deemed readable, and was venturing into the adults’ section. Classics were a safe bet, Grisham was too dull, Brown was limited and Sheldon was just too… adult. Asimov was intimidating, but Cook was just right. Despite being science fiction, Robin Cook makes sure to explain things form first principles, in a way that even the barely teenaged me could understand. I devoured quite a few of his novels.

And then abruptly stopped. When I stumbled upon this book last month, I was surprised to find that it was relatively recent- published in late 2017. For some reason I’d assumed he’d stopped writing (just because I’d stopped reading his books?). Of course I had to pick it up.

And it was disappointing. The descriptions I just praised so highly? They’re often shoehorned into ‘everyday’ dialogue, making conversation unnatural and stilted. His heroes are often romanticized workaholics whose only character traits are ‘married to his job’ and ‘looks athletic despite working 120-hour weeks’. Even the redeeming quality of having a troubled past (girlfriend walked out on him, exacerbating workaholic tendencies) seems like it was added deliberately to cross Character Backstory/Development off a checklist.

Apart from these major complaints about the narrative style, the plot itself is reasonably well structured and fast paced. You’ll want to stick around until the end, partially because of a main character who is clearly more sinister than they seem at first glance. The last few pages have a twist that is shocking only because of the complete lack of foreshadowing- it’s certainly unexpected, but in a way that feels unfair!

Here are the specifics: Noah Rothauser has just started his last year of surgical residency at the Boston Memorial Hospital. As part of his new responsibilities, he must investigate three surgical deaths that occurred in a short span of time. The only link is the anaethesiologist on duty- Ava London. Noah is hesitant to place the blame on her at first, as she seems competent and confident (and she is hot). Later, though, he becomes suspicious that she is not who (and what) she claims to be… But is he already in too deep?

(cue dramatic music)

2/5 from me. Cook also manages to convey his distrust in social media, via more stilted textbook-y dialogue of course. Stay away unless, like me, you’re a fan of his work who is looking for a dose of nostalgia (pun intended)

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

This is my review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman.

This is one of the best books I have read in recent years. It was juuust simple enough to be appealing, juuust thrilling enough to keep my attention, and juuust deep enough to give me some food for thought at the end. I’m as picky as Goldilocks, and this book was just right.

Eleanor Oliphant is a late twenties ‘spinster’ who enjoys doing crossword puzzles, listening to radio programmes, and getting blackout drunk from Friday evening to Monday morning. She is perfectly functional, in a completely dysfunctional way.

At first glance, she merely exhibits eccentricities that would be well-suited to the stereotypically geeky girl in English language sitcoms. There’s a long painful description of Eleanor getting her first bikini wax to impress her “rockstar” crush- whom she has never met. It seems a bit off for a woman her age to be that silly about a man… but and things keep going downhill from there. Without spoiling much, the plot gets really dark really fast. By the end, you’ll be rooting for Eleanor to overcome her demons.

I really don’t want to spoil the plot, because I really DO want you to read this book! But at a deeper level, I think this book points out a major flaw in today’s society. It’s all too easy to maintain a facade of normalcy without anyone noticing that one is struggling with something serious. Relationships are superficial, and greetings are cursory. Eleanor lacks basic social skills, because she has never gotten to experience a healthy relationship of any kind.

On a lighter note, this is a quirky and amusing novel that somehow manages to be a gripping thriller as well. Please read, even though this review has definitely not done justice to the plot. 5/5

Anti Climax

This is my review of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. I listened to the audiobook version of this, because technology. And also because it was read by the author.

This book is, first and foremost, about sex (or the lack thereof). If this makes you uncomfortable, then this probably isn’t the book for you. It’s not graphic, but, well, sex is the overall theme. The title of this review is a poorly attempt at a pun. I’m a fan of McEwan’s because Atonement is a beautiful book that also made a beautiful movie.

It’s 1962, and the story is set in England. Edward and Florence are a young couple on their honeymoon on Chesil Beach. There’s a flashback about their respective upbringings. Not unexpectedly, they are both from very different backgrounds but are very much in love. But when it comes to consummating their marriage, Florence is hesitant, almost repulsed. It’s implied that sexual repression was common back then, and that she may have been abused as a child. Edward is impatient and humiliated by her rejection. Their encounter ends, uh, unsuccessfully.

In the heat of the moment, they decide to annul their marriage. The book then summarizes the rest of their lives, from Edward’s point of view. They are both very successful in their respective careers, and start their own families. A sixty year old Edward realizes that by not fighting for their love, and by being impatient with Florence, he made one of the most important decisions in his life.

This was a slow paced and uneventful novel. There’s good character development, but I was not rooting for them to stay together- maybe just not invested in their story. This book probably has some nostalgia value for people who grew up in the place and time described. In that respect, it’s an interesting social study of how society shapes your perception of sex (which is, of course, a fundamental instinct for humans)

Despite the disappointment (ha-ha) of On Chesil Beach, I’ll still be hunting down McEwan’s other work. 2.5/5, do not read unless you are bored.

 

View of View from the Cheap Seats from the Cheap Seats

This is a review of View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman. See what I did there?

This book is an assortment of non-fiction writings and speeches delivered by Gaiman over several years. These include, but are not limited to:

1) award acceptance speeches- which are charming, self-deprecating, and sometimes repeat jokes and anecdotes,

2) book introductions- which consist of Gaiman fangirling about the author and how their work inspired him; this is sweet when you know the author, but tedious when you don’t (I ended up skipping these whenever he spoke of a relatively less-famous sci-fi author from the 80s),

3) newspaper columns and obituaries- which are almost always terrific and well-thought-out.

Clearly, they cover a diverse variety of topics, which makes them sometimes hit-or-miss in their execution. They’re largely unrelated, so it’s easy to skip pieces if they are not your cup of tea.

There are several articles that reminded me that Gaiman first became famous as a writer of graphic novels, notably The Sandman. One essay I particularly enjoyed was an open letter to managers of comic book stores, urging them to stop selling graphic to novels to children as ‘collectors’ editions’ or ‘investment pieces’. As an author, he says, collectors’ editions or first prints are as well- or poorly-written as other editions, and they are meant to be read, not placed on the shelf in shrinkwrap. This was touching, because of course marketing to children that way is a scam, but I don’t see any other authors defending kids’ rights to waste their pocket money in more productive ways.

Gaiman comes across as a very humble, knowledgeable, gentle soul. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the author himself, and he makes an excellent narrator as well. 4/5 from me, worth checking out. Read only the pieces that catch your eye!

Shootout

This is my review of Columbine, by Dave Cullen.

This is a factual account of the 1999 mass shooting that took place at the Columbine High School in Colorado. Dave Cullen was one of the journalists that covered the story, starting nearly as soon as the authorities became aware of the situation. The perpetrators were two 12th grade students at the school, who pulled machine guns on their schoolmates and teachers in the enclosed space of the school building before committing suicide in a classroom. At that point, this shooting set the record for maximum number of fatalities in a mass shooting.

There have been many, many mass shootings since then, some of which have eclipsed the body count of the Columbine massacre. However, the particular incident has remained in the public consciousness more than others. I’m not sure why, maybe because the all-American teenagers from good families did not fit the popular perception of what a terrorist should look like? The perpetrators were Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two best friends and partners-in-crime, literally.

Some interesting information in this book that may not be readily available from other sources:

  1. The massacre was originally intended to be a bombing, and the perpetrators estimated that 500 people would be injured/killed if things had gone as planned. Their bomb was defective (despite multiple trial runs) and when it failed, the boys took out their machine guns for Plan B.
  2. The narrative that ‘bullied kids fight back’ is not necessarily applicable here; the boys were very popular and did not have trouble finding dates.
  3. Cullen has spent some time going over psychological analyses of the boys, and he concludes that Eric was the true ‘villain’, with a diagnosis of psychopathy, while Dylan went along with the plan as he was severely depressed. This verdict was not completely convincing, but it is difficult to rationalize such irrational behaviour.

This book, of course, led me down the Wikipedia rabbithole of mass shootings in the past couple of decades. What I read was horrific and I was left with some strong opinions on gun regulation. (I am probably not qualified to have such strong opinions; a little knowledge is a dangerous thing)

This book was extremely informative, and clearly Dave Cullen is passionate about revealing the true story behind the incident. However, detailing the ‘story’ of multiple victims and their personal beliefs and their what their families are doing now felt unnecessary. 4/5 for being very informative and clear, but unnecessarily detailed. Related review: a fictional account of a school shooting from the point of view of the mother of the shooter

 

 

Cool Grandma

There’s a fairly large review backlog on my Goodreads profile that needs to be tackled; but I thought I would skip the to-do list for a while and review some books as I finish them. Makes for more detailed, enthusiastic reviews.

This is a review of An Education: My Life Might Have Turned Out Differently if I Had Just Said No, a memoir by Lynn Barber. Not entirely sure where that extended title came from- the edition I read seemed to have a different name. Lynn Barber is an English journalist, most famous for her insightful and incisive interviews. She has had a career spanning three decades and has won several awards, and I had no idea who she was.

There’s a movie called An Education that was based off a chapter of this memoir. When Lynn was sixteen or seventeen, she was involved with a man in his early thirties. She was a bright, ambitious girl, and desperately wanted to go to Oxford. But “David” showed her a more glamourous lifestyle than her middle-class upbringing had allowed, and she found herself spending more and more time with him.

(here lie spoilers!)

When David eventually proposed marriage, Lynn’s parents were unexpectedly enthusiastic. Why go to Oxford when you could marry well, and live comfortably? They genuinely loved the charming David and thought he would make a steady and responsible husband. It was not as obvious to Lynn, but pressure from her parents and a disillusionment in her school administration pushed her to accept. Soon after, she found that David was a conman and was already married with two children. Fortunately, she was able to take her exams the next year and was accepted at Oxford.

(end of spoiler-y section)

This particular chapter and story was the main attraction of the book, to me. In the movie, it was interesting to see how fictionalLynn aspired to go to Oxford because it represented sophistication and class and intellectual freedom, and how the same ends could apparently be achieved more easily elsewhere. The real Lynn speaks of this incident almost fondly in her memoir, as though it was an eye-opening experience. But what comes next is much more interesting.

Lynn Barber went to Oxford and, in her own words, partied as hard as she could. Her first job was at Penthouse, a soft-porn magazine. She speaks frankly about the trials of working on a new magazine, and the end of censorship in the UK. Despite the obvious stigma associated with Penthouse, she describes how much she enjoyed working there and how much she learned. She next wrote a sex manual (!) entitled How to Improve Your Man in Bed. Her approach, she says, was inspired by being saddled with a terrible dance partner- girls have to guide their partners to lead correctly, without issuing orders or making them feel conscious. I’ve no doubt that it was wildly successful.

In later years, she worked as an expert interviewer and earned the nickname “Demon Barber”. At this point, the book briefly becomes a laundry list of ’70-’80s British personalities, but not for long. She devotes a few chapters to her relationship with her husband, their family life, and a very moving chapter about his illness and death. Throughout the memoir, Barber comes across as a likeable person, and very aware of her personal failings. She is, perhaps, a bit too sure of herself, but no doubt that comes with 65 years of life experience. Her surprisingly unbiased summary of her parents’ value system and rationale behind their beliefs was eye-opening; we have all been brought up with a set of values, many of which may seem ridiculous from time to time. How many of us can say that we’ve really thought them through?

I would recommend this as a timepass read to replace those long chats with your grandmother. 5/5