Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty (2016)

Hello! I am back. It's been a while - life completely sucked my will (and even ability) to write about books. I have only read about six over the last two months, which is completely out of character for me. Fear not, though - I have opinions about these six books which I am quite happy to share!

First up, a quickie review. I was quite excited to get Liane Moriarty's new book Truly Madly Guilty, as I really loved Big Little Lies. Truly Madly Guilty is the story of three couples who attend a fateful barbecue in which An Event occurs. I was really looking forward to reading this book! Unfortunately, this books sucks and it's pretty easy to identify why: bloat and consequence.

The book is told in two time frames centred around the Event, with alternating chapters set before and after. This is not an effective technique, as this book is so long that I started to get frustrated that I was reading so much about an incident without being told what the bloody incident was! The book could have lost 200 pages without them being missed and the whole story would have been more engaging (word bloat). There are about ten characters who get point-of-view chapters and involved back stories. This is too many points of view (character bloat). What's more, everyone has an issue - this book contains a hoarder, someone with OCD, alcoholics, mental illness, job insecurity, musical genius, stripping, cutting - too many issues (issue bloat). So bloated, so annoying.

While the bloat made the book frustrating to read, it could have been fixed with a decent (albeit severe) edit. The second problem is harder to fix. The truth is that the incident, the huge event that drives the plot, is just not that big a deal. Sure, there was danger, but [spoiler alert] everyone was fine! There were no ongoing consequences, so why was everyone so het up about it? Every single adult in this book massively overreacted in a way that is completely unbelievable.

So, basically, this book is not good. However, every author gets one free pass. Hopefully, she will be back to form with the next book and we can all pretend this one didn't happen.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington (2016)

Arianna Huffington is most famous for starting the Huffington Post, which she modestly named after herself. In April 2007, after a particular gruelling period of work and family commitments, she collapsed at work. After visiting a number of doctors, her diagnosis was clear: she was burned out, totally and absolutely exhausted. Following that event, she changed her approach to life. She realised the importance of sleep and, once she realised how important sleep is to health, happiness and productivity, she became a sleep advocate, not only ensuring that she herself received the right amount of sleep but encouraging others to do so also. The Sleep Revolution: Transforming your Life, One Night at a Time is the result of that advocacy.

The Sleep Revolution is logical structured. The first section outlines the alarming sleep problem of contemporary society - 40 per cent of Americans are sleep deprived, which is a problem because the effects of a lack of sleep are the same as being drunk. This has huge social consequences, from being groggy and cranky to having reduced productivity and creativity. Of even more concern is the 60 per cent of American drivers who drive when drowsy, with dangerous and possibly fatal consequences. Because we haven't had enough sleep, we're tired; because we're tired, we pump ourselves with stimulants like sugar and caffeine; because we're wired with stimulants, we knock ourselves out with drugs. None of this is helped by the tablet and smartphone filled environments in which we live or workplaces that expect workers to answer emails at all times. As Huffington persuasively (and with extensive endnotes) argues, we are experiencing a sleep crisis.

Huffington then discusses the industry that has arisen around sleep, in particular the incredibly concerning use of sleeping pills by the American public. She reports that Ambien (known as Stilnox in Australia) makes up two-thirds of all of the sleeping pills sold in America. That is really terrible! I have no problem with Ambien the drug - I myself use it on occasion - but it is a really strong drug that can have terrible side effects, particularly when combined with alcohol. It is also addictive and stops working after long-term use, so is absolutely not a good drug to be prescribing on such a large scale. It should be a drug of last recourse, not the first thing you try. It's actually not easy to get in Australia - many bulk billing clinics have signs out the front saying that it is clinic policy not to prescribe it, so I'm not sure why doctors in America have such a different attitude. If Huffington's data is correct, then America has a big problem with sleeping pills.

This leads me into the best aspect of this book. Huffington places a lot of contemporary America's sleep problems within an American context, citing the famous Americans such as Thomas Edison who railed against the need to sleep. She notes that America's bootstraps mentality combined with the country's puritanical leanings combine to depict sleep as something lazy which should be done as little as possible. Politicians and executives are praised for getting by on tiny amounts of sleep. This is despite mountains of evidence that shows that sleep is necessary for mental and physical health and actually contributes to happier, healthier and more productive workers. Huffington says that if she had slept properly instead of trying to burn the candle at both ends, then she would have been more successful faster - her desire to do too much actually slowed her down rather than helping her progress.

Here, I am going to make an admission: I too am a sleep advocate. After sleeping terribly for a long time, about two years ago my doctor sent me for a bunch of tests. I did a sleep study and a lung function test and was diagnosed with a delayed sleep cycle, which is the official term for being a night owl. I was told I had two choices: either change my lifestyle to match my sleep cycle or reset my sleep cycle through the use of melatonin, lifestyle changes and cognitive behavioural therapy. I chose the second one and, after a bit of work, I now sleep well with a sleep cycle that fits my lifestyle. Without exaggeration, every single part of my life is better with good sleep. It takes work to maintain - very late weekend nights out are very rare - but I am happier and healthier than I have ever been. I constantly advocate the need to prioritise sleep to my friends (who I'm pretty sure wish I had never seen the sleep doctors now, but that's another story). The Sleep Revolution would not have helped me at all. The chapter on sleep disorders notes two sleep disorders: sleep apnea and insomnia. All other disorders are hand waved away. This is fairly symptomatic of the book. Huffington is not particularly concerned with the broader social forces that contribute to the social ills of which sleep problems both contribute to and are a symptom of. Instead, she focuses on what individuals can do to make their sleep better. In one way, this is a good thing - you can't change your inability to pay your bills by worrying about it in bed before sleep, so try to put it out of your mind (not, hopefully, as nauseatingly as the CEO friend of Arianna's who goes to sleep by counting his blessings through visualising his grandchildren jumping a fence in a field. Vomit). She notes that it's hard to prioritise sleep if you're trying to patch together a living from three or four part time jobs, then continues with recommending mediation, nice PJs and a bath before bed.

The Sleep Revolution is not a bad book. Huffington persuasively argues that sleep is important and why we need to prioritise it. The advice Huffington provides is good, if not groundbreaking. The book is definitely aimed at white collar professionals, which is fine. Huffington knows how to get her point across clearly and effectively. There are better books out there, in particular Night School by Richard Wiseman, but this is a good sleep primer. Three stars.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Other Side of Silence (Philip Kerr, 2016) and Even Dogs in the Wild (Ian Rankin, 2016)

Hello, dear blog. I am back! I have been gone for four months, working on my Master's thesis. As anyone who has done a thesis knows, the final three months of work are all encompassing. It was all-thesis-all-the-time (unfortunately, I have the extra kilos to prove it!). The thought of writing any more words than I actually had to - and for fun no less! - was just ridiculous, and so I did not. I also didn't read very much either during the thesis submission time or the period immediately following it, so I didn't really have much to write about either. But now I am back, I've read a ton of books and I have opinions to share. Let the blogging begin (again).

So far for me, 2016 has been the year of hanging out with old favourites. I just this weekend inhaled Philip Kerr's The Other Side of Silence. In his 11th outing, the intrepid Bernie Gunther (one of my favourite literary detectives and on my list of fictional men I would be allowed to cheat with if they were not fictional but real) is working as a concierge on the Riviera in the 1950s. Of course, there are beautiful dames and evil Nazis and Russians and betrayal and memories from Bernie's dark past. It was great! Kerr is so skilled at building a past that feels real (provided one suspends one's disbelief at the amount of life and loving that Bernie lived in his half-century on the planet) that these books are always a historical delight. I also love that it shows the war from the side of the Germans (albeit a "good" German), in particular in relation to the British. There is a scene in Silence where Bernie is dealing with former British soldiers who would have been fighting at the same time Bernie was. There is this incredibly sense underlying all of their communication that 30 years ago, any of these men might have killed Bernie and Bernie might have killed them and it would have been considered the right thing to do. Obviously, so far along in the series this is a book only for the fans, but it gets the job done.

Similarly, Ian Rankin's Even Dogs in the Wild recounts the adventures of Rebus and Fox. John Rebus is in retirement but doesn't like it, while Fox has some heavy stuff going on in his personal life. I know I said that Silence is only for the fans, but Even Dogs in the Wild is *really* only for the fans. In his 20th outing, Rebus' actions and relationships make sense only if you know what has happened before. It is a fun book - Rankin is a great writer and since I visited the Oxford Bar myself in 2014, I really feel present in the Edinburgh he writes about - but I would only recommend Dogs if you were already a Rebus fan, in which case you wouldn't need my recommendation because you'd already be there.

I'm pleased to be back on the blog and looking forward to sharing my thoughts on books and writing again!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015)

This is less of a review and more of a warning. This is because I was only able to make it through 23 pages before stopping. Some would say that means I have not read enough to write a review; I instead say that a book that is so bad I can't even make it to my usual 100 page cutoff deserves a warning so that others don't make the same mistake as me (I'll never get that $1 reservation charge and 30 minutes of my life back).

Fates and Furies is marketed as the story of a marriage told from the perspectives of both of the parties. The couple in question are Lotto and Mathilde. Lotto is short for Lancelot, which is an absolutely realistic name for someone born in Florida in the '50s. His nickname, Lotto, was chosen by his aunt Sallie "because she could move behind wallpaper like the mouse she resembled." WTF does that even mean? It's just nonsense.

Back to the couple at hand. The glowing reviews of this book isolated its exquisite prose as one of its strengths. I was surprised, then, to read the incredibly unsexy sex on page 2: "He longed for something wordless and potent: what? To wear her forever." Hold your horses, Buffalo Bill. Eww. There's a lot of really unsexy sex in the first 23 pages of this book - sex between minors on the roof of a burning building ("Gwennie shoved him in even though she was dry"), molestation at the hand of a drama teacher ("he pushed the child upright and scrabbled in his lap and took the surprised pale worm out of his jeans") and lots of sex with women who don't even rate a name. The sex is not titillating so the book can't be classed as erotica but it's also not adding anything to the story so why is there so much of it?

I found the sex stupid but that wasn't what led to me finally putting the book down. The writing in this book is *terrible*. Lauren Groff does not like conjunctions *at all* so there are whole paragraphs where clauses are separated by commas. It creates this written staccato effect that is really frustrating to read. One example:

"Sunburnt, salted by ocean, beer souring in their mouths. Pipers, pelicans, an angler down the beach hauling in a foot-long golden fish... A strong body is a glory. The sea hissed and gurgled. Slowly, the other three woke. Gwennie stood, pop pop of bikini flesh. Goodness, he would lick her crown to hallux. She looked at what he was doing. She understood. Tough girl, pierced, jailhouse-tattooed by her own pen and pins, but her eyes overflowed the liner."

When I got frustrated enough with the book to put it down, I hopped on Goodreads to check the reviews. The consensus seemed to be that the first half was pretty bad and full of inscrutable language but the second half redeemed it. The thing is, there are too many good books out there that I haven't read for me to have to struggle through 200 excruciating pages before getting to the good stuff. Reading shouldn't be a punishment! One star.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

As Good As Dead by Elizabeth Evans

A shy girl from a small town and working class family, Charlotte is ecstatic to be accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. She heads to Iowa City to find an apartment and meets the beautiful and beguiling Esme. She and Esme move in together and become best friends. Many years  pass and Charlotte is a published author and tenured professor. Her university boyfriend, who was away in Italy completing his doctoral research while Charlotte lived with Esma, is now her husband, and he and Charlotte live a settled life in Tuscon. Charlotte and Esme are no longer friends; Esme moved away from Iowa and stopped answering Charlotte's letters. Out of the blue, an older, fatter, less beautiful Esme turns up at Charlotte's house and all of the wounds she thought had healed from the past reopen, tearing her life apart.

This book has some really good points. It is very well written and it is an excellent evocation of life in academia. I was not surprised to red that Evans herself is an emeritus professor - the academic aspects of the book are incredibly authentic. I also thought it did an excellent job of capturing the rivalries and love in some university female friendships, where neither of you are sure who you really  are yet. It does have a few problems, though. Esme's husband, Jeremy, who Charlotte slept with while he was dating Esme and Charlotte was dating Will (not a spoiler - it's revealed in the first chapter) is so repulsive that it's impossible to understand why he would come between the beautiful Esme and the talented Charlotte. Nor did I buy that Esme would do what she did at the end of the novel - it was set in the 1980s, not the 1950s, and her actions seemed more suitable to an earlier time. Plus I found the ending of the novel such an anticlimax! Because the book starts so strongly but tapers off near the end, I wonder if it just lacked enough meat to be a fully fledged novel and the story might have been better suited to a novella format.

Despite these flaws I enjoyed reading this book and would definitely read another Elizabeth Evans novel. Three stars.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Thug Kitchen: Eat like you give a f*ck (2014)

The Thug Kitchen cookbook developed from the widely popular Thug Kitchen blog. For those who don't know the back story, it was an anonymous blog that posted vegan recipes with lots of "fuck" and "shit" littered everywhere. When the cookbook came out, it turned out the two "thugs" behind the kitchen were a white university-educated couple in their 20s who like pretending to be thugs on the internet. It's kind of obnoxious but I didn't really give it much thought.

However, I did always like the recipes, so when my library got the cookbook I put a hold on it. There's a lot of swearing. Not just a little bit - a lot lot. There is so much swearing that the library put the book underneath the counter and checked with me how I felt about profanity before giving it to me. I swear all the time so profanity is not an issue but I that the ratio of profanity to non-profane word would be about 1:10. There is *a lot* of swearing.

While I don't give a fuck about swearing (see what I did there?) I do care when I start reading a cookbook where the authors clearly think their readers are well below average intelligence. For example, on a page entitled "congatufuckinglations" (they're congratulating me for buying the book. Most authors thank the reader for choosing to spend their hard earned dollars on them, but the authors of Thug Kitchen are actually doing me a favour by allowing me to buy their book. Thanks guys!), the authors give the following advice:

"There's a big difference between 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 tablespoon. One is going to complete a dope dinner and the other is going to end with a plate of regret."

Thanks guys! I have the intelligence to look at your recipes on the internet on a computer I purchased myself with the proceeds of my work but until you pointed it out, I had *no idea* that tablespoons and teaspoons were different! How embarrassment. That's not dope at all.

Other gems are when the authors of a vegan cookbook explain that a salad is really just plant nachos. Because of course someone who is interested enough to borrow or buy a book on vegan cooking would need an explanation of what a salad is because I'm certain they've never seen a salad before. What the fuck, Thug Kitchen? Just give your reader the tiniest bit of credit.

Look, the recipes look pretty good but the tone of the book is so obnoxious that it's hard to look past.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Purity by Jonathan Franzen (2015)

There are many long detailed reviews of Purity on the Internet that discusses the themes, plot and writing of this book in great length. Rather than add to their numbers, I give you this.

Based on reading Purity, here is a list of things that Jonathan Franzen likes:
* writing about penises
* writing about masturbation
* the sound of his own voice
* feeling like he is cleverer than everyone else
* going on and on about the things he does not like

Based on reading Purity, here is a list of things that Jonathan Franzen does not like:
* women
* mothers
* women
* kids today
* the Internet
* women
* modern life
* attempts to address environmental issues
* women

Apparently Jonathan Franzen is married, which surprises me because this book reads like it was written by someone who had never actually spoken to a woman and is attempting to reconstruct them based on what he had read in other books. 

Purity is not good. I strongly advise you to read the Intercept review Stop Sending Me Jonathan Franzen Novels instead of the actual novel - it's eminently more satisfying.

One star.