Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Silkworm by Robert Gilbraith (2014)

I am opening this review with a confession. I am a reading lemming. I like to read all the books that everyone else is reading, preferably before most people do. I hate saying, "No," to the question, "Have you read..." This is why I read most award winners, most bestsellers and anything that is written by a famous actress. I am terrible book egoist!

The Silkworm is the second in Robert Gilbraith's Cormoran Strike series. Robert Gilbraith is of course a psuedonym for the famous JK Rowling, a fact that ensures that these book will sell lots and lots and lots of copies. I read the first one (The Cuckoo's Calling) and thought it was okay but the ending was very silly. The only reason I read this one was because I knew that people would say to me, "Have you read the new JK Rowling?" and I wanted to be able to say, "Yes." Embarrassing, right?

Now that I have that off my chest, it's time to review this book. Like I mentioned earlier, this book will sell approximately one squillion copies and be reviewed in every major paper. In it, Cormoran Strike must solve a crime with the help of his trusty sidekick Robin and, in the process, prove that he is smarter and better than everyone else. The crime in this case is the disappearance of a not-very-popular author who has been caught up in a publishing industry scandal of his own making. There are plenty of reviews out there that discuss the plot in more detail; I do not see the need to add to them here. Instead, here are some general thoughts I had after reading the book.

1. Cormoran Strike has a prosthetic leg. This was established in the first chapter of the first book. It is clearly very important as it is referred to on average of once every three pages. Cormoran Strike also likes beer and watching football (soccer). These are also regularly referred to in the novel. It's like above JK Rowling's desk, there is a paper stuck on the wall that lists the traits of her characters and a note of how often to refer to them (Strike: likes beer (every fifteen pages - tick), watching football (every 100 pages - tick) and has prosthetic leg (every three pages - tick)). He's less of a character than he is a checklist of characteristics - there is no character development at all.

2. The language style in this book is confused. Each chapter opens with a quoted verse from a classic literary tale. Does anyone ever read those? I don't, but JK Rowling wants you to know that this is a LITERARY not a CHILDREN'S book and if she has to bash the reader over the head with 16th and 17th century poetic references to make that clear, then dammit she is going to do it. However, her most famous books were children's stories and that is reflected in the writing style, particularly when the characters are reflecting on their motivations. As a reader, I found this quite disjointing and it disrupted the flow of my reading.

3. Robert Gilbraith is a bit of a misogynist. Every woman in this book is put very firmly in her place: if she has children, she is boring and stupid and if she does not have children, she is unfulfilled, sad and spends her evenings at home alone or is a cheating sluttish sex demon. Women in power are bitches who should either be in an administrative and secretarial position or in the home where they belong. I am not familiar enough with the oeuvre of JK Rowling to say whether this is a characteristic of her style or if she's trying to make her male pseudonym more realistic but either way, it was pretty frustrating. Robin could be a great character if she wasn't solely defined in terms of her relationships with the men in her life who influence every single decision she makes.

Even with all of the flaws listed above, it is still very readable book. I absolutely would not pay for it but if you don't mind having no decent female characters or any character development, this is a decent way to spend 500 pages worth of time. A good holiday read but nothing more - three stars.     

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dear Committee Members: A Novel by Julie Schumacher (2014)

Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing at Payne University. With an office that is turned into a construction site from which the Economics department has been moved for its safety but the English department left to inhale toxic dust, he seems to spend much of his time writing Letters of Recommendation (LOR) for, it seems, everyone he knows, including past and future students, colleagues, friends and lovers. Dear Committee Members: A Novel is an epistolary tale, telling Jason's story in a series of often funny but always (sometimes brutally) honest LORs. Over the series of letters, we discover that upon graduating, Jason wrote a successful semi-biographical novel based on others he was in school with that he is still dealing with the fall-out from; that he sabotages his own happiness; that he is alternately egotistical, grandoise, self-pitying and amusing; and that he really believes in the benefits that English studies and writing can give to society.

The epistolary novel is an interesting format. My favourite example of this is The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie Society, which I loved loved loved. However, as a novel format does have flaws. If it is written from the point of view of one character (as this novel is), it allows you to really inhabit the mind of the protagonist. This book does that really well and Jason's voice is both strong and believable. The problems with this format come because we are restricted to only one character's point of view and also to the kind of information that would realistically be found in the letter. By the end of the novel, I did get a bit weary of only hearing partial stories: I wanted to know more about the events that were being alluded to! There is also one event that happens at the end of the book that seemed to be dealt with in a somewhat summary manner that I thought deserved a lot more discussion.

Despite those flaws, Dear Committee Members is a funny but scathing indictment of the predicament of the humanities in the modern tertiary marketplace while celebrating the hard work of those who constantly fight to defend the honour of English and champion the students without whom the system would fail. Three and a half stars.

Friendship by Emily Gould (2014)

Emily Gould is Internet famous and she had a famous Internet meltdown. The thing about being Internet famous, though, is that while one may be ridiculously well known in one's own corner of the world wide web, the Internet is so niche that only the others who hang out where you do will know who you are (a case in point is the Yarn Harlot, a woman so Internet famous that her simply knitting a pattern can cause its popularity to sky rocket and whole colourways of yarn to sell out but who is virtually unknown outside the knitting blogosphere). Obviously Emily Gould and I reside in different parts of the Internet because it is only recently that I discovered who she is - a blogger who wrote for Gawker who got given a lot of money to write a book which then bombed and the stories within it caused rifts with her friends and family.

This knowledge about Emily Gould is fundamental to an understanding of her first adult novel, Friendship. In this book, Amy is an Internet famous person who had a famous Internet meltdown. She is now the editor of Yidster, a blog with "a modern Jewish focus" and a small but loyal readership, which is slowly and steadily losing money. Amy hates her job but it only involves about 15 minutes of actual work per day and she is too lethargic to do anything about finding a better job. Beth is a midwestern transplant who is back in New York after disastrously moving to Wisconsin for love. She is paying back an immense student loan debt from the one year she completed of a two-year MFA program. She is temping and struggling to make ends meet. This book chronicles the ups and downs of their friendship after Beth becomes pregnant after one night stand and Amy is forced to address the realities of her life.

Emily Gould is a very good writer. I read this book in one sitting, while my cat basked in the sun next to me. This is super rare for me to do and an indication of how easy the book is to read. I think the book also really captures well the dynamics of intense female friendship. However, these characters are incredibly and profoundly irritating. They make really stupid decisions really often, they seem completely unable to inhabit a financial and practical reality and they act with a truly breathtaking talent for self-destruction. The plot is frankly a bit stupid, particularly Beth's decision to scrimp on the $40 the morning-after pill would cost and the entire Sally plotline.

My cat, keeping me company and lying in the sun

For me, this book feels a lot like the TV show Girls (a comparison that I am sure Emily Gould quite consciously cultivated). It focuses on a bunch of women who feel entitled to a life they can't afford and bewildered that life isn't turning out like they thought it would. These women are obnoxious, bratty and, for anyone with actual real problems, incredibly frustrating. But they are also entertaining and funny and very watchable. Emily Gould's online person is ridiculously self-involved and self-centred and the characters she created are also but she is a good writer. Your ability to enjoy this book will completely depend on your tolerance of Gould and her characters unrelenting self-absorption. Three stars.

One more thing: paying $60,000 for an MFA will not make you a writer. It is only through the act of writing that one becomes a writer. Invest that $60,000 in making sure you have the time and space to write rather than supporting the exploitative idea that an MFA is a thing of actual value.