My Reading and Writing

Personal reviews, writing and appreciation of literature.


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Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse: And Other Lessons from Modern Life by David Mitchell

ThinkingAboutItBeing a fan of David Mitchell’s work on series such as Would I Lie to You? and QI, I was happy to borrow this book from a local library for a bit of light reading. I could hear Mitchell’s distinctive voice in my head as I read this collection of columns, originally written for the Observer between 2009 and 2014. Unfortunately, the book didn’t live up to my expectations however.

Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse did provide a few chuckles and displayed Mitchell’s acerbic wit, however I found it a little bit of a struggle to get through. The book’s introduction is a reflective look on the global financial crisis of 2008, followed by a range of commentaries on topics including pop culture, politics and current affairs. Being Australian, I found the articles too Eurocentric, although you can generally get the gist if you have a little knowledge of international affairs. The articles are also likely to date or become obscure over time given the subjects and people discussed, such as advertising, BBC television and the 2010 UK general election.

Mitchell provides some entertaining observations whilst also expressing his irritations, most likely stirring up some controversy in the process. He is intelligent, self-deprecating and has a knack for providing well-considered arguments on both well-known and trivial events, but disappointingly this collection fell a little flat with me. To me it didn’t fully articulate the astute humour I am accustomed to from David Mitchell and I consider his comment articles are perhaps better read as they are periodically published.

Publisher Synopsis
What’s wrong with calling a burglar brave? Why are people so f***ing hung up about swearing? Why do the asterisks in that sentence make it okay? Why do so many people want to stop other people doing things, and how can they be stopped from stopping them? Why is every film and TV programme a sequel or a remake? Why are we so reliant on perpetual diversion that someone has created chocolate toothpaste? Is there anything to be done about the Internet? These and many other questions trouble David Mitchell as he delights us with a tour of the absurdities of modern life – from Ryanair to Downton Abbey, sports day to smoking, nuclear weapons to phone etiquette, UKIP to hotdogs made of cats. Funny, provocative and shot through with refreshing amounts of common sense, Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse celebrates and commiserates on the state of things in our not entirely glorious nation.

ISBN: 9781783350698


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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

ALittleLifeA Little Life begins with Jude, the novel’s primary protagonist, moving into a Manhattan apartment with his friend Willem. Jude and Willem were college roommates, along with JB and Malcom, whose various viewpoints and perspectives are told throughout the narrative. Jude is introverted, secretive about his past, obsessive, and experiences severe pain and restrictions in his movement. He is distant even with his closest friends and fearful of being hurt or disappointed, yet thrives in his career as a lawyer. Willem is Jude’s most loyal companion, a faithful friend, an actor and amiable character. JB, spoiled by the women in his family, is an egotistical, self-involved and opinionated artist, yet the hub of the friends and their social scene. And then there is Malcom, a somewhat obtuse, indecisive and conservative architect who has come from privilege and still living with his parents at the age of 27. Social and financial status is an important aspect of the novel and the characters are all successful in their respective fields.

As the novel progresses, Jude’s physical and emotional scarring is revealed, along with his self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour, due to his traumatic childhood in which his parents are non-existent. Whilst the trauma that Jude experienced is gradually, delicately and artfully told, it does make for an emotionally draining read, with harrowing details of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Yanagihara expertly writes Jude’s recollections of abuse in a manner not overly emotive or graphic, yet still manages to instil a strong, heartfelt reaction in the reader. At times I did question why I was reading a book which could be so confronting and wretched but it was so beautifully written, and the characters so vivid, that you can’t help but be drawn in. Whilst Jude constantly seems to have heartache thrown into his life, the novel offsets this with moments of beautiful, uplifting narrative of endurance, friendship and love, and he is determined to move past the obstacles he is presented with.

A Little Life focuses on the friendships and relationships between men, the dynamics of these connections, and the ups and downs, clashes and synchronicities that arise with diverse personalities. In addition to Willem, JB and Malcolm, the reader becomes privy to Jude’s close relationships with his doctor, a university lecturer and a social worker. Feelings and insecurities, the extremes between good and evil, and the difficulties in maintaining a relationships with someone who may be mentally ill are explored. We also see how Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm grow and change (or don’t) over the years, with the novel spanning decades in a predominantly linear fashion, flowing smoothly between the present and flashbacks of characters’ lives and memories.

The novel is character driven with very strong dialogue, and although Yanagihara doesn’t include much about the New York landscape, she does include detailed depictions of art, apartments and buildings. A Little Life is an intelligent book in which the author seems to have done her research. Sadly I had a major spoiler revealed by an inconsiderate person at an audience with the author that I attended a few months back, however thankfully it did little to dampen the impact of the story.

I feel I am merely reiterating the multitude of positive reviews this book has received but it is really a story with characters that leaves a lasting impression on the reader. Have tissues on hand during reading as A Little Life is a very moving book.

Publisher Synopsis
“When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter pursuing fame in the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.

Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself; by midlife a terrifyingly talented lawyer yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by a degree of trauma that he fears he will not only be unable to overcome – but that will define his life forever.

A novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart, Yanagihara has fashioned a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark and haunting examination of the tyranny of experience and memory.”

ISBN: 9781447294832


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Ring by Koji Suzuki

RingI’ve had this this book in my collection for some time now and thought it was time to read it, particularly given a sufficient amount of time has elapsed since I saw the film adaptation of the same name (the American version). I was thankful to find that the novel had distinct differences to the film.

The leading character of Ring is Asakawa, a journalist who is feeling disenchanted with his career and by chance comes across a story involving four friends who simultaneously died of cardiac failure, their faces contorted in terror at the time of their death. Some investigation leads Asakawa to a holiday cabin where he views a chilling video which portends his death in exactly one week unless he determines the charm which will alter this fate. The video contains a sequence of both real and abstract images which Asakawa uses to help solve his dilemma.

Asakawa enlists in the help of another journalist and his editor, the latter of whom has doubts as to Asakawa’s reliability due to a previous misjudgement in his career. He also seeks aid from Ryuji, an old school friend and somewhat repugnant character due to his confession of committing a rape and excitement over the prospect of evil energy infiltrating the world. Whilst Ryuji does prove to be a great support for Asakawa in his race against the clock, his motives are at times even doubted by Asakawa himself.

Ring explores themes of paranormal phenomenon, fate and malevolent forces and provides suspenseful text of mystery and investigation. The novel wasn’t quite as gripping or unsettling as I’d hoped, though I did have reasonably high expectations of it due to previous reviews and my appreciation of the film version. I could still sleep quite soundly at night after reading the book in bed! Suzuki details Asakawa’s growing fear with his impending deadline and how this effects his relationship with his wife and daughter, however I would have liked to see greater character development in both Asakawa and Ryuji. The author increases the atmospheric urgency of the situation with an impending typhoon which sadly seems to dissipate all too easily. There is also a slight, unexpected twist at the end of the story which didn’t seem fully realised.

All in all Ring did keep me interested as leads were followed up and more information revealed, but I felt it lacked depth.

Publisher Synopsis
“The body of a young girl is found at her home in Yokohama, contorted in fear, but the cause of her death is a mystery. Soon afterwards the bodies of three more teenagers are discovered – dead in chillingly similar circumstances.

Sensing a story, journalist Asakawa, the girl’s uncle, becomes fixated on unravelling the cause of this bizarre sudden-death syndrome. He discovers that the four victims had shared a log cabin for one night, exactly seven days before their deaths.

In the cabin, Asakawa finds a nightmarish secret – a curious videotape which plays not a movie, but a strange collection of abstract, subliminal images, concluding with a portentous message:

‘Those who have viewed these images are fated to die at this exact hour one week from now. If you do not wish to die, you must follow these instructions exactly…’

Then the tape cuts to static.

This slickly plotted page-turner reverberates with a terrifying supernatural twist. It inspired the cult Japanese movie and the US remake of the same name.”

ISBN: 0007192355


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Down Under by Bill Bryson

DownUnderDown Under is the account of Bryson’s experiences and encounters during various sojourns in Australia. These include a rail journey on the Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth, a road trip across the south east of the continent (covering Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and many towns in between), briefly visiting south eastern Queensland, before finally covering the top end of Australia, followed by Perth and Western Australia.

Bryson opens Down Under with dialogue about Australia’s unmemorable Prime Ministers, also beginning his humorous fixation with Harold Holt, who drowned in 1967, disappearing without a trace. He also later describes far right politician Pauline Hanson as “cerebrally unpredictable”, probably one of the more polite yet witty ways to which she’s been referred. He is additionally bemused by how little Australian current affairs feature in international news.

Whilst Bryson offers humorous anecdotes throughout, Down Under is a travelogue in which he considers Australia’s landscape, weather, animals and people. He savours the uniqueness of the country, expressing his fondness for its distinct features—with the exception of the dangerous wildlife, which he is often preoccupied with. Bryson truly seems to love Australia and its residents and delights in learning and sharing his discoveries about the country. He also touches on the colonial history of Australia and the associated oppression of Indigenous peoples. He shares his thoughts on Indigenous culture and sadly indicates the past and present racist attitudes of white Australians toward Indigenous and migrant communities.

The comedic elements of Down Under provide many laugh out loud moments however, such as Bryson’s description of his sleeping habits, cricket and the snippets of conversations he overhears or partakes in. He delights in cheesy tourist attractions, although he does make Australians seem a little backward at times, with little emphasis on the contemporary. He is charmed by the stories of Australian explorers, and the undesirable fates which often befell them, which he sporadically includes in his narrative.

I learned many interesting facts about Australia, such as the number of introduced plants and animals, and their devastating effect on native flora and fauna. As the book was first published in 2000 it may warrant some investigation as to accuracy and currency, however I enjoyed the accounts without concerning myself with this.

Bill Bryson has an impressive array of publications, including various other documentations of his travels. Down Under is the first Bryson text I have read and I would subsequently be keen to read more of his work. I wonder how non-Australian readers who are unfamiliar with the culture or idiosyncrasies of Australia and its people would perceive this book, however it certainly made me keen to see more of the country in which I reside.

Publisher Synopsis
“’It was as if I had privately discovered life on another planet, or a parallel universe where life was at once recognizably similar but entirely different. I can’t tell you how exciting it was. Insofar as I had accumulated my expectations of Australia at all in the intervening years, I had thought of it as a kind of alternative southern California, a place of constant sunshine and the cheerful vapidity of a beach lifestyle, but with a slightly British bent – a sort of Baywatch with cricket…’

Of course, what greeted Bill Bryson was something rather different. Australia is a country that exists on a vast scale. It is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent and the only continent that is also a country. It is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents and still it teems with life – a large proportion of it quite deadly.

In fact, Australia has more things that can kill you in a very nasty way than anywhere else. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback.

Ignoring such dangers – yet curiously obsessed by them – Bill Bryson journeyed to Australia and promptly fell in love with the country. And who can blame him? The people are cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted and unfailingly obliging; their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water; the food is excellent; the beer is cold and the sun nearly always shines. Life doesn’t get much better than this.”

ISBN: 038540817X


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Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

JapserJonesJasper Jones is the second novel by Australian author Craig Silvey. The story is situated in the fictional town of Corrigan in Western Australia. The residents of Corrigan, the majority of whom work in coal mining or the local power station, thrive on gossip yet still harbour secrets. Set during the turbulent 1960s, the oppressive heat of an Australian summer holiday period is a predominant aspect of the novel.

Jasper Jones is narrated by Charlie Bucktin, a thirteen year old dreamer who has a love of reading and is preoccupied by his infatuation with the amiable and bookish Eliza Wishart. He is wise for his years in his questioning of faith and the actions of others, yet his displays of intelligence attract the unwanted attention of school bullies. He also tries to assert himself with his bitter and volatile mother who is a force to be reckoned with in his youth.

The novel begins when Charlie is approached by Jasper Jones, the teenage son of an alcoholic, unemployed, Anglo-Australian father and Indigenous Australian mother who passed away when he was young. Jasper is the antithesis of Charlie, self-assured and skilful, even though he is blamed for the misfortunes of the town and the target of unfounded rumours. What Jasper reveals to Charlie becomes a secret they share, which results in the loss of Charlie’s innocence and naivety and the basis for a promise he maintains throughout the book.

Another character who features strongly in Jasper Jones is Jeffrey Lu, the child of the town’s only Vietnamese residents. Jeffrey is relentlessly bullied and oppressed due to his racial heritage, yet never ceases to be optimistic and excitable. The banter between Jeffrey and Charlie with their talk of sport, girls and superheroes is typical of adolescents and a joy to be privy to.

As the story unfolds and tragedy is revealed, Charlie and the town’s residents become driven by panic and anxiety. Racism, domestic violence, fear and courage are powerful themes throughout the novel, along with luck, destiny and what motivates the choices people make. Silvey also includes poignant references the classic works of writers such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain within his text. The conclusion of Jasper Jones and the revelation of secrets is very moving. It is difficult to write about the plot without disclosing the intricacies of Silvey’s story but both the characters and narrative make for a mesmerising read. I thoroughly enjoyed Jasper Jones and recommend it for teenagers and adults alike.

Publisher Synopsis
“Late on a hot summer night at the tail-end of 1965, Charlie Bucktin, a precocious and bookish boy of thirteen, is startled by an urgent knock on the window of his sleepout. His visitor is Jasper Jones, an outcast in the mining town of Corrigan. Rebellious, mixed-race and solitary, Jasper is a distant figure of danger and intrigue for Charle. So when Jasper begs for his help, Charlie steals into the night by his side, terrified but desperate to impress. Jasper takes him through town to his secret glade in the bush, and it’s here that Charlie bears witness to Jasper’s horrible discovery.

Carrying the secret like a brick in his belly, Charlie is harried by a suspicious town tightening in fear. In the simmering summer where everything changes, he locks horns with his tempestuous mother, falls nervously in love, and battles to keep a lid on his zealous best friend, Jeffrey Lu. And in vainly attempting to restore the parts that have been shaken loose, Charlie learns to discern the truth from the myth, and why white lies creep like a curse; why the truth of things is so hard to know, and even harder to hold in his heart.”

ISBN: 9781742372624


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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

OneDayInTheLifeOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is based on Solzhenitsyn’s own time “spent in a camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan” (http://www.nobelprize.org.html) and if his other works are as profound as this novel it is clear why he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. The story details a single day in the life of its protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who has already spent eight years within the Soviet Gulag system in the 1940s. Having first spent time in the general Ust-Izhma camp, Shukhov, amongst others who were imprisoned for alleged political crimes, was transferred to the ‘special’ camp where this story is based. Death, disease and violence are commonplace within the forced labour camp and day to day survival becomes all encompassing, for body, mind and spirit. Solzhenitsyn describes an inhumane existence where prisoners are reduced to mere numbers and set to work on various building sites or plants at least six days of the week in freezing conditions. Fed meagre portions of bread, porridge or soup and dressed in identical clothes hardly fit for the climate and even then stripped from them at the whim of guard searches, the men are grouped in teams and only granted reprieve from their duties when the temperature drops to -41°.

The teams in which the men live and work are the closest to family or friends, particularly in conditions where negotiating the system is paramount to survival and alliances can change within moments. The sources and targets of frustration and ill will interchange rapidly, particularly when food or fleeting moments of personal time are threatened. Mutual respect with team leaders is all important given their slight sway in making deals with the authorities. Learning the politics of the camp is integral, such as who to befriend, aid or share rare gifts of food with. Communication with the outside world or family is scant and almost becomes irrelevant in the monotony of camp life, unless a prisoner is the recipient of a food parcel. Resigned to their fate, the prisoners eventually stop counting the days of their sentence, some still with the hope of freedom, others just doing the best they can to stay alive, relishing small pleasures such as the butt of a cigarette or an extra serving of the daily ration.

Solzhenitsyn’s narrative is honest and frank and his style isn’t overly emotive in order to emphasise his views. By describing just one day in such detail he allows the reader to comprehend the horror of living such a punishing existence day in, day out with no respite. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich grants perspective to current first world complaints and privileges taken for granted and is also a testament to the strength of people who suffer at the cruel hand of other human beings. Most definitely a valuable read.

Publisher Synopsis
“This brutal, shattering glimpse of the fate of millions of Russians under Stalin shook Russia and shocked the world when it first appeared.

Discover the importance of a piece of bread or an extra bowl of soup, the incredible luxury of a book, the ingenious possibilities of a nail, a piece of string or a single match in a world where survival is all. Here safety, warmth and food are the first objectives. Reading this book, you enter a world of incarceration, brutality, hard manual labour and freezing cold – and participate in the struggle of men to survive both the terrible rigours of nature and the inhumanity of the system that defines their conditions of life.”

ISBN: 0141184744


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Hey Yeah Right Get a Life by Helen Simpson

HeyYeahRightThis collection of nine short stories was one of six books ‘prescribed’ to me by Nina Killham (www.ninakillham.com), herself a published writer, following a bibliotherapy session I attended at the School of Life (www.theschooloflife.com/melbourne). Being a mother of two young boys, Simpson’s collection of stories which seek to shatter the “conspiracy of silence” surrounding motherhood was a welcome read over the new year and summer period.

Motherhood is clearly the overriding theme throughout this compilation, with time—or the lack thereof—also featuring prominently. Simpson is a delightful wordsmith and her lyrical writing enhances the English locales of her stories and the narratives of her female protagonists, who undoubtedly offer recognisable traits and thoughts to fellow mothers. Simpson gives voice to feelings of guilt and inadequacy which are often unspoken and highlights how mothers feel the need to justify their choices, particularly with other parents, with whom judgement and competition is rife.

Hey Yeah Right Get a Life explores family dynamics, the relationships between husbands and wives, friends, parents and their children and the battle of wills these regularly entail. The decision of whether or not to work after having children and the complications and difficulties of both are explored. Most of the stories are subtly linked, however Millennium Blues, in which a woman witnesses a plane crash and its subsequent wake of destruction, seemed an odd inclusion.

With only the occasional insight from a male perspective or women who aren’t mothers, I am not sure if Hey Yeah Right Get a Life would resonate with those who aren’t mothers as much as those who are. Whilst beautifully crafted, I would be hesitant to recommend this book to readers who don’t have children given the subtleties and nuances of stories which all have an emphasis on motherhood.

ISBN: 9780099284222