Monday, December 26, 2011

'Revolutionary Road' - Richard Yates 1961.

Richard Yates must have had some truly destructive relationships in his life. No one could write with such melancholy about the disintegration of relationships without having experienced this kind of destruction. While doing some research into Richard Yates I found this statement he made about his life's work, and I think it explains a lot about the tone of both the novels I have read by Yates ('Cold Spring Harbor' and 'Revolutionary Road'): "If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy."     

'RevolutionaryRoad' has so many similarities to 'Cold Spring Harbor' that I even considered writing about them together. So if you would like to read about the sadness, frustration and desperation which permeates Yates' writing you can read about it here, as it applies fully to 'Revolutionary Road' but I would like to avoid repeating myself.

'Revolutionary Road' is the far more famous novel, owing almost entirely to the success of the film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (which I have not yet seen). But it is also a far more enjoyable book to read. It has drama and intrigue, and a lot of plot progression and character development, all things which 'Cold Spring Harbor' was lacking. Oddly the cast of characters is not as strong, but there are a few unexpected delights, such as the real estate agent's husband who tolerates his wife's inane chatter by turning off his hearing aid at night.

The main story is about Frank and April Wheeler a married couple with two young boys. Frank commutes to a dull desk job which he considers a joke, and imagines he undertakes ironically. April is a housewife, but dreamt of being an actress before her marriage. The the novel opens with scenes of an embarrassing terrible local amateur theater production she is starring in. This is significant as the argument the couple has afterwards starts a chain of decisions which leads to; a decision to move to Paris, infidelities by both parties, an attempted abortion, and a death. The setting is a vivid portrait of 1950s suburban America, and the relationship between April and Frank feels real, with very natural dialogue between the two. The thread throughout is a lesson to be learnt; being be honest with yourself is just as important as being honest with others. I did enjoy reading this book, despite the very depressing overtones. If you are interested in 1950s suburbia, or want to read a novel with excellent dialogue, or even just a novel which deals frankly with the realities of lives filled with disappointment, then this might just be for you.

Love it, Read it,

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

'Deadline'- Mira Grant 2011.

'Deadline' is the second novel in the 'Newsflesh Trilogy' of zombie novels by Mira Grant, and if you haven't already read 'Feed' then I suggest you start there before diving into 'Deadline'.

If I had written this post last night at 2am when I finished 'Deadline' it would have consisted of "No way, she [Grant] didn't, oh no she didn't, ah" and so-on, interspersed with mutterings about "too many cliffhangers for one person to handle" and finished off with "best book I have read all year". However, I have a nights sleep and a few hours of perspective and though those sentiments are still valid I have toned them down a little.

Anyone who has read my original review of 'Feed' will realise that I was totally smitten. I ordered 'Deadline' almost immediately after finishing 'Feed', and intended to savour it over a few weeks reading. That didn't happen. Despite having work and social commitments I still finished 'Deadline' in less than 24 hours. I enjoyed this novel immensely, despite it being missing some of the characteristics which made me love 'Feed'. By focusing only on main character Shaun, rather than the original shifting perspective, the tone of the novel was quite different. The other shift was away from what I saw as using zombies as an allegory for various other 'real-world' issues manipulated to control population through fear. While the theme of control through fear is still prominent, as the storyline moves deeper into determining the specifics of the manipulation it becomes less and less of an allegory and more of a whole-world-conspiracy story. While I did miss the focus on the truth, integrity and reporting of 'Feed', as long as the next book can void the many whole-world-conspiracy clich├ęs I think it will still be a great read.

There were a few irritating points throughout 'Deadline', beginning with the repetition of the opening scene. While I understand that opening with a similar [read: almost identical] scene is a stylistic decision I think it was poorly executed. In addition, the repetition of some phrases and actions throughout the novel became irritating. This included constantly explaining how blood-testing units operate and their results, and mentioning whether or not the members of the group wanted snacks when someone went to the kitchen. The second one may sound silly, but no one EVER wanted anything, and yet every time a character goes to the kitchen this is repeated, and since a large portion of the book has them holed up in a house, it happens fairly often.

One of the biggest improvements in 'Deadline' was that the entire book was relevant to the plot and contributed to both building suspense and characters, rather than the dragging, irrelevant first section of 'Feed'. This was a major plus, and did not mean the sacrifice of the wonderfully unforgiving nature of the plot. Grant has no qualms about killing off main characters, or inflicting mental trauma on others, and this really adds to the overall tension.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and highly recommend the series, especially if you like zombies. I'm off to play Left 4 Dead 2, and pretend I'm Georgia Mason, wish me luck.

Love it, Read it,

'John Dies at the End' - David Wong 2011.

This book was an odd choice for me, a whim really. It was mentioned in passing and the title intrigued me. Would I enjoy reading a book where the (presumed) main plot point is revealed in the title? I thought I might, and ordered it. It was only really downhill from there. This post is going to contain a lot of spoilers, so if you were intending to read the book, I suggest you look at some cute pictures instead.

'John Dies at the End' was written by Jason Pargin, editor of Cracked, as a series of extended blog posts under the psydonym 'David Wong', which is also the protagonist's name. There are so many things about this novel that don't work, and many of them can be tied to the inexperience of the writer and the format in which it was originally created, compounded by what I suspect was a complete lack of editing.

The format is a common one, with David Wong is recounting his adventures of the past year to a reporter, in the setting of the present day. As David is telling his own story, and often suggests he is 'mostly' honest, he falls into the category of an unreliable narrator, in much the same way that Nick is in 'The Great Gatsby'. There are brief interludes which focus on the reporter and David, but for the main 3/4 of the novel the action is taking place in the past. While this is a style which can work very effectively (it was one of my favourite elements of Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind) here it becomes increasingly irritating as the book progresses. When the 'reporter' plot point is finally resolved as being just a 'projection' and the segment of 'retelling' is finally over, the book almost redeems itself. The writing style and the plot is much more interesting in the final 50 pages then in the preceding 400.

Unfortunately I still strongly disliked this book in the end. Simply because it promised me one thing, and much like 'The Clash of the Titans' in which no Titans actually clashed, 'John Dies at the End' let me down. In fact, I am prepared to say that if John had actually died I might have been able to say that the few hours of my life that I spent reading it wern't wasted. But as the most undeveloped, irritating character lives on, I must add this book to the list of missteps in my reading history.

Love it, Read it,

Sunday, December 4, 2011

'The Great Gatsby'- F. Scott Fitzgerald 1925.

'The Great Gatsby' is often referred to as a 'Great American Novel', yet initially after reading it I was still not quite sure I understood why. What follows is an attempt to work through my experience of reading and understanding 'The Great Gatsby', and the concept of a 'Great American Novel'.

As usual my starting point was wikipedia, which defines a 'Great American Novel' as a novel that is an "accurate representative of the zeitgeist in the United States at the time of its writing". 

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote 'The Great Gatsby' between 1922 and 1925, and the story is primarily set in 1922. So to find the zeitgeist of the time, I had to think about the historical context, particularly the social elements prominent during the 1920's. But first I had to find the zeitgeist of Fitzgerald's novel.

Things I learnt about America and American society from 'The Great Gatsby':
- Class divisions will always define you.
- Those with 'old money' from the 'right side of the tracks' will always have the luxury of walking away from unpleasant situations
- People always desire what they cannot have.
- Yet if they obtain the seemingly impossible, it will not fulfil them.

These four lessons of sorts paint a picture of a society stifled and straining against its structures, yet falling into timeworn patterns of constraint, privilege and opportunity. The society of 'The Great Gatsby' is also one of potential transformation through various forms of social mobility, which were previously of negligible importance and are key to social patterns in the 1920's. Two examples in the novel are social status gained, firstly through 'merit' during the Great War, or secondly through income from 'bootlegging' made possible by prohibition. This perceived potential for greater mobility becomes frustrated as the realities of old social constraints and prejudices between classes remain the dominant reality, leading to the 'stifled' feeling evident throughout 'The Great Gatsby'.

My next thought was that perhaps 'The Great Gatsby' is a Great American Novel because of the distinctly American voice of  Fitzgerald. British novels of a similar period (I'm thinking of 'Antigua, Penny, Puce' and 'Cakes and Ale' in particular, though both are 1930's) tend to characterize America as a socially neutral/flat place of opportunity, loud voices and entrepreneurship. Yet 'The Great Gatsby' has a complex setting, with many layers of social constraint and opportunity beyond any simplistic, cartoon-ish notions, which could only have been written by someone who understood and experienced America in the 1920's.

And finally I decided that I would add another element to the criteria for a 'Great American Novel' and that would be the ability to transcend ages, and resonate with readers from any period. 'The Great Gatsby' is currently being made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and parts of it were filmed in Sydney. There is a long list of other film, television and even opera adaptations of the story and I think many of the central elements can be seen in contemporary pop culture. The social changes that occurred during the 1920's are definitely still relevant, and ongoing. Though US pop culture loves a 'self made' or 'rags to riches' story (though perhaps not with the obsessive delight of Australians) the reality of contemporary US society is still starkly divided, though perhaps at different levels to the 1920's. Social mobility may still be for many an unattainable dream, just as despite his (ill-gotten) wealth Gatsby was unable to shake his past.    

After much thinking I have decided I agree that 'The Great Gatsby' deserves the title of a 'Great American Novel'. Despite this I must say that I found the first half of the book incredibly slow, and the style of the 'unreliable narrator' frustrating at times. However the overall feel of the novel, the themes and issues it raised and the wonderfully entangled climax, make it a memorable read.

Love it, Read it,