Book Review: The End of the World Running Club

July 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Picked up The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J Walker at JEM’s Kinokuniya last week because 1. I haven’t bought a book in so long. and 2. I earn my own money now (to a certain extent) so I can indulge in a few literary splurges 3. They had a 20% discount for members and err body knows I am a bitch for book sales.

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Sometimes I go into Kino with a book in mind and I either get disappointed because sometimes the books I want are not stocked or that there is only one book left and the cover is icky, the spine is wrinkly or the pages look like they have been fondled by too many people (I am a slut for books, but I don’t like when my books are sluts okay). But sometimes I just go in with the intention of buying a book but no idea what book I am going to end up cradling home. Sometimes it’s a hit, like when I picked up one of my new favourite books The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray on a note of pure serendipity because the cover just happened to be facing outwards instead of being slotted in and the cover and title caught my eye. But there are also a lot of instances when it’s a miss, such as Quicksand by Steve Toltz which had a lot great reviews on Goodreads but I didn’t find particularly interesting at all and abandoned it after 40 pages.

The End of the World Running Club was really a last-minute grab for me, because I had made my rounds around the store but nothing really caught my eye till the last second when I saw it amongst the “popular” stacks of book they always display at the front of the store. Usually, my literary pretentious self would have ignored the books displayed on that table because a lot of the books are like “airport reads” aka tepid crime “thrillers” that honestly are so predictable and cliche it hurts the lit student in me to even look at their awful covers – usually a silhouette of a guy in suit with a gun, or a artsy alleyway with somebody running into the moonlight. But, in this case the book’s title and the book jacket really called out to me because I do enjoy my fair share of pretentious book titles (aka The Remains of the Day, The Fault in our Stars, The Mark and the Voidstarting to realise a theme here…) I do appreciate a book title which spells out the entire book’s premise to you at first glance. It also had a really good rating on Goodreads (a 4 out of 5 stars) so like any believer in democracy, I rallied with the masses and bought it on a whim.

/okay cue the actual book review here, sorry I really like narrating the backstory to how I get my books for some strange reason/

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Book Review: The Goldfinch

December 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

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I said I’d do a review on The Goldfinch and nearly 3000 words later here I am. In all honestly, I wasn’t really intent on doing a book review but hey, it’s not like I have anything better to do and I also don’t want my writing skills to regress.

For those who stick around the 2,800 word rambling mess that is this review, you’re the best.

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The Story

To give those who haven’t read the book, here’s a quick run-down (SPOILERS):

  • Novel’s protagonist is Theo Decker, who is 13 years old at the start of the book
  • Theo’s mom (and sole parental figure ever since deadbeat alcoholic dead buggered off) was killed in a bombing when they went to visit an art gallery together
  • It’s complicated, but somehow through the chaos and confusion after the bombing, Theo survives and in his disorientated state, steals a famous painting – The Goldfinch, at the bequest of the final dying wish an elderly man
  • Theo is sent to live with the wealthy Barbour family of a school friend and all is semi-okay and it seems like Theo is going to have happy ever after with the Barbour family when suddenly
  • REAPPEARANCE OF (reformed) DEADBEAT NON-ALCHOLIC DAD  – guest starring his trampy new squeeze, Xandra.
  • Theo is whisked away from the Barbours (who we realise aren’t as great as we thought they were) and sent to live in relative isolation with his dad (still alcoholic and now also a gambling addict) and Xandra in Las Vegas
  • He meets Boris, a carpe-diem teenage boy who does drugs and is also part Russian
  • A whole lot of shit happens and basically the dad dies and Theo is now a true orphan and he runs away back to New York before Las Vegas social welfare can catch him (and in the process leaves Boris behind)
  • Throughout the entire thing, Theo is also consumed with fear about his role in stealing the super rare and precious painting even though we realise he is overthinking it by too much
  • More shit happens, he goes back to his old parental/grandfatherly figure in the form of Hobie, a guy who fixes up old antique furniture
  • Somehow we skip 8 years in the narrative and adult Theo is a real huge fucking mess (considering the emotional baggage, PTSD, daddy issues, none of us are surpassed.
  • Read the rest of the goddamn book because shit gets real crazy  – like guns and sending your bloodstained clothes to the hotel dry cleaners level of crazy
  • it’s a good book, I promise.

Reviews that I have read described the story as a modern dickisonian-esque epic. At first, I was rather confused in how exactly The Goldfinch was anything vaguely ‘Dickinson’ in nature (had the image of old England, where men wore top hats, counted silver, social welfare didn’t exist and orphans had to drink scummy soup)

But on hindsight, it does appear to have Dickinson narrative structures to the storytelling. A good parallel would be to Great Expectations, where both stories focus on the life of broken young boy (with the usual dead/sick/drunk parents) as they journey through adulthood, ultimately triumphing against societal/personal demons as a metaphor and social commentary of the human condition.

Uh, yeah. However, I promise you while ‘Dickinsonian elements’ isn’t the best selling point, the book is much more interesting than that. Promise.

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Setting

One thing I have to say is that I adore how Tartt encapsulates the general mood/zeitgeist(??) of a certain setting or environment as the story progresses.

tumblr_m0hi7blTwa1qe6mn3o1_500.gifFor example, there was a very distinct ‘feel’ between the chapters that covered Theo’s life with the Barbours versus his teenage life in Las Vegas, and then the shift again when he returns to NYC. Throughout the chapters set in Las Vegas, there was this underlying overtone of not dreariness per say, but exhaustion and stagnancy. The kind of feeling that I would describe as a painfully hot and boring summer’s day to borrow the overused clinche, where it’s just this dense humidity and sense of utter lifelessness. This was a great setting for Theo’s life with his dad, and also the aimless and drug-fuelled nature of his teenage exploits with Boris.

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Similarly, the chapters after Las Vegas when Theo returned to NYC immediately evoked a different feeling in me as the reader. The humid and dense restlessness was replaced with the briskness of a rainy day in the city. And this emotional response to the change in settings as a reader helped to add that extra element of story-telling and engagement with Theo’s journey through the different stages of his life. In a sense, I was able to be Theo because I too could sense the shifts in his environment.

 

Story telling/Moral of the Story

Tartt does a fantastic job at describing emotions that are otherwise very difficult to encapsulate. Theo’s anguish and fear over hiding the painting through the various stages of his life are really well written.  I can completely empathise with that same gut-squelching, back-of-your mind niggling sensation of that one secret or thing you hidden from your parents as a kid. The description of young Theo waiting at the flat for his mother (who would never come home) was also very evocative and I think that portion of the book was extremely realistic and fantastically nuanced. It really aptly captures the kind of concoction of utter desperation, childish hope and isolation that a child would face with the prospect of losing a loved one.

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What I would say is that this kind of tight emotive writing kind of loosens towards the end of the novel and gives way to rambling, typically pretentious angsty-angst prose. Mind you, it doesn’t completely unravel on itself and on the whole, I would say even the rambling self-absorbed portions towards the end of the novel was still relatively well written. Also, some parts of the writing can definitely be streamlined without losing the pacing or narrative quality of the book. Especially in light that the book is essentially an “adventure story” kind of genre, it is essential that the writing doesn’t get too cyclical lest it bore the reader.

I do really like the existential ideas that the novel attempts to tie up at the very end. I say “attempts” as it was a really stick-in-your-face kind of moral ending/exploration. Kind of like how those chinese fables always end with a footnote on the moral the story is trying to convey, The Goldfinch essentially had the same footnote except in the form of three solid pages of something out of angsty teenager’s blog.

However, I did identify extremely with the philosophical rant Theo goes on at the end of the novel. I only wished it could have been woven into the general story instead of being spoon fed to the reader at the very end.

Nevertheless, I will type up one of my favourite passages as it sums up the very exact existential crisis I have been having ever since post-As life have dealt ego-crushing rejections onto me.

“Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game.

Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh isn’t he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hell awaited them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital. Most people seem satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that, sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat less mysterious or less abhorrent.

People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbours and poured over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organisations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were.

But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten from top to bottom. Putting your time in at the office, dutifully spawning your two point five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bed sheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home. It was better never to have been born – never to have wanted anything, never to have hoped for anything.

Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do  – is catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks about: the miracle of a newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c.

For me – and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beads, coffins, and broken hearts. No release no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favoured phrase of Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death.”

-Pg 593 & 957 of The Goldfinch

Characters

Well balanced mix of male and female characters in the book, albeit the female characters could be considered as somewhat one-dimensional. However, given that the book is from Theodore’s (who is decidedly male) point of view, I suppose it is hard to give depth to other characters.

After all, people like simplicity, we like to view other people as one-dimensional caricatures in our own self-centred narratives. That’s why it’s so fucking weird when you meet your teacher in a supermarket/Taylor Swift concert (true story) because you start to think they don’t have lives outside marking your horribly written essays or terrorising you in awkward encounters in school.

However, we can analyse why some characters are given more depth and complexity than other characters and what it says about Theo himself.

Theo

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In all honesty, Theo’s character is not exactly hateable, nor is he really likeable either. There were times where I found his self-indulgence and angst concerning  Poppy rather tiresome, and yet there were also moments where I could feel his fear and his weariness with the world and his fate. It is hard to like a main character (because hello, no one ever says Harry Potter is their favourite character in the books/movies), mainly because we   – by reading the book through Theo’s point of view – is actually being not only a detached observer, but also we are Theo himself. So it’s kind of how as humans we have this general ambivalence towards ourselves and our existence, we like ourselves well enough and at the same time we are also somewhat aware of our own faults and how dark and bad we can actually be. As a result of “being” Theo and living his life through his shoes, we as readers develop a sense of ambivalence towards his character. Everybody, for example adores Atticus Finch or Boo Radley but you hardly see anyone saying their favourite character is Scout.

Anyhow, we do learn about Theo’s character and his flaws through how other characters are presented to us through his world view. A prime example would be the “well-rounded” characterisation of Theo’s dad – a character so bland and uninteresting that I actually forgot his full name. One review noted that the writing and development of Theo’s dad was remarkably nuanced and multi-faceted. I will not deny that Theo’s dad was not presented to the reader as the stereotypical archetype of drunken abusive doucbag father figure. There were glimpses of a much kinder and caring side to him.

However, overall I found the progression of Theo’s dad’s character rather linear and totally unsurprising. I would argue that the so-called “well-rounded” presentation of Theo’s dad, was more revealing of Theo’s desire to have his dad be caring, to believe that his dad could be a good dad and parental figure that he needed after his mom died. His dad was not written as a stereotype because through Theo’s point of view, he couldn’t allow himself to believe that his father was still a drunken gambling addict.

Boris

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Boris is the type of character that you wish the novel/movie was focused on his exploits rather than the comparatively normal and lacklustre main character. To be completely honest, he is also sort of a maniac-pixie-dream-boy character, albeit I would say slightly more well-develped. Come on –  the scruffy hair, abusive drunk father, nihilistic hippie adolescent angst? Sounds like any old Wattpad/Hollywood bad boy to me.

That being said, I did like the relationship development between Boris and Theo. It was kind of that really subtle writing that kind of hinted at the extent of their relationship, but never really addressed throughout the entire novel. Even with my well-honed abilities after years of reading fanfiction, I was still shocked when the whole “I love you” bombshell was dropped. What I didn’t appreciate was how that wasn’t really handled or addressed directly in the later part of the novel when Boris re-entered Theo’s life again. It was kind of that typical rom-com moment where the male lead chases the female lead (except this time, both of them are guys) at the airport and stops them from boarding the gate to take a plane to Narnia or something with a huge over the top love declaration.

I suppose it wasn’t real romantic love between them as much as both of them were two desperate broken kids who needed each other at the right time and the right place. Something like those friendships where you realise you were only friends because of circumstance – you saw them everyday or you went through the same shit together. It’s still love, but not love love. It’s complicated.

However, if you think about it – Boris was essentially Theo’s knight in shining armour at the end of the novel when he re-appeared with the passport. Theo was literally about to kill himself before Boris literally waltzes back into his life and abruptly ends Theo’s self-destructive and suicidal tendencies.

Poppy

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As I mentioned in my face cast post, Poppy’s character is the epitome of the maniac-pixie-dream-girl archetype. One could say it is sloppy writing, however given that the novel is from Theo’s point of view,  the reader cannot possibly see any other aspect/characterisation of Poppy other than what Theo shows us.

Going back to the reviews I have read of the book, some have suggested that Theo’s obsession with Poppy stems from that she is literally the only link he has with the last moments spent with his mother. Hence, this would explain his maniac obsession and typical YA male protagonist self-absorption/pity when she chooses to go off with a relatively boring schmuck who doesn’t have a history of childhood trauma, abandonment issues and possible drug addiction.

In my dream movies adaption of the book, definitely hope they would expand more on Poppy’s character, because the book kind of skimmed over on how exactly she was also a “damaged good” similar to Theo. However, knowing Hollywood’s track record of misogyny and lazy scriptwriting, pigs would probably fly before that happens.

All in all?

Really loved the book, definitely one of those books that stand up to re-reading . Despite the rather placid title and book cover, it is a very engaging and easy to follow story, with enough intelligent writing and philosophical musings to appease the jaded souls of  book purists who demand a “good” book to always contain some sort of moral conundrum on the decay of the human endeavour.

And I would just like to end of with the solution that The Goldfinch attempts to come up with as a reconciliation of Theo’s earlier existential ramblings. Rather corny, but I do like it nonetheless.

“And I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.

And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting [The Goldfinch] down through time – so too has love.

Insofar as love is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing.”

Book review: The Children Act

June 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Note: I typed this out in word doc and came to 1400 words, it is as rambly and complaint-filled as the book itself and I thank anyone who would take the time to read it in its entirety (because I couldn’t phantom myself doing so)

On with the review! (oh and obviously. Spoilers.)

Bought The Children Act by Ian McEwan during the book sale in school last week and just finished it today in about three hours. I initially had high hopes for this book, especially because I had seen its hardcover version in Kino a few months back, but resisted buying it because I was waiting for the soft-cover to come out which would have been much less expensive (hard cover was going for like $30, a bit too exorbitant for my liking)

Though admittedly, hardcover books tend to be much more solid and the cover for this edition in hard cover was much nicer. (The soft cover is this weird gloomy snapshot of a woman’s legs as she walks down a rain-splattered side walk, while the hardcover has this deliciously minimalist baby blue colour with the single silhouette of a boy in mid-leap) Yes, I am one of those people who judges a book by whether its cover is aesthetically pleasing or not, in my defence, every one else does that with people.

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I read the first chapter of the book while half-delirious from exhaustion at 12am on Friday night (after the first day of SMC) so that was probably part of the reason I really found it quite tedious and boring. Read the remaining chapters today, and while admittedly it got better in the middle where we were right in the crux of Adam’s case, it steadily went downhill from thereafter. Truth be told, I would have been left much happier with the novel, if it were to end at Fiona’s judgement on Adam’s case (which was right in the middle of the novel) or perhaps when she receives his first letter. However, it seems the storyline was strung out and squeezed for what it was worth (not much to be honest after the end of the case) and left much to be desired.

The parts of the story I did enjoy main revolved around Adam’s case and the court proceedings with the cross-examination of his parents and the grumpy doctor. I also enjoyed the interaction between Fiona and Adam when they met for the first time, when he was in the hospital. Fiona’s judgment was arguably the highlight of my reading experience, it was beautifully written.

(below the cut are the potentially more spoilerish bits, not that there is much to spoil anyway)

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