Monday, July 2, 2012

4. The Devil wears Prada - Lauren Weisberger (2003)

    How exactly were we supposed to predict what would please her? I was about to find out.

    Not the best page to take a quote from, unless you don't mind a long description of different kinds of skirts. I picked up this book at the 'Free books' table at uni and thought it would be a good starter read for the holidays, one that is completely different from my course work. Boy was I right. The 'her' in question is the ostensible Devil herself, Miranda Priestly, the editor of Runway fashion magazine. The main character, Andrea, has just been hired as Miranda's second assistant, even though she has zero interest in fashion and really wants to work at The New Yorker. However working at Runway seems a far bigger stepping stone than attempting to claw her way up the literary ranks, or so Andrea keeps telling herself. If she can survive the 12+hr working days, the ambiguity of her new boss' instructions, and having no personal time, let alone socialising with anyone, she might just get that reference she craves. But is it worth it? The answer is clearly no, and it takes outrageously terrible things to happen in her personal life for Andrea to even remotely come to this conclusion.

    This novel and its film adaptation are both good in different ways. While the novel is grittier and darker than the film, presenting slightly more complex scenarios and characterisations of modern people (albeit people who are self-destructive, self-obsessed and materialistic), the film offers glimpses beyond the facades that characters intentionally or otherwise place around themselves. They are aware of the sacrifices they have made to be where they are, but appear to believe in a higher cause that motivates them.

    From a personal standpoint, I didn't enjoy the way that characters in the novel manipulated and attempted to control those around them. It was almost as if they were willing participants in a game where the aim is to score as many favours as possible. However the way that everything had conditions placed upon it highlighted the give-and-take nature of all human relationships, and the way that there are always expectations and consequences.

   All up it was an interesting read, although Andrea, as the perfect personification of a driven, distracted and unsettled 20-something, was deeply frustrating to follow. Read if you're interested in the fashion industry (apparently it's quite accurate) and enjoy some 'will she or won't she' action.  

3. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

    She doesn't make speeches any more. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn't seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she's been taken at her word.

      Another fantastic novel by Margaret Atwood. Besides being a wonderful storyteller, Atwood keeps you reading by leading you to unexpected places. Often the reader cannot be sure whether there will even be any resolution for her characters. So far she appears to like to leave the reader guessing, but in many ways this brings the narrative to life, where the book is not just a story but a life simply written down. This "realism", achieved through depth of character and the description of society and contexts within which characters live, draws the reader in and engages you in a way that few books achieve. Many novels are entertaining, maybe even thought provoking. Atwood's novels however make you feel as if you have lived beside the narrator, every upset and every high a shared experience. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

2. Midnight in Austenland - Shannon Hale

      She blew out her cheeks and tried to focus on driving. She could feel him staring at her, contemplating her, and it was such an unfamiliar sensation that she sprouted goose bumps as if she'd been tickled. Thoughts fled her head. Apparently they found the place too crazy to stick around.

      Charlotte Kinder seeks to escape the complications of her life by vacationing at Pembroke Park - a place where paying customers can have the authentic Jane Austen experience, complete with period clothing, balls, and even a love affair or two. But something dark lingers within the stately grounds and Charlotte can't let her suspicions rest. Where everyone involved is playing a part, will Charlotte be able to tell the difference between act and reality before it is too late?

      LOVED Austenland, this one is so-so. Still highly enjoyable with a splendid cast of characters, such as the return of Miss Charming, the slightly silly but comical Southern darling. The setting and events are even more unbelievable the second time round, and yet I still want to find myself at Pembroke Park. Shannon Hale still amuses with her self-deprecating and likeable characters, with action, dialogue and internal musings set to make you laugh within the first page.  

Starting again - 2012: 1. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

    I went cold with envy. I had never been to Yale, and Yale was the place all the seniors in my house liked to go best on week-ends. I decided to expect nothing from Buddy Willard. If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.

      The account of a young woman's breakdown and treatment, which supposedly reflects the author's own battle with depression. Esther Greenwood is terse, unapologetic, pessimistic and wholly engaging. Although sometimes frustrating or even hopeless, the narrative is never exactly dark and is instead surprisingly objective for such personal experiences. As if seeing events from at some point separate, Esther makes observations about herself and others that seem to cut right to the core of things.

      The fact that this is Syliva Plath's only novel makes The Bell Jar even more poignant. A girl trapped and preserved beneath this bell jar who you want to know received some respite, some experience beyond the blurred glass. I want to know whether Esther is alright, whether the world ever appeared different. In Plath's suicide the answer seems prevented, and yet provided.

2012 - Books read so far:

Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan
The Pact - Jodi Picoult
About A Boy - Nicholas Hardy?
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Midnight in Austenland - Shannon Hale


The Alchemist's Daughter - Katharine McMahon
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Monday, July 25, 2011

9. Paper Towns - John Green (2008)

She was quiet for a moment, and then she walked right up to the glass and leaned her forehead against it. I hung back, but then she grabbed my T-shirt and pulled me forward. I didn't want our collective weight on a single pane of glass, but she kept pulling me forward, and I could feel her balled first in my side, and finally I put my head against the glass as gently as possible and looked around.

For me this excerpt perfectly encapsulates the personalities of Margo and Quentin, as well as their unusual relationship. Since childhood Quentin has loved his mysterious and forth-right next-door neighbour Margo, but she never seems to notice him. That is until one night of revenge and adventure lead to Margo's disappearance and a trail of clues seemingly meant for Quentin alone.

Starting out I wasn't sure if I liked this book. Margo was infuriatingly aloof (however I guess that's the point) and obviously troubled, and yet Quentin remained pathetically acquiescent to her wishes. It got better once Margo left (that sounds a bit harsh doesn't it) as the mystery surrounding her disappearance culminates in a well-narrated and tangible fear that she has come to harm, while highlighting the interesting emotional journey that Quentin and those others with ties to Margo go through, especially in how the former views the world, himself and his idolisation of Margo. In exploring the act of desertion, John Green similarly attempts to explore the internal motivations of the individual, successfully navigating the reader through various emotions and ideas that leave one examining themselves by the end.

Some of the characters were very odd and a bit two-dimensional but what held this book together for me was Quentin and his determination to find Margo. Oddly I found this book more satisfying before the very end because of the agreement that Quentin had come to within himself, and while I still find Margo annoying, I appreciate her humanness and how imperfect she is, juxtaposed with the miraculous vision that Quentin has in his head.

Final verdict - Not hugely realistic perhaps only because I know no one who talks quite like Ben, but thought-provoking with interesting themes and a strong main character.

3 stars

8. Austenland - Shannon Hale (2007)

"Girls! Look who is here at last. Miss Amelia Heartwright. Miss Heartwright, may I present Miss Elizabeth Charming and my niece, Miss Jane Erstwhile."
    The three ladies curtsied and bowed their heads, and Jane noticed how natural and elegant Miss Heartwright's curtsy seemed. She had clearly been here before and come back for more, one of Mrs. Wattlesbrook's ideal clients. She would know the system, the players, the language and the customs. She would be a formidable foe.

For many fans of Jane Austen and its various screen adaptations, Austenland is an enticing title. However, while I am a fan of the screen versions, adaptations of the novel kind invariably end up sounding more like fan-fiction, and can be a bit...well icky, especially if one of the aspects of Jane Austen you enjoy is its wholesomeness and, simply put, lack of touching. You could argue either way whether this puts a focus more on love or lust, personality or looks, but in Austen novels anyway it is definitely the heroine's character that wins the man over, and I like that. So understandably being a bit hesitant of a book called Austenland, not helped by the back cover blurb including 'For the woman with everything except a Mr. Darcy of her own, an invitation to Austenland,' I began this Shannon Hale novel hoping for the best. In fact I might not even have heard of it if not for JJ Field from the 2007 adaptation of Northanger Abbey being cast as the novel's hero in it's very own indie flick. But we'll get to that later.

So the basic plot of Austenland revolves around 30-something Jane (of course) who is bequeathed a holiday to the secretive Pembroke Park where guests can experience authentic regency England, complete with Austen-worthy romance. Despite being a fan of cheesey films and rom-coms, I am very suspect of chick-lit, usually because of how unrealistic, silly and unsatisfying I've found it to be so far. A bit ironically then I ended up loving Austenland, while the majority of the reviews I've read on have been completely opposite. In comparisons both to chick-lit and Shannon Hale's other hugely popular novels, many found Jane to be unrealistic, the premise contrived and the storyline cliched. Looking at Austenland as a whole I can understand these reviews as it is cliched in the way it assimilates certain stock scenarios and events, but despite this I thought Shannon Hale's narrative was original and incredibly funny. I laughed out loud very often and found Jane to be relatable in her worries, her determination, her self-assurance and humour. I will be the first to say that this book is utter fantasy and completely unbelievable, but isn't that the same with Jane Austen novels? It is despite social and financial status that Austen's heroines find their happy endings. Shannon Hale retains much of the same wholesomeness and fun found in the original novels, while giving it a modern twist that was both amusing and endearing. It is a world where you are as pretty, witty and composed as you'd like to be normally and yet still remaining, like Jane, slightly awkward, nervous and using odd words like "huzzah." My favourite line so far? '"Argh," Jane arghed,' page 18.

Perhaps you need a particular sense of humour to love this novel as much as I do, but on the off-chance that you are such a person, I recommend this book to you. And yes please try and force this onto all of your female acquaintance just as I did to my sister, who enjoyed it immensely and now quotes Miss Charming at every turn.

4 stars

Regarding the film adaptation - this is currently being filmed in England and the lovely Miss Hale is blogging from the set on a wonderfully regular basis. The cast includes Keri Russell, Bret McKenzie, JJ Field and Jennifer Coolidge. It is being directed by Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and produced by Twilight's Stephanie Meyers. An interesting mix if ever I saw one.