Category: novels

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment KitchenJulie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell
My rating: *

Julie Powell, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, Little, Brown and Company, 2005.

I read this book (adapted for film as Julie and Julia) to get some ideas of how to turn a blog on housesitting into a book. Alas, no clues were forthcoming on this front and I found the narrator’s world of overwrought hysterical chaos rather hard to take. It was all terribly domestic as well which I found dreadfully dreary. I think I probably just have to face the fact that I am an unrepentant crime fiction reader and chick lit and variations thereof leave me completely cold.

The post September 11 work in a government organisation trying to sort out the mess is interesting – but again the narrator’s constant state of manic chaos is very wearing – even if the author clearly intends it to be read as amusing.

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 (2011)

Strong Spoilers. Please note that this discussion will probably only make sense if you are familiar with all the Harry Potter books and films. WARNING: DO NOT READ, if you don’t want to know what happens in the film before seeing it.

My rating: ****
Imdb link

With this action packed and very watchable film, the last of the 1990s blockbuster fantasy franchises draws to a close. Fantasy science fiction viewers are now faced with a bleak landscape of dreary comic book super hero adaptations stretching ahead in seemingly endless vistas. 3D trailers for The Green Lantern and Captain America ran at the sold out 3D Imax session I attended, and although clearly big on spectacular special effects, the clichéd characters, plots and politics induced an overwhelming sense, in this viewer at least, of yawning apathy. Other attempts to create big fantasy franchises in the wake of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have all failed. C.S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia is simply too dated, too loaded with sectarian overtones and elitist assumptions about social class and race to really bring into a modern sensibility and the attempt to make Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy into something, fizzled out after a very ordinary first film, The Golden Compass, and the impossibility of rendering the equally sectarian (but in a deliberately opposed sense to Lewis) subsequent novels palatable to a mainstream audience.

I hasten to add that I have never had more than a lukewarm interest in the Harry Potter films either, regarding them simply as no more than the poor and rather tedious cousins of the books. But this last, all stops pulled out, instalment is a cut above the rest and indeed is actually better in some ways than the book. But this last entry aside, I think in general the books would be better suited to the medium of television, rather than film. A lengthy, and no doubt unfeasibly expensive BBC series might do them better justice.

Of course, the books have their problems too, as has been pointed out at great length by critics, particularly in terms of their very conventional views on social hierarchy and gender and the problematic division between an elite of magical people and a plebeian race of non-magical people (muggles). But for all that, they are compelling and highly readable stories and Rowling creates extraordinarily vivid detail in describing the minutiae of her created world. She also plays with language creation in interesting ways – combining Latin, French and English in some of her neologisms (for example, the pensieve). They are also probably one of the most widely shared cultural texts amongst the under 30s. This is certainly the case with regards to my own (Australian) teacher trainee university students and thus the novels can be used as a literary point of reference in teaching contexts. Very few of these students have not read the books, or at the very least seen the films, and they are widely and enthusiastically loved. That other fantasy franchise with which Harry Potter has often been compared in terms of its popularity, Twilight, is on the other hand almost universally reviled and ridiculed by the student body.

But to return to the last Harry Potter film, the rather clumsily titled Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2. The battle scenes owe much to that benchmark film, The Lord of the Rings of course, and the extraordinary and intricate visuals and special effects are given meaning by the journey of the characters and the plot. But what really made the film for me was a relatively short section which forms a story within the story – namely the story of Severus Snape. Professor Snape, master of potions and eternally aspiring Black Arts teacher, has always been my favourite Harry Potter character. I have long had a bit of a weakness for characters who hide their softer side under a harsh exterior. Snape, for all his authoritarian and sartorial social maladjustments, is finally revealed as a romantic idealist in the final book and film. This secret had been hinted at from the start and the final revelation of his true loyalties and motivation (his undying and unrequited love for Harry Potter’s mother) came as no surprise to me, at least, when I read the final book.

But sadly, I found Rowlings’ treatment of Snape’s backstory to be perfunctory and highly unsatisfactory. The final exposure of his story read more as a series of notes than a properly developed final draft of a novel, but no doubt the narrative problems posed by Snape’s backstory within the Harry Potter format were simply too difficult to solve. Indeed, the character probably deserves a separate novel in his own right and from his own point of view. This is where film comes in. Such narrative conundrums are far easier to deal with when you have people – actors – who can invest proceedings with layers of emotion and complexity. It had been my hope that the film would come up with the goods where the book had singularly failed and I am very happy to say I was not disappointed.

In an all too brief capsule, with a fine performance from Alan Rickman and some beautiful nostalgia inducing visuals evoking the lost hopes of childhood, we find the tale of a classic flawed hero: social exclusion, unrequited love, dalliances with the dark side, noble self-sacrifice and final tragic redemption. The story of the tragic hero is one that remains endlessly resonant in literature and from my own point of view, Severus Snape is perhaps Rowling’s most interesting character. Sadly this story within a story draws to a close all too quickly and we are returned to what another reviewer has described as the rather wooden performance of Daniel Radcliffe.

Interestingly, Dumbledore the ostensible hero and mentor figure of the series, emerges as somewhat tarnished in Rowling’s final book and in the final film, Dumbledore’s brother alludes to the former’s less than creditable past and secretiveness and as Snape’s memories reveal, Dumbledore is quite happy to raise Harry as a lamb for the slaughter, knowing that he would eventually have to be killed. It is a pity that the film, probably for reasons of time, was not able to include the story of Dumbledore and his sister. Due to the omission of some of these plot intricacies, one thing (amongst others) I found lacking in credibility in the film was Harry’s continuing ready trust and admiration for Dumbledore, even after viewing Snape’s memories in the pensieve. Rowling’s narrative intentions here are quite obvious. Those we consider heroes are perhaps less heroic than we think and those we despise as villains might perhaps not be what they seem.

Rowling recently hinted at the possibility that she might consider writing more entries in the Harry Potter saga, but as many hope, she will not be tempted to tamper with the integrity of the existing series. (Although I have to admit I find the idea of Harry and the team at wizarding university an entertaining prospect.) Indeed, her final epilogue which sees the trio all implausibly married to their adolescent crushes would actually seem to close down the possibility for future adventures. Unfortunately (except for Harry’s brief tribute to Snape ‘as the bravest man I have known’), this epilogue was also tagged on to the film. One critic accurately describes its inclusion as ‘unintentionally hilarious’, with the actors we have been used to seeing as children and adolescents suddenly appearing as fond parents. It is certainly true that the incongruity of this scene caused quite a bit of laughter in the cinema session I attended.

Rowling has recently launched an interesting (and clearly no expense spared) online transmedia experiment, titled Pottermore centering on the seven novels and promises to include a lot of material (extra scenes and back story) that was not included in the original novels. A kind of updated, and one would hope more entertaining (!), version of Tolkien’s Silmarillion for Harry Potter fans. My own hope here for the transmedia project would be that we might finally see a more satisfactory written treatment of Snape’s story.

Twilight (2005)

NB: Spoiler alert

Stephenie Meyer, Twilight, New York: Little, Brown and Co. Books for Young Readers, 2005.
My rating: *

Twilight (Twilight, #1) Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I read this book to see what all the fuss was about, which has been further amplified by the appearance of the films. Twilight and its sequels have spawned a whole imitative sub industry in the form of other novels and television series. But for all the author’s claims of an original take on the vampire myth – it has all been done before and recently. One example is the True Blood novel series which appeared slightly before Twilight and which has been made into a currently airing television series. And of course there are the seminal late 90s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel. All of these series feature adolescent females and their troubled relationships with male vampires some decades, if not hundreds of years, older than themselves. What is new perhaps is the complete and utter complicity of the female in her eventual destruction.

Unfortunately, try as I might, I can’t think of anything positive to say about Twilight. There is little to recommend it either in terms of style or content. As numbers of others have remarked, it reads like bad fan fiction which has by some stroke of luck been published by a mainstream publisher. A couple of decades ago, it is the sort of material that an adolescent writer would have kept firmly under lock and key in their bedroom drawer so as not to risk the extreme embarrassment of it finding any other readers apart from themselves. One can also remark on the similarities with porn fiction in the way it is structured and written, but it is porn without the sex. Indeed one notable critique describes it as ‘abstinence porn’.

The story focuses entirely on the obsessive relationship between a 16 year old girl, Bella, and a self described ‘monster’, Edward, a centenarian vampire who remains physically fixed at the point of his death at the age of 17. Numbers of critics – from a feminist standpoint in particular – have pointed to the abusive nature of Bella’s relationship with Edward, the latter not only engaging in classic emotionally manipulative behaviour but also fulfilling all the criteria of a bona fide stalker. Bella occupies the masochistic female victim role – Edward’s appalling behaviour proves nothing more than ‘how much he loves her’.

The author, Stephenie Meyer, claims that the books are all about ‘choice’ and in a perverse and limited way this is indeed true. But most of the choosing is done by the male protagonist, Edward, and it all involves stringent self-denial – both in relation to his predatory vampiric desire to kill Bella (and all those around her) by sucking their blood, and also in his much vaunted sexual abstinence, given the contact of his strong vampire body with a weak human one could prove potentially fatal to Bella. As for Bella herself, her choice merely involves the complete and utter self-indulgence of her fixation on Edward and the annihilation of any separate identity in the process. She has no hobbies, no friends (in spite of overtures from others), no career ambitions and no moral or physical sense of self-preservation.

As critics have pointed out – all the agency rests with Edward. If Bella is the first person narrator, it is Edward who acts as subject in these novels. He makes the decisions which keep Bella alive and provides her with the emotional focus which gives structure and meaning to her existence. The decisions he makes not only involve making sure that he doesn’t kill her himself but also involve continually ‘saving’ her from car accidents, potential sexual assault by muggers and being killed by other vampires. When Edward disappears in the second novel, Bella goes into a catatonic suicidal state which lasts for months. This is matched later by Edward’s own suicidal condition when he mistakenly believes Bella is dead.

In the final novel, Breaking Dawn, Edward’s ‘noble’ self-denial – denial of himself as a vampiric predator is finally overcome by Bella’s own will to self annihilation when in the fourth novel, they marry, engage in one night of rough sex, which following the Gone with the Wind model results in instant pregnancy and no further sex. The pregnancy destroys Bella’s body and she has to be transformed into a vampire in order to ‘save’ her. The loss of virginity and pregnancy becomes a violent loss of purity which can only lead to death and to transformation into a monster – a problematic model to say the least. But perhaps one might argue facetiously that this might merely be designed to provide a bracing warning about the dangers of teenage sex and teenage pregnancy to adolescent readers of the series.

Numbers of fans have strongly protested at this (inevitable) outcome – even sending petitions to the publisher. Thus it would appear that what attracted them to the series was the odd stand off between two forms of self-destructive subjectivity – one of a most stringent and painful self-denial, the other of a complete indulgence in the dubious pleasures of emotional, moral and physical self annihilation. Teenage pregnancy and being turned into a vampire were probably not what they had hoped for their heroine.

The series, due to its immense popularity has also been frequently described as the ‘new Harry Potter’, but for all its faults the Harry Potter series did at least engage with a wider external social and cultural world with some historical depth. It raised quite sophisticated (if somewhat conservative) questions about social structures and ethical responsibility to others, both in relation to friends and to the broader community. At a literary level it also entertained readers with basic Latin magic words and intriguing neologisms such as ‘pensieve’, a combination of the French word ‘penser’ (to think) and the English word ‘sieve’, to describe a magical device which allowed a person to store their memories for future use either by themselves or others. There is none of this engagement with the social and political world or with language invention in the Twilight series.

If Twilight and its three sequels were not so overwhelmingly popular one could safely ignore them, but the question that has fascinated me is why have they become such a mass phenomenon? One reason perhaps is that they provide validation for the self-indulgences to which adolescence is prone, but I would like to suggest a further reason. Perhaps what attracts fans to the Twilight series is akin to the impulse that currently attracts people in such large numbers to forms of religious and ideological fundamentalism. In a cultural conjuncture which has seen the crumbling of rigidly defined social structures and belief in universal and socially well-defined paths to salvation of various kinds, it is endlessly difficult taking emotional and ethical responsibility for one’s own life and subjectivity.

For all the rhetoric of romance, the relationship between Edward and Bella is one that Jean Baudrillard would no doubt approve of thoroughly – it is all about the pleasures of seduction, power and self-annihilation, not about love. Making somebody (or something) else responsible for how we exist in the world is a welcome relief from the relentless day-to-day uncertainties and responsibilities foisted on us by the human condition. One can then wallow in the emotional opium of self-abandonment – temporarily at least – until it eventually, as it always does, goes horribly wrong. There are no shortage of warnings on the dangers of such a path, warnings which have been insistently repeated over millennia by countless social commentators and philosophers.

The Da Vinci Code (2003)

Dan Brown (2003). The Da Vinci Code. New York: Anchor.
My rating: **

The Da Vinci Code The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

What irritated me about this book was not so much the much fêted hilariously bad writing style, nor the erratic pacing which meant nothing much happened until the middle of this lengthy tome, but the presentation of fiction, myth and conspiracy theory as incontrovertibly true.

A friend recently sent me a link to a short series of most entertaining reviews in the New York Magazine of Dan Brown’s latest The Lost Symbol. One of the reviewers, Sam Anderson, makes the acute observation that perhaps one of the main attractions of Dan Brown’s novels is that readers feel as though they are learning interesting facts from his books. It is just somewhat unfortunate that a number of these facts aren’t – well – exactly true.

This same friend had also earlier sent me the links to linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum’s amusing blog posts here and here on Dan Brown’s writing style. As a result, I felt inspired to produce my own attempt at a Dan Brown opening sentence. As a bit of background here, over the last few years I have done rather a lot of housesitting.

    Renowned housesitter, Clare, removed the bloodied claws of the ravening cats from her throat and kicked the snarling dog which had crushed her ankle between its hideous jaws across the room to join the writhing lizards she had plucked from her hair. Too late! With an awful groan the esteemed minder of houses, through the mists of galloping death, gazed longingly at the original Charles Blackman prints adorning the walls of the luxury mansion that was her latest and her last assignment. A last breath croaked from her torn throat as she helpless, turned to watch the silhouette of a brightly patterned and red eyed boa constrictor creep dangerously close from the distant end of the immense tree-lined drive.

The Amber Spyglass

My rating: *
Spoiler Alert

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, Book 3) The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

My review

This book is well written and the story really hooks you in, but I really disliked the philosophy Pullman is pushing. This philosophy seems to be a kind of Nietzschean materialist version of gnosticism (phew!). His is a universe which allows only of one interpretation, a place where the event is nothing but the intervention of chaos and the void and must be negated so the status quo can be restored in the full glory of its disciplinary order. It is a universe where the human curiosity for knowledge leads to ruin and annihilation (although the author overtly claims the opposite) and where the fluidity of identity must be replaced by the supremacy of the rational and by fixed identity.

Just to break down those abstractions a bit. The ‘event’ is the opening up of windows to other worlds by scientists – Lord Asriel and the scientists in the Cittagazze. This leads to the beginning of the breakdown of the universe and the potential annihilation of consciousness. It is scientific curiosity about what is out there and other worlds that leads to this situation.

Views on identity centre around daemons (souls). Children have daemons which can change shape until they reach puberty. After that, they become fixed which Pullman indicates several times is a good thing and a sign of maturity and wisdom. This identity also appears to maintain the social order. Once a servant always a servant. As Lyra explains in The Amber Spyglass the daemons of servants are usually dogs, indicating that these are people who need to be led and ordered around. One is not a servant due to unjust social circumstances or questionable social hierarchies but because that is what one’s nature is and one must remain as ordained. Entire armies of Tartars have wolf daemons. If one is not happy with one’s daemon – too bad – you are stuck with it. So much for social justice or working on the self as a project.

Lyra, when she hits puberty, loses her intuitive ability to read the alethiometer and must then be formed by the disciplinary institution of the (boarding) school in order to develop rational techniques to read it. It is the Modernist idea that fantasy and intuition are the province of childhood and are properly replaced by adult ‘rationality’. C. Wright Mills provides a classic example of this kind of thinking in his 1959 work The Sociological Imagination.

Dust appears to be conscious matter which works in sync with humans – it is both attracted to humans and generated by humans. It relies on humans to aggregate into a conscious form. Angels are beings who can’t quite pull it off in terms of really existing because they have no real material body. They are half existences (even if they are powerful) and envy the body of humans.

A propos this angelic nature, Will is content to ask entities such as angels whether they are stronger or weaker than humans. When the first angel he meets, Balthamos, replies he is weaker than humans, Will bluntly tells him that he has to do what he orders him to do in that case. This theme of exploiting his position as the strongest emerges again and again. If Will thinks he can exercise power over somebody or something he doesn’t hesitate to do so. The Nietzschean hero indeed.

‘God’ or ‘the Authority’ is an evil being who only wants to dominate and control Man and is frightened of the power of the latter. What we have here is an old-fashioned modernist anthropomorphic view of the universe. Humans (and the equivalents thereof) are the centre and the raison d’être of all conscious being.

On another topic, the idea of a romantic interlude between two twelve year old children resulting in the salvation of the universe both present and future is both tacky and unconvincing. Why should ‘Dust’ (aka conscious matter particles) find such an event to be the stabilising point?

There is no room for multiple interpretations of elements within Pullman’s cosmology, which makes it a very closed and small universe. At the same time it is hard to pin down what is actually going on satisfactorily and it all seems very confused and self-contradictory at the edges. It would appear that both scientific and spiritual forms of experimental knowledge are dangerous to the well-being of the entire universe and that the best we can do is conform to a rigid disciplinary status quo which will preserve our nature and protect us from the danger of annihilation. There is nothing but a gaping void beyond or outside of this status quo. Even when you are dead you are recycled to guarantee the ongoing existence of this ghastly stasis.

In conclusion, one is left with nowhere to go at the end of Pullman’s trilogy but that would appear to be the author’s aim in any case.

The Subtle Knife

My rating: ***

The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, Book 2) The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

My review

I found this book a bit disappointing after the first one. It has taken me a while to analyse why. I think it is a combination of a number of things.

First of all I’m not quite convinced by Pullman’s cosmology. Somehow it isn’t big enough – there is not enough to it to really give me a sense of large spaces and ambiguous complexity. The cosmology works much better in the first book where it is highly organised. It is less convincing as it starts to change and break down in The Subtle Knife. Even though we have three worlds in this book – including our own world the cosmos feels much smaller than in the first.

Secondly, it appears that Lyra after having initially been the heroine is now in fact just there to help the hero. This was something I found really disappointing about the film The Matrix for example. In the film Trinity is set up as a remarkable and admirable figure and then all she becomes is a helper for the central male hero. Lyra becomes a far less interesting and likeable character in this second novel with a strong emphasis on her uncivilised character traits.

The central character Will also reminds me of that other Will in Susan Hill’s The Dark is Rising a traumatised and rather distant character, old beyond his years with the weight of the universe and destiny on his shoulders. I continue not to be a fan on ‘chosen one’ kind of thematics.

Northern Lights

My rating: ****

Northern Lights (His Dark Materials I) Tenth Anniversary 1995-2005 Northern Lights (His Dark Materials I) Tenth Anniversary 1995-2005 by Philip Pullman

My review

I enjoyed this book a great deal. Well-written and well-plotted with interesting characters. It also created a most convincing alternative world.

Of particular interest is the idea that humans have souls which manifest themselves in physical animal form and never leave people’s side. One can also engage in conversations with this ‘soul’. Quite an attractive idea, although my last housesit with a really clingy dog did take a bit of a shine off the notion (!)

Also interesting is the Nietzschean character of Lord Asriel. The philosophical discussions about free will and destiny, the nature of the Fall and original sin are quite readable even if I didn’t necessarily agree with the positions being argued.

I had a few quibbles about the familiar ‘special individual with great destiny who alone can save the world’ trope. I am really not a fan of that idea – but I think it is fairly popular as a way of getting the engine of a plot moving along.

I saw the film adaptation The Golden Compass when it came out and rewatched it again after having read the book. I thought the film was pretty colourless when I originally saw it and watching it again confirmed this perception. It does nothing more than provide a rather dreary plot summary of the book.

I have no idea why so many claims were made that elements which were critical of institutionalised religion in the book were toned down for the film. In my view, the film is far more blatant and one-sided in its demonisation of institutional religion than the book is. Evil popery indeed. The film reduces the ambiguities of the book in this and so many other places to black and white.

The book is never sentimental but sentimental elements are introduced into the film.

Why the film ends somewhere before the end of the book is also somewhat of a mystery, The book presents a well balanced story and to take the end of the story to the next film doesn’t make sense – unless the film makers are just going to skip over the ending as being too difficult.

To tell the truth, the next two books would be an absolute minefield when it comes to mainstream American film. It is difficult to see how they can be transferred to screen without offending just about everybody.