Monday, 22 July 2019

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

"Greer wanted to ask Ben what he thought this was about, but then her instinct was that she shouldn't".

I am a recent convert to the church of Wolitzer. Her writing just ticks all the boxes for me. I devour it greedily. Her speech at this year's Sydney Writer's festival was so amazing and I she appeared on Younger  the other week to further cement my fandom.

Weirdly, or perhaps not so much upon reflection, I found the beginning of the novel a little triggering. I don't think its any surprise that most women have had a similar (or worse) episode than that which Greer encounters with an over over-entitled college d-bag acts inappropriately. I love how Greer and her friend Zee try to combat this with tee shirts and addressing the feminist icon of the novel, Faith Frank.

What are so well realised here are the fraught relations between women. The way we can be absolutely best friends and yet reticent to work together in order to ensure the competitiveness that we both value doesn't erode our relationships. Even the Germaine Greer-esque Frank (only in terms of fame, they are described as contemporaries) isn't put forward as a perfect bastion of female empowerment; much of the drama extends from the discovery of her back story - oops spoilers.

I get the impression that every reader's take away from this novel draws on the thing that is most present in their thoughts. Is it the growing divide between the girl moving to college and her boyfriend as they grow apart? Is it the realisation that the world isn't one where everything is possible? Is it a little of all those things? We are all imperfect humans and I think that is something that Wolitzer beautifully encapsulates. I could definitely re-read this and get an entirely new take on it - that is the magic of her writing.

5 out of 5 prose before hoes - just kidding.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

"He was an unearthly creature, a genius —or so those who weren't inclined to read had been told by those who were."

So I ordered this little number after Annabel Crabb mentioned in on the Chat 10 Looks 3  podcast. I know, my recent obsession with podcasts is really adding to my 'to be read pile'. It's just that when I'm busy at work I put the noise cancelling headphones on and pretend my well-read friends are there. In any case there are a few podcasts that act as substitutes for my real life busy friends.

Back to the book and a respite from deadlines and life dramas. Well actually more like a deep dive into some historical life dramas. Here a bevy of amazing looking women faun over Truman Capote in his heyday. Certainly their lives, while appearing optimal, have some massive drawbacks. Apparently you can be too thin and beautiful - things I don't have to worry too much about - I'm going to beat the winter bulge with a big stick at any moment.

While this was an interesting look back into history, there was just something missing that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Perhaps it had something to do with Truman as a character that betrayed his would be best friends. Perhaps it was the writing. The jury is out.

 4 out of 5 swans end up in the lake.

Youth by J.M.Coetzee

"For just as the spirit of the artist is both flame and fever, so the woman who longs to be licked by tongues of flame will at the same time do her best to quench the fever and bring down the artist to common ground."

It is somewhat remarkable that such a slim volume fits so much in. I literally tore through this and part of it, I have to admit, was 'hate' reading. You know that feeling when you detest a character so much and yet you are fascinated by them? That's what happened here for me. The narrator is, to be honest, a bit of a dick. He is emotionally removed from the women he hooks up with and so caught up in his own story as if to be an almost a non-entity.

His notion of literary greatness and the requirements of achieving it, his immense distaste for his origins and his family are disturbing. I guess one of the most worrying elements is how much his self absorbed, self-loathing is at times repulsive, and at others familiar. Particularly for someone like me that always had the feeling they were a square peg in a round hole. That can easily verge on self indulgent.

This tale of a young would-be literary giant leaving his origins in South Africa far behind with an attempt at reinvention in London in the 60s is so well realised. I was there, I experienced the feelings, or lack there of. This is pretty amazing writing, despite me really not loving the frustration of the subject matter.  It is a frustration we all feel at some time or another and feel so vividly in youth. Hence, why this book gets top marks from me and why the title is so apt.

5 out of 5 frustrated writers are self flagellating.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Bad Blood, Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

"The brilliant young Stanford dropout behind the breakthrough invention was anointed "the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates" by no less than former secretary of state George Schultz, the man many credited with winning the Cold War, in a quote at the end of the article."

I've been somewhat transfixed by this tale of fraudulent behaviour and extreme privilege, having been rather late to the story because, yes, I've just discovered podcasts. I'd seen this particular book referenced in a number of interviews and articles and was interested to discover more. What lay behind the lady in the Steve Jobs turtlenecks with the deep voice and the machine that was... just a bit of a prick?

Perhaps what captivated so many people in the story is how this young woman used her connections and persona to convince investors to bet large on a device that didn't work. Particularly at such a young age. Rarely do you see a woman portrayed as so vindictive and cut throat in the world of business. In one way it was semi-inspired. Here was a woman beating men of the very worst calibre at their own dodgy game, up to a point of course. Like all cautionary tales, the end doesn't look particularly good.

Her combination of control, secrecy and intimidation in an unlikely blonde package left me torn. On the one hand, at least it meant that there is visibility that women are demonstrably equal to men in their ability to do dodgy deals. On the other hand, I'd hate to think we were all painted in the same unsavoury hue. Was she just swept up in the momentum, was she the architect of her success and failure? The book suggests she was all in, all the time. The exploits are Machiavellian in scope.

In any case the book is well paced and features great writing - an impressive combination.
One wonders if her business had not been framed around healthcare, whether there would have ever been a problem. After all, scrutiny is high when lives are at risk. 

Did I mention this was the perfect read for the commute to and from work? Well now I have. Night all .

5 out of 5 vampires are draining.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Circe by Madeline Miller

"Ward and bulwark against ruin, worshipped like a god, for it was pure. The only thing in all the world you could be certain would not turn against you."

As a child, I was obsessed with the ancient gods of Rome and Greece. These fantastical tales had a form and structure that made more sense to me than other religious stories and they were far more compelling. Little wonder perhaps  that I am consistently drawn to novels that  revel in their retelling.

Circe is no exception. This is a fantastical tale told fantastically well. It provides an emotional tie to the central character that grounds the story, making it ever more accessible. In a week of high stress ups and downs, a demi-god's struggles seemed comparable. Well, perhaps I'm a little prone to exaggeration, but you get the gist.

I devoured the intense jealousy, grief,lust, fear, all the emotions. Miller was feted for her The Son of Achilles, and yet I find this latest offering a much more impressive work. This is one of those rare occasions where the beautiful cover art is a fair indication of the greatness that lies within.

5 out of 5 superpowers are a dual edged sword.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

"For me, at least, as I've written novels over many years, I just can't picture someone liking me on a personal level."

I've been meaning to read this for quite some time and wasn't disappointed. It is raw and beautiful. I felt like I was main-lining Murakami's brain and it was addictive.
The high that you get from running or exercise is a really interesting notion.It seems rather common in middle aged men who tend to push themselves into triathlons and the like in a last ditch attempt to stave off impending doom. It is a very vocal stance that screams I'm still vital and can achieve, despite the realisation that this could be the last push before the death knell of age and infirmity.It is also rather popular with reformed addicts as they seek a natural high.

Something that I found of particular interest was the author's sense of remove. His ability to  run and write is twinned with a sense of remove from company. In the same breath that he mentions being unlikeable and other, he also mentions that he has a wife. That troubled me somewhat. Where did she lie in that spectrum?

We are all imperfect creatures, sometimes the imperfections are delightfully perfect because they encapsulate the highs and the lows. I ran through this novel and ironically felt like I wasn't alone. There was someone else like me, removed and yet a part of this rich tapestry of a world, constantly forging forward and yet unsure of the journey's end.

If you, like me, are a fan of Mr Murakami, this will definitely not disappoint. I wish my lard arse could run, but this body is better suited to swimming. Weirdly, the sight of the black line on the bottom of the pool gives me a similar sense of calm, remove and obsession. Sadly I've not hit the pool in quite some time and this might just might be a motivating reason.

5 out of 5 pavements pounded yield thought provoking moments.