Friday, June 27, 2014

So three years just went by...

Posted by lea at 8:49 PM 4 comments Links to this post
It's been three years (THREE YEARS) since my last post and boy have things happened in that time. I got pregnant (surprise!) and had a baby… then I went and did it again. So now I've got two boys, Zo aged 2 years and Zeke aged almost-8 months. Which means my reading time is almost down to zero. Since getting pregnant/having kids:
  • I'm totally averse to movies with sub-titles, ironically unless they're English movies. Foreign films are just too hard to follow now that there's always something requiring my attention every few minutes - dirty nappies, a child who needs to be settled, dishes to be done, bottles that need sterilising, etc. But funny enough, these very things that make it so difficult to follow a movie purely through reading subtitles makes them really important to help me follow English movies. Go figure.
  • I've become one of those people who are attached to their phones. I think it happened while breastfeeding - while it's great feeding time for the baby, it's downtime for me so I started checking Facebook, reading news sites, looking up things on Google, and next thing you know, the phone is now my go-to for just about anything - writing a shopping list, researching a new topic, finding a recipe and lurking around and seeing what my friends and acquaintances are up to.
And, as I mentioned, I'm not reading that much at the moment, which means the focus of my blog will probably need to shift a little. Or perhaps I need to consider whether a blog is necessary at all. I do own a diary after all, which I neglect just as much as this blog.

But for old times' sake, the books I've read this year include (all book club books!):
  • Dodger by Terry Pratchett: fun romp, easy read.
  • Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders: interesting read, learnt a bit about Oscar Wilde.
  • The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman: beautifully told tragic story, had me heaving and ugly crying at the end.
Currently I'm reading the latest No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency book, The Minor Adjustments Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Legend of a Suicide, David Vann (book review)

Posted by lea at 9:02 PM 4 comments Links to this post
I chose David Vann as my V author for The Great Library Challenge, and I wasn't disappointed.

Legend of a Suicide is a collection of a novella and four short stories... but I wish someone had told me that before I started. I read it as a single long novel, and the fact that the characters are the same in all the stories didn't help with the confusion.

The book is semi-autobiographical, as it's about a boy named Roy and his suicidal divorcee father Jim who's a retired dentist who fails at fishing and eventually buys a house in the middle of nowhere, Alaska, and asks his son to stay with him for a year and then commits suicide. In real life, David Vann had a ex-dentist suicidal divorcee father who failed at fishing, bought a house in the middle of nowhere, Alaska, asked David to stay with him, and then committed suicide shortly thereafter.

The short stories are lovely to read in themselves - beautifully written, poetic in their descriptions and Vann manages to capture the many micro-subtleties of human emotion - but it's the novella that's a breathtaker. The novella is the part that describes Roy and his father's adventure in remote Alaska, doing the Bear Grylls survival-thing: hunting, fishing and building things. In the book, Roy accompanies his father in a desperate attempt to keep him alive, as he's sure that left to his own devices, his father will commit suicide. In real life, David turned down his father's offer of going to Alaska with him, and soon after, his father committed suicide. The novella is like a kind of emotional and/or spiritual purging for Vann, imagining what might have happened had his decision been different.

The raw emotions and truly pathetic weakness of Roy's father is simply infuriating. He sobs himself to sleep every night (with his 13 year old son sleeping in the same room), makes emotional confessions to a boy not old enough to process them, attempts to kill himself by stepping over a ledge in the middle of nowhere (how on earth did he expect his son to survive if he'd died?) and tries to emotionally blackmail his second wife into taking him back by saying he'll shoot himself through the head right there on the phone with her if he doesn't. All this leads to tragic and shocking consequences that you simply don't expect, a sudden twist from the author that simultaneously brings (one imagines) release and revenge at the same time.

Legend of a Suicide is a truly intriguing read that continued to haunt me for a few days after. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A new review of Northanger Abbey (part 1 of The Austen Series)

Posted by lea at 4:51 PM 3 comments Links to this post
I'm an unashamed fan of Jane Austen and my only regret is that she didn't write more than the six novels she left behind as a legacy.

For the past 20 or so years, I've read and re-read Pride and Prejudice the most (I estimate I probably read it over 35 times), followed fairly closely by Emma, then Persuasion, then Sense and Sensibility. I read Mansfield Park perhaps twice, and Northanger Abbey only once, because the two heroines Fanny Price and Catherine Morland annoyed me with their passivity and lack of wit - so unlike my favourite Elizabeth Bennett!

Anyway, having done a re-read of all her six works in recent months, I've decided to review them all through fresh eyes. Let's start with the one least travelled by.

Northanger Abbey

Perhaps more than any of her other books, re-reading this one surprised me the most because I realised my memory of it was so imperfect and prejudiced. I probably read it for the first time at around age 16, so coming back to it two decades later gave me an entirely new perspective.

I realised that Austen was doing something completely different with this book than her others. It's not just a straightforward novel - it's in fact a tongue-in-cheek parody of the gothic novels that were so popular at the time. It pokes fun of gothic sensibilities - the expectation of dark horrors in every empty wing of a large estate - through the very virginal and supremely innocent eyes of Catherine (Kitty) Morland. So influenced is she by these novels, that she makes a fool of herself in front of Henry Tilney, the love interest in the book.

The interesting thing about Northanger Abbey is how the tone is so different from her usual slightly detached but affectionate and wry narrative voice. There's something almost comedic in her tone, and this really saves the book from becoming insipid. I have to admit I missed it the first time and found it quite unlikeable. Because Kitty is so witless and innocent, it's easy to mistake Northanger Abbey as the same, but I found a new enjoyment of it this time and was much more charmed by it than before.

What they don't tell you about pregnancy

Posted by lea at 3:58 PM 4 comments Links to this post
I know I've been a total slacker in terms of blogging, but my excuse is that I'm pregnant and I took early maternity leave. Very early. I've been a slacker in many aspects, but now that I'm well and truly in the second trimester (past 5 months now) I'm feeling heaps better and more up to all the things I was avoiding before... like work. Fortunately for me, I work at home at my own pace, and even more fortunately, I have an understanding hubby who makes most of the money so I can relax and watch The Golden Girls at 4pm every afternoon with a clear conscience.

Anyway, I thought before I forget, I should write a list of all the things I had to discover for myself about pregnancy. Everyone talks about how wonderful it is and all the stuff about glowing and blah blah blah, but they don't tell you about the flatulence and discomfort. So this is my review on pregnancy for my own records.

First of all, it's an unending list of annoying discomforts. Especially early on (in the first trimester), there's a lot of uncontrollable flatulence. One time I was in a supermarket and in the middle of a sentence I let one out accidentally... okay it wasn't that much of an accident but I thought it would be silent and it wasn't. Anyway, I thought I'd just keep talking and noone would notice, but would hubby take my lead? No way. He says to me, 'uh, excuse me?' and laughs. Thank you very much.

Also in the first trimester is the general feeling of being unwell ALL THE BLOODY TIME. I just never felt quite right, quite myself, because all those hormones that are developing your baby are also totally messing with your body.

One thing that wasn't too bad for me though was throwing up. I've always been proud of my throw up history (only once in 1984 then again in 2004), but each occasion was just awful and I dreaded the possibility of throwing up during pregnancy. I did throw up a handful of times between weeks 12-14, but I found that it was a completely different experience: this time, it wasn't accompanied by hours of nausea followed by a day of illness. Each throw up was clean and efficient - just heave, heave, blow her out, then I felt fine afterwards.

Something that I'm so glad is over now is taste bud sensitivity. It wasn't so much with food, but I couldn't stand the taste of my own mouth, so I had to constantly chew gum or suck a mint or lolly. Brushing and Listerine only helped so much, and actually, most of the throwing up I did was thanks to the taste of my own morning breath.

A lesson learnt in the last month or so was that I can't eat to the same extent as I used to in a single sitting, because eating too much now causes reflux and it's so disgusting it ruins a perfectly delicious meal. I thought I could be clever and eat as much as I want then just take Gaviscon to avoid the reflux, but the cure is almost worse than the sickness. Yuck! So now I'm exercising self control to eat smaller portions but more regularly.

Thankfully, most of the worst discomforts disappeared by week 18, and I'm told many women suffer far worse than I did so I'm grateful really. But what happened to the glow I'm supposed to have right now? What I have instead of a glow is pimples all down my back (never happened before so I'm blaming it on the pregnancy) and tiredness. But I guess what I'll get in the end - a hopefully healthy and happy baby boy (we found out, couldn't resist) - will be worth it in the end. At least that's what they tell you, right? :)

The Lonely Polygamist, Bradley Udall

Posted by lea at 3:32 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Bradley Udall was my 'U' author for the Great Library Challenge, but since I've been so slack with blogging, it's been ages since I read this book so my review will be very brief and probably not very accurate.

The Lonely Polygamist is about Golden Richards, a polygamist in Utah with 27 kids spread across four wives (he's made up a song to remember all their names)... but as the title suggests, he's still lonely. It's hard to imagine that someone just wakes up to find themselves the centre of a great big family, but that's almost exactly what's happened to Golden - his life is barely of his own choosing, but somehow as he's ambled along, he's managed to pick up wives and children like other people pick up stamps or rocks.

Making the family seem normal is one of Udall's great achievements in this book. Although Golden is in a situation most of us would never find ourselves in, it's hard not to sympathise with him as he tackles his inner emptiness, or with his wives who want him to 'man up' and take charge instead of ducking for cover all the time, or with his kids who just want a piece of him. Their emotions and underlying tensions are the same as any dysfunctional family in any country in the world, which makes the whole polygamy thing barely even an issue, despite it being central to the novel.

I guess the main point of the book is seeing Golden's character develop from a passive bystander to an active participant in the life he's created, and the ripple effect it has on the other characters of the novel. Apart from Golden's own story, we're also afforded glimpses into the lives of Trish, the neglected fourth wife, and Rusty, the most troublesome and neglected of all the kids. Like Golden, they're lonely also, and they all drift along in their own individual worlds rubbing against each other but never quite connecting.

The Lonely Polygamist is a lovely book in its own way and written really well, but if I had to criticise, I'd say it was just a tad too long at over 600 pages.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dr De Marr, Paul Theroux

Posted by lea at 4:30 PM 2 comments Links to this post
I chose Paul Theroux for The Great Library Challenge T author because he's one of those authors you hear about but (in my case anyway) have never read. 

Dr De Marr is an eerie novella with a very creepy cover and several even more creepy illustrations throughout.

The story is about very short identical twins, George and Gerold De Marr, who are bound to each other by intense hatred and a desire for the other's death. When their parents pass away, they finally sever the invisible umbilical cord between them and live their lives free of each other for decades, until one day, George suddenly appears on Gerald's doorstep out of the blue. 

Shortly after, Gerald finds George dead in a chair upstairs and soon begins to unravel the seams of his mysterious secret life. He finds that George has been posing as a wealthy doctor, and soon enough, he assumes this false identity to enjoy its benefits. But of course, the very things that George was running from catch up with Gerald and he finds himself very quickly out of his depth.

Theroux writes with an eerie absence of emotion that casts shadows on every page. The handful of characters that appear in the pantomime are hard to read as they all seem to have their own agenda, of which you're constantly left in the dark.

It's quite a horrid story, adeptly told, with the punchy circular logic of a good short story. But personally, I like my stories with a little more light.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Modern Austen Adaptations

Posted by lea at 4:59 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Jane Austen sure knew how to write a great story, as evidenced in the multiple modern-day film adaptations of her work. So I've decided to do a bit of a comparison to see who's done it best, going in chronological order.

Clueless (1995)

This was a really smart adaptation of Emma, transported into LA's superficial Beverly Hills high school scene. Didn't we all fall in love with Alicia Silverstone's irresistably clueless Cher and Paul Rudd as her dorky ex-step-brother?

They got the ingredients just right because although Emma is a privileged meddler who thinks a little too well of herself, at heart, she's a well-meaning and kind person who gets things wrong. It's a nice bit of narcissism for the reader/viewer to be more astute and insightful than the girl who knows everything but her own heart, and it's nice to see her humbled a little.

Amy Heckerling did a great job of injecting absurdist humour, poking fun of modern teenagers (like the bumful of underwear showing under low-slung jeans) while also making them endearing and even quite delightful to watch.

Just as it's easy for people to overlook Austen as a bit of fluff about women's obsession with marriage and climbing the social ladder, it's easy to write off rich kids as spoilt brats. But instead, with both Emma and Clueless, we get a reminder that people are people no matter what social culture you belong to, and that we're really not that different at heart.

Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)

A simply superb adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Elizabeth Bennett as a modern, slightly chubby Londoner in the form of Bridget Jones, played to perfection by Renee Zellwegger. While it isn't strictly true to Elizabeth's character (she's witty and intelligent whereas Bridget is kind-hearted and perceptive but very much accident and embarrassment prone), she's just as endearing.

What they do really well in Bridget Jones is bring the fiery love/hate sexual tension between Elizabeth and Darcy to life while making it really funny rather than dramatic and intense. The foibles of the modern independent woman are humorously portrayed and the common theme of people just wanting love, no matter what era you live in, plays out nicely in what is essentially a love story.

Helen Fielding's humour translates well into film, and the characters are modernised scrupulously well. Even Daniel (the wicked Wickham) is someone you love to hate rather than just hate.

This is my favourite adaptation so far.

Bride and Prejudice (2004)

This is Pride and Prejudice with all the colour, verve, drama and music of Bollywood. Instead of Elizabeth we have gorgeous Aishwarya Rai as Lalita, in Darcy's place we have wealthy American hotelier Will, and instead of starched British manners we get people breaking into song and dance, like the memorable 'no wife no life'.

Gurinda Chadha does a great job bringing this story to life, focusing on the common themes of Austen's England and modern day India - like Mrs Bakshi's obsession to marry off her daughters (if only Mrs Bennett had had the resources of and the idea of arranged marriage versus love marriage.

There are a few times when it slips into a little bit of cringe, like the love scenes of Lalita and Will looking into the sunset, playing in the fountain and walking on the beach, which perhaps were deliberately OTT to poke gentle fun at Bollywood films, but overall it's a good girlie film and quite true to the original novel.

From Prada to Nada (2011)

I watched this a little reluctantly as I had a feeling I might regret it, but as an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility I felt a certain responsibility to watch and report. It's a Latina version that's tried to do a cross between a cultural Bride and Prejudice type thing on an obviously smaller budget, and a playful Clueless thing without the witty script.

The Dominguez sisters fall from great heights when their wealthy father passes away and they're relegated to the very modest East LA home of their very Mexican Aunt - a culture they've had almost nothing to do with and in fact seem quite ashamed of at first.

Almost from the first scene the characters are more like caricatures and the level of predictability is breathtaking. But it's not all bad. I liked that Nora (the ever-responsible Elinor) is re-envisioned as a law student fighting for the underprivileged, but I wasn't so crash hot about the stereotyped Mexican cleaners whose case she takes up and, through the process, falls in love with her boss Edward Ferris. Colonel Brandon is reinvented as a thug-looking tattooed handyman/artist with a heart of gold (a very surprising turn by an unrecognisable Wilmer Valderrama, The 70s show's Fez), which isn't too bad, but the very passionate Marianne is turned into a spoilt shallow rich girl who totters around on high heels in constant miniskirts and just wants to marry up to go back to Beverly Hills. In the end she bears almost no resemblance at all to Austen's original character.

I wouldn't recommend this movie unless you want to pass an hour and a half with Latina cliches and some vague semblance of Austen's plot. In my opinion, this is probably the worst adaptation.

Have I missed any movies that have moved Austen's novels into the modern day? And which is your favourite?

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