Book Review: “Siegfried Sassoon: A Life” by Max Egremont

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Sassoon in 1920.

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When we think of Siegfried Sassoon, we think of World War One – his brutally realistic poems about the trenches, his anger, how he narrowly escaped death so many times. The war was the defining of Sassoon’s life and his career as a writer… But it lasted only four years and was over when he was only thirty-two. In this 639-page biography, the war ends around the 200th page. Then what? This was a question that plagued Sassoon all his life – and one his biographer, Max Egremont, struggles with as well. What happens after the worst has passed? How do you move on? What is left?

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Book Review: “Trigger Warning” (2015) by Neil Gaiman

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Much like Fragile Things before it (review here), Gaiman’s third short-story collection, Trigger Warning, is a collection of bits and pieces, scraps of stories that he has collected over the years and has now thrown together into a single volume. In the introduction, Gaiman admits that this book does not play by the rules:

I firmly believe that short story collections should be the same sort of thing all the way through. They should not, hodgepodge and willy-nilly, assemble stories that were obviously not intended to sit between the same covers. They should not, in short, contain horror and ghost stories, science fiction and fairy tales, fabulism and poetry, all in the same place. They should be respectable.
This collection fails that test.

The good news is that the quality of Trigger Warning‘s material does not vary quite as wildly as the entries in Fragile Things did. Some tales are still significantly better than others, but overall, the bar has undoubtedly been raised; it seems that Gaiman is still growing as a writer and getting better all the time, making world domination a likely prediction for, say, 2020. There are still some duds in here though, ranging from generally “meh” to deeply silly, which is why I decided this collection only three stars, like Fragile Things before it.

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Book Review: “Yes Please” (2014) by Amy Poehler

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Celebrity memoirs are a curious thing. They are usually written by people who are not writers, heavily edited by the publisher (again: not writers), and tend to be strictly paint-by-numbers works. There is a certain formula the public expects you to follow and all you have to do is fill in the blanks.

My childhood was _____ because my parents were _____. I grew up in _____ but always longed for something more. I discovered my passion for _____ when I was _____. I got my big break when I was ____ and now I am best known for ____. Working with ____ was absolutely amazing and I totally fangirled when I bumped into  ____ at the ____ awards. So embarrassing! Anyway, here are some pictures of me as a kid. Look at that hair. What is up with that hair?

Done!

In many ways, Yes Please follows this script to the letter. Poehler writes about dreaming of adventure as a child, discovering the joys of improv comedy in college, working on SNL and Parks and Recreation, and drops a fair number of names that either mean something to you or go completely over your head, as expected. However, where this book gets interesting is the chapters where she goes off the beaten path. Whether you will enjoy this work depends on how you feel about Poehler, of course, but also on your expectations of the comedy memoir.

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Book Review: “Crush” (2005) by Richard Siken

“On The Road” (2012) still.

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In an older study advice post on how to approach poetry, I wrote that a good poet should be able to make you feel something, whether you fully understand the work or not:

Often poems are not so much vessels of information, but more like an experience. A good poet can reach out and get an emotional response from you even if you have no clue what (s)he is talking about. Sometimes you need to read a poem a few times before you fully understand it, or you can spend the rest of your life reading a work and still not grasp what is actually about. Sometimes the poets doesn’t want you to get it. You’re not stupid or illiterate, it’s just… Poetry. If you feel it, you feel it. If you don’t, you don’t.

Even though Richard Siken is a fairly accessible poet, I had no idea what the poems in Crush were about the first time I read it, little over a year ago. But it didn’t matter, because I felt it. The words tugged on heartstrings I never even knew I had and left me staring out the window, trying to find the right words for the rush of emotions washing over me. I have read Crush two more times since then and I feel like I have a better grasp of it now, but it still leaves me staring out the window, at a complete loss for words.

…But let’s give it a go anyway.

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Theatre Review: “Much Ado About Nothing” (RSC, 2014)

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Edward Bennett (Benedick) and Michelle Terry (Beatrice).

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As I’ve explained in my review of Love’s Labour’s Lost (RSC 2014), this production was presented as Love’s Labour’s Won by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was a controversial decision that confused audiences and led to heated debate among scholars, since Love’s Labour’s Won is either the title of a lost Shakespeare play or an alternative title for an existing play. Which one? Who knows! An episode of  Doctor Who was dedicated to it, that’s the level of mystery we’re talking here. Still, I can see why one would want to stage these plays as a duology: they are variations on similar themes. Both Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing have a distinct male and female group, men asked to prove their love, strong female characters who are more demanding than forgiving, clear class differences, and a whole lot of banter. Some critics have even argued that Berowne and Rosaline were a kind of try-out for Beatrice and Benedick.

The setting is the same (Charlecote Park, post-WWI this time) and most of the cast members return, but this production fails exactly where Love’s Labour’s Lost so gloriously succeeded: using the setting to enhance the themes of the story.

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Book Review: “S.” (2013) by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams

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“Mum, I want to show you the novel I’m currently reading.”

I open S. at a random page and her eyes widen. The paper is artificially yellowed to make it look like it’s been sitting on a dusty library shelf for years, there are notes in different handwriting and ink colours scribbled all over the margins, and from between the sheets of paper a detailed map of a college campus drawn in sharpie on a coffee shop napkin falls out. My mother carefully takes it out of my hands and turns the page, revealing more handwritten notes and a letter written on a legal pad with a coffee stain.

“No way,” she breathes quietly.

Yes way.

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Book Review: “The Absolutist” (2011) by John Boyne

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“Birdsong” (2012) still.

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As one of the last people left on this planet who has not read The Boy In The Striped Pajamas (2006), I was not familiar with John Boyne as a writer when I first picked up this book. However, I still went into it with certain expectations. A story about a young soldier who falls in love with a fellow private during World War One? I flew through The Absolutist in one sitting with a stack of tissues and a fluffy pillow on standby at all times, because there was no way that this would end well (“spoiler” alert: it didn’t).

On the surface, this book seems to have been tailor-made for me in terms of theme and setting, and at first I did enjoy it. However, the following morning I kept thinking of things I didn’t like about it and as I was writing this review, I discovered even more; it turns out that on the surface is exactly where The Absolutist stays.

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Book Review: “One More Thing” (2014) by B.J. Novak

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This book reminded me a lot of a That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch where David Mitchell is planning out the next episode of their show: “I think it should go: hit, miss, hit, hit, miss, miss, miss, hit, miss, hit, hit.” When Robert Webb asks him why they even have to include the misses (because they are such a bother to write), Mitchell replies that they have to “perversely include about 50% deliberately unamusing material” because that is what people expect from a sketch show.

B.J. Novak’s One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories reads a lot like a sketch show, consisting of one “wouldn’t it be funny if” scenario after the other: what if an Ugandan war lord went out on a date? What if there was a Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela?  Appropriately, One More Thing has about 100 pages of misses that could have, and should have, been cut.

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Book Review: “Gone Girl” (2012) by Gillian Flynn

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in this year's movie adaptation by David Fincher.

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in this year’s movie adaptation by David Fincher.

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Thrillers have a special little place in my heart. My father is mildly dyslexic and finds that it’s easier for him to focus on a book if it has an exciting plot, so he reads books about kidnappings, plots to overthrow governments, and tons and tons of murder. Frederick Forsyth, David Baldacci, Henning Mankell, Thomas Harris… If it has an ominous pair of eyes or a man’s silhouette on the cover, my dad probably owns it. Over the years, I have read a fair number of thrillers myself, either at my father’s recommendation or because I wanted to check a certain book out before buying him a copy for his birthday. When a new Dan Brown book comes out, he reads it first and then watches me with twinkling eyes as I try to win our usual bet (“Can I Figure Out Who Did It Before I’m Halfway Through The Novel”). We watch Danish crime shows together, discuss Sherlock’s latest mystery, and he tries to shush me before I can say “oh, it’s totally that guy” as much as possible.

As fond as I am of the genre, mediocrity is an issue; too often thrillers are positively rife with shoddy characterisation and melodramatic writing (“as long as the plot is fast and just complicated enough to make the reader feel clever, right?”). However, every so often one gem comes along that sweeps readers off their feet, breaks through into the mainstream, and dominates airport book stores for years to come. Gone Girl is one such well-deserved hit.

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Book Review: “The Bone Clocks” (2014) by David Mitchell

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The seven-fold labyrinth.

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If I had to sum up my thoughts on this book in one phrase, it would be “I see what you did there.” David Mitchell is an incredibly self-conscious writer and nowhere is that more visible than in The Bone Clocks. This novel is full of references to his other works (hi Jacob de Zoet!), meta jokes about writers whose style he attempts to emulate (hi Martin Amis!), and barely veiled criticisms of the very book you’re holding. It is a well-crafted work and a great showcase of Mitchell’s gift for jumping from one writing style to another. However, admiring an author’s skill is not enough. A true magician can make you believe his assistant is levitating even when you can see the strings holding her up, and despite Mitchell’s arsenal of tricks and gadgets, The Bone Clocks fails to keep the illusion alive where it really matters. Ironically, it’s the fantasy elements where the mirage falls apart.

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