Monday, June 30, 2008

Book 8 – Fight Club

By Chuck Palahniuk

From the refreshingly feminist romance of My Brilliant Career to the male-driven mental maelstrom that is Fight Club, there is no pattern to my pursuit of leisurely reading!

I’m sure all you 50-bookers are already well acquainted as to what Fight Club is all about, mostly likely thanks to David Fincher’s ambitious 1999 movie adaptation (which I saw when it first debuted). I see now how faithfully Fincher captured the voice of this wacky cult writer, and then some. Like the flick, the book crackles and pops with Palahniuk’s brand of nihilistic humour and seethes with a tightly wound masculine energy.

Palahniuk’s sordid world of basement support groups and clandestine fight clubs; his endearingly deranged protagonists caught up in familiar themes of male identity crisis and individual worth in society; the twisted use of plot devices, such as a schizophrenic love triangle, provide the perfect boxing ring for Palahniuk to make his irreverent jabs and punches at the big C’s: Consumerism, Conformism and Corporations.

The fight clubs of men beating up men somehow evolve into an underground society of brotherly militants conspiring to wreak pure, unadulterated mischief upon society, and then of course, this becomes a global network of terrorist cells to bring down civilization as we know it!

Despite the constant lust for mayhem and anarchy, I still appreciated the post 9/11 relevance of Fight Club. You know that Palahniuk wrote it all in good clean fun. Though his voice calls for chaos, the writing itself is tight and spare, and the style articulate, distinct and most of all, not too self-consciously clever. All in all, an entertainingly excellent read!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book 7 – My Brilliant Career

By Miles Franklin

This wonderfully brilliant novel was published in 1901, but it feels so timeless and universal it could have been written yesterday, albeit by a precociously gifted young writer. This is the kind of book that makes me realize why I love reading great fiction so much. It also makes a 6 hour train ride to Toronto so much breezier and sweeter!

The tale is archetypically simple yet strikingly and passionately written. Sybylla Melvyn is a fiery, headstrong girl growing up in an impoverished farm way out in the Australian bush. Too clever for her own good, she longs for an artistic life far removed from the reality of unending farmwork and drudgery. By a stroke of good fortune, Sybylla is sent to live with her wealthy grandmother in her estate along with her jovial uncle and lovely aunt. She soon strikes up an unlikely romance with the neighbouring landowner, Harry Beecham.

Yes, this all sounds like a typical Victorian fairy tale, except this is where our plucky heroine turns down the man at the end, refusing to marry in order to maintain a sense of true independence. This is the kind of totally left-field ending that’s practically unheard of at that period in history. What’s even more remarkable is that the book was written when the author was only 16. You gotta wonder where a young girl, even a precocious one, got such ideas having only grown up in an isolated rural community in New South Wales at the turn-of-the-century, as this is truly a feminist's happy ending.

The book was a big hit in Australia and abroad, and much speculation was made about the autobiographical aspects of the novel. Indeed the fictional Sybylla Melvyn and the young Franklin are very much one and the same (the author’s full name is Stella Franklin, as she used her more masculine-sounding middle name, Miles, for professional and practical reasons). Sybylla/Stella is impulsive, egotistical and self-centred, but somehow she becomes one of the most endearing characters I've come across in fiction in a long while, and I was quickly hooked. This is also definitely a tale from the Australian bush, a world which Franklin knows intimately. There are plenty of rich, detailed accounts of the landscape and life in the outback, from the harsh and impoverished conditions of nomadic farmhands and sheepherders to the privileged and leisurely pursuits of the upper classes.

The average male reader may not be so interested in this book. But if you’re a fan of Jane Austen and such, this is a must-read. Definitely recommended for female readers young and old, as this has been a highlight read of the year so far! It’s even inspired me to re-rent the equally brilliant 1979 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong, featuring a young Judy Davis and Sam Neill!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Book 6 – Jenny & The Jaws of Life

By Jincy Willett

This short story collection was published in 1987 and reprinted in 2002 with a foreword by David Sedaris, who first discovered JATHJOL in the New Fiction section of the Chicago Public Library. The stories left a profound impression on the young Sedaris, 'a voracious reader then, a student shoplifting for a voice…'

Willett’s stories have also been described as ‘wonderfully funny’. Sadly, however, I personally found the majority of them not very amusing nor impressionable. After writing this review 3 months after reading them, I find I can’t recall what most of them were about. It also didn't help that I've been forcing myself to finish this book since early last year.

I find Willett’s expository writing style very bland and kind of boring. There is very little dialogue, external or internal, and she has a tendency to employ the 3rd person, which results in a fairy tale-like narratives about unconventional, complex people living ordinary lives. But this also has the adverse effect of creating a greater distance for the reader, at least for this one.

Out of the dozen or so stories, I found the following few worthwhile:

“The Haunting of the Lingards” -- How a married couple of differing personalities and beliefs get along with each other.

“Melinda Falling” -- How a man loves an extremely accident-prone woman, who grows to a ripe old age, but nevertheless still rails at God.

“Justine Laughs At Death” – a clever one about Evil personified as an immortal serial killer, a kind of Jack the Ripper in the 20th c. who picks his victims out of a list in his black book. Over the course of many nights, he gets phone calls from various females, young and old, who seem impervious to his cruel and wicked banter. In a fit of rage he calls the phone company and a rep named Justine answers. She turns out to be the representative of all his past victims and is Vengeance, Justice, Revenge, and Woman rolled into a convenient package. Sadly, the story ends rather anti-climactically.

The best story, the funniest and most memorable, is “The Best of Betty”, written entirely in the format of an advice column.

And there you go, a review to quickly get it over with. Next!