Wednesday, 15 July 2020

My Year of Rest and Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation - Wikipedia

Published: 2018
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 289

I finally picked up My Year of Rest and Relaxation after seeing it in the front display of every bookshop I walked into for a year straight. I figured that the almost universal endorsement meant that it must be a worthwhile read, and picked it up just before lockdown. I learned the hard way that while this book is excellent, it may may be the best book to read in quarantine.

MYoRaR follows a newly graduated heiress living alone in New York City in the year 2000. Although it seems that she has a life that any young woman would envy, she decides to go to sleep for a year. With the help of her questionable psychiatrist, she hatches a plan to hibernate in her Manhattan apartment, only waking up to eat, wash and watch drugstore vhs tapes.

So for obvious reasons this was a weird book to read during the COVID-19 lockdown, during which time started to lose all meaning and I never left my house. But despite the weird vibes, the book really held my attention. It’s darkly funny, so dark in fact there are a lot of people in my life I would not recommend this to as it verges on inaccessibly dark. None of the characters are likeable, especially the main character, but unlikable female leads are really in at the moment. Everyone in the book is a little unhinged, ranging from Trevor, the protagonists on-off boyfriend, and his common-garden assholery, to the therapist’s coo-coo conspiracy theories. Reva, the protagonist's best friend is almost relatably mad, her lack of self esteem leads to a lot of darkly funny conversations and a weird codependent relationship with the protagonist.

Body image and the effect it can have on women is an important theme of the book. It’s Reva’s main pain point. She struggles with bulimia and, she constantly compares herself to her waifish, heroin-chic best friend and feels that she can’t measure up. The protagonist knows that she is beautiful, and understands how it affects her life. While she doesn’t suffer from the same body image issues as Reva does, being beautiful doesn’t seem to make her any happier. In fact despite being beautiful she is totally miserable, providing a perfect example to Reva that being thin won’t make her happy. Of course Reva doesn’t recognise this at all.

The protagonist is not only beautiful but comes from a very wealthy background. She can afford to buy an apartment in Manhattan and has enough left over to hibernate for a year in total comfort. She has an interesting attitude to her privilege. She’s totally aware of it, she intends to take full advantage of it, and refuses to feel guilty for it. She tells Ping Xi, an artist friend, that she “was born into privilege” and won’t squander it as she’s “not a moron”.

Pi Xing and his art is one of my favourite parts of the book. He’s a bizarre modern artist and the descriptions of his art sound like mad libs. I don’t know if Moshfegh is familiar with the world of modern art or if she created Pi Xing’s art by pulling random nouns out of a hat. However she came up with them, I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Bad Blood : Secrets and Lies of a Silicon Valley Start Up - John Carreyrou

Bad Blood eBook by John Carreyrou - 9781509868094 | Rakuten Kobo

Pages : 301
Publisher : Picador
Published : 2019

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou is a business book/industry thriller following the Theranos scandal and it’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes. This is not the sort of book I would usually read, however I absolutely devoured it. There’s so much to unpack with this book, but I can’t cover it all so I’m going to pull out a few themes that jumped out at me.

Elizabeth Holmes’ success seems to be a product of her confidence and charisma, instead of any sort of talent or good ideas. Elizabeth was horrifically unqualified on both the business and engineering/science fronts to run a biomedical start up. Anyone who knows anything about blood testing knows that the Theranos minilab design won’t work, but Holmes’ confidence hoodwinks anyone without a scientific background, and quite a few people who do. It’s an upsetting reminder that in our post-expert society, it’s more important to have a confident opinion than actual scientific training.

Holmes’ also heavily leans on the idolisation of young entrepreneurs. She either truly believes that she is the next Steve Jobs, or cynically brands herself as such in order to inspire confidence. By buying into the idea that Holmes' is a genius and will change the world like the tech entrepreneurs who have gone before her, her investors are buying into the idea of the exceptional individual and the one good idea that will change the world, rather than coming to terms with the fact that successful individuals are beholden to their teams and a huge amount of luck in order to achieve their success.

Holmes' and her partner Balwani are unsurprisingly both terrible scientists and terrible managers. They manage their staff using bullish work practices, and attempt to keep them in line using intimidation. They have no trust in their employees, especially their younger ones. They have a strong culture of presenteeism and personality. Their organisation is full of the classic red flags of poor management, and it’s no wonder that they have a huge turn over of staff. The only thing that keeps the employees around is their belief that they can do something with Theranos to help people, so once they find out that’s not what’s happening they jump ship. As someone who is starting out on their career, it was a good guide (though hopefully an extreme case) for what to look out for in a toxic workplace.

There’s far more to explore in Bad Blood than the few points I’ve pulled out, and is definitely worth the read. I’m not a business book fan, but this book honestly read more like an industry thriller. I hadn’t followed any of the Theranos scandal in real time so I found watching Holmes’ rise and fall absolutely riveting. Carreyrou manages to condense and deliver a massive story featuring a huge number of key players into something that can be consumed without wrecking your brain.

Four Stars

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Where the Crawdads Sing - Delia Owens

Published : 2019
Pages : 368
Publisher : Corsair

“Where the Crawdads Sing” is set in the marsh of North Carolina. It follows the life of Kya Clark, aka the Marsh Girl, from childhood into adulthood, as she deals with her abandonment as a young child and learns to survive in the marsh.

I found this book terribly sad. It was sold to me as a murder mystery, and it isn’t not a murder mystery, but the main themes of this book are definitely child abuse and neglect, isolation and survival. The beginning of the book gave me hardcore flashbacks to “The Rescuers Down Under”, a film I had forgotten existed but had so deeply traumatised me as a child I got literal chills after hearing the song “Someone’s Waiting for You” for the first time in twenty years. This is a tough book to read, for a lot of reasons, but I found the child abuse particularly upsetting.

The author, Delia Owens, is a nature writer by trade, and this is evident in the text. The book is beautifully fleshed out with descriptions of both the marsh environment, and the flora and fauna that inhabit it. As a result of this, the book is beautifully atmospheric and immersive. I’ve never been to the marshes of North Carolina, but the author does such a good job of grounding the story in it’s setting, I sort of feel like I know the place.

There’s a couple of solid tropes in here that are sort of lazy, but thankfully they don’t ruin the book. Kya is your typical “doesn’t know she’s beautiful” innocent audience insert lead, and Tate, Kya’s love interest, is a Connell Waldron-style idealistic “sensitive man”.

I’m not sure if “Where the Crawdads Sing” was an enjoyable book. I found the first third difficult to get through but once Kya began to hold her own in the marsh the book became easier to read. I almost didn’t care about the murder mystery element of the plot, I just wondered what would happen to Kya. The ending is anticlimactic, but maybe after her action packed life it’s the ending Kya deserved.

Four Stars

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott

Published: November 12 2019 (First Published September 30 1868)

Publisher: Vintage

Pages: 560

I, like a million other women, decided to read Little Women for the second time, after seeing the new adaptation twice in cinemas last year. I had read the first half of the book as a child and was slightly underwhelmed. It wasn’t as exciting as Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl and I didn’t really understand what all the fuss about it was. So when I went to see it in theatres, the decision was by my love of Greats Gerwig’s film Ladybird, rather than any childhood nostalgia.

I’m not entirely sure why the second half of this book (Little WIves) is considered a children’s book. I enjoyed it more as an adult than I did as a child, and I think it would have been totally lost on me
had I read it when I was younger. As a kid I really identified with Jo, the bookish, tomboyish sister,
but reading it again as an adult I found myself relating a lot more to Meg and Amy. Both Meg and
Amy are the more annoying sisters, they both hate being poor, unlike Beth who suffers it gracefully,
and they don’t ever make sacrifices for their family like Jo. In hindsight, I didn’t identify as Jo, I just wanted to be her. Now I’m a bit older and have dabbled in a bit of self reflection, I’m definitely more
of an Amy. The first half of the book is very soothing, apart from the scarlet fever incident, while the
second half is a lot more action packed and engaging.

Little Women is certainly a book of it’s time. Gerwig has recently given it a twenty-first century
feminist makeover, and while 99% of what she has put into her film is drawn from the book, what
she leaves out dramatically changes the tone of the book. Little Women, is progressive and
feminist for it’s time. I can only imagine how groundbreaking the book must have seemed in
1868, and how empowered and inspired it’s readers must have felt. But reading it through the
lens of the place of women in the twenty-first century, it all felt a little twee. Alcott's feminism
allows women opinions and passions, it allows women to lament their economic position and
opportunities. Her characters are fully fleshed out human beings, the women and girls are allowed
to have flaws and personalities, instead of just existing as flat domestic props. However, Alcott
still espouses traditional gender roles, the three surviving sisters all end up married with children.
None of them remain unmarried and support themselves, even Jo, who for a while looked like she
was going to be a self sufficient writer. Instead Jo marries her old man husband (I actually don’t
have a huge issue with the age gap in their relationship, and was almost annoyed with Gerwig
dramatically aging Bhaer down in the film), and surrounds herself with little boys, her own children
and her new students. I found it a bit disappointing to be honest. Alcott herself didn’t end up
married, so it wasn’t like it wasn’t a possibility for women at the time. By ending the book this way,
and maybe I’m reading too far into it, Alcott seems to imply that the only worthwhile way for a
woman to end up is marriage and motherhood, or to die young and innocent.

Little Women also contains a lot of God talk. I found this very understandable, the vast majority of
the Marchs’ real life contemporaries were Christians, and therefore based their moral code around
the teachings of Christianity. However, I just found it incredibly unrelatable and a little aggravating.
Nowadays most of the people I encounter using their faith to teach me about morals, they are
usually doing so with the end-game of stripping women of their bodily autonomy and sexual
agency. So yeah, I’m a little biased against people who base their moral code on Christian beliefs.
Little Women is a preachy book, but of course it is, it’s a children's book aimed to help young girls
prepare for marriage and children. And for it’s time, what it preaches isn’t unwise or unhelpful.
However, I found the sermons and lectures the characters inflicted on each other a bit painful
and heavy handed.

My personal favourite aspect of the book was the deep dive into the Jo-Laurie-Amy ‘Love triangle’.
When I watched Gerwig’s film I was convinced that Laurie was still in love with Jo even after he had
married Amy. In the book, the changing nature of their relationship is much better developed, and
we get to see Laurie getting over Jo and falling in love with Amy much more clearly. Jo’s relationship
with Professor Bhaer is a lot more understandable, and even though he’s way too old for her by
modern standards, thei love, mutual respect and shared values are quite transparent, and honestly
made me root for them to end up together.

I’m glad that I eventually got around to reading Little Women. I found it a surprisingly soothing
quarantine read, filled with characters you can really care about.

Four stars ****

Thursday, 7 May 2020

The Testaments - Margaret Atwood

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

: Penguin Random House
Published: 2019
Pages: 415

The first thing I have to admit is that The Testaments is the first Atwood book I have read. 

I’ve long been a fan of television adaptations of her work. I devoured Alias Grace in a 

single sitting, and I loved the first two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (before it went a 

bit off the rails). Her reputation as a Booker winner had made me a little worried that 

Atwood’s work would be too literary and heavy for me, so I put it off for as long as possible. 

However, I received The Testaments as a Christmas present and decided that I should 

finally give Atwood a go.

The Testaments shifts perspective between three main characters. In Gilead,  it follows 

the infamous Aunt and Agnes, the daughter of a powerful general,(and the actual daughter 

of June).  In Canada we meet Daisy, a mouthy preteen who serves as an effective foil to 

the obedient and pious Agnes. The three perspectives start at different points in time, and 

begin to convene as the narrative progresses. This was a little difficult to follow at the 

beginning but I eventually got used to it. It actually sort of reminded me of the way the TV 

adaptation of The Witcher  was made. (I’m sure this is a common device used in many 

different stories, but I just happened to have watched The Witcher recently). I loved the 

use of the three different perspectives. Through Agnes and Aunt Lydia we got to see what 

life is like in different echelons of society in Gilead. Daisy gives us insight into what life is like 

living in Canada, in the shadow of the Gilead regime. Aunt Lydia’s story begins before the 

regime takes hold in America, and through her eyes we get to see some of that transition.

I’ve been told by people who have actually read the book( and not just watched the series 

like me) that The Handmaids Tale is a slow burn book. The Testaments is the opposite. 

This book is action packed from the get go, building from intrigue and suspicion to a full on 

chase. I found the book totally absorbing, I was unable to put it down and read it in a day and 

a half (thank you quarantine). The world building is was excellent, the contrast between Gilead 

and Canada is jarring and grounds what could be a ridiculous situation in reality. 

 I loved The Testaments, it makes me wish that I had had the sense to read The Handmaids 

Tale first. Atwood’s writing is accessible and absorbing, and her world building is exceptional. 

It goes without saying that her work as a feminist writer is as important as ever.

Five Stars *****

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

The Woman in the Window - A.J. Finn

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

The Woman in the Window - A.J. Finn

Publisher: Harper Collins


Pages: 427

The Woman in the Window is a not entirely revolutionary, but quite gripping thriller in the vein of
The Girl on a Train, which as we all know is just a rip off of Rear Window. Anna, the narrator of
The Woman in the Window, is an agoraphobic addict, who spends most of her time watching old
movies, playing online chess and watching the neighbours through the windows of her New York
townhouse. Like Rachel in The Girl on the Train, Anna’s substance abuse issues render her an
unreliable narrator. Anna mixes her medication with copious amounts of Merlot, leading her (and
us) to be unsure if what she experiences is real or dreamed up by her imagination. I think I would
have gotten a lot more out of this device if I hadn’t already read The Girl on the Train, but
unfortunately because I had, it just felt a bit overdone. 

My favourite aspect of the book is the atmosphere created by A.J. Finn in Anna’s house. Anna is
an old movie buff, and constantly plays old black and white films throughout the course of the
novel. That coupled with Anna’s spooky, empty house creates a very mysterious atmosphere,
perfect for a thriller in which the narrator feels she is losing her mind.

I’m not a huge thriller fan, and I’m not very good at seeing twists in advance, so bear that in mind
when I say that I didn’t see most of the twists coming. Though the first half of the book was a bit
slow, it sets up a lot of important background, essential for the action packed second half, so stick
with it.

All in all The Woman in the Window is a pretty solid thriller, suffering from the misfortune of
resembling The Girl on the Train  a little too much. 

Three and a half stars

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

First, We Make the Beast Beautiful - Sarah Wilson

Publisher: Bantam Press

Published: 2018

Pages: 307

Firstly, while I loved this book, I’ll acknowledge it is not for everyone. If you don’t like it 50 pages in, you’ll probably never like it. The book is a combination of a memoir and tips and tricks for dealing with anxiety. It’s clear that Wilson has done a huge amount of research for the book (or for her life with anxiety in general), a lot of which includes cold-emailing people she’s read or heard about to pick their brains. It’s not structured linearly, Wilson dips into the different times in her life that helped illustrate the concept she’s talking about. There’s not a huge amount of structure at all really, the book is like a long conversation with a friend who says “listen…. this is everything I know”.

The main difference between how Wilson treats her anxiety and the way it’s viewed
by the medical community is that Wilson sees it as a personality trait to be embraced
and managed, rather than an illness to be treated. The book low-key felt like lists of
tips and tricks for forgetful people. Wilson doesn’t view anxiety as a thing to get rid of,
it’s just a personality trait that you have and can manage.

While I didn’t identify with everything Wilson has experiences, (and under no circumstances am
I even considering giving up sugar), there was plenty I did connect with. Basically what I took
away from this book is that we all need to start meditating.

This book isn’t for everyone, but I got a lot out of it.

Four Stars