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

Publisher
: 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

Published:2018

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

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Conversations with Friends - Sally Rooney

Image result for sally rooney conversations with friendsPublisher: Faber & Faber

Published: 2017

Number of Pages: 321

Review:

I put of reading Conversations with Friends,  because I felt it may hit too close to the bone while I was
studying in Dublin. And I’m glad that I left it because it definitely triggered me a tiny bit.


Firstly Sally Rooney’s writing is excellent. It’s sparse yet effective, even if her method of writing
dialogue takes getting used to. The characters themselves are wonderfully written. They are not
very likable, but they are very real. Frances, the protagonist, and Bobbi her ex-girlfriend/best friend
and probably the most so, but so are most of the cast. I personally don’t much care if the characters
are likeable or not, more importantly Frances, Bobbi and the rest of their cohort are realistic. They
make very poor yet realistic choices, they fuck eachother over and help eachother out, and effectively
illustrate the intricacies of modern relationships. I didn’t really care if they were unlikeable, they were
memorable and told a great story. Bobbi and Frances may also only be considered so unlikable
because they are women, I thought Nick was just as annoying but in a different way.


Personally, I found Rooney’s depiction of Dublin’s ‘Champagne Socialists’ extremely realistic. Both
Fances and Bobbi romanticise the idea of not working, and the idea of poverty itself. But when
Fances’ father stops sending her allowance, not only does she struggle to survive, but she’s ashamed
of having to work to support herself. She hides her newfound poverty from Bobbi, who has a wealthy
family supporting her, and her boyfriend Nick. When Nick, who has a fair bit of money himself, finds
out that Frances is struggling financially,he helps her out. But this only serves to create tension in their
relationship, as Frances hates that she depends on Nick, and becomes obsessed with paying back
everything she owes him. Bobbi also has an interesting and hypocritical relationship with the 1%.
She also ‘hates’ the rich, but is bankrolled by her rich father and fits in among the upper middle class
seamlessly due to her privileged upbringing. Unlike Frances, she may never actually have to work,
but only because she has her rich family propping her up. Establishment money also supports Melissa,
the ‘free spirit’ writer/photographer. She humours Valerie, her patron, despite Valerie’s bitchy
behaviour, and openly tells Frances she only puts up with her because she backs her financially.
Through Melissa’s relationship with Valerie, Rooney illustrates the unfortunate dependence of artists
on their benefactors, and how this relationship conflicts with their political principles.


I think Rooney does an excellent job addressing the disconnect between how the characters view
themselves and how they are seen by others. Bobbi and Frances both think that the other is more
interesting. Whenever Bobbi and Frances attend a social event together, Frances is very conscious of
the way Bobbi behaves, how she holds people’s attention and fits in easily. However, Bobbi tells
Frances that she is the more interesting one of them, and that their friends are more interested in
speaking with her and hearing what she has to say. Frances and Nick also misinterpret each other
frequently, both of them think they come on two strong and that the other is distant. Melissa believes
that Frances is disgusted by her middle class lifestyle, but Frances is really just jealous of her.


Conversations with Friends  is a quick and engaging read, if you’re not bothered by annoying
characters I would highly recommend it.

Four and a half stars.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Origin - Dan Brown


Image result for dan brown originPublisher: Penguin


Published: 2017


Pages
: 538


Review:

Here I am again, shamelessly reading another Dan Brown thriller. I think I’ve read all his books and while I wouldn’t call myself a fan his books never fail to entertain. Origin is another solid attempt by Dan Brown and it hits all the marks you would expect from a Robert Langdon Book. Religious sects, symbology classical art and literature, a life or death chase around a European city and also some sort of scientific leap that may or may not be real all are hallmarks of the adventures of Robert Langdon, symbologist/Indiana Jones.



Origin takes us to a new country, Spain, which I don’t think we’ve been to with Mr Langdon, as he mostly brings us to Italy. In Bilbao and Barcelona we see the confluence of art, god and meticulous human planning and balance, which it sort of metaphorical in this book if you can try and find metaphor in a Dan Brown novel. Brown explores the idea of artificial intelligence through Edmond Kirsch, a genius computer scientist and the linchpin of the novel as he announces a discovery that will change the world and destroy and hope that mankind may find in religion. The ideas in this book are based around some pretty loose computer science that Brown must have found hypothesised in some obscure article or journal and decided to use it to kill god. It’s an interesting thought experiment, given that this technology exists what would it be used to discover? But I wouldn’t cite Origin as a source for a research paper.



The plot, which is what I read this books for, was actually pretty good. On the whole it wasn’t surprising (shocker:the beautiful woman who accompanies Langdon on his quest accidentally falls in love with him) but there were a few plot points that surprised me and kept me on my toes.



The aspect that interested me the most was the idea of do we really need faith? Obviously I don’t need to explain that religion is so ingrained in our cultures and physches that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But what if a discovery happened that caused everyone to lose faith in their God, what would the world be like? This resonated with me particularly as I read it in the lead up of the Pope’s visit to Ireland. I concluded we’d be fine without God, but that’s just my opinion. An interesting twist Brown added to the book was the ‘Atheist Terrorist’, who commits acts of terror against the faithful. To the best of my knowledge this is not a thing, but as we all know there are extremists in every camp and I wouldn’t be surprised if it became one.



Origin received a fair bit of criticism from the Roman Catholic community, criticism that Brown is no stranger to. However, it would be unfair to say that Origin targets the Catholic church.Its villain is the Palmarians, a catholic illuminati style splinter group that the RC church does not under any circumstance associate with. I know this for a fact as when we covered cults in religion class in my catholic school, we were shown a documentary about the palmarians and were told they were very bad indeed. The Palmarians are a perfect Dan Brown villain, creepy, culty and mysterious but with historic ties to one of the most recognised, influential and oldest of the worlds organisations.



All in all pretty good, a solid attempt by Dan Brown if very formulaic.



Three stars ***