Life Beyond “Good” and “Bad”: Off the Cuff Review of Reviews

When I first started my journey through reading 52 books this year, I only had one criteria that I thought needed to be sated: did I enjoy the book or not? This is the simplest, most direct way of deciding whether or not a book is “worth” your time usually.

But, as with many things I do, it’s become more complicated than that as the weeks have bore on. For everything that I do in my life, there seems to be an ever changing criteria sheet which I use to make value-based judgements on my performance. I believe I inherited this from my father. The 52 books challenge has been no exception, and of late I would probably afford myself a C. Despite being proud of how my writing is progressing, I think my main concern was immediately noticing how I was following a set pattern.

The structure is as follows:

> I didn’t know if I’d like this novel or not.

> But I did end up liking this novel.

> Clever one liner for personality flare and points for style.

> Light analysis unsupported by evidence.

> “Ultimately I liked this novel but it might not be for you, I don’t know.”

Knowing your structure isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to writing, but for me the fact is that I’m essentially saying the same thing for each book. Perhaps the pitfall with reviews is that we get caught into that trap of deciding whether or not a book is good enough in our opinion to be worth someone else’s time on a grand scale. That is, I’m tasking myself with the responsibility of deciding whether or not a book is suited to everyone who may or may not read my reviews.

The answer to the question of if a lot of people will like something is almost always going to be yes. When you try to wrap a piece of literature into a neat package of objectively “good” or “bad”, it almost always ends up being good unless it’s a complete train wreck.

Besides that, for as much as I talk about avoiding homogenising culture, literature, society, etc., I end up homogenising my own content in following my review structure. This is the final irony which does not escape me.

In my life as an under grad I got to a point where it was less about whether a text was “good” or “bad”, or if the story was enjoyable or not. Every part of the process was enjoyable for me. When you penetrate a certain level of analysing literature, it becomes less about the thing as a whole and more about tiny pockets of what it is that you’re looking at.

Recently, I read a fabulous Musing from Dirty Sci-Fi Buddha on my WordPress reader. In his Musing, he reflects on the need to approach people’s actions as neither “good” nor “bad”, and rather to approach them instance by instance. I of course, being me, misread this entirely and for whatever reason thought he was talking about books at first glance. This is the price I pay for constantly being focussing on creating content: many things are slipping through the gaps unless they appear immediately relevant. I’m learning to closely re-read again, little by little.

I think that the advice given in Dirty Sci-Fi Buddha’s musing can be applied to what it is that I’m trying to do. Perhaps it’s time to not look at each book as another point towards my end goal. My reading chops are back up enough again that I don’t need to look at the big picture of a novel anymore, and I can take the time to appreciate all the little parts of it that make it interesting or compelling.

We’re in a constant state of evolution and appraising what we can do better. Or at least, I know that I function that way. And so I find myself in the wonderful position of loving everything I am learning through this process, getting to read a lot of great books, and getting better and better at my craft in my own eyes.

2/52 books of 2019: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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I’m really glad that I didn’t stipulate needing to have necessarily started the novel in order for it to count when I committed to the 52 books challenge. I’m going to get this out of the way early: Devil in the White City is taxing on the brain, and I don’t mean this in a negative way. Like most historical accounts, this is a very content heavy book. Where I usually fly through fiction, I was reading at a much slower pace to comprehend all the information that was being thrown at me. If not for this challenge, I probably would’ve taken another leisurely two years to finish the book.

I’ve never really been drawn in by the H.H. Holmes mythos – like most people, he isn’t the first person I think about when I think about true crime. In some ways I think his crimes were too horrific to be sensationalised by the media. They go past the point of being just the right level of horrifying and err more on the side of making me feel sick in my tum tum. I probably wouldn’t have picked this book if not for both Last Podcast on the Leftand My Favourite Murder raving about it. Ironically, despite my love of true crime, it was actually learning about the development of the Chicago World Fair that really sucked me into this story. I didn’t know I needed to know that much about Chicago soil, but I enjoyed learning about it none the less.

Ultimately, to me this isn’t really a book about either of the main male figures – H.H. Holmes and Daniel Hudson Burnham – in isolation. I don’t really think it’s even a book about what they achieved. Rather, I think this is a book about how consumerism and greed came to grip a nation in the American century (if you subscribe to the British century being the 1800s and the American century being the 1900s). It’s an ode to the great American past time of dreams and greed, and violence.

No facet of the American dream cannot exist in isolation. In order to have achieved the American dream, you must have fallen victim to its less desirable qualities.  Devil in the White City is an account of the different faces of the American psycho – the incessant need to destroy and rebuild, and the draw of greed, fame, and infamy alike. Holmes and Burnham are pitted against each other as representative of the American dream. Where Holmes represents the greed, violence, and mania that has plagued American identity, in turn Burnham represents the reach for glory, fame, and accomplishment.

Continuing on with my, “everything comes back to Gatsby” theory of American literature, it is easy to see the circumstances in which characters like Jay Gatsby were created. Devil in the White City is an account of the lengths a man will go to in order to achieve their dreams – whether that is to run the most successful world fair, or to create a murder hotel to kill young women in. Maybe, after all is said and done, this is what makes it so engaging. It is in our nature to need to succeed, and maybe we’re always doomed to be drawn in and revolted by the lengths people will go to achieve their dreams.

Would I recommend you read this book? Well, it really depends. Do you have a lot of time on your hands? Are you a patient person? Do you think you could sit through hundreds of pages explaining how the heating system was used in the world fair, not to mention the pages all about the soil types of Chicago, and still find it exhilarating? If you answered yes to these questions, I’d recommend reading it. If not, then I’d probably just wait for the movie or listen to a podcast series about it. I recommend the Last Podcast treatment.

On a final note, here are a few of the fun things I learned from this book: Pabst got the blue ribbon from the Chicago World Fair, there was one case of “extreme flatulence” recorded as an ailment resulting from the fair, and the fair was host to the largest Ferris wheel built to date at the time. Most people assumed it was going to result in tragedy.

1/52 books of 2019: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

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Image credit to: Paste Magazine

Please note: this review may contain spoilers for the novel in question.

When I think about what drew me into reading in the first place, a large part of it was being able to be transported to another place and time. To plunge headfirst into a life that I had never and would never otherwise know was something that I kept coming back for. As an adult I rarely have the same experience with a book as I did when I was a child. In some ways I feel like I’ve traded imagination and whole-hearted focus for all the other things I need to be on top of.

Typically, when I’m deciding on a book to read, I either go by recommendation from someone, whether or not I’m familiar with the author, and whether or not the blurb or first few pages grab me. I don’t like to let the popularity of a book influence me when it comes to selecting something, because I feel like that makes it easier to miss what might be a great gem of a novel. I remember years ago reading an article about Die Antwoord in which Ninja (the male counterpart of the duo) was talking about how he didn’t really listen to other rap because he didn’t want to be influenced by it to create something that wasn’t authentically them. Depending on whether or not you consider their music audible, your reaction to this statement may vary. However, my point is, I try to go into selecting books with that same anonymity so as to avoid homogenising the types of things I’m reading.

When picking up Warlight from my local library (and please support your local libraries), I was drawn at first to the fact that this was by the author of The English Patient. This might be me admitting to a cardinal sin of literature, but my only familiarity with The English Patient is the fact that it was the butt of a joke in Seinfeld. Nevertheless, I knew that this would at least probably be a trustworthy novel to read, and one that I would probably get enjoyment out of. While I may not want to make decisions based on popularity, I do like making decisions based on the probability of my enjoyment.

Right off the bat, the narration style of the novel drew me in. I love retrospective story-telling, probably most recognisable from Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As someone who has a preoccupation with the transgenerational phantom and the narrative style of reflecting on youth, I was already going to be sold based on that alone.

But there’s so much more to this novel. To put it lightly, this novel charmed me. To go into it more, I believe that I fell head over heels for it. I read through it ferociously, feeling as though I was enveloped in the world that Ondaatje had created. Even as I read, knowing that it would have to come to an end, this seemed to me to be an impossibility. I didn’t want it to end; I wanted to live in this world forever.

When I finished the novel, I felt as though that little world I had only just become privy to had died, and I mourned that.

Interpret this as you will, but I found myself identifying with the young male protagonist, Nathaniel, quite a bit when it came to navigating a place between childhood and adulthood. I understood the anonymity he felt for his family, the fact that he enjoyed having his own secret life away from his real life, and the heartaches he encountered in the novel. Much like when I was reading The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, I found so much of my own youthful experiences in Nathaniel – and so much of myself.

Beyond Nathaniel, the narrative’s treatment of the transgenerational phantom was superb. When examining trauma and negative experiences of childhood, very rarely does resolution of these experiences come in a linear fashion. It is ongoing typically, and experienced in layers; a wound that just about heals without ever really going away. In reading Warlight, we see a character who defines himself as without family. However, it is in this definition that we see that Nathaniel’s identity cannot exist without family. Even in the absence of his parents and the estrangement from his sister, he is defined by his feelings of isolation and separation. Even in his discovery of a pseudo family unit, it is defined by the fact that it is not a real family. Nathaniel is an orphan with a family at the ready, who is unable to repair what was damaged in World War II era Great Britain. We see how these experiences shape a person, for better or worse.

As my first novel for the 52 books challenge, this was such a lucky find. Much like when I read novels such as The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald or Revival by Stephen King, I would love the opportunity to read this book for the first time again – to feel it all over again. It stays with me, even weeks later, and I find myself thinking fondly on Ondaatje’s little world.

I definitely recommend giving this book a red hot crack.

January Whip-Around: the future of Remi Gallagher

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Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

 

Well, here we are: 2019.

I made the decision a long, long time ago to not touch this website until I had a better idea of what direction I actually wanted it to go in. I’ve gotten burned out with writing fiction if I’m honest; my heart isn’t really in it as much as I think it probably needs to be in order to be successful. Call me an old fashioned stiff, but I think if I’m going to do something I should either do it with my heart or not do it at all.

Upon taking the time reflect on what I had originally wanted this website to be for me, and thinking about what kind of writer I wanted to be, it was never about fiction. Rather, my joy comes from the art of intelligent discourse about such frivolous topics as pop culture and media in general. If I’m honest with myself I think it’s always been there, though the allure of being a fiction writer is surely quite a hard one to resist.

Growing up, when I thought about fiction writers, I saw them as representative of reaching a higher level of intelligence; of knowing the secrets of the world and human behaviour that mere mortals do not possess. Maybe I’m too old (lmfao), or a little bit jaded, maybe both, maybe neither, but that image of a writer has been disillusioned for me. Not because I think fiction writers aren’t all those things, but because I’d assumed a level of arrogance and superiority came with it. Every time I meet a fiction writer, I am meeting someone who presents their own window into the world and has the grace to share it, along with the humility of someone who I suspect may have been born without an ego.

Anyway, as most of you know I probably have double the amount of ego I should  have, which makes me perfect for writing opinion pieces!

So in 2019 the content I am bringing is more focussed on my musings of pop culture and literature, and less to do with my own creative works. Who knows, I might come back to them one day. Then again, I said the same thing in 2009 about wearing band shirts and listening to metal that boys liked. Needless to say, now I wear a tropical fantasy wardrobe with every colour of the rainbow and listen to Lady Gaga.

Who knows.

This year I’m doing my best to fulfil the 52 book challenge. One of my favourite things to do in 2013 when I was deep into writing novels was to read blogs that took the challenge upon themselves. I loved to read other people’s opinions on things, and found myself exposed to a lot of things I otherwise wouldn’t have been. In fact, not for the first time in my life, I fell really in love with blogs and the writing on them. I’ve been reading blogs since I was 13, and I still love and defend it as its own art form.

Over the coming weeks I’m going to start uploading an extended piece on each book I’ve read thus far, one at a time, at a pace of my liking. I’m also going to provide my commentary of different things going on in the media – from pop culture contributions to critiquing controversial advertising and so on.

Thanks for all being here on this journey with me.

From Paris (it’s pronounced “Brisbane”) with love,

Remi.