Archive | May, 2010

My On/Off Relationship with Jasper Jones

26 May

I’ve been chewing on this book for a while. Every time I decide what I’m going to say about it, I change my mind. Which I’m starting to think is a critique in its own way. Basically, I wanted to love it. I relish a good coming of age story – a romp through puberty and self-discovery and wrangling some justice out of an unjust situation. I wanted to be completely swept away. And I tried, but I think I had to try a little too hard.

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey has a lot going for it – a sinister mystery at its heart, a sweet love story on the side, and a brilliantly witty rapport between the main character (not Jasper Jones but another boy named Charlie – confusing, I know!) and his best friend. However, I felt like I was reading two separate stories that on their own could have been home runs (what’s a home run in cricket-speak?), but that just got in the way of each other when forced together. We begin with the mystery story – who killed Laura Wishart? Jasper finds his former flame hanging from a tree in his secret spot in the woods. He believes that his troublemaker reputation will land him in jail for the crime, so he enlists Charlie to help him cover up her death. We’re never really told what makes Jasper trust Charlie and vice versa, but Charlie goes along with his plan.

Then there’s the other half of the story, the one in which Charlie actually plays the role of a main character we’re made to care about. He has the hots for Laura’s sister Eliza and they share awkward little bookworm flirtations, pretending they’re urbane Manhattanites (with Truman Capote as their only guide). At home, he dreams about becoming a famous author and tries to understand his parents’ secret miseries. He trades quips with his friend Jeffrey Lu and feels helpless against the small-town racism that Jeffrey and his Vietnamese family have to endure. Because this is happening during the Vietnam War. Oh yeah, why was this set in the 60s, anyway? It was just another piece of the puzzle that didn’t quite fit.

For me, the more cohesive, compelling story was about Charlie coming to terms with his adult self – reconciling his big city dreams with his small Australian town and understanding that his parents never got the chance to do the same. All that good growing up stuff. I get that the actual “Jasper Jones” part of the story was supposed to help him along this path, but it felt more like an out-of-place plot device designed to keep the slower-moving (but I thought, better) story afloat.

The best passage in this book was the oddly arresting cricket scene, in which the eternally enthusiastic outcast Jeffrey finally gets the chance to prove his chops and lead the town to victory, providing a catalyst for Charlie to make the moves on Eliza (all caught up in the moment. Suuure). What does this admittedly awesome scene really have to do with “Jasper Jones?” Well, nothing, but I think it’s another example of how disparate this book’s plot lines were. With scenes like that one, I completely get why people would love this book. But for me, this whole story was the sum of way too many parts.

Adventures in Learning #3

21 May

More tidbits of knowledge from The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

This week:

The extinct “megafauna” of North America that existed before we came along included a beaver the size of a bear and a ground sloth the size of a cow. The only reason big animals still exist in Africa is because it’s the only place that humans are technically “from,” so they evolved with the animals there, rather than showing up and drastically altering the environment in a short time.

Some day every day will be Caturday. Still talking future Manhattan here: “Long before, the predators finished off the last descendants of pet dogs, but a wily population of feral house cats persists, feeding on starlings.” Hah! Wily like a feral house cat! Later in the book, he says that part of the reason for the longevity of house cats is that even in domesticity, they never lose their hunting urge, even if only in play. So that kitten tumbling around with a ball of yarn (does this ever happen?) may LOOK cute, but really, Boots and Fluffy are just preparing for human doomsday.

Good Reading is Hard to Find – The Help

18 May

I like to think of myself as a modern, cynical gal. Which is why it is with a heavy heart that I admit I really enjoyed The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a book set in 60s Mississippi in a town that prides itself on its strict racial segregation. It’s told from the perspective of three likeable ladies – Aibileen, a long-suffering black maid who takes professional pride in raising other people’s children; Minnie, a younger, less restrained maid whose temper lands her a job working for a “trashy” white woman snubbed by the society ladies (primarily for her Dolly Parton-esque style choices); and Skeeter, a white university grad who decides to start compiling the maids’ stories, while risking the ire of all of her former friends. Of course, by participating in this covert attack, all three women (but particularly the maids) risk serious physical harm as well, which Stockett smartly reminds us of many times.

I expected to dislike this book, because liking a story about three brave women battling racism, classism and sexism is just too easy, y’know? I jest, of course, but this seems to be the critical consensus when it comes to stories with universally appealing themes. With a quick cover glance and a couple review skims, I was fully prepared to skewer it for being saccharine and shallow. And ok, it’s not the deepest pond in the (forest?).  The baddies are mostly just bad (with the exception of peripheral characters like Skeeter’s mother, who gets cast into the well-meaning but ignorant role). And the victories that all three women manage to wrangle by the end seem a little too convenient – with the exception, again, of Skeeter’s story – two of her main plot arcs remain unresolved (Stockett’s resistance of a happy romantic ending was particularly refreshing). But yeah, on the whole, the good and bad characters all get theirs in the end.

So you can complain about this being optimistic or too simplistic, but it is supremely satisfying and Stockett is a natural storyteller. She weaves these three characters so effortlessly that it takes no time at all to become consumed by their stories. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up seeing this on the silver screen sometime soon. It’s got cinematic potential all over the place, with its emphasis on strong personalities, sassy humour, and a whole fill-you-with-rage-tug-at-your heartstrings range of emotions.

I loved every moment of it. I admit that it didn’t really blow my socks off in terms of challenging ideas or use of language, but I don’t think it was really going for that. What it does achieve – offering up an inspiring story told by three distinct  narrators – it does so beautifully.

I’ve always hated the idea that we turn to certain books, films, and TV shows to “turn our brains off.” Turning your brain off sounds boring, and this definitely wasn’t that. But it was such a delicious relief, after months of dipping into every book suspiciously, constantly on guard with, “Do I like this? Do I not like this? Why or why not?” to simply fall under a book’s spell until the last page was turned.

Adventures in Learning #2

12 May

This is the post where I share what I’ve learned from my non-fiction travels. Won’t you join me in my latest “huh!” moment? (Brought to you by The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman)

Today I learned that NYC depends on constant human maintenance to stay even half-livable. Without lots of people and machines, it’ll flood pretty quickly, whether this whole global warming thing pans out or not.

Manhattan used to be full of streams (Spring Street?), inlets, and marshes (Central Park was actually “built” by bringing in soil). It also used to be covered in, y’know, dirts and plants and stuff, which did the job of absorbing rain water. Now those streams have been covered up, and that soil has been replaced by concrete. Of course, as one of Weisman’s many experts says, “Rain still falls. It has to go somewhere.”

Turns out, Manhattan’s preservation depends on the minute-by-minute efforts of Transit employees tasked with pumping this water, with over 700 pumps. “Every day, they must keep 13 million gallons of water from overpowering New York’s subway tunnels.”

And like a few other older cities (London and Moscow included), Manhattan’s subway tunnels were built underneath sewage pipes, partly so that they could also be used as bomb shelters. This means that all that excess water has to be pumped uphill.

Without these pumps, even if it didn’t rain at all, it would only take TWO DAYS for the subway tunnels to fill, which would eventually cause all the streets to cave in, in under 20 years. So there goes my nice little notion that our major metropolises would last decades, slowly wearing away (in a rustic but still romantic way) and being inhabited by lovable families of raccoons.

Writer’s Questions – Grant Gillespie

10 May

The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie is published by To Hell with Publishing, who I sorta work for (which I briefly talked about here). It’s a little tricky to really discuss the book when I feel like it’s… not my baby, but like I’m the au pair who appeared on the scene and just tried not to screw the kid up.

By the by, this book is all about just that. How a parent’s misconceptions and foibles can be hilarious in isolation, but can turn disastrous when they’re pressed upon the wrong kind of child. The whole thing is about mismatches and misunderstandings, and it filled me simultaneously with laughter and a deep knot of dread all the way through.

That’s all I’m going to say about the book itself – now over to Grant, on Ayn Rand, thinking like a child, and trying not to be too clever (it’s tough).



What was your favourite book growing up?

Alice in Wonderland.  You can see why in the guest post I wrote for Booktrust.

I think we’ve all identified with a fictional character – which one have you secretly (or not so secretly) thought you resembled?

I identified with – or rather I aspired to be identified as – Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead.  This is embarrassing on two levels, firstly because the book is seen to be a vindication of everything right-wing and secondly because Roark is a strapping, heroic figure (which will never be said about me).  As an actor I always knew that if I was asked to appear in the film version, I would be cast as the people-pleasing Peter Keating, rather than the fiercely uncompromising Roark.  But it was Roark I admired.  He is a man who would rather sink into obscurity, so long as he remained true to his integrity and vision.

Here’s the part where you get to shout about another book you’ve read recently that you love:

Well I have no doubts about who I’d like to praise, and that’s Evie Wyld.  I first heard her read from her novel After the Fire a Still Small Voice at the To Hell With Christmas party, and I was absolutely transported.  In fact I told her after her reading that when I grew up (in terms of talent, not age, I fancy she’s younger than me) I wanted to write just like her. Her novel is poetic (without a trace of pretension), poignant (without slipping once into sentimentality) and deeply compelling (whilst still being literary).  It’s a beautiful story about generations of miscommunication.  The main protagonists are all male too, and I take my hat off to her rendering of masculine inarticulacy.  I can’t recommend it enough.  She’s read my book now too and has been very complimentary so it’s a bit of a literary love-in.



You started off participating in writing groups for fun, yes? Do you treat the writing process much differently now that you’ve gone pro?

In truth I’ve obsessively written fiction since I was a very young thing and when I was 17 won a place on a writers retreat with the wonderful Helen Dunmore.  I started with short stories, which grew longer and longer until I wrote my first novel whilst at university, (it’s in a drawer with my post university novel).  Then, over a year ago now, a writer friend of mine Jon Digby, suggested meeting up with four other wordsmiths, (Soho Scribblers).  Since then we’ve met once every couple of weeks in my Soho pad, when two of us share our latest chapters and the others give feedback.  Though we all write in different styles and genres our responses are generally the same, and if five people tell you something is or isn’t working it’s easy to take their word for it.
As a professional actor, there are often dry periods and so for me writing is a perfect second string.  You can hole up and keep creative without the need for a director or a producer.  But since I have two vocations, I’m not one of those people who have a routine.  I wish I had the discipline to write every morning between 7 and 9, but I’m night owl by nature, so mornings are rarely seen and are never constructive.  So I tend to be a sporadic, piece-meal writer.  I might write pretty solidly for three days, then do nothing for another three, but I always come back to the page sooner or later.  It’s a compulsion.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?

Goodness, there’s so much. I often over-gild the lily when I write, plus I pepper my writing with lazy idioms (like gilding the lily).  The bits I like the most are often the most awful.  A dear friend of mine Lucy Briers read the first draft of The Cuckoo Boy and gave me tough love by saying things like:’You see this section here?  Well I can see you sitting at you’re desk thinking, ‘Oh that’s terribly clever’.  Well it’s not, it’s smug.  You’re lifting me out of the narrative to admire the author!  And this bit, I know you think it’s funny, but it’s not.  Make it funnier or just cut it.’  I owe her a lot, and can still hear her on my shoulder when I get carried away with myself.



Much of The Cuckoo Boy is seen from a child’s point of view. How did you manage the task of thinking like a kid again?

Being an actor means that you never really let go of that imaginative capacity to think like a child.  In fact I played Moth in Loves Labours Lost and so studied the director’s son for that.  Plus I’m a massive people watcher and as children are the most uninhibited, they’re also the most entertaining.

The repressed mother, Sandra, is unintentionally hilarious, and one of the stand-outs of the whole book. Did you make a conscious decision to make humour a key element of the story?

Yes, I think that if you’re dealing with something dark, a reader needs some relief.  Otherwise you just feel like you’re being hammered into the earth. Perhaps some people will think that my treatment of the mother is too harsh, but when I laugh at a character it generally means that I like them.

Can you explain a bit more about the boy cherub image that eventually led to the book’s cover?

I have this Victorian photograph of a boy with angel wings bound to his torso and I’ve always been fascinated by the image.  It captured that Victorian obsession with childhood innocence, but then the wings – which were so clearly tied to him – implied that these Victorian ideas were simply imposed on children by adults.  I took the picture to Laurence and Lucy at To Hell and they loved it but they thought that to use the original image was not quite To Hell. When they showed me the mock-up I had to agree that they were right.  It looked like a classic.  It was the sort of book you’d see and think ‘Oh that’s probably from the turn of the century, I wonder why I haven’t heard of it.’  That would never do for a modern debut novel.  So they commissioned this amazing artist, Part2ism, to spray paint the image on cardboard instead, so now it refers to the original, but has a modern feeling too.



The unavoidable Writer’s Pet question: The Cuckoo Boy also features a cast of animals (including an evil white dog and two mysterious black cats). Pets?

I had a beautiful black cross collie dog, when I was little, but she was ‘too big for the house’ and was sent ‘to live on a farm’.  Naturally the realisation what that meant has given me nightmares in later life.  Then my parents bought a West Highland Terrior (as in the book).  It loved my mother and hated me, so after a few years of trying to win her over, I hated her right back.  I now puppy sit a beautiful whippet called Vita.  That’s much more my kind of hound.

Not an evil animal

Obligatory writing space photo please!

I am fortunate enough to have – in Ms Woolf’s words – a room of one’s own.  I’ve always dreamt I would and now I have.  My desk is one of those old wooden school desks with a lid and an ink well.  I have used blackboard paint on one wall so that I can write out my story arc and add notes and pictures plus I have papered the walls with pages from The Waves (also Virginia).  It’s my absolute haven.

Pet Blogs – Sasha & The Silverfish

7 May

Today I’m doing Follow Friday blog-style with a look at one of my favourite fellow bloggers, Sasha from Sasha & The Silverfish. She lives in the Philippines and is wise beyond her 20 (I know!) years.

She writes about everything from classics to literary fiction to erotic fiction (and she’s not afraid to admit it!), and is also a devoted short story reader (check out her review of My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro).

Her frank, devil-may-care ‘tude makes her a must-blog-read for me: I first came upon her site because of this post on how reading Nick Hornby’s Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt reinvigorated her love of reading. She admits that she and Hornby don’t always share the same reading tastes, but she thoroughly enjoys his wit and pure enthusiasm. In turn, I thoroughly enjoyed this little gem of hers from the same post:

I love people who love their books, and aren’t snooty about it. No, I have never read Tolstoy—who was it that said just summoning his name invokes a deep fatigue?—but I have sworn to read Jane Austen because I want to back up my lifelong motto, Rochester Over Darcy Bitchez (there are currently four people in this club, and yes, my mother counts).

This post led me to discover that we also share a philosophy on book blogging – not wanting to necessarily present ourselves as authorities on what other people should or shouldn’t read, but instead, reflect on our reading experiences, and when applicable, say (in her words), “Goodness, my friend, read this, it’s awesomesauce!” (a phrase I was later reintroduced to when she wrote about Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World). Also, like me, she enjoys a good, over-priced, “Little Red Moley.”

In the spirit of my Desert Island/Zombie Apocalypse obsession, here are her top 5 D.I.Z.A. picks:

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.

But for the Lovers, by Wilfrido Nolledo

The Collected Stories of Richard Yates

The Collected Stories of Carol Shields

The Collected Stories of Raymond Carver

And in case you’re wondering, yes, choosing collected stories IS cheating.

And that snazzy illustration up there? By her BF Pancho C. Villanueva and currently serving as her desktop wallpaper.

Adventures in Learning #1

6 May

This new series of posts has been inspired by the fact that when I read newspapers, magazines, and non-fiction, I cannot for the life of me shut up about all the cool things I’m learning. I have a similar compulsion when I read Wikipedia entries (like this one!).

Oprah has her “aha” moments. I have my “huh!” moments! This is when I read in bed and loudly say “huh!” in hopes that my boyfriend will take the bait and ask what I’m reading about so I can share the latest tidbit. If it doesn’t work, sometimes I resort to a “wow,” complete with head-shaking and raised eyebrows. So now, when I read a particularly juicy bit of information, I’ll share it here instead.

Today’s learning moment is brought to you by The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman:

Suburbs don’t stand much of a chance of lasting longer than 500 years, aside from things like aluminum dishwasher parts and stainless steel kitchenware. And, for areas like Arizona, “…from Roman ruins we can guess that thick cast iron will be around long into the future’s archeological record, so the odd prospect of fire hydrants sprouting amidst cacti may someday be among the few clues that humanity was here.”

Expect more to come in the next few days…this thing is a DID YOU KNOW?! goldmine.

Desert Island/Zombie Apocalypse Reads

4 May

…Like beach reads, but forever!  You know how it’s sort of fun to imagine what books/CDs/TV boxsets you would take with you, if you had to pack up and ship out to a bomb shelter, alien planet, what have you? Well I do. My favourite part of reading runaway books as a kid was imagining what I would pack in my backpack. I would often include a sentimental locket, although I’ve never owned one.

I even read a book once where the protagonist chose something like TWO books  to take to the cave she was moving to, in some sort of extreme exercise of self-deprivation, because she wanted to wholeheartedly accept the post-civilization world. If you know what that book was, let me know. Anyway, it struck me as really harsh. She was leaving her house for a cave – she could’ve used some perfectly good technology-free entertainment, no?

When I made the big move here last year, I found the packing process physically painful and more than a little panic-inducing. I couldn’t believe the sheer amount of shit I’d amassed in the seven years I lived in Toronto. And it was definitely all from those seven years, because I moved there for university with nothing but a box and a suitcase and a dream.

But the fun side of packing is that you get to play a slightly easier version of the desert island game. It sucked leaving behind some of my favourite books, but it was also strangely satisfying to see my little mini-library tucked away in its box. Here are the books I deemed worthy of making the trip with me:

I had different reasons for choosing all of these. Some for nostalgic purposes (the Narnia box set has moved with me to Latvia, Poland, and once before to the UK, so I wasn’t about to leave it behind this time), some because they’ve become a recurring part of my reading life (Franny & Zooey, David Sedaris, Robertson Davies), and some because I hadn’t gotten around to reading them yet (Gladwell’s Outliers, The Portrait of a Lady, or still haven’t – cough – Brighton Rock), and I thought I should take a couple fresh ones along as well. I’d also like to add that not all of my favourites are necessarily included here, just because I don’t own all of them. Remember, I’m a tightwad. I may be the only bookworm out there who thinks they should spend more money on books.

Have you ever been forced to cull your book collection? Do you have any books you couldn’t dream of leaving across the ocean?