Category: Bloggers in Residence

Lonely Onlies

BOOK: Only (Caroline Baum)

RATING: Two stars

Having rewatched it virtually every night on loop for the better part of two years, you would be correct in assuming that one of my favourite TV shows is Gilmore Girls. This is for a variety of reasons – the perfect melding of comedy and emotion, the small-town quirkiness, the fact that it seems like it has taken various plot points directly out of my life at times – but among the main ones is its portrayal of the only child. As an only child myself, it is refreshing to find media representation of our kind that doesn’t reduce us to the stereotype of the spoilt, maladjusted loner.  In fact, the two titular characters (plus the vast majority of the rest of the cast) are only children themselves, and that this is barely even mentioned – letting them are allowed to develop into complex and unique characters of their own accord! So when I began reading Caroline Baum’s Only, I went into it expecting a reflection on the Only Life as nuanced and complex as that of Gilmore Girls. Boy, was I wrong.

Firstly, I should probably tell you what Only is about. Author Caroline Baum recounts her life in relation to her parents and her “only-ness” in a manner that, for the first half of the book at least, is told in a manner that so heavily and unconsciously relies on stereotypes that have followed onlies for millennia that you are forced to cringe at her lack of self-awareness. However, there is some heart-breakingly sad material toward the second half of the novel that partially compensates for this – but more on this later.

I found the first half of the book, discussing the ins-and-outs of her incredibly privileged and spoilt London childhood, extraordinarily tiresome and cringeworthy. This perhaps sounds a little blunt, but there are only so many times you can read someone casually and somewhat ungratefully describe the hundreds of designer clothing pieces they owned before their tenth birthday when you’ve been trying to convince people that “only child” doesn’t equate to “spoilt brat” since you were five. Baum not only does nothing to shrug off this stereotype – she so nonchalantly recounts the virtues of her beyond-privileged childhood throughout this section that one has to assume that she is in fact so privileged that she doesn’t even realise that this is the case, and she comes off as all the more frustratingly entitled for it. My favourite example: there is one part in the book where she discusses the maid from her childhood home and how, as a kid, she thought it was awfully funny to unplug said maid’s vacuum cleaner and tie her apron strings to the doorknob while she wasn’t looking – and then expressed genuine confusion when she later mentioned that, despite several letter-writing attempts from her mother, the maid refused to talk to her family after she retired! Although she does, at one point, refer to her childhood-self as an “unappreciative, ungrateful, obnoxious snob”, she does so in an equally obnoxious, self-piteous manner seemingly only to elicit sympathy from the reader – her refusal to take responsibility for this behaviour, so unironically and presented to us without self-awareness, is just as repulsive as the behaviour itself.

Baum also blames a lot of her adult problems on her only child status; she claims that “three barely felt like a family”, that all it did was lay on her an incredible social awkwardness, an unquenchable loneliness, and the impossible task of being a “Good Daughter” on her; while never considering that, perhaps, the extravagant European holidays, the designer clothing, the London mansion, and the private school education (all of which she repeatedly takes for granted throughout the narrative) would have been harder if her parents had to support another sibling. And while I appreciate that this attitude stems from the period in which she grew up, where only children were seen as grossly impaired by some, I find her assumption that we are all unhappy with our apparently-identical experiences preposterous and insulting – I, for one, have found my only child experience beautiful and rewarding, and I would hate to imagine it any other way. Imagine someone saying that all people with two siblings are the same! However, she does make some valid suggestions about how society views us onlies almost like a freak show – I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement whenever she made mention of the invasive questions about our personal lives that non-onlies somehow feel are appropriate to ask, an experience that most of us know all too well!

Aside from the content matter, though, the book is also not particularly well written. Baum has a serious case of purple prose, utilising so many adjectives, colloquialisms, and similes that reading her memoir might as well be the first in a series of Where’s Wally spin-offs called Where’s The Noun – in fact, some of the phrases she uses are almost verbatim quotes from the examples that my English teachers have used when telling us about the negative effect of purple prose in the first place. And on the subject of similes, let me just leave this beauty for your consideration: “Like a child who has just discovered masturbation, I simply could not leave [writing] alone.” Well, um…

However, while I have spent the better part of three paragraphs disparaging her book, it is undeniable that Baum’s work also carries extreme emotional resonance. Even within its dreaded first half, there are gutwrenching diamonds among the rough; I felt incredible, genuine sadness for the young Baum when she recounted her inner conflict surrounding her otherwise-loving father’s punishment methods, of how the dysfunctionality of her parents’ lives was unfairly placed upon her shoulders, and when she failed to gain acceptance to Oxford (which she’d dreamt of attending her entire life). This was increased further within two parts that are easily the best-written and most profound of the whole book – the two chapters in which Baum discusses her parents’ tragic childhoods (her father one of the few of his family to survive the Holocaust, her mother’s mother dead in a murder-suicide after suffering years of domestic violence by the time she was five), and the shorter, second half of the book where the reader sees Baum’s intelligent, funny father painfully disintegrate into dementia. Genuine, devastating emotion is conveyed within these areas, and the reader is forced to go along with it – it is so saddening that I, for one, almost felt a relief when her father passes away at the end of the book, as his suffering felt so horrible. These sections are probably the explanation behind Baum’s entitled, blame-deflecting attitude – and while I still find it insufferable and mostly inexcusable, the pity and empathy I felt for her counteracted this a little bit.

And while I did indeed largely dislike the book, I would still encourage anyone interested to go read it. I am aware that my antagonistic perception toward her portrayal of her experiences is hugely coloured by my own upbringing, and that my impatience toward her writing style is probably exaggerated by the high standards that Joan Didion has set for every book I’ve read post-Slouching Towards Bethlehem – perhaps you are not affected by these factors, and you might give it four stars! I would also be lying if I said I didn’t find parts of the book genuinely moving and enjoyable. In fact, while most people say that reading a book you dislike is a waste of your time, I would go so far to say that it is this book that proves this wrong – it has generated so many interesting and exciting discussions and thoughts about writing, family, and the human condition over these past few months, and it has taught me all sorts of lessons about opinions and subjectivity! I urge you to go buy a copy yourselves, and make up your own mind …

Holy flowers floating in the air…

Kerouac's original cover design

Kerouac’s original cover design

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a change in my bookshelf. I rearranged it recently and saw that the stocks of YA books I was reading about a year ago were outnumbered by multiple orange spines. Of course, anyone who’s ever been into a bookshop will know what I mean by ‘orange spines’: Penguin Classics. Lately, I’ve been on a mission to become as well-read in these as possible, and so far this has been shaping up pretty well.

I finished the first of these Penguins a few weeks ago: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

First published in 1957, On the Road follows aspiring writer Sal Paradise through several years of his life as he travels across America, becomes invested in beat culture (which dominated underground America at the time) and interacts with his fascinatingly eccentric cast of friends, most notably the infamous Dean Moriarty. Alongside Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and William S. Burroughs’ Junky, Kerouac’s novel is among the most enduring portraits of the beginnings of alternative culture, and is often regarded as one of the great books of our time. I’ve wanted to read it for years, so I had fairly high expectations.

Before I go on, I should mention that On the Road is a book you’ll either hate so much that you’ll want to entirely destroy its existence, or that you’ll love so much that you’ll reread it until every last page has fallen out. There is little ‘in between’. When it was originally released it garnered mass praise but was also (unsurprisingly) heavily criticised by many major reviewers, too. More shockingly, though, is that a quick glance through the book’s Goodreads page still shows this as well: there are numerous 1-star reviews expressing thoughts of its ‘UNBELIEVABLE TERRIBLENESS’ and of how it’s nothing but ‘a half-hearted justification of stupid, self-destructive, irresponsible and juvenile attitudes’. Yet these sentiments are juxtaposed with ones of the 4- and 5-star kind, reviewers commenting on how the book’s beauty changed their lives.  I find it fascinating that a book published almost sixty years ago can still divide us so much today.

It took me a long time to read the book – nearly four or five months, mainly because I was reading about three others at the time – yet I find myself in the latter group.  One reason for this is its unique style of writing, which must be among the greatest and most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Kerouac may not have been a technically accomplished writer, but his work exerts emotion and passion that is beyond many more polished novelists. On the Road rambles and stumbles from one paragraph to another with the incredible energy and intensity of the characters, their surrounds and their story, yet Kerouac casts a glowing sense of almost romantic nostalgia over it all. It’s not exactly subtle, and it is certainly an acquired taste, but it is easily among the most incredible things a person can read: spontaneous, fearless, full of fiery vigour.  It just flows so beautifully, and Kerouac uses the prettiest words and most beautiful phrases throughout – the best parts are akin to poured molasses. Take, for example, this famous passage:

I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.

And, of course, the story itself is just as captivating. On The Road follows Sal as he drives, buses, and hitchhikes across America four times with his partner-in-crime Dean, meanwhile giving a captivating firsthand account of the time’s counterculture. Kerouac paints such an enticing picture of the US, one of incredible beauty. We see the vibrant reds and oranges of the West, the endearingly dangerous seediness of Chicago, the lively excitement of New York, the heady hangouts and experiences of the Beats, and the compelling images of all the fascinating people that Sal meets across the country. All of this is written about in the greatest prose, painting wonderful pictures in the mind of the reader. It is the kind of thing that makes you want to immediately buy a one-way ticket to America and travel across the country just like Sal and Dean…

Jack Kerouac photographed by Tom Palumbo circa 1956

Jack Kerouac photographed by Tom Palumbo circa 1956

On top of this, On the Road‘s characters are equally as fascinating. They are developed to an incredible degree, and perhaps this is due to the fact that they were based on real people (the book was originally a memoir until Kerouac’s publishers forced him to change the names). And yeah, most of the protagonists contain major flaws, ones that in many other cases would cause the reader to feel nothing but blind hatred towards them. The frenzied, ‘could care less’ charisma of Dean endears us to him at first, yet as the story progresses we witness the lack of regard he has for anyone around him – the way he thinks it’s perfectly okay to leave the latest of his wives at any given moment with no intention of returning, the way he deserts a lethally ill Sal in Mexico. We see that he is, in fact, not an overly nice person. Yet we don’t hate Dean, because we find him – the way he interacts with the country, the beat world – so interesting. Of course, the same goes for all the other characters – we wonder how Sal’s world will turn out, about the strikingly different lives of everyone they come across. They are so interesting, so intense, so human. And that’s what makes them so infinitely engaging – we can sometimes relate to them, as well as follow their adventures with both anticipation and dread.

On the Road‘s continued relevance could be debated, I guess. America is an entirely different land, now – the Beats, the beautiful landscapes, the fun painted in the book are now replaced by mass gentrification, disturbing levels of gun violence, questionable amounts of equality, the likely appointment of a nutty billionaire as a presidential candidate. The characters would no longer be able to get away with many of their antics, and their social attitudes – though progressive at the time – are now somewhat outdated. Even the scenes of drugs and sex are no longer that shocking. Yet, as with all classics, On the Road is still able to hold a major place in the 21st century world: the passionate ferocity of Sal and Dean’s friendship is massively relatable to anyone with best friends (though hopefully our relationships are a little more healthy!), and anyone who associates themselves with worlds outside the mainstream can also relate to many of the book’s major themes; we can see its influence on other alternative literature, cinema, music, fashion, on the way the world in general lives its many lives; and its message – of how we see our heroes – is still massively important to remember, especially in a world that worships the mass celebrity. In my eyes, there is little wonder as to why it is still enjoyed by millions today!

Sam Riley as Sal in the 2012 film of On the Road.

Sam Riley as Sal in the 2012 film of On the Road.

And so I found On the Road to be among the greatest books I’ve ever read – a powerful tale of friendship and counterculture; the most gorgeous frenzied flow of words shrouded in a hazy, nostalgic romanticism; such an influence on the music, the cinema, the fashion, the culture that I love. Looks like my little Penguin paperback might need a hardier replacement sometime soon…

Rating: 4.5 stars/5

New Blogger in Residence: Adela

Introducing our newest Blogger in Residence, Adela, who will be joining Eloise, Niav and Jonathan in writing for us this year. Adela has been an excellent reviewer of books for our shelves for a while now, so we’re pleased to welcome her to the team.

AdelaAdela is in Year Eight, and has been reviewing novels for Mostly Books since late 2013. She likes to read quirky, original young adult fiction, and her favourite book at the moment is Laurinda by Alice Pung. (Though Looking For Alibrandi is a close second!) Adela also writes poetry. She has been published in the 2012 and 2013 SAETA Spring Poetry Anthologies, and in the ‘Poet’s Corner’ of Indaily twice. Adela is passionate about music. When she is not reading or writing, she loves to listen to her favourite albums, play her guitar and write on her music blog.

Upcoming Releases

This year, there are three books in particular whose releases I am eagerly awaiting. Two of these books I have mentioned in previous posts, and all I have seen before, but I have not until now seen confirmed titles, covers and release dates. The aforementioned books:

  • The Silkworm – J.K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith – estimated release date: 19 June 2014
  • Mr Mercedes – Stephen King – estimated release date: 3 June 2014
  • Armada – Ernest Cline – estimated release date: 7 October 2014

 

The Silkworm:

This book is the sequel to J.K. Rowling’s first crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, which I read, reviewed and raved about last year. I am glad for the prompt release of this sequel, as reading these books I would say is like watching an episode of a TV show. The Cuckoo’s Calling features detective Cormoran Strike, and his secretary/personal assistant/companion/cook, Robin Ellacott. In their first adventure, Cormoran and Robin solved the mystery of the famous supermodel Lula Landry’s supposed suicide, and in this book, they return to investigate the disappearance and subsequent murder of novelist Owen Quine.

Booktopia Blog post about The Silkworm: http://blog.booktopia.com.au/tag/the-silkworm/

Mr Mercedes:

Mr Mercedes is the next novel that Stephen King is set to release, and the first of two he will release this year. Mr Mercedes is a mystery/thriller novel which, to quote an article I found by The Guardian, ‘…is about a retired policeman being taunted by a murderer…’ As you may have noticed, I really like crime and mystery novels, which is the first of two reasons why I want to read this book. The second is that it is written by Stephen King, the extremely successful author of more than fifty bestselling novels, many of which have been adapted into equally successful movies and television shows.

Booktopia Blog post about Mr Mercedes: http://blog.booktopia.com.au/tag/mr-mercedes/

The Guardian article: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/13/stephen-king-publish-second-novel-2014-revival

Armada:

First, I need to say that it does not matter what this novel is about, who the characters are or where it is set – it is written by Ernest Cline (the author of Ready Player One) and hence it is going to be brilliant no matter what the subject matter is.

Moving along to what this book is actually about. Zack Lightman is just another bored teenager daydreaming through just another boring maths lesson when a high-tech ship lands in his school’s courtyard and men in dark suits and dark glasses start calling his name because the government needs him and his video-gaming skills to stop earth being invaded by aliens.

Not only is that a very interesting premise, but this book is going to be just that bit more brilliant because it blasts into oblivion the cliché that no-one who is forced to stop an alien invasion has ever seen any movies or read any books and will not have the slightest shred of knowledge about how to deal with an alien invasion – because Zack Lightman has.

Notes:
Estimated release dates are from the Goodreads pages of each of these books, the links to which are above. The links provided are where I found all of the information for this post.

An Open Letter to Writers and Publishers

As an avid reader, I’ve dabbled in many genres. I’m not going to name and shame here, but I’ve noticed something that is common to them all: the representation of people with disabilities.

I have worked closely with children with multiple and severe disabilities, and I can truthfully say that they are some of the most amazing people I know. Once I get to know each one of them, their personality begins to shine through and I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to develop friendships with them.

Through this, I’ve become quite conscious of how I talk about people. The thing is, we all have things we can do better than others. We all have things that other people can do better than we can. We all have things we love to do. We all have things we loathe. Really, we’re not all that different from one another; we just have different abilities.

The same goes for people with disabilities, and I believe that’s something we all need to remember. It doesn’t matter if someone looks or acts or thinks differently to you, because we are not our disabilities.

In many books that I’ve read where a character has any sort of disability, the problem lies in how they are referred to. Her autistic brother. The disabled child. She has special needs. These people are more than that! They are not their disability. They have personalities and passions. They deserve the respect of being recognised like you or me.

What writers, publishers, editors and everyone need to be conscious of is the effect their words might have. People-first language puts the person before the diagnosis. Her brother has autism. The child has a disability. She needs …

It’s easy, and it just adds respect for everyone.