Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What I've Been Reading.

I have to preface this post with the statement: “I’m feeling really good!” Because I am. There are many reasons for my feeling this way, and I will now attempt to communicate these with you before delving into my latest literary conquests. 

1.      I am currently eating a Nutella sandwich and drinking a nice cup of tea. This potentially ordinary situation is made awesome by the facts that; a) the tea is in my Dalek mug, and b) there is SO MUCH Nutella on this sandwich. 

2.      My awesome Brisbane friend Phuong and I recently booked airplane tickets for two weeks in Phuket together on my way home. SHAZAM! We’ve decided to rent a little bungalow on the beach and only; read books and write books and watch movies and sip cocktails from coconuts. It’s going to be the perfect purgatory before arriving home. 

3.      My awesome Finnish friend Hanna and my other awesome Brisbane friend Dan are coming to China to visit me for Christmas!!!. We’ve decided to go up to Harbin together for my first ever white Christmas. Can’t wait. 

4.      I ran a really long way when I went for a run. 

5.      I bought a superdooperwaycool MacBook Air and it just arrived at my Brisbane home, and when my mummy ships it to me the parcel will also be full of timtams. HOORAH! 

6.      I am listening to the new Beirut album and its amazing. 

7.      Lot of people have been reading my blog. Like, lots. Super popular as of late.Still baffling.

SO! Moving right along. What have I been reading lately, and why do I feel it imperative to share with you these readings? Well, since arriving in Jinan I (chronologically) finished ‘The Fry Chronicles’  by Stephen Fry, then ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ by Junot Diaz, then ‘What the Dog Saw’ by Malcolm Gladwell.

I began The Fry Chronicles with, to be honest, very high hopes. I had received it as a birthday present in Australia a long time ago, and had been aching to read it for more than 6 months before I finally got my itchy fingers on it again. The lovely hardback edition where Mr. Fry is sitting on a humble wooden chair wearing a corduroy jacket (my love for corduroy is infamous) and stripy socks. He sports a magnificent side part of hair, and wears an indescribable expression of authority/knowing/smugness, which he himself tries to explain (away) in the book itself. I was very excited. I cannot say I have read this book’s predecessor ‘Moab is my Washpot’, but I do count myself as a Fry fan. I’m big on his vodcasts (no, not misspelt, have a squiz at his website) and QI is, like totally, the best quiz show ever.
Review conclusion:
If you like Stephen Fry-
then you’ll like this book.
Wow, so insightful…

So how, then, could I have possibly been at all disappointed in this tome? I’m not sure. Let me be clear, it wasn’t bad. At all. The book was good. It was a good book. I find it difficult even now, to articulate what exactly put me off.

I appreciate his stubbornness on certain subjects, and his movability on others. I adore his use of language and his way-with-words is exciting and creative. It was entertaining and it was insightful. A little too much name-dropping for my liking, but perhaps I wouldn’t have minded so much if I was actually familiar with half of those dropped names. Or indeed, if I was just a little older and a lot more British.

To try and come to the point, I think he is a great man, but this is a good book. He has achieved so many wonderful things in his life, but the book reeks with a sense of him trying to apologize for these, and even down-play them. He will say he is sorry for how ‘lucky’ his monetary situation was, then talk to us for several paragraphs about his awesome cars. It’s not the cars I don’t want to hear about – it’s the apologizing. Even when he doesn’t expressly say it, the implications of his constant self-undermining are just so present. He describes wonderful achievements as ‘lucky’ and paints his friends as saints who just happened to constantly grace him with their presence. It is the very picture of humble, but unfortunately in book-form, it becomes tiresome.

What I do know for sure, is that while I didn’t really like the book as a ‘read’, it made me like Stephen Fry as a ‘man’ even more. Weird, I know, but if you’re the kind of person who likes Stephen Fry, then you’re the kind of person who will understand how this is possible. The conclusion, therefore, is that I HIGHLY recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the man himself (you know, if you’re actually a fan) because you will find it illuminating and inherently interesting, and it gives you a reason to worship him even more. If you aren’t already a fan, then DON’T BUY THIS BOOK. It would surely be kind of boring.

Moving on. Almost.

I delved into the next book ‘…Oscar Wao’ on the same evening that I finished Mr Fry’s autobiography, and I noticed that a strange thing happened. I was reading Oscar Wao as if it were true. I know, I know, when we read we create the alternate universe in our minds and suspend reality in order to create the fiction blah blah blah. But it was more than that. For the previous ten days, I had been reading about (if you trust Mr. Fry, as I do) real life events, and the autobiography had self-reflexively (not misspelt, look it up) talked about how much it was an autobiography. You know – how real it was. That kind of thing puts you in a certain headspace when you read and I accidentally, but interestingly, carried that headspace along to this next book.

Review conclusion:
If you’re a cool person-
then you’ll like this book.
Again with the insightfulness…
 What helped this fantastical notion along, is that Oscar Wao is a book about the life of one individual. It isn’t always autobiographical, but it was definitely biographical. Like never before, these characters were in front of my eyes. The Dominican landscape of Oscar’s youth was so real to me, I expected to be able to fly there right now and have it exactly as Mr. Diaz paints it. Oscar was a real person. It was so clear.

To be fair, Mr. Diaz is also an AWESOME writer. It’s the first time I have read a book and been so sure that me, as an individual, really responded to it in an individual way. The way he writes is so full of swearing and slang, that even when he gets passionate and flips into another language, I can still totally dig what he’s saying. It did win the Pulitzer of 2007, and was the recipient of tons of insatiable reviews, but I still feel like my interaction with this book was unique.

Oscar is a nerd – and I understood ALL of his Star Wars references. The whole book is set in the Dominican Republic, and I have never been anywhere near that whole region, but by Jesus, I totally get it now. The location of the story is at the heart of it all as much as Oscar is and sootnotes (yes, actual footnotes in a work of ficiton, as a reference to how much of a nerd Oscar is – AND I LOVE IT) provide you with a slang-filled, down-to-earth history of the place.

It isn’t just about ‘place’ though. The vivid picture that Mr. Diaz paints for you also includes the characters. Actually, I would say that in the most complete of ways, this book is entirely propelled by the characters. Their depth. The very nature of who they are is the source of every new turn of plot. The people in this life are absolutely compelling. The chapters are, in turn, narrated by several of the integral characters in the story, and what this means is that you get everyone’s real opinion of everyone else. You also feel very familiar to each of them. I came away from the book feeling like I had a third-person level of understanding of each character, but it had the intimacy that you get from reading a first-person book. Incredible!

Haruki Murakami said (I stole the quote from this cool guy’s blog) in his acceptance speech for The Jerusalem Prize:
"I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on The System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist's job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories - stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness."
Murakami is quintessential, non-optional, absolutely-required-for-life reading. I feel like what he says here totally and utterly explains what Mr. Diaz did so well in Oscar Wao – he brought so many new souls to life, and in doing so, completely refreshed my brain from ‘The System’. Mr. Diaz refreshes his characters from the Dominican Republic ‘System’ too, but that would just be getting too deep for a discussion where I presume you haven’t read the book.

I guess my final comment for Oscar Wao, is that if you don’t like contemporary fiction (whatever that means) then don’t read it. But if you aren’t a million years old in your literary tastes, then read this book before any other.

 And now onto the third book I want to mention as having already read – ‘What the Dog Saw’ by Malcolm Gladwell. Some of you (i.e. Hanna) spotted the book in my lovely/poetic/vain train photo. It’s a collection of journalistic-style stories collected from his publications in The New Yorker. I started and finished '...Dog' on the Xinjiang trip, and it was a wondrous situation in which to read the book. Mr. Gladwell has a brilliant way of making incredible connections between phenomenon and the people involved in said phenomenon. He articulates concepts which perhaps we all pondered, but felt we could never begin to express. He also writes about things that none of us could ever have even begun to ponder, as they are so unique and wondrous to truly be genius.

A theme I see re-emerging in this post, is the idea of truth. I think, again, I got so involved in Dog because Gladwell writes with such truth. It is, of course, a work of non-fiction by a journalist-kind-of-guy, but I’m not really talking about facts. I’m talking about the way that Glawdwell communicates with you through the pages, as if he were really chatting to you. Difficult concepts are explained clearly without being condescending. Humans are treated as subjects of inquisition as well as individuals with stories. Without a doubt, after reading Dog I now understand why Mr. Gladwell is so famous. He’s damn good at what he does.

His book also makes me proud to be human. Not in a we’rethebestestheroeseverandareallawesome kind of way. It’s more subtle than that. He covers topics which were big back when I was in kindy. He talks about things from the 50’s when I wasn’t even a hypothesis. But he makes me dig it. His stories are mostly about America, but he makes me dig it. Heck, one of them was about the stock market, which confounds me completely, but he makes me dig it. In each chapter, each story, he searches for a universal human truth and teaches you about yourself.

Kind of like Ghandi, maybe? But better. I’m sure of it.

I was watching Dawson’s Creek the other day (just the pilot, to see if I’d like it, which I don’t) and I couldn’t believe that Michelle Williams was in it! So then I googled her, and found this quote of hers about someone (potentially) much more intelligent. And that intelligent second-hand-quote caught my eye:
            “I think Vladimir Nabokov once said that genius is finding the invisible link between things. And that’s how I choose to see life. Everything’s connected, and everything has meaning if you look for it.”
My favourite pic of
Vera & Vladimir.
This is what Mr. Gladwell does. He finds the links between everything around us, then finds the links between humans and those things, then tricks you into becoming attached to the people in the story, and by the end you’re emotionally involved in the insightful conclusion. In my books (and in his, lol, pun, let’s continure) that makes him a fully-fledged, Vladimir Nabokov-level-genius.
I feel like everybody should read this book, but I know that many might not like it. In some ways, Dog is like medicine. It’s good for you. You should do it. It’ll make you better. Personally, I found it simultaneously entertaining, but if you aren’t the kind of person with a subscription to The New Yorker, or the kind of person who studies philosophy for fun, or the kind of person who is interested in analytical journalism, then this isn’t for you. I want you to read it, like I want you to eat well and go for a run, but thank god I ain’t yo mamma. I can’t tell you to spend twenty bucks on something you don’t want.

But please do?

So that is the end of me talking about what I have read for the past while. Right now I’m into, simultaneously (naughty naughty, I know!!!) ‘Faulks on Fiction’ by Sebastain Faulks and ‘Tom Sawyer’ by Mark Twain. I loved ‘Huckleberry Finn’, but that was about five years ago now, and I’m finding Tom a little tedious. Anyways, I’ll talk about them once I’m done. and

After those, I have ‘Superfreakonomics’ and/or ‘The Finkler Question’ to start. Any suggestions?

Also, I painted some alternative book covers for the three books I discussed (a favourite past time of mine) which I really wanna share, but I don’t have a scanner here. So whatever. I don’t even care. Scanners are dumb anyway. Shut up.

Also, tomorrow afternoon after my dictation test for Chinese class, I’m going to write some more about Xinjiang, I hope you’re still interested!

Also, I maybe finished another Nutella sandwich during the creation of this post. SHAZAM!


  1. I've been sharing your blog around on my own blog a bit and also on Facebook because I think it's awesome! Be baffled no longer - the blog's popular because it's good!

    Thanks for sharing - I've been looking for stuff to read for a really long time and I haven't heard of any of these books except Tom Sawyer, which I love.

  2. Oh, so good post. I feel like I just had a long conversation with you about this. But it was still too short. So I'll keep looking for more, can't to read more about Xinjiang. Finally we know what the dog saw.

  3. I like so much what you post.
    I hope you can check out mine.


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