Review – Still Alice


Still Alice actually dates from ~2009 or so, but is newly in the spotlight on account of the film starring Julianne Moore. The book doesn’t show particular promise in the first 50 pages or so, but as Alice’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease progresses, the story begins to engross. The author Lisa Genova writes the characters with a somewhat heavy hand – that Alice’s relationship with her daughter Lydia is due for a life-affirming transformation is obvious from the first scene – but her writing about the disease is masterful. If Alzheimer’s Disease were a character in this novel, it would steal every scene. One watches with horror and disbelief as Alice’s relationships fade to blank. Before she disappears entirely, Alice wistfully wishes she had cancer instead. Cancer can be “fought”; cancer is a cue for bedside visits and comradely fundraisers. Alzheimer’s can scarcely even be treated, let alone cured, and inspires only pity and embarrassment – difficult emotions which Genova captures deftly. In short the book is a compelling read, and will almost certainly inspire all who read it to revisit their perceptions of those who suffer from Alzheimer’s.

Thoughts on “So Anyway…” by John Cleese

See how Cleese’s mouth is obscured in the picture? That’s an excellent metaphor for the entire book.

“So Anyway…” is John Cleese’s rather unusual autobiography .  It’s a basically chronological account of John Cleese’s life, but Cleese bobs and weaves so artfully that it’s nearly the end of the book before one realizes that he hasn’t really revealed very much.  Cleese has suffered four marriages, but only accounts for one – Connie Booth.  Cleese and Booth divorced, but you wouldn’t know it from this account – he gives a few sparing details of their courtship, and says nothing of the tension or strain that typically characterizes a divorce (one theory is that the book is meant to be “Volume One” of a series).  I’m not the first reviewer to point out that Cleese moans and groans rather a lot, and that he appears to have enjoyed precious little of his marvellous success. He reads a little like a slightly frustrated academic – one almost gets the sense that Cleese feels he wasted himself on comedy.  This is a massive shame.  Cleese has given me and millions of others immense pleasure over the years – I even had the pleasure of listening to him speak on three occasions at Cornell University, where Cleese was a “Professor-at-Large” for a few years.  All of this said, I rather enjoyed the book as it went on.  Cleese is sparing with details about his life, but he is generous with advice to writers and with reflections on the art and practice of comic writing – all of which I found most instructive.

Book Review: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

denisovichThis book is minute-by-minute account of one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a prisoner in a Soviet prison camp in Siberia in 1943 – from reveille (the harsh tapping of a hammer on stone) to a scuffle over a pathetic breakfast, to line-ups and strip-searches, jostling and morbid joking, stealing time, stealing bread, to warming up by hard toil in the Siberian snow. His life has become a single arduous task: to stay alive on a thin diet of groats, a mysterious substance called “hot skilly” and very little else, all the while engaged in the back-breaking work of constructing settlements in the Siberian wild.

“Here, lads, we live by the law of the taiga.  But even here people manage to live.  D’you know who are the ones the camps finish off?  Those who lick other men’s left-overs, those who set store by the doctors, and those who peach on their mates.” Continue reading

Book Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

These are the tales of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, a world-famous detective who lives on Baker Street.  Sherlock cares for nothing but solving crimes, so the task of lionizing him falls to Mr. Watson, a doctor whose awe for his friend is boundless.  All of the Holmes adventures are catalogued in what is essentially Watson’s diary.

Sherlock Holmes is a drug addict with Asperger’s.  He is mawkishly attached to his old roommate Watson, and calls him over for tea and opium at any hour of day.

Sherlock does all of his best work when he is blitzed out of his skull.  According to Watson, one hit of opium sends Sherlock into a state of intellectual frenzy, his brain clocking operations at breakneck speed. Indeed,  one might even say that it kicks into high gear.  Ha ha.

Continue reading

Book Review: Barney’s Version by Mordechai Richler

barneyHave you seen the movie Barney’s Version (starring Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Rachel Lefevre and the beautiful Rosamund Pike)?  If so, were you baffled that an entire trio of lovely and accomplished women managed to fall for Barney, a tubby slob?  I wasn’t.  That’s because I’ve read the book, which the rather well-intentioned and well-acted movie transformed into a bit of a mess.  Mordechai Richler’s book is one of the finest Canadian novels ever produced, and his Barney is a huge character:  brash, full of bile and bitter humour, a man who is passionate about business but is also capable of falling “truly, seriously, irretrievably in love in love” and “pulling surprises out of a hat”.  Barney may be a loutish, bigoted cigar-smoking quasi-alcoholic, but he is also  the loudest, funniest most charming man in the room, a man who seduces women and fundraisers alike. Continue reading

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

pahmukMy Name is Red opens fairly early on with a murder, and the remainder of the five hundred or so odd pages is essentially a murder mystery set in the 16th century.  All of the primary characters are miniaturists – this was particularly appealing to me because I am a devoted admirer of miniature art.  Half of my pleasure in this novel was the rich trove of detail about the artists’ workshops and techniques – the way each artist’s work was so thororoughly marked by his personality.  The most interesting parallel plot describes the tangled love affair between a lovely and brave widowed mother-of-two named Shekure and Black, one of the artists.

The novel is unusually structured – the narrative adopts a different point of view (with multiple repetitions) in each mini-chapter.  Even inanimate objects are given their say.  This is certainly very entertaining. Continue reading

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

of-mice-and-men-bookOf Mice and Men is the very definition of a good novella.  It’s a quick, compelling story.  One of Steinbeck’s strengths is ability to create a setting.  In a few deft paragraphs, he gives a vivid picture of Southern California, of the ranches, of the heat and the laziness and the poverty.  Two impoverished ranch workers, George and Lenny, are determined to quit their vagabond ways and start a life together, living off “the fatta the land”.  The dream sustains and nourishes them.  The two of them don’t precisely love each other, but there is a strong brotherly bond between them.  Unfortunately, Lenny suffers from mental illness, and ultimately spoils everything for them both.

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

JMCoetzee_DisgraceDisgrace is a novel about South Africa. It is exquisitely well-written.  There isn’t a superfluous or misplaced word in the whole book.  Coetzee is perhaps the most elegant writer I’ve encountered since F. Scott Fitzgerald; his command of English is absolute. The story is very good.  David Lurie, a professor in Cape Town and accomplished womanizer, is dismissed from his job when word leaks of his affair with a student.  The affair is consensual, but the student is very young and at least one of their encounters was “undesired” – it later emerges that she suffers a mental breakdown in the aftermath of their relationship. Continue reading

Money by Martin Amis

money-amisMoney is an ugly and uncomfortable novel like no other I’ve ever read.  By the end of the book, I felt as though the room was crawling with cockroaches.  The main character, John Self, is something of a cockroach himself:  an unpleasant, abusive, fat, belching vulgarity with money.  He is a man who has swallowed pop civilization whole:  he is the result of too much consumption, too much eating, too little education and too much money.  This book is his first-person account of what becomes an aborted attempt to make money – lots and lots of money.  Continue reading

I, Elizabeth by Rosalind Miles

i-elizabethThere’s a lot of this sort of thing about recently – fictionalized accounts of the Elizabethan and Tudor periods.  Alison Weir has been churning them out by the bucketful, as has Phillippa Gregory.  I’m fascinated by Elizabeth I, so I’ve even sampled some of Gregory’s fare (“The Virgin’s Lover“).  “The Other Boleyn Birl” was even made into a bodice-ripper of a film starring the beautiful Natalie Portman and equally beautiful Scarlett Johansson.  But I digress.  I, Elizabeth is fantastic.  It makes “The Virgin’s Lover” look tawdry, the characters as limp as paper dolls.  Phillippa’s Elizabeth has two characteristics:  vanity and red hair.   Rosalind’s Elizabeth is a fully formed human being, and an extraordinary one at that.  It’s beautifully written, and historically accurate in the style of Robert Graves (“I, Claudius“):  she merely supplies what history has omitted.  Plausibly.   Phillippa Gregory would have us believe that Elizabeth I spent most of her time pouting.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

owen_meanyThis was my first encounter with John Irving, and it was a pleasant one.  Owen Meany is a wonderful creation.  I enjoyed his the interesting device that Irving employed to describe Owen’s unusual voice – setting all of Owen’s dialogue in CAPITAL LETTERS.  It was a compelling book with a great, story, and is conveniently set in Toronto not too far from where I live now.  One can imagine Grandaddy Irving telling the long tale of Owen Meany, along with some cantakerous interjections about the Vietnam war, to a clutter of grandchildren by a fireplace who really only hanker after candy.



The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

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boleynI’m quite an ardent fan of historical fiction, as it allows one to tackle the arduous task of learning boring history whilst simultaneously being entertained.  The Other Boleyn Girl succeeds in one whilst failing somewhat alarmingly at the other.  It’s a very entertaining book, so action-packed that it’s almost like an Elizabethan comic book.  There’s a new intrigue, a new cunning plan, every five pages or so.  Regrettably, The Other Boleyn Girl achieves much of its dramatic tension by relying heavily on rampant speculation.  Continue reading

Book Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is a nearly perfect novel, scarcely a word out of place.  Fitzgerald is  an artist – a daub here, a brushstroke there and he creates portraits of dazzling beauty.

On Daisy:
“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it.”
“I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming.” Continue reading

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

lifeOfPiLife of Pi is amazing – it’s really different, and has a sort of cheerful innocence about it that is considered passé in the modern novel – it’s another great Canadian book with the best surprise ending since Richler’s Barney’s Version. Continue reading

Something Blue by Emily Griffin

something_blue…was mildly entertaining, but if I’m going to read this sort of pulp, my expectations are higher. I require constant action, a veritable roller coaster of breathless plot twists.

Something Blue is not that novel.  It’s about a rather nasty, self-obsessed individual named Darcy who cares only for designer clothes and shoes – and how she finds true love.  It’s apparently (I’m told) written in the tradition of Twilight, which I haven’t read but I understand is based on the fiction that somewhere out there, waiting for every girl is a sensitive, steady, desperately monogamous, spectacularly handsome gallant whose only dream in life is to listen to her narcissistic whining.  I wouldn’t particularly recommend this.  The Other Bolyen Girl, which is also firmly a pulp novel, was vastly more entertaining.