We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: Book Review

“In everyone’s life there are people who stay and people who go and people who are taken against their will.” 

                              

It would be impossible to review this book without disclosing an important detail that Karen Joy Fowler intended to stay hidden until a third of the way through and it should really remain a secret for anyone going into this book. If you’d rather it stay that way, then I warn you beforehand.

Fowler is probably most well known for penning the wildly popular Jane Austen Book Club, with the film adaptation starring Emily Blunt and Hugh Dancy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is her seventh novel and it made it onto this year’s ManBooker Prize shortlist.

 The novel focuses on the Cooke family and is narrated by the youngest daughter, Rosemary Cooke. As a child, Rosemary had the gift of the gab and would charm everyone with her endless stories, but as an adult she barely speaks. In the present time, she is an isolated college student who denies her friends any insight into who she is, but she hints to the reader that a big incident in her past altered her and her family irrevocably. The incident is this: in the 1970s, Rosemary returned home from her grandparent’s house to find that her beloved sister, Fern, had vanished. Shortly after Fern’s disappearance, her older brother Lowell packed up his bags and disappeared without any explanation and in the present day, is a wanted fugitive. She is not on speaking terms with either of her parents; after Fern’s cataclysmic disappearance, her father became an alcoholic and her mother suffered a mental breakdown. Receiving no answers when Rosemary questions what has happened to Fern, she concludes that silence is a flawed solution to those who don’t want to deal with the truth.

 Being around the same age, Rosemary and Fern were closer than most sisters and they grew up joined at the hip. Together, they learnt to walk, to talk, to play, to laugh and to live. Before Fern had even spoken, Rosemary knew exactly what Fern meant and wanted. But the one point Fowler withholds from the reader is that Fern is a chimpanzee. A chimpanzee brought in by Rosemary’s psychologist father to be brought up beside her and used as the scientific test subject for an experiment to see if chimps have the capacity to inherit human behaviours. Rosemary is aware that their milestones are compared and even realises that to an extent, it’s a competition.

 The story deals with the grief that Rosemary feels over Fern and Lowell’s disappearance and the disintegration of her family. Having spent her childhood growing up with her “twin”, Rosemary is incomplete without Fern and her grief comes across the page vividly. But, deep down, Rosemary is also dealing with guilt that she may have had a part in Fern’s disappearance. Having suppressed her memories of Fern’s disappearance, the story is Rosemary’s attempt to understand this peculiar childhood ordeal amidst her distorted and muddled memories, ultimately deciding whether she’s ready to forgive herself.

 By disclosing the vital information that Fern is a chimp, Fowler prevents the reader making any snap judgements and instead invites the reader into the Cooke family to get to know. The aftereffects of the experiment on Rosemary are fascinating. While living with humans subdued Fern’s natural chimp tendencies, Rosemary had also inherited Fern’s natural behaviours; something neither of her parents had accounted for. As a result, she is ostracised by her classmates and the nickname “Monkey Girl” follows her through her childhood as kids laugh at her strange body reactions. Rosemary desires nothing more to shake off this otherness at university and sits in silence while her classmates gossip over their abnormal families, in hope that her silence will assert her family’s normality.

There is historical basis for this story; scientists Winthrop and Luella Kellogg decided to raise a chimpanzee called Gua alongside their son to compare primate and human development. The experiment didn’t end well and Gua was separated after Donald began to mimic his sounds; Gua died shortly afterwards. With animal testing still a reality, this novel is important in asking why animal lives are valued less than humans, especially when they feel just as passionately.

Serious themes are explored and heart-breaking truths revealed. I’ve read reviews which mention the humorous nature of the novel and while there where funny moments, I didn’t think the novel is humour-filled overall. While the novel is not told chronologically, rather it begins near the middle, the story never feels stilted. More so, each revelation feels like a puzzle piece coming together to reveal the full picture. The novel tests the definition of what it means to be a family and challenges the perception of human relationships. It is a story about family and whether forgiveness is truly possible if we hurt the ones we love the most.

Rating: 4/5

-Samiha

The Narrow Road to the Deep North wins Man Booker Prize 2014

Congratulations to Richard Flanagan for winning the Man Booker Prize 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North !

The historical novel is set in the harsh conditions of a Japanese POW camp and follows the trials of a surgeon who is tormented by an affair he had with a married woman two years earlier. And then one day, he receives a life-altering letter.

The winner was announced on the 14th of this month from a shortlist of six novels (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, J by Howard Jacobson,The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee and How to be Both by Ali Smith).I’ve only read two of the books shortlisted this year (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and J), but I definitely want to get through the full list. 

Last year’s winner was Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries (which I own but haven’t read-is it understandable that the size is putting me off slightly?). 

-Samiha

aboutbooksanddreams:

violinwaist:

thatbooksmell:

abookblog:

brandenemeyers:

cdbookcorner:

Hey, you.

Yeah, you.

You should totally reblog this post and add a book recommendation.

Just add any book you think someone should read, it doesn’t matter the genre or anything.

Do it.
Just do it.

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende

True Grit by Charles Portis

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseni 

Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?

Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd: Book Review

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4/5

'To remain silent in the face of evil is itself a form of evil.'

The Invention of Wings is my first Sue Monk Kidd book and I know The Secret Life of Bees has a legion of fans, I’ve watched the film adaptation (with Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys) and enjoyed it, but I’m yet to read it. So I was excited to get my hands on The Invention of Wings after wanting to read it for so long.

The novel is set in 19th century Charleston, when slavery was still a brutal reality.

On her 11th birthday, Sarah Grimke, the middle and difficult child of the Grimke family, is given a gift wrapped in purple ribbon. This gift is Hetty ‘Handful’, a slave and now Sarah’s property.

 What follows is a heart-warming relationship that both girls know is unconventional. Sarah doesn’t believe in the inferiority of African people as so many others do and desires for the abolition of slavery, so much so that she tries to release Hetty by writing up a formal release statement and presenting it to her parents. Her attempt is shot down and when her dream of becoming the first ever-female jurist is laughed-off, she begins to understand how unfair and cruel the world really is.

This was a great read and I was fascinated to find out that the story was inspired by historical events and Sarah and her sister Angelina Grimke actually existed! They devoted their lives to campaigning for the abolition of slavery and they campaigned for women’s rights. The treatment of African people was hard to read at times, especially how they were perceived as animals and the punishments inflicted on them. What I liked was the variety of relationships the story focused on such as Hetty and her mother Charlotte, Sarah and the complicated relationship she had with her parents and the mother-daughter relationship with Angelina. The novel also conveyed the dynamics within the African community and how they interacted and perceived their oppressors.  

 One of my qualms would be the lack of Sarah and Hetty’s relationship, especially at the beginning. Since the novel promises to be about them, I expected to see their relationship develop and I anticipated their interactions, but it was, at times, more one girl thinking about the other rather than actually talking. I also felt like Sarah became slightly boring near the middle and Angelina overtook her, both in expressing her beliefs and befriending Hetty. But these are minor issues and were actually necessary in the development of both characters into the women that they are at the end.

I wholly recommend this book!

Samiha :)

Banned Books

It’s interesting to think that books that are much esteemed in today’s society where once ostracised and banned. What was it about them that made them too deviant to allow readers to devour them? What was it about them that made people scared to have them sitting on shelves in bookstores, awaiting shiny new readers?

Thinking about it, it seems silly that people were afraid of mere words on paper. But maybe they had a reason to be scared. Words are so powerful they can change the world. It’s no wonder that people are still scared of stories; Harry Potter is still challenged for its use of witchcraft, other YA books for their themes of sexuality.

Here are the top 10 banned books, as compiled by Shortlist:

1) Brave New World- Aldous Huxley

2) The Grapes of Wrath- John Steinbeck

3) Tropic of Cancer- Henry Miller

4) Slaughterhouse-Five- Kurt Vonnegut

5) The Satanic Verses- Salman Rushdie

6) The Perks of Being a Wallflower- Stephen Chobsky

7) Things Fall Apart- Chinua Achebe

8) American Psycho- Brett Easton Ellis

9) The Metamorphosis- Franz Kafka

10) Lolita- Vladmir Nabokov

Source: http://www.shortlist.com/shortlists/10-banned-books

There are, of course, so many more. Did you know that Charlotte’s Web (yes, the kids book about talking farm animals and a spider) was banned? All this makes me want to do is eat banned books for breakfast :)

-Samiha

The Princess Bride by William Goldman: Book Review

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3.9/5

The Princess Bride is one of my favourite films and I’ve been meaning to read it for so long. When it finally came through the post a few weeks ago, my heart did a few somersaults. The story promises a swashbuckling adventure, heart fluttering romance, thrilling fights and intriguing mysteries. Does it deliver? You bet it does.

 The main story of the The Princess Bride is actually a novel comprised within the novel. It tells the story of Buttercup who lives on a farm, in a fictional country called Florin, and she finds joy in nothing more than ordering the “farm boy” around. “Farm boy” does have a real name, it’s Westley. Each time he replies with, “As you wish”, but this phrase hides those three pesky little word. Westley leaves Buttercup behind, promising to return after making a fortune. But heartbreak reaches Buttercup first, hearing that Westley has been killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts. She vows to never love again, but Prince Humperdinck has his leery eyes set on her.

I really enjoyed this book, because I really needed it in my life right now. It’s absolutely fantastical and I loved it. Stories filled with such high adventure, this imbedded in a fantasyland and influenced by traditional fairy tale elements, are rare nowadays in my opinion. In this story you’ll find torture, miracles, poison, rolling down a hill, a fire swamp, giants and true love and a whole lot more. The romance between Westley and Buttercup might not have been realistic, but it was charming- the cute Renaissance-era, type. I loved how Inigo, Fezzik and Westley came together to form a gang, the banter between them and the adventure that they have. The story was magical and humorous, with witty and brilliant speech. I can picture Inigo exclaiming, “My name is Inigo Montaya, you killed my father. Prepare to die”- what a fabulous line.

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The narrative structure of the novel is one of a novel inside a novel. Goldman is an author who is abridging an earlier version of the story, which had been written by S. Morgenstern. Thus, the novel is littered with Goldman’s commentary. I didn’t want these interventions. It was fine at the beginning, but as the story picked up pace, I didn’t like being pulled out of this world to be reminded that it is just that, a fictional story. But apparently, there were extra interventions in the anniversary edition? The only time I enjoyed it was Goldman saying that he had written a reunion scene (which the story lacked) and if the reader wanted to read it, they should email the publishers (which people did, and they received a letter back about the fictional legal problems. Great right?) There were also certain lines and characterisations that rattled me, such as Westley demanding Buttercup follow his command and the emphasis on Buttercup’s “Damsel in Distress” persona. Having read medieval tales of adventure and high romance, I understand this tendency to have a male hero save the woman, but this was overused at times. My edition included a small story titled Buttercup’s Baby at the end, which I didn’t care for at all.

Overall, I enjoyed the story of The Princess Bride, but didn’t care much for Goldman’s commentary. When I re-read this, I’m just going to skip these sections and simply follow the adventure of Buttercup, Westley, Inigo and Fezzik. 

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PS: watch the film if you haven’t!

-Samiha :)