Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Book 6 review: ‘Stories I Only Tell My Friends’, Rob Lowe

My 6th book of this year is Rob Lowe’s autobiography, ‘Stories I Only Tell My Friends’. To put it simply, this is autobiography is a great book. It was well written, insightful and funny, and just generally a good read. I had only ever seen Rob Lowe in the new TV series Parks and Recreation (in which he was brilliant) and had never seen any of his movies. So I was coming into this book cold, knowing little about Rob Lowe, and not expecting a great deal. Now Rob Lowe now has a new fan, not only of his acting, but as a writer.
The Cover of Rob Lowe's 'Stories I Only Tell My Friends'



‘Stories I Only Tell My Friends’ follows Rob's life as a young, wanna-be actor growing up in Ohio. then moving with his mother, step-father and brothers to Malibu in the 1970’s. Rob’s descriptions of Malibu in the 70’s before it became an expensive celebrity haven, are fascinating. In the audition circuit, and in his new hometown of Malibu Rob comes across so many of his fellow future stars; Tom Cruise, Robert Downey Jr, Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Sean Penn amongst many, many others. Rob then details his early struggles as an actor and his difficulty with the disconnect an actor has from the finished product of a movie.

 I know little of Rob Lowe’s work. I vaguely remember seeing him in Brothers and Sisters when I was a teenager, and absolutely love him in Parks and Recreation but have not seen any of his movies. I did not grow up with Rob Lowe as the 20-something A-list celebrity so knew little of the rumours that have surrounded his life since he was a teenager.
Back in his teenage years Rob was melting hearts with this grin...
When I mentioned I was reading his book to a colleague, she simply mumbled something about drugs and celebrities. But apart from that comment, Rob Lowe’s reputation did not precede him as I read his autobiography.

the so called ‘Brat Pack’ of the 80's 

Sure this autobiography goes into Rob’s struggles with alcohol and his multiple love affairs with every girl from Princess Stephanie of Monaco, to Cary Grant’s daughter Jennifer Grant. But Rob’s insight into the film industry and into his varied career is the real star of this book. 
What is astonishing is how Lowe discovers that Hollywood is all about missed opportunities. It is so hard to predict how a movie will turn out once a writer, director, producer and ultimately a studio have had their way with it, and often an actor can give an incredible performance that is either cut from a film, or edited in such a way that ruins it. Rob speaks about how he was so excited to watch a screening of his first movie, the iconic 'The Outsiders' but was devastated when he realised half his scenes had been cut. Lowe talks about questioning whether to take the opportunity to be the leading man in 'Dune' and mentions how Tom Cruise  was cast in Risky Business, a movie he wasn't sure would be successful.  

The most obvious sign of how much I liked this book is the fact I have been on a Rob Lowe cinematography binge for the last week since reading 'Stories I Only Tell My Friends'. I have begun watching The West Wing, I have the Outsiders, St Elmo's Fire and About Last Night waiting for me to watch this weekend. It is great when a book can introduce you to something new, and Lowe has successfully introduced me to some of the greatest films of the 80's, and to a brilliant TV show that many had previously tried and failed to get me to watch (I have a Political Science degree so there were plenty of people who tried).
The Good Bits

The most surprising part of this autobiography was how well it was written. Rob Lowe was funny, self-deprecating and above all, interesting. At no point  was I bored or uninterested. He is a great storyteller.

As I mentioned, 'Stories I Only Tell My Friends’ has inspired me to watch The West Wing for the first time. And I cannot believe how I got through my degree in political science without watching The West Wing, so thank you Mr Lowe for introducing me to this absolute gem. The West Wing holds a special place in Lowe's heart and he speaks of his absolute love of the show. Indeed, Rob starts his book describing John Kennedy Jr.'s support for the West Wing just before his tragic death and the shaky beginnings of the show. He then jumps back to his childhood, throughout his early years of fame, his breakdown and then finishes the book with his rebirth as an actor with the West Wing.
and it all comes together like this...

Ultimately, I am very grateful that this book certainly does not fit with the history of celebrity autobiographies being truly terrible.

Paris Hilton’s biography- straight to the bargain book bin with this one

David Hasselhoff’s autobiography 'Making Waves' comes in a close second for worst celebrity autobiography ever

The Not So Good Bits
I am struggling to find one thing that I didn't like about this book. It is not necessarily a book that will truly challenge you, or change your life, but it will offer new insight into the reality of life as a 'star', the difficulties of pursuing, and staying true your artistic passion, and may even make you a fan of Rob Lowe.


4 out of 5 stars

The Next Book
The book of the moment, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I was meant to read that before this novel but I decided to read Rob Lowe's book first.


Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Book 5 review: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, Xiaolu Guo

My 5th book out of 52 books this year was the quirky and endearing novel, ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ by Xiaolu Guo. Unlike the last novel I reviewed (The Goldfinch) this speedy little book took me one day to finish, not a week and a half. ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’  follows Zhuang “Z” as she is sent to London by her parents to study English. The year that follows is a year of discovery and awakening for Zhuang, as she studies English, life and love. It is a very sweet, charming and beautifully written novel, easy to review and well worth a read. 

The beautiful cover for Xiaolu Guo’s ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’

Guo’s novel is written from the point of view of 23 year old Zhuang, or Z as she first arrives in London with a very limited grasp of English, and a great sense of disconnect and loneliness as she leaves her native China and her family for the first time. 

The language used in the novel is very sweet. The novel starts with short, almost apologetic sentences as Z narrates her life with her limited vocabulary.

There are two or three pages in the novel simply in Cantonese, with an editor’s translation on the reverse of the page. In these pages the sense of frustration that Zhuang feels is palpable as she struggles to convey her thoughts in a foreign language and world. 
As the novel progresses Zhuang’s grasp of English improves, but she still continues to struggle to grasp the nuances of English culture and its many differences from the familiarity of her Chinese homeland. There are many unique and amusing phrases in this novel as Zhuang finds a way to describe everyday objects she doesn't yet know the words for in English or that have an interesting translation in Chinese. 

In a shocking development, something I learnt at university resonated with me when reading this novel, meaning my university degree can actually be applied to real life.


While reading this novel I was reminded of the concept of intersectionality. I know it sounds like a made up word (even Microsoft spell check doesn't recognise it) but bear with me. Intersectionality is the concept that all challenges and oppressions faced by individuals are interlinked. An individual’s life is informed by many different factors; their gender, their race, their language, their age, and not one of these factors can be separated out.

Drawing by yours truly

Zhuang’s experiences are not solely informed by her language and her struggles to understand and to be understood in English. Her life- and the novel- is about many more subtle challenges than that. Zhuang also embarks on a journey of sexual self-discovery and love with an older man, as she discovers her understanding of sexuality is inherently tied to her culture and upbringing in China, as well as her youth and naivete . She also struggles with the reality of cross cultural relationships, with her language school classmates and with her lover. 

The novel is full of observations on cultural norms. Zhuang discovers that although in many respects Western Culture appears more open than Chinese culture with more nudity and sexuality in the media, in other respects, the British can be closed and prudish. Especially when it comes to farting, frowned upon in the West but not so in China. 

Ultimately this novel by Guo is a beautiful account of love, life and language. Anyone who has ever struggled with a foreign language can relate to Zhuang's struggle to understand and to be understood. The novel is also a story of sexual awakening and expression, and includes some of the most beautifully written accounts of love I have ever read. This beats your average chick-flick novel any day. So next time you are after a short, quick and lovely novel to read pick ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ instead of a trashy romance and you will find yourself inspired, amused and informed. 

The Good bits 

I have mentioned it already, but every page has an interesting observation on Western culture or the English language. As an outsider, Zhuang's observations of our culture are insightful and at sometimes challenging. 

I came away from reading this novel with a smile on my face and a sense that I had read a really good story. Not many novels do that as well as ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’.

The Not So Good Bits 

Seeing one's culture reflected through the eyes of the other can remind us that our society can be excluding or negative. Reading this novel was an important reminder to respect others who perhaps cannot understand English as well as a native speaker, and to respect the difficulties people face in trying to speak in a new language. 

The way that Zhuang introduces herself as "Z" “but please no worry to remember…my name too long to pronounce” highlights how many immigrants to a new place feel they must change their identity and name simply to fit in better, to make it easier for the super majority. I have made it a goal next time someone introduces themself with a name I haven't heard before and don't know how to pronounce to take the time to learn their name properly. And to not do the Australian thing of shortening it to one syllable with an "o" at the end (Damo, Johno, Shorto etc etc). 

Yep this is what Aussies do...


4 and a half out of 5 

The Next Book 

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Haven't started it yet but it is certainly the book of the moment, becoming a movie later this year. 

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Book 4 Review: The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

My fourth book to review of 52 books for 2014 is Donna Tartt’s epic Novel, ‘The Goldfinch’. It is a novel that is epic in size (771 pages in the hardcover edition) and in content, traversing a huge scope of human emotions, desires and follies. The Goldfinch follows the story of the narrator, teenager Theodore Decker from the moment his mother dies in a bomb blast at a New York art museum. Theo survives the blast, walking out of the building with a ring given to him by a dying man, a priceless 17th century painting of a small goldfinch, and a sense of turbulence and catastrophe that never leaves him. 
This novel truly managed to transport me, keep me guessing, keep the (electronic) pages flying through my fingers and has been one of the best novels I have read in a long time.

The Goldfinch By Donna Tartt, Book Cover

The novel deals with big, complex themes; the blurred definition between good and bad, whether our personalities are inbuilt or nurtured by events and situations in our lives, whether if is possible or advisable to repress one's true personality, and the impact one action can have on the outcome of a whole life. It would be easy to get bogged down discussing these complex subjects, by Tartt avoids this almost altogether. The novel is quick, interesting, current and Theo's voice is incredibly authentic. Although Theo's life revolves around the painting of the Goldfinch, and spends his adult life as an antiques dealer, he is far from stuffy. He reels between nurturing and then rejecting various drug addictions, he spends his teenage years in a drunken, drugged haze in the sandy glitz of Las Vegas and he clashes with various shady gangster types. 

Tartt has a brilliant descriptive voice and as a reader you are taken from the bustle yet somehow homeliness of New York City, to the desolation and lawlessness of the outskirts of Las Vegas, to the inside of Theo's head with his spiraling emotions. The book is often funny, cutting edge and full of beautiful descriptions of life. 

"[He was] unlike the Hobie of my first visit, with his bedraggled aspect of an elegant but mistreated polar bear" (page 168 on the Kindle)

"Maybe this is one instance where you can't boil down to pure 'good' or pure 'bad' like you always want to do-? Like, your two different piles?..Maybe not quite so simple" (page 863)
Although it was an incredible novel, it was really really long. It didn’t at all feel like a tedious book when I was reading it and was easy to read quickly, especially as I was so engrossed in the story. I was however conscious of the fact I only had a week to read it in (I cheated- took me a week and a half). I felt a bit like this guy when I managed to finish it in under two weeks. 

If I didn't have another 48 books to read this year, I would right away re-read The Goldfinch. No-one should let the length of this book dissuade them from reading it. Reading this novel was also a good reminder to me not to shy away from any book because of its length.

As the title of the book suggests, the novel centres around a 17th century painting by Fabritius of a small, chained Goldfinch. I didn't look at the painting before I read the book and I am now very glad I didn’t. Donna Tartt describes the painting in a way that transcends what most of us will do; a quick glance at the painting on the internet before going back to Facebook. The cover of Tartt's book shows only a sliver of the painting, alluding to how the painting remains hidden, a secret constantly eating away at Theo. However, more practically the cover doesn't show the reader the painting before they have had the chance to view it through Theo's eyes first. 
If you would really still like to look at the image that so totally captures Theo, have a look at it here. You have been warned. 

Ultimately there will be many more in-depth, intellectual reviews of this book elsewhere online, describing it as Dickensian, arguing against describing at Dickensian (if anyone cares visit here and then here), or using pretentious sentences like "There is Holden Caulfield’s eye for the inauthentic, the perilous interactions with the adult world transpiring in a dreamscape New York — the specter of the dead" (yes it's a Catcher in the Rye reference). However this review is not one of those. In essence this was a great book, it was worth the read and is the sort of novel that you will be thinking about for weeks after. Read it. 



On my travels through twitter I found this beautiful review of The Goldfinch, written and illustrated by Kevin Thomas. He did my job in 8 pictures. Sigh. 


The Good Bits

The Secret History was Donna Tartt’s first novel and was one of a few books that I never fail to suggest to others. It was my favourite novel for many years. Tartt’s second novel ‘The Little Friend’ I didn’t enjoy anywhere near as much. So it is very good to have another novel by Tartt that compares to the brilliance of The Secret History.

This has been the first book this year that I didn’t think about how I was going to review it while reading it. Which is a testament to how engrossed I was in the book. But also makes it really hard at this stage to try and sound like I actually read the book when reviewing it. 

The Not So Good Bits 

The ending of the novel languished in several pages of contemplation upon the nature of good and bad deeds, which lead me to tune out right at the very end, only half concentrating on the ending. 

If you don't like reading about drug use, this is probably not the book for you. 


Four and a half out of five elegant polar bears

The Next Book 

'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers' by Xiaolu Guo. A novel about a young Chinese Woman who moves to England to study English, and finds that studying love is just as tricky. (Gosh how corny does that summary sound). This is a suggestion from a friend and am really enjoying it.