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review 2014-10-11 00:16
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

This is the fist book I’ve picked up from the Man Booker longlist. Yes I had some trouble getting a few of them while I was in the States. In fact, I only managed to pick up two, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Since then I’ve managed to pick up a few others either in e-book form or ordering physical copies online. Happily the first two I picked up this summer have been put on the shortlist. Is that a sign that I can choose a good book by its cover? Hmmm! Probably not. Trying to acquire a few of these longlisted intriguing novels, I decided to pick up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves first.

After reading the description on the back cover I was worried that it would be contrived and gimmicky. Some say the description is a big spoiler however I found the book was more than what was described on the back cover and anyway everybody has heard or knows the basic principle of the novel. Fowler created a story full of anxiousness, mystery, and sensitivity. We follow a dysfunctional family through the eyes of the main character, Rosemary Cooke. Or is she the main character? Rosemary is quirky, slightly guarded, highly intelligent, and honest. She is quite the reliable narrator, which we can see clearly when she second guesses some of her memories as she recounts the first few years of her life living with her “sister” Fern and brother Lowell.

The novel opens with the voice of a character who is hiding herself and her pain. A pain that she has held within herself for many years. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is Rosemary’s attempt to come to terms with all that is and has been wrong with her family since the addition of a baby chimpanzee to their family called Fern. Who would have known the consequences of this addition to the family?

Rosemary’s parents are distant and acting as they see fit or as they would think is necessary. Rosemary’s relationship with her father seems strained beyond repair. As the story continues, it becomes clear where the problems lie. The entire family has strained relationships with each other due to Fern’s appearance. It’s as if Fern became the focal point of the family and no other member of the family saw the other family members’ needs.

Fowler constructed the story in a way that you don’t get the full picture until the very last page. Starting in the middle of the story, clues about the Cooke family are strewn through the pages almost as if it were a journal. Rosemary is witty and at times brutally honest. She gives us all the information we need to know, facts included. The language Fowler uses and her writing style contribute to the novel’s emotional power. I was marvelled at Fowler’s brilliance in choosing certain vocabulary and expression. Communication and language were two of the primary themes in this novel and we as readers got to have a closer look at these themes from many angles. Communication and language are what initially separates the Cooke’s, however it is what drew them closer to Fern.

I couldn’t help it but I found myself searching for information on chimpanzees that had been raised with humans and ran across a few You Tube videos. There was something seriously unsettling, eery, and lugubrious about it all. It just didn’t seem right from the child’s point of view and certainly not from the chimpanzees’. I found this book incredibly moving and informative. I think it might have a good chance to win the Man Booker but who knows since I haven’t read any of the other shortlisted ones yet. However, this one is a must read and is very difficult to put down.

Karen Joy Fowler is known for having written sixteen books in total including The Jane Austen Book Club, which was adapted to film in 2007. Some of her other novels are Wit’s End, Sarah Canary, Sister Noon, Black Glass, The Sweetheart Season, What I Didn’t See: Stories, and many more. She broke into writing with her well-known collection of science-fiction short stories called Artificial Things in 1986. She also won the Pen/Faulkner Award 2014. She’s been lucky to have been chosen for the Man Booker shortlist, for the first year that the competition was open to authors outside of the Commonwealth, as well as being nominated for a 2014 Nebula Award. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is definitely a five-star book not to miss out on.

Source: didibooksenglish.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/we-are-all-completely-beside-ourselves
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review 2014-09-29 11:20
Good, but there's nothing new here - Us by David Nicholls
Us - David Nicholls

[This book was provided to me free of charge by the American publisher, facilitated in this act by the always-confusing-to-navigate Edelweiss]


Although I've read (and quite liked) a couple of David Nicholls' other books - Starter For Ten and the ubiquitous One Day - I wasn't terribly interested in this new one until it cropped up on the Man Booker Longlist. Nicholls is a perfectly decent writer who has seen tremendous commercial success while largely avoiding the prose-critical backlash writers like Stephanie Meyer have endured. That said, for him to place on the Booker Longlist, particularly in its first year of international competition - well, I freely express surprise he would be even be entered.


One night, 56-year-old Douglas Petersen is woken by his wife, Connie, to be told she's leaving him. Or rather, she will be, once Albie, their 17-year-old son is safely ensconced at University. Before that, the family have a trip planned - a Grand Tour of Europe - during which Douglas intends to win back the affection of his wife and the respect of his son via the mediums of having a strict timetable and regurgitating the Wikipedia entry of everywhere they go. 


Although not a deliberate comedy, Us should find a natural fan base amongst readers of The Rosie Project, itself widely compared to One Day. By the time this review is posted, I will be about to compare The Rosie Effect to Us triggering a comparative title vortex and trapping us all in a literary feedback-loop of inept middle-aged white guys. Superficially, Nicholls' Douglas feels a touch derivative of Graeme Simsion's hero Don - he is a scientist, he has a free-spirited love interest, having things organised is important to him - but unlike Simsion, Nicholls does not attempt to place his protagonist on the autistic spectrum, even though at times it feels as though he was thinking about it.


Where One Day was an interesting idea adequately executed, Us is a uniteresting idea near perfectly executed. It's a good read, but the shelves are heaving with this type of thing, often done in a more interesting and engaging way. This is closer to Tony Parsons than Nick Hornby and its inclusion on on the Booker longlist is perhaps more indicative of what we're traditionally told "literature" is (straight, white and male) than any literary quality Us possesses. 


Although I liked it overall, I found the characters problematic. Us is the story of this broken marriage and of Douglas' attempts to unbreak it; of how it began and how it came to crack. I struggled slightly - as I did in One Day - to see why these characters cared about each other in the first place. The elements are there but the follow-through isn't. Douglas almost fetishises Connie's artistic bent (which is a pet hate for me anyway), but there's also a degree of contempt for it in the way he doesn't want Albie to pursue a career in the arts, and in the absent head-patting encouragement for her to paint - he doesn't engage with her feelings on the matter of what it is to paint, only the fact he likes her drawings. The internal conflict of this is absent, as a missed opportunity rather than an active gap.


I did not like Connie. She is cruel, yet she is subject to the female-worship other SWMs like Parsons are so guilty of, her actions merely evidence of her free-spirit. Douglas loves her, but it is not a good thing.


The third element, Albie, is a brat who desperately needs to check his privilege. The kind of teen who tells his father he hates him before demanding the necessary cash to extricate himself from his father's company. The kind of brat who insists on having his guitar on a train journey of Europe, and who has the kind of father who brings it.


I did enjoy this. The second half is better than the first benefiting from a move away from the slightly dull realism of the beginning into the kind of book-acceptable plot Nicholls worked so well in Starter For Ten. Even so, I couldn't engage with it. For any justifiable superlative you want to offer, there are dozens of books already out there doing exactly this. Storytelling in all its forms is already dominated by male narratives and this one, while perfectly good, does nothing new. 


I'm going to settle on 3.5 stars, of the kind which gets rounded up rather than down. As I keep saying, it's a good book - although I do wonder if those who loved One Day because they identified with Emma will find this as appealing - despite its wider unoriginality. What it does it does perfectly well and there's no reason not to give it a whirl.



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