Book #136: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)

author: Stephen Chbosky
language: English
length: 213 pages
finished reading on: 12 May 2017

I like it when I find a book that’s just nicely-presented, which is the main reason I bought this novel, if I’m honest. Usually I avoid the ones with movie tie-in covers, but the paper and layout of this novel is very good quality. So I actually feel like I’m getting better quality than I would if I bought the Kindle version.

I watched the movie version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower a few years ago – there are a lot of things I’d forgotten about the movie, but I kept remembering moments as I read through this. The movie is pretty faithful to the book, and it’s directed by the book’s author, which is pretty rare. One thing I’d forgotten is that the movie awkwardly tries to keep the conceit that the main character is writing letters to an unnamed stranger – the so-called epistolary style – by having him type the letters out on screen. It doesn’t work on screen, and I was a bit skeptical about the book when I first picked it up, but I found it works quite well.

It’s very easy to read, especially after the last book I read, which had quite thick and heavy prose. This is written in a more colloquial style and is often speaking directly at the reader. That and the shorter length of the book meant that I finished it much quicker.

I think it’s refreshing to have a young male character who’s unashamed of being emotional and upset – so much media, even modern media, still stereotypes men as being unable to express their emotions. And this tackles quite a lot of mental health issues directly, which is also good. I don’t have a lot to criticize about the book – perhaps that the main character is self-centred despite trying hard to be a “wallflower”, and annoyingly clueless at times. But I also recognized that awkwardness I and a lot of others I know have experienced in our high school days.

And there’s the ending twist, too, which I’d completely forgotten – it comes on the second-to-last page in the book. I don’t want to reveal it – I think the book is easy enough for people to read and I really liked it, so I think people should seek this book out. Perhaps it’s a bit young for me, really – the issues are distinctly teenage, after all, and I’m well past that stage of my life – but I still enjoyed reading it a lot. (And one of the side characters is gay. Also good.)


TV: Please Like Me season 2 (2014)

creators: Josh Thomas & Matthew Saville
language: English and a bit of Thai
length: 10 episodes of about 25 minutes each
finished watching on: 1 May 2017
previous seasons: season 1

I can’t remember why I took such a long break from this series – there were a few months when I didn’t watch it at all, before picking it up again sometime this year. But I still get a strong impulse to watch it whenever I cook food, perhaps a habit, but perhaps also influenced by the importance of food in the series (they provide motifs for a lot of episodes and the episodes are named after food).

Basically, the series has found its feet here, but I feel it’s still far too full of cringe humour for my liking at the end of the day. Josh, the main character, is insufferable, to be honest, constantly nagging other characters for attention and validation.

I like how it deals very frankly and directly with mental illness. But it often goes from these moments straight back into something very cringeworthy for comedy’s sake, and perhaps back again, even ending one episode with the surprise suicide of a side character – I said in the review of the last season that I was annoyed that my favourite character had been killed off by the show, and this is the same. I think the tone wasn’t consistent in this area. Balance is important.

But it’s got some high points – Josh and his mum in the wilderness of Tasmania was a really nice episode, and I liked the introduction of Arnold, who as far as I know will end up with Josh in the next season.

Despite its negative points, I still identify with a lot of the characters and recognize the situations. I’ll still be continuing with the next season. Soon, perhaps!

Book #132: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

aka: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
author: Kurt Vonnegut
language: English and some German
length: 313 minutes (5 hours 13 minutes)
finished listening on: 22 March 2017

I got this on a cheap deal from Audible, and what a coincidence: it’s narrated by James Franco, who I just watched chew the scenery in King Cobra. I’ve been meaning to read some of Vonnegut’s work for a while, as he’s one of those authors that’s constantly referenced in other works – and is rightly considered a classic author of sci-fi.

The book is a kind of comedy about war, written semi-autobiographically about Vonnegut’s experiences in Dresden during World War II. In that vein, it fits well with Catch-22, but is less obviously comedic in its outlook. In fact, it is a lot more morbid than that book – Catch-22 waits until near the end of the book when we’ve become emotionally invested in its characters before it starts killing them off, but this book starts right from the beginning.

The story of the book is that the main character Billy Pilgrim gets “unstuck in time”, and later kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, aliens who can see all of time simultaneously and are fatalistic in their worldview. Billy Pilgrim also adopts this worldview. To this end, every time a death is mentioned in the book (which is a lot), the book uses the Tralfamadorians’ catch-phrase, “So it goes”.

Like all the best books, and especially sci-fi, this book can be read on multiple levels – on the one hand, it’s the adventures of a man who travels through time a lot and meets aliens. On the other, it seems to be a depiction of PTSD flashbacks, or some other mental illness brought on by Billy’s experiences during the war. Also, because of the non-linear way the book is structured, it is probably best to read it two or three times to get everything, to really understand what is going on. Like Catch-22, jumping around so much could leave me confused as to where I was.

I also realized while listening to this that this was certainly the inspiration for the aliens in Arrival. I feel like I’ve read them in the wrong order now!

As for James Franco, honestly I don’t think he’s cut out for audiobook reading. There’s an awful lot of vocal fry and mumbling in this (especially when he repeats the Tralfamadorian mantra), and the book also contains a few sentences of untranslated German, which Franco utterly mangles. I couldn’t understand what he was saying at all. Can audiobook producers not screen that kind of stuff before producing an audiobook? I complained about Franco in my review of King Cobra recently – I also just realized that I complained about him (indirectly) in my review of 127 Hours, about five years ago, although not by name because I didn’t know him at the time. That film relied so much on his one performance, and he couldn’t quite carry it.

So I think I’d like to read this book again just to absorb it better, but maybe in print form this time. I think it’s beautifully structured, to the point that a single reading doesn’t quite cut it. Anyone else read it? What do you think?

Film #238: The Last Time I Saw Richard (2014)

tltisrdirector: Nicholas Verso
language: English
length: 22 minutes
watched on: 23 October 2016
Boys on Film 11 (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)

This is the fifth in the “Boys on Film 11” DVD, and it’s the one that’s used on the DVD cover. It’s set in a mental hospital somewhere in Australia, and has a strong creepy horror bent to it.

The main character Jonah self-harms, which we see in too graphic detail early in the film. Coincidentally, the last time I saw this on film in such detail was another Australian film where a character kills herself. I really don’t see a reason to include this. But whatever. The love interest is Richard, a new roommate for Jonah. Jonah is a massive dickhead to everyone around him, manipulating everyone around him to get his own way, but with Richard it’s like an unstoppable force up against an unmovable object – Richard is cut off from the world (he always has headphones in) and lashes out with violence when Jonah tries to snoop on him.

But they bond over basketball, and end up in bed together, although it seems more to protect each other from their nightmares. This is where the horror part comes in – there are dream visions where they are missing eyes, or where dark shadows from the corner of the room try to attack the two boys. Despite not being realistic, this part was totally believable, given the setup and taking the boy’s point of view directly.

I thought the piece was well-considered, and even over the very brief total time, there is considerable character development, which I also liked. It can be commended for realism even with the dreaming and fantastic elements, and I really felt sorry for the main character at the end, when he is forced away from the boy he’s grown to love – despite really not taking to him at all at the beginning, when he was being a manipulative little shit. It’s probably my surprising favourite of the 8 films on the DVD. You can watch it on Youtube, but be prepared to cry.

Book #101: The Girl on the Train (2015)

girlontrainauthor: Paula Hawkins
language: English
length: 657 minutes (10 hours, 57 minutes)
finished listening on: 31 March 2016

This book has been hawked on Audible’s front page for the last year or so, and I decided I might as well try it, see what’s popular at the moment.

All I can say is, is this really how most straight people view their relationships? Between this and Gone Girl, to which it’s often compared, I’m not filled with hope (I haven’t read the book of Gone Girl, though, only the movie). It’s a story of mental illness and spousal abuse, and it has the air of a thriller. The main character (or, one of the three, who all had different narrators in the audiobook), Sarah, is an alcoholic, and the main incident of the book happens when she’s blacked out, so she has to find out what happened.

As with most stories, there came a point soon before it was revealed when everything fell into place and it was obvious how the story would be resolved, but the author is skilled enough to string us along with something false for most of the book, and so I was suitably surprised when it started to become clear. The unreliable narrator aspects allowed me to experience this along with Sarah, so that worked well.

The train in the title comes in because Sarah is on the train kind of spying into others’ lives on her commute into London, and constructs elaborate fantasies about a couple she sees. And the same woman then goes missing, so she becomes embroiled in the investigation.

As an exploration of misogyny and abuse it works very well and doesn’t shy away from anything. The atmosphere is very foreboding, especially when she blacks out and you know that something bad has happened.

Anyway, there is a lot of good things about this book, but the subject matter was pretty dark. Like the last movie I reviewed, I feel like people could have been a bit more honest and upfront with each other and a lot of the problems would have been resolved. I also don’t think the comparison with Gone Girl is the most apt, because it’s not as nuanced. But it was worth listening to.

TV: In the Flesh seasons 1 & 2 (2013-14)

IMG_2169.JPGCreator: Dominic Mitchell
Language: English
Length: 3 episodes and 6 episodes respectively, around 60 minutes each
Finished watching on: Sep 5 and Sep 11 respectively

The first I heard of this show was, perhaps ironically, through an article linked on my Facebook arguing the case for it to be renewed for a third season, so far an uncertain fate. To be fair, it’s quite possible that I’d heard vaguely about the “gay zombie show” before, but this was at least the first time I’d been made aware of it explicitly.

The words “BBC Three series” don’t fill one with much hope, to be honest, but this surpassed those expectations. As I alluded, the main character has gay relationships, making the show perhaps most famous for actually being one of the few on modern television to include them, and moreover to do so without this being the biggest plot point, and without it being a show only about gay people. Thus it stands in contrast to other BBC shows that are more content to make gay jokes about their protagonists, who constantly protest their eternal heterosexuality.

The zombie aspect of the story is actually not as central as such a title would make you think though, as the zombie apocalypse has already been and gone, and those who weren’t killed, including the main character, have been rehabilitated into society by the government. They take drugs to fix their minds, and wear makeup and contacts to disguise their undead status.

But not everyone’s happy about that. Most of the fictional Lancashire village where the show’s set vehemently hate the zombies, who are known in the show either as the euphemistic “PDS sufferers” or the offensive “rotters”. Thus the show becomes, for the most part, a metaphor for oppression.

The other main metaphor seems to be for mental illness. The acronym PDS seems to be deliberately selected by the creators to be reminiscent of PTSD, which the main character visibly suffers from, especially in the first season, when he gets violent flashbacks a lot to his time as a zombie, or to the fact that he had committed suicide before the opening of the series. A large part of the first series deals with the way he and his family react to his return, and more generally, how people deal with the aftermath of suicide.

The final main theme is religion. It’s not surprising that when the dead start to rise, people become very religious, as it coincides with what’s taught in the bible. So especially in the first season (in the second, a year has passed and the situation has sort of settled), representatives of the church plays the part of the main antagonists. The undead, too, have their own prophet and religion predicting similar things to the living church, such as a second rising.

I’m not going to get anywhere recapping the plot, however. Suffice to say the show is brimming with ideas and tales about all the different families affected in different ways, so much so that it feels like it’s overflowing, especially with such short seasons. And yet there are so many questions left unanswered. Like, was this phenomenon confined to the UK, or was it worldwide? How did other cultures deal with it?

The main thing I took away was how emotionally draining it was to watch, actually. The situations feel very real, and the characters are very well portrayed and identifiable, so seeing them often in pain is very affecting, and can be difficult to watch.

I also had a bit of a heart-wrenching realization moment when I noticed how many of the undead characters are so young – only one or two of the PDS characters are in their old age – and how it seems like just about every family we see in the village has been affected in some way by a recent death. Of course, this has to do with conservation of detail. Even though the story is about them getting their second chances, it was a sobering moment.

Notwithstanding the difficult emotional aspect of the show, it is also heartwarming and has comedic moments too, and I really enjoyed watching it. Since it ended on a cliffhanger, I do really hope they make the next season. And I’d definitely recommend it. Having a cute lead also helps.

Book #69: Fight Club (1996)

fightclubauthor: Chuck Palahniuk
language: English
length: 335 minutes (5 hours 35 minutes)
finished listening on: 2 August 2014

Ah, Fight Club. I already have a bit of an odd love-hate relationship with the movie: at first when I was a teenager I quite liked it, but since then, while I still think there are a few interesting ideas in there, overall I think the philosophy is tripe and overly libertarian. I’m also coming to realize how misogynistic it also is.

Fight Club the novel is pretty much the same. Many people have noted that the film actually did a better job of telling the story than the novel did, in one of the rare reversals of the usual state of affairs. I think I agree with that, at least to some extent. I got very angry listening to this book, because of the sheer volume of to me offensive philosophy.

It’s long been assumed, and this was my impression from both the movie and the book, that Fight Club is satirical, making fun of the idea that these men’s masculinity was so threatened by the idea of women making advances in society that they had to make a hypersecret club devoted to their morally decrepit idea of what it means to be a man, but I’ve seen comments recently that Palahniuk really intended his novel to be exploring men’s issues, which makes me hate the book just a little bit more. The main character even acknowledges that Tyler Durden’s platitudes are exactly that, and doesn’t believe in their validity himself.

As a book about mental illness, however, it is really well done in my opinion. I can’t speak for the exact illnesses portrayed in the book myself, things such as insomnia or dissociative identity disorder. I’m not sure from my own perspective whether these are shown realistically, exactly, but I do think that the main character’s downward spiral is portrayed very accurately, and this was the book’s main saving grace. It’s also a mercifully short book.