[Book Review] The Girl On The Train

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This has been compared again and again to Gone Girl, a book which, in my opinion, is cheesy as hell, but about as thrilling as it gets.

It is, however, no Gone Girl. The Girl On The Train (Paula Hawkins, 2015, 325 pages, Riverhead Books) starts with the same premise: nothing is what it seems, people are deceiving, a crime that gets weirder and weirder. Unlike Gone Girl, though, there isn’t a single charismatic bone in any of the character’s bodies: everyone is about as unlikable as it gets, including the main narrator, Rachel. People don’t even act like normal people, doing things just for the sake of the plot, making it difficult for the reader to truly immerse themselves into the story.

It also alternates chapters between characters, which is a great way to keep a thriller’s pacing frenetic, as we’ve been shown again and again by Dan Brown, for example. A technique that is basically incapable of not working in a crime book fails to work here, for the very simple reason that the author doesn’t understand that, in order for a reader to actually crave that narrator’s next chapter, you pretty much need a cliffhanger by the end of every single one. Just read any Brian K. Vaughan comic book and you’ll see how effective that can be.

And the ending, oh, the ending. You can see it coming from about a third into the book, which means everything that comes afterwards should be a balls to the walls collection of crazy events, something that Gone Girl does very effectively. Yet the same patterns are repeated, characters keep doing stupid things just so they can come back to bite them in the ass and deliver a dozen more pages, everyone involved is completely oblivious to basically everything you’ll have picked up a hundred pages before.

As if the predictability weren’t frustrating enough, by the time the book reaches its climax it goes on and on and on, repeating things again and again, in such an annoying way that it is an actual relief to get to the end of it. If the reader already knows who did it, you might as well give them something really crazy, thrilling and unexpected to hang on to later. The comparison keeps showing up, but isn’t that what Gone Girl does most effectively?

Of course, it still is good enough to keep you going until the end. But let’s face it: if you have limited hours of reading in your life, you should probably be spending them on something that is better than a “good enough” book.

[Book Review] The Disaster Artist

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Imagine the worst movie ever made. No, seriously, THE WORST. Now multiply it by 100. That might give you an idea of what it’s like to watch the absolutely hilarious, confusing, nonsensical The Room, a 2003 movie written, produced, directed and starred (YES IT’S THAT BAD) by a very strange person named Tommy Wiseau.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made (2013, Simon and Schuster, 270 pages) is lead actor Greg Sestero’s account on how the movie got made and how the hell he ended up in it. It alternates chapters following his getting to know Tommy Wiseau and the making of the movie itself, revealing that this absolute masterpiece could have turned out to be much, much worse.

Sestero is as charming a storyteller as it gets: by the end, the reader feels like part of the cast, exhausted by Tommy’s tantrums and relieved to see the filming process get wrapped. All of this is made an incredibly fast and enjoyable read thanks to Sestero’s comic insights into Wiseau’s mind and that of everyone involved in making the movie.

What makes this such a great book, however, is that it never resents the craziness; in fact, it embraces it and redeems it. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to come out of reading this without warming up to Tommy and his determination to make it in Hollywood even if Hollywood constantly spits on his face. Sestero does an incredible job at portraying this dark, mysterious and complex person as more than the guy we laugh at at the movie theater. Wiseau is human, heart-breakingly so, and you’re constantly reminded of that when his weaknesses and insecurities show between the cracks of his megalomaniac and arrogant exterior façade.

Set to be adapted to movie by James Franco (who will play Wiseau himself), The Disaster Artist is a treat to anyone who has ever watched The Room or is in any way interested in the backstories of Hollywood movies. To be quite honest, it’s a great read to anyone interested in, well, interesting people, because if there is anything to be said about Wiseau, it’s that he succeeded at being completely different from everyone else.

To sum up: watch the movie, read the book, and come and thank me when you manage to stop laughing.

[Book Review] The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

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Reality can be scary as hell.

You can have zombies, vampires and werewolves living inside a magical forest or a medieval make-believe town. You can have ghosts possessing children and sending them down the stairs in an exorcism film. You can have crazy giant cyborgs destroying a city.

But nothing – nothing – is as scary as the fear reality can provoke. The reason children are so scared of monsters is the fact that they can imagine them inside their bedrooms, where they should be comfortable and safe, where the rules of the adult world should also apply.

Which is why The Ocean At The End Of The Lane (Neil Gaiman, paperback by Harper, 192 pages), like most other Gaiman’s works, gave me goose bumps all over. The book is written as to sound almost like an autobiography, leading us through the visit of an adult man to his hometown for a funeral and the half-forgotten story he remembers as he sees the pond at the back of a farm at the end of a road, a farm where he met Lettie Hempstock and lived a story too scary to be true.

The result is beautifully scary. The introduction of fantastical elements into a realistic story, when properly done, has the effect of making everything possible and nothing seemingly real. Gaiman has the very unique ability to turn every chapter into a child’s dream, every line into a faint smell long forgotten. This is quite possibly my favorite of his – fast, thrilling, colorful, yet dark, this book is childhood in words.

Speaking of words, the man is their ultimate master, perhaps a magical creature just like the ones he loves to write about: every line is gorgeous, every character shines, everything seems impossible to improve. It always takes me a while to finish his books because of the beauty of his writing; I feel compelled to reread every other bit again and again, like someone throwing wine from one side of the mouth to the other, until I have tasted his words in every way I can. I believe exquisite is the best word I can use. His writing is simply exquisite.

Good books, much like good music, can touch your heart’s strings without asking it for permission or letting it know in advance. And I imagine the feeling provoked by this book is so difficult to describe because of how indescribable the bliss of childhood itself is for every person and, therefore, for every reader. I could write thousands and thousands of words and would still not be able to explain why or how this book is so good, the same way you could write the best of autobiographies and would never reproduce your childhood’s magic

(Unless, of course, you happen to be Neil Gaiman. In which case, hi, Neil. You’re awesome.)

All I can say is please read this. It’s short, fast, beautiful and I bet you’ll be touched. This was quite possibly my favorite book of 2013 – and I dare say it’ll continue on my list of favorite books ever for a long time, especially as I read it again and again in a desperate attempt to keep living inside of it for a little bit.

“Adults follow paths. Children explore”. And Mr. Gaiman writes dreams.

[Book Review] Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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Action movies have led many of us to believe that espionage is the combination of explosions, soft killings, six-packed agents and the thrill of the chase.

Reality is, however, a bit less exciting. Hell, a lot less exciting. Reality is, most of the time, about making sense of what seems like tons of meaningless information in order to find patterns – and while that doesn’t sound exactly like a blockbuster movie on the make, it sure can translate well into a novel when the job is well done.

That is precisely what Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (John le Carré, read on paperback, Sceptre, 448 pages) is all about. The plot follows George Smiley, an MI6 (or “Circus”, as it’s referred to throughout the book) agent, in his attempt to find a mole that, during the Cold War, is on the high ranks of the British Intelligence while feeding the KGB with inside information.

I find it necessary to make something very clear to anyone interested in reading TTSS: the book is boring. Yes, boring. Not only because it moves slowly, but because it is subtle in every discovery, making the readers wonder if they have correctly understood what has just happened. Every revelation is a small victory and you have to pick the pieces throughout the book in order to make sense of what has happened in the past, so don’t expect crazy-running-around-solving-clue-after-clue Dan Brown action. You won’t have any of it.

It is, however, absurdly satisfying. The fact that it is slow means the reader has a chance to read with Smiley and watch him as he finds every tiny secret that leads to the climax. I am still quite intrigued by how it can be such a good read when it’s so – again this word, but there really is no other – boring. The final result is delicious, just as solving a puzzle or winning a game is, because the process is so realistic it makes you crave for the discovery just as much as Smiley does.

Smiley is a portrait of the modus operandi used to find the mole and tell the story: slow, simple, kept-together, unpretentious, but highly intelligent. Smiley is a boring, gray, sad character, which only makes his surname more brilliant. You will root for Smiley as you would root for a stray dog as you watch him do tricks you wouldn’t expect him to know. No one is better to spy on spies than a man who doesn’t look like one at all.

This is, in the end, a great, great book. The story, once one finishes reading it, is perceivably well plotted – it gives neither the annoying feeling that the author kept all the secrets to himself, which ruins plot twists, nor the chance to figure it all out with a fifth of the book read. Beautifully written, the reader immerses himself into Smiley. And what else could be more explosive than to feel, for once, like you are actually a spy?

[Book Review] Invisible

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Sometimes we come across books for the weirdest reasons.

I had never heard of Paul Auster and still can’t believe how lucky I was to discover about him in such an unorthodox way. Being a FC Bayern Munich fan, I was scrolling around on Tumblr one day, in a period when all players were on vacations and saw a photo of my favorite player (and one of my favorite people, if it is possible to make such a list), Bastian Schweinsteiger, reading a book at a beach in Miami, completely focused, while his gorgeous girlfriend stood beside him, ignored for a while in favor of what he was reading. Yes, I have proof:

So  of course this must be a hell of a book. I googled the author, found out which book it was and, about a month later, bought it, imagining it would be just another great, regular thriller.

I couldn’t have been more surprised. I don’t think I have read something as innovative as Invisible (Paul Auster, St. Martin’s Press, Paperback 308 pages) since I was in high school and was introduced to Brazilian Modernism. This book is so wildly new, fresh and brilliant I hope I manage to find words to show at least half of what I felt about it.

The story revolves around Adam Walker, a young student at Columbia University and aspiring author. In 1967, Walker meets a couple at a party: the beautiful, seductive, mysterious Margot and Rudolf Born, a strong, loud, polemic man. The tiniest event that will, however, change his life forever: as his relationship with both Margot and Born develops, a chain of events (which I will not, of course, reveal) lead to a profound change in Walker’s character, turning his life upside down and leaving him alone to pick up the pieces of his developing personality. I can’t say much about the story itself without spoiling it, but I can talk about the technicalities of the book, which are exactly what make it such a masterpiece.

The book is divided in four parts, all written by different narrators, who tell us four parts of the same story, Walker’s story, from four different points of view. This is where Auster reveals his genius: every part is written in a completely different style, as if real people had actually sat down with a pen and handwritten their quarter of the story. The vocabulary is different, the phrasing is different, the pace is different – even the information each character shares is different from the others, making us eternally skeptical of what each one is saying and, by the end, completely paranoid, trying to figure out which version is true. To make this immersion in each character’s mind even more complete – and, therefore, each line that is written less neutral and objective -, Auster uses no signals on dialogues. Without a “, ‘, or -, the reader is compelled to read through the entire book as fast as possible, the voices are mixed during long dialogues, we lose ourselves inside characters only to have this attachment cut on the next part.

The fact that Walker is writing a book is also part of what makes Invisible so great: Auster seems to put pieces of himself in Walker and the entire book mixes itself with the struggle of writing a novel, making the reader wonder how much the character’s frustration is also Auster’s. Very metalinguistical, the author’s ability to play with text and texture, words and phrasing, prose and poetry, styles and personalities is one of a kind. I had never read anything alike and I’m not sure if I ever will.

I can’t find words precise enough to describe how much I loved this. Who would say that a soccer player would introduce me to one of the most intriguing books I have ever read? Just as I was pleasantly surprised to find out about it, I hope I managed to do Invisible some justice and that, just maybe, someone might end up reading this review and giving the book a chance as well. Maybe it’s too ambitious of me, but as one of the most brilliant lines on the book puts it, I believe we all live by

“Never nothing but the dream of nothing / Never anything but the dream of all”.

[Book Review] Looking For Alaska

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I believe I have fallen in love with John Green.

Yes, I am quite aware – as Inkheart, a perfect book filled with metalanguage, taught me – that authors aren’t their characters and that we tend to fantasize about them, even though they are real, flesh-and-bone creatures just as you and me. And yet I can’t help bonding with them, feeling like I know them a little, thinking of them as friends and, when one of them writes something this precious, giving them a place on my heart.

I can’t imagine how anyone might possibly dislike Looking For Alaska (John Green, paperback by Penguin USA, 221 pages), the brilliant tale of how Pudge meets the Colonel, Alaska and Takumi, characters as special as their names would suggest. It follows my favorite topic for storytelling: people, simply people. A story set in high school, this is much, much more than your typical teenage book: the plot is so rich and the characters, so complete, that the reader is just as crushed by the events in it as the ones living the story themselves.

After a “Before” (the first half of the book, named that way by the author himself) that will make you fall in love with every single character, the “After” (don’t worry, I won’t ever intentionally give spoilers on this blog, I promise) is the cherry on top of the cake for Looking For Alaska. Unexpected, strong and well thought of, I hadn’t read such a good plot twist in a while; the simple idea of dividing the book in two parts is brilliant itself, for it divides not only the story per se, but also the tone in which it is told and the behavior of the characters around what happened.

If the story is already good by itself, John’s writing must also be praised. He understands the world he is describing well enough to create successful, credible dialogues, much superior to so many authors who only seem to reproduce a mirage of this generation. Every character has many nuances and, by the time you think you have gotten to know them, John slaps you on your face with the perfect white glove of short, simple, shocking lines. No flourishes, no unnecessary adjectives, no pretentious glamour, and yet worthy of study and reflection, filled with symbols (the cigarettes being my favorite), with color and warmth, with Alaska’s poetry and Pudge’s biographies, with every element that makes a classic. A classic just as I dare say this book will one day be considered.

Personally, I must say that this story seems to have shaken my heart and put it back on its place with a more desperate, more active pumping; one of my favorite things about reading is how words – simple, tiny, ink-on-paper words – can affect the reader in ways the author never expected. There was a passage in Looking For Alaska, after the, well, “After”, that made me close my eyes, take a deep breath and repeat the line again and again and again in my head: “We are all going”. If I had the opportunity to hug Mr. Green, I would do it, not only for being a brilliant nerdfighter, but for writing lines that broke my heart, which is just what you need of your literary friends every once in while. To break your heart so it can be fixed.

Pudge, a skinny boy who loves famous people’s last words, wouldn’t be disappointed to see this book as part of his biography. Perfect in its simplicity, it is as beautiful a daisy as Alaska’s favorite flowers and a great propeller of readers into the Great Perhaps.

[Book Review] Jinx

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I love chick-lit. I really do. Some people think that the fact that a book does not involve complex psychological evaluations, a political context or profound metaphors makes it bad; some would say that the writing itself has to be intricate and beautiful if a book is to be taken seriously.

I must, however, disagree. I have always considered the hatred on everything that seems to be successful (Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey and even poor Mr. Justin Bieber) a bit… if I’m being honest, lame. When it comes to arts, I believe a piece of work can, indeed, be judged good or bad, but that judgement needs to take place considering the goals of the artist. I don’t think a living soul would say that Mozart or Chopin weren’t any good because they didn’t have the lyrical complexity of, say, Pink Floyd: they didn’t want to write lyrics in the first place. So if someone dislikes the idea of reading about teens falling in love with vampires or girls having boy issues, simply read something else. If you like a genre and think a piece of work failed to achieve its goal – a catchy chorus, a sweet romance, a supernatural suspense -, call it bad. But let the ones who like these genres consume them in peace.

Having said that, I can now easily explain why I thought Jinx (written by Meg Cabot, published by Harper Teen, 262 pages) was such a nice book: it reaches its goals. The story follows Jean, nickname Jinx, as she moves to New York in an attempt to escape something (yes, a mysterious something) she left at her hometown in Iowa. Jean has the worst luck even seen: from the moment she was born, everything seems to go wrong when she’s around, which, of course, means that sweet neighbor Zach, his dark hair and green eyes, would never be interested in her. The plot’s conflict is mainly centered, however, on her relationship with Tory, her cousin, who seems to be getting a little too fond of the use of not-so-white magic.

Yes, magic. Meg Cabot is such a talented chick-lit author that she can pull anything off, from girls finding out that they are princesses to witchcraft, in short, concise, fast-paced books. Jinx is no exception: it has exactly the right amounts of mystery, romance and humor to keep the reader sat down from the first page until the last. All characters are very well developed and credible, from Jean herself to German au pair Petra and, of course, Zach – the worst sin a chick-lit author could commit would be creating a “prince” that has no personality or that sounds like any other boy from any other novel. Meg, being the experienced story-teller she is, is able to create one of a kind boys in absolutely every book she writes.

Is it profound and introspective? No. Was it written in Shakespeare’s or Scott Fitzgerald’s style? No. But it was never meant to! Sometimes all we want is to read is a simple boy-meets-girl story and Meg Cabot delivers it as brilliantly as very few authors manage to do. Any chick-lit fan would most likely enjoy this fun, sweet book, which is at the same time interesting and well-written, fast and thorough. If I were to rate it, I would give it a 5/5 faster than you can say ‘jinx’!

[Book Review] The Picture Of Dorian Gray

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“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the word take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.”

So says Lord Henry Wotton to a pure, innocent, marvelously beautiful Dorian Gray on the second chapter of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (my copy being a Barnes & Noble edition, 214 pages). The book, released in 1890, tells the story of a young man whose incredible beauty serves as inspiration for a painter, Basil Hallward, to create his masterpiece: a portrait of his male muse which, as the artist says, was done with such feeling that it contains a part of himself. Dorian, who resembles a blank sheet of paper – untainted and inexperienced to the point of naïvity – at chapter one, is introduced by Lord Henry to the seed of all that comes for the rest of the book: vanity.

Lord Henry likes to make statements: statements about arts, statements about life,  about love, beauty, religion or whichever topic comes into discussion. The reader learns that from the very start, being introduced to this character through long, continuous speeches that seem to accept no other opinion but the one he proffers. It is exactly this, his certainty at affirming, his summarizing of everything that is complex in a few sentences, that makes him so tempting and fatal to vulnerable Dorian, who, having been convinced that beauty and hedonism are all there truly is, cries, as he sees his portrait finished: “If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything!”. And so happens the premise most of us were already acquainted with: the picture does grow old and Dorian’s sins do not taint his perfect face.

I found the book absolutely incredible. The duality of Dorian’s life is portrayed with elegance, which reminded me of The Great Gatsby, one of my favorite books. Wilde writes so exquisitely that the story mimics Dorian’s being, with a perfect, fashionable façade  and, at the same time, a sinful, cruel, egoistic content. The book, which was so criticized when published, does actually the opposite of what it was said to do: instead of praising hedonism with no boundaries, it shows exactly how despicable one becomes by ignoring the feelings of others and the consequences of one’s actions. The book is short, but its story is so beautifully put that I ended up feeling that much more had happened in it than in most 700 pages long epic novels.

Though Wilde has altered part of the book to calm down the critics, this remains a strong piece of criticism of society as of today. It reminded me of Panic! At The Disco’s song Build God, Then We’ll Talk and its exposure of conducts that would fit perfectly on Dorian’s story – I can’t reveal enough to spoil it, but everything that happens shows us how, as Dorian himself notices at one point, the wicked aren’t punished and the good aren’t rewarded. True punishment to those in society’s favor seems to come only from the inside, from conscience itself, whether this revelation is presented by simple guilt or by one’s reflection on a portrait. The ending – shocking, tragic, perfect – is the best way to summarize the book’s essence.

If you haven’t read this yet, trust me, it deserves all the credit it is given. The preface itself is so superb it brought tears to my eyes; Oscar Wilde’s defense of his book right at its beginning is so perfect it should be taught at every school and every Literature class. As it says, “Diversity of opinion about a work shows that the work is new, complex, and vital”. I truly believe that this book, in all its complexity, deserves every word of praise it has ever received.

[Book Review] Ein Kater schwarz wie die Nacht

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 Losing a pet can be devastating, especially at young age. When Lukas, a six-year-old boy, gets a black cat as a birthday present, he can’t foresee the happiness or the pain his pet will bring.

Ein Kater schwarz wie die Nacht (Henning Mankell, German version printed by btv junior, 127 pages), released in English as The Cat Who Liked Rain, is a sweet book about the excitement of having a pet and the sorrow of watching it go. This is so remarkably the strongest point approached by this book it’s not even a spoiler to say that the cat disappears – it happens so early in the beginning of the book the reader wonders if the author couldn’t at least let poor Lukas have a tiny bit more fun with his pet.

The story is well written and readers will instantly fall in love with Munkel, a cat that, much like other cats, lives his life the way he wants to, but loves his owner very much. Lukas is also a very believable character: his insecurities and fantasies are very well told, as if the author could perfectly get inside a six-year-old’s head; his relationship with his older brother, Wirbel, and his parents is described in a very simple manner, which only makes it sound more real. The anxiety to go to school, the desperate search for Munkel, everything in this book is coherent and sweet, which is of the essence when one has children, perhaps the most critical readers there are, as an audience.

Even though the book is quite charming, I must say that I was left with the impression that the author spends perhaps too much time describing the search for Munkel. The cat disappears, as I said, right on the beginning of the book, and then it all becomes a seemingly endless searching-not-finding-searching-again plot. It became tiresome even for me (and I’m 22 years old), which only makes me wonder if it would keep children interested for long. Maybe the idea is to divide the reading through many days at bedtime, but I still can’t imagine a kid being happy with the same plot for very long. Lukas and Munkel are, however, good enough characters to make it all worth it and keep readers rooting for them until the very last page.

The end (don’t worry, I’m not spilling it out) does make up for the slow development. It’s both satisfying and believable. That is actually one of the greatest virtues of Henning Mankell’s book: in a time of otherworldly, magical, sometimes exaggerated children books, it’s nice to read something that is the simple story of a regular boy and his regular cat. No witches, no spells, no magical creatures. Just the bond between a kid and his pet.

As a side note, I must say that I read this in German as an attempt to finish my first book on the language, which I have been learning for the past four years. As a C1-level student, I found this to be a great read, both full of vocabulary I didn’t know and easy enough to allow me to deduce those words through the context. It was also great to be in touch with so many verbs in Präteritum, since most of what I read is written in Perfekt. I think anyone starting B1 would be able to read this, even if a dictionary is of the essence. It’s great practice!

I highly recommend this both to those learning German and (in whichever translation you prefer, since the book is actually Swedish) to all lovers of children books. We are in part, after all, still the kids we once were, with or without a sweet, black cat named Munkel.