Tuesday 5 November 2013

REVIEW: Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell (4.5*)

(Orion Books, 2012)

Well, I don't think I'm quite the last person in the universe to read Rowell's debut, but I can't be far off!  I'd already read multiple rave reviews of this book around the blogosphere - which is why I bought it in the first place - but it was Hanna's very recent one that gave me that final push.  Two minutes after I finished reading her thoughts I was plucking my copy down from my shelves and eagerly diving into the first few pages... and I never looked back.  It's one of the loveliest books I've ever read!

If I had to describe this novel in one sentence, it would be: "All my favourite Nora Ephron movies rolled into one, only in book form."  The fantastic thing is that I'd been telling people this all the way through the reading experience - Tweeting about it, nagging my mum and sister to read it - and then in the last third of the book ROWELL NAME-DROPS THE NORA HOLY TRINITY (When Harry Met Sally, You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, OBVIOUSLY), two of which are amongst my favourite movies of all time.  I actually giggled out loud in delight when she mentioned them, and firmly believe that if this movie isn't already in production (with Rowell writing the screenplay herself) it's probably only a matter of time...  

So, what is this book actually ABOUT?  Well, it's about two friends, and a man.  The two friends are Beth and Jennifer, who work for the same newspaper and email each other constantly using the company's internal email system.  Unfortunately, these emails regularly break the company rules (mostly by containing flagged words, however innocuously), which is where Lincoln comes in.  He's a twenty-something computer geek who's had his heart broken and now lives back home with his mother.  It's his job to sit in the IT department every night, reading all flagged emails and sending out warnings to offenders about their computer usage.  Except... he never does warn Beth and Jennifer about the frequency of their misdemeanours.  Because he's starting to get drawn into their lives and enjoys reading their funny, compassionate exchanges.  Worse, he's starting to fall in love with Beth, a woman he's never even laid eyes on.  Can he ever find a way to meet her and make this work, despite his (admittedly sort-of legitimate) violation of her privacy? 

This book has SO much going for it - one of the main things, of course, being the wonderful characters.  Lincoln has all the sweetness of a Tom Hanks romantic lead (there I go again with the Nora), mixed with the lifestyle of the boys from The IT Crowd, only he's built like a Hemsworth.  A Thor-shaped Hemsworth.  Jennifer and Beth are so funny and normal and real that reading their epistolary sections (which make up a good chunk of the book) felt more like reading genuine emails or instant messages between friends.   In fact, at times it reminded me of my relationship with my blogging friends - our funny emails and comment-conversations and hilarious Tweeting marathons.  Their emails made me laugh, and occasionally I had to remind myself that these were fictional women, not real ones!

The other HUGE thing Attachments has going for it is the sheer wealth of pop culture references and the nice dose of 90s nostalgia.  I made a list of some of the awesomeness Rowell mentions throughout the novel, which aside from the Nora-ey goodness includes references to: personality quiz websites, Heathers, the Little Women movie with Winona Ryder (which I always loved!), The Matrix, Eddie Vedder, Toy Story, the Y2K millennium bug panic, Superman, Batman, X-Men, Kevin Smith movies, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the Backstreet Boys, Bridget Jones, Cheers, the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Lord of the Rings, the Pokemon movie (with special reference to Pikachu), Fight Club, Freaky Friday, VHS tapes, VCRs with clocks, The Sixth Sense, The Stepford Wives, Titanic, Christopher Walken, James Dean, Gandalf, Billy Elliot, Jane Austen and Star Wars.  ALL IN ONE BOOK.  I think me and Rainbow would get on just fine...

Hanna mentioned the 'mutual stalking' thing in her review - Beth is sort of following Lincoln around while he's reading her emails - but I think her conclusion was right.  In the wrong hands, it could have been really creepy and uncomfortable to read, but Rowell walks the fine line between 'wrong' and 'kooky' with great precision.  After all, reading flagged emails is Lincoln's job, and it was very easy to imagine him getting drawn into Beth and Jennifer's lives without having any dodgy motives.  Let's face it, fifteen years down the line it's so easy to get drawn into other people's conversations and issues via platforms like Twitter; the only difference here is that more private moments are discussed because it's technically private email.  Likewise, Beth watching out for Lincoln is also totally believable - what girl HASN'T hung around somewhere waiting for their crush to walk by, or sneakily followed them somewhere to find out what they like?  I certainly have, especially when I was a teenager!

Sooooo, what I'm basically trying to say is that this book is really, really good.  It made me laugh OUT LOUD within the first few pages - so much so that I scared the cat - and continued to make me smile and giggle until the very end... Yet it also made me cry, over Lincoln's loneliness and over the sheer perfection of his inevitable declaration of love to Beth at the end of the novel.  It was definitely the 'EEEEEEE!' moment that comes at the end of a good rom-com, only on paper!  Admittedly I was a bit thrown by Beth's behaviour just prior to this declaration (the cinema scene, if you've read it already), which seemed totally out of character and a very bizarre thing to do - but what followed made the suspension of disbelief worthwhile.  That completely incongruous moment was the only thing coming between this book and a full five-star rating.  I'm SO glad I finally read it; the prose is just delicious, the characters are the right side of kooky, the premise is quirky, it may have ruined me for all chick lit ever, and I'm now feeling an urgent need to go and watch every Nora Ephron movie I own.  After that, my priorities look like this: 1) Read Fangirl;  2) Buy Eleanor and Park, and 3) Preorder everything Rainbow Rowell is ever planning to write, even some things she hasn't thought of yet.  If that isn't a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is!

Notable Quotables:
  • "The worst thing about the Internet, as far as Greg's bosses were concerned, was that it was now impossible to distinguish a roomful of people working diligently from a roomful of people taking the What-Kind-of-Dog-Am-I? online personality quiz."
  • "So... I'm larking through the Baby Gap, looking at tiny capri pants and sweaters that cost more than... I don't know, more than they should.  And I get totally sucked in by this ridiculous, tiny fur coat.  The kind of coat a baby might need to go to the ballet.  In Moscow.  In 1918."
  • "Love.  Purpose.  Those are the things that you can't plan for.  Those are the things that just happen.  And what if they don't happen?  Do you spend your whole life pining for them?  Waiting to be happy?"
  • "I know that people change.  I thought... I thought we were going to change together.  I thought that's what it meant to be in love."
  • "There's nothing you could become that I haven't already fallen in love with."  THIS.  This, ladies.  I think it's the most romantic line I've ever read.  I melted.
  • "... what if, instead of thinking about solving your whole life, you just think about adding additional good things.  One at a time.  Just let your pile of good things grow."
  • "I found myself thinking that this is how I would want to dance at my own wedding...  The kind of dancing that's more like touching to music.  That's more like closing your eyes and trying to think how you would tell someone that you loved him if you didn't have words or sex."
  • "I had a wobbly moment at the grocery store last night when I realized I was buying a single banana.  There's nothing sadder than buying bananas one at a time

Source: I bought this book from my local Waterstones.

Sunday 3 November 2013

REVIEW: Confessions of a GP, by Dr Benjamin Daniels (4*)

(The Friday Project, 2010)

This book, written under a pseudonym of course, didn't get off to the best of starts - not because of the writing or the narrative style, but because of the silly editorial slips.  You all know how much I LOVE those!  Within the first few pages I had noted a 'passed' instead of 'past', the use of 'sixteen' and '16' in the same sentence, and a 'their' and 'there' left side by side, as if the incorrect one should have been edited out but wasn't.  Later on, I even stumbled across an 'illicit' instead of 'elicit'.  Really glaring mistakes, in other words.  FORTUNATELY the actual content of the book was absorbing, interesting and funny enough to redeem it - hence the four stars.

One thing I really liked about Confessions is how 'everyday' this doctor's stories are.  He's not an A+E doctor (though obviously there are one or two stories from his training days) or a surgeon, but a garden-variety GP, a man on the front line and the gateway to most NHS services.  Rather than extreme cases, this book is more concerned with giving insight into the variety of presenting complaints made to a GP on a day-to-day basis and showing how much further a GP's role goes than we might realise.  I reckon I'll be less inclined to grumble next time my doctor's running late, for example, because it's clear that not every problem can be tackled in ten minutes, and often the patients that cause appointments to run late are the most vulnerable and important of the day.

Of course, the most delightful moments in the book often stem from Daniels' stories of memorable patients, from the hilarious (an elderly lady's rectal exam had me in fits of laughter) to the tear-jerking (like when the hospital doctors conspired to reunite a lady who had been paralysed by a stroke with her beloved pet cat on her birthday, despite the strict ward rules).  What I also really liked about this book was the fact that because it's written under a pseudonym, the doctor behind it is able to be brutally honest about various political and social issues he has come up against over the years.  For example, he unleashes his contempt over a posh London yuppie who came in with a son suffering from a severe bout of measles.  The boy had never been vaccinated against any of the horrific diseases that can affect children, because his mother was convinced that she could "boost his immune system naturally" with a whole food diet.  As a reader, I was horrified at her na├»vety - and Daniels was understandably even more so:
"I believe the one great achievement of modern medicine is the widespread vaccination of children.  Vaccines are cheap, safe and have saved millions of lives both here and all over the world...  There it was: measles...  As a doctor who had only practised medicine in the twenty-first century, I should never have seen this disease...  He can eat all the organic dates and wholemeal rice in the world, it won't give him immunity to measles, mumps, rubella, diptheria, tetanus, meningitis C, whooping cough, haemophilus influenza and tuberculosis...  Not all children can have vaccines.  They can be harmful to children who have diseases of their immune system such as HIV or those having chemotherapy for cancer.  Previously, these children were protected because healthy children were all vaccinated and so a disease outbreak was prevented... Vaccinating isn't just about protecting your own child."
It is stories - and explanations - like this slotted alongside the funny anecdotes, bizarre patients and heartwarming moments that make the book so thought-provoking and elevate it beyond 'just another doctor memoir.'  Daniels shares his thoughts on everything from a doctor's role in society, doctor-patient relationships, the cost of NHS treatment, privatisation and the differences between hospital and general practice work, to time wasters, sick note scroungers, drug addicts, government meddling, NHS targets and the way drug reps operate.  Not only that, but he manages to do it in a way that is simultaneously funny and telling, pithy and insightful.  In the end, despite those dreadful editorial mistakes, I really enjoyed this book, and might even keep hold of it to reread sometime.  It made me think about certain elements of healthcare in a different way, and made me laugh out loud more than a few times... what more could I ask for?
Notable Quotables:
  • "One gripe I have with alternative practitioners is that they are ultimately private.  Somebody is making money out of your illness and having only ever worked for a free at point of access health service, I find that an uncomfortable concept."
  • "Patients often take it upon themselves to bring in various samples of their body fluids for my perusal.  I would like to emphasise that this is normally not appreciated.  A pot of urine is generally not too bothersome.  Often in a jam jar, I hold it to the light, stroke my chin and let out a 'hmmm'.  I like doing this as it makes me feel like an old-fashioned doctor from the nineteenth century."
  • "I listen to Radio 4, grow tomatoes and lately have found myself remarking on how comfortable and practical a combination of socks and sandals is.  Until recently, I thought the Arctic Monkeys were a result of climate change.  Your children will quite rightly view me as a geek and will under no circumstances take any lifestyle advice from me."

Source: I bought this book in a mammoth box of books from Amazon, way back in May 2011.  It's one of the handful from that pile that I've now finally read!