Tag: comedy

Review: The Rosie Project

I read this on a day trip to my old school in Somerset. Turns out that a four-hour round trip train journey with delays is the perfect occasion for a novel like this.

Our Protagonist is Don Tillman, a genetics professor who is essentially Sheldon Cooper from the earlier series of The Big Bang Theory: dedicated to routine and highly logical, he’s constantly looking for the most efficient way to do things. That includes cooking and eating the same seven meals every week; timing his lectures to last exactly an hour; scheduling his time right down to the minute.

(A note: although author Graeme Simsion claims in a Q&A at the end of the book that he didn’t intend Don to be neurodivergent, a lot of audiences have read him that way.)

Once upon a time, Don decides that he is in want of a wife. Because he struggles with conventional dating, he decides instead to embark on the Wife Project: he creates a questionnaire designed to identify the woman who is perfect for him.

What I wanted out of The Rosie Project was adorableness, if possibly slightly conservative and/or consolatory. What I got was kind of…sexist? The questionnaire, of course, does not go according to plan, and Don’s main romantic interest actually turns out to be a bartender called Rosie who fulfils none of Don’s criteria for the ideal wife. She’s horrified when she finds out about the questionnaire, pointing out that any woman who filled it in would be participating in her own objectification. But this never actually gets addressed? The main obstacle to Don and Rosie’s relationship isn’t that Don fails to see women as fully human, it’s that Don isn’t good at reading subtle social signals. But not only is the questionnaire itself pretty icky (there was a sample at the back of the library copy of the book that was billed as Fun Engagement with the Text! but which I actually found super judgemental and uncomfortable), the last quarter of the novel is laden with the kind of “fight for her!” advice that amounts to harassment in the real world. I can’t believe we’re still saying this in 2019, but: if a woman tells her male romantic interest to leave her alone, THAT IS WHAT SHE MEANS. Not “I need further convincing, please come to my place of work and make a dramatic romantic gesture”. That the novel doesn’t recognise this as fundamentally creepy behaviour is a problem for me.

Something I wondered about when I finished The Rosie Project: who is it for? It’s being marketed as light, fluffy romance, but with a male protagonist, which (as a non-romance reader) seems unusual but also interesting! But the sexist undertones of the text make this gender inversion profoundly problematic: this is a novel being marketed to women in particular that says “this is an acceptable way for men to treat you. It is, in fact, adorable! and romantic! (and therefore you should put up with it)”. Like Don’s questionnaire, it asks us to participate in our own objectification.

Which brings me back to a sunny train platform in Somerset. “How’s the book?” asks a fellow awaiter of delayed trains. (People on train stations in Somerset actually talk to each other – always faintly terrifying to this city-dweller.) “It’s OK for a train journey,” I replied. Because it is. It’s undemanding in its recycling of every rom-com cliché going (Don even gets a makeover). It repeats the kind of misogyny that appears everywhere in popular culture. It’s not like I think Graeme Simsion is a raging sexist; I think he’s a commercial writer who doesn’t think in those terms? So The Rosie Project isn’t exactly a terrible book, just a lazy and mediocre one. It’s basically a big ol’ “meh” in novel form.

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Review: The Adventure Zone – Here There Be Gerblins

I cannot resist the lure of a graphic novel lying around the house.

Here There Be Gerblins is the graphic-novel version of the first series of The Adventure Zone, a moderately well-known D&D podcast that we’ve just started listening to. That makes it, basically, a quite funny fantasy adventure story with a bit of tame fourth-wall breaking and a hard left at the end. Not reeally the same as the podcast, then.

There’s not much I have to say about this? Partly because it’s like 34 degrees Celsius today and I’ve been a bit under the weather all week, but partly also because as a book it’s a category error. Like, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to translate a rambling, improvised, off-the-cuff RPG into the disciplined, action-packed form of a comic book. The result is, frankly, wishy-washy. Fun, but not memorable.

Review: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

You know what kind of book this is: the kind of book that’s shelved under “humour” or “novelty” or “gifts”; the kind of book they stack next to the checkouts in case of impulse purchase.

It’s fine. It took me about an hour to read, cover-to-cover. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this, exactly; somehow I thought it might be meatier, or have a more coherent narrative.

Instead, it’s a collection of one-liners and anecdotes about dealing with bookshop customers:

Customer: Do you have that book – I forget what it’s called; it’s about people with large, hairy feet.

Bookseller: Do you mean hobbits? The Lord of the Rings?

Customer: No…erm – The Hairy Bikers.

Some of them are funny; some of them are disturbing (the customer who, on being told that the LGBT+ fiction is shelved with the rest of the fiction, looks suspiciously at the book she’s holding and sidles out); some of them shed light on the troubles independent booksellers are facing (customers asking for recommendations and then buying on line; customers asking for discounts). It’s perhaps a little nose-tapping, especially when it comes to the latter issues: “well, of course that’s ridiculous and I wouldn’t do that,” says the wise reader, but the fact is lots of people are doing that, or these anecdotes wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Anyway. It’s a diverting enough read. Borrow it or give it as a gift; probably not worth buying it for yourself.

Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

My head hurts today, so it’s gonna be a short post.

I liked Where’d You Go, Bernadette, though. Our Heroine is Bee, a high-school student whose mother, the titular Bernadette, disappears after a rapidly-escalating dispute with a parent next door. The story’s told through letters, emails, notes and other found-footage-type paraphernalia, collated by Bee in an attempt to tell her mother’s side of the story.

It’s a good-natured, fun novel which also resists simple solutions. Bernadette has agoraphobia, which reads to the people around her as fecklessness or thoughtlessness; at one point her husband believes she’s a danger to herself, and tries to get her committed. Bee’s project of collecting evidence serves as a reminder that there are many sides to every story – once we have the full picture, Bernadette’s actions look a lot more rational. The novel’s a reminder not to leap to quick judgements, and to treat people with compassion and respect even when they make bad decisions. I’d really like to read more like this: gentle, funny stories that embrace neurodiversity and do some proper thematic work in the meantime.

Review: Narbonic: The Perfect Collection Volume 1

Narbonic was a webcomic that ran daily between 2000 and 2006. I only know this because the Bandersnatch supported a Kickstarter to publish the entire run in two physical volumes, which thus currently reside on our bookshelves. (You can also find Narbonics here, for free, with notes by author Shaenon K. Garrity. This will prove to be a source of distraction and procrastination for me for at least the next week or so. Although I am told it is also a source of spoilers for the second volume, so.)

The strip revolves around the exploits of Helen B. Narbon, mad scientist, and her henchfolk: Dave the computer guy, Mell the evil intern and Artie the genetically engineered superintelligent gerbil.

Actually analysing something like this feels a bit like missing the point. It’s not really…for that? Most of what it’s doing is mashing up our cultural expectations of what mad scientists are and do with Western cultural codes around the workplace. For Humorous Effect, obviously. And it’s a webcomic: I’m not sure how far Garrity planned in advance, but certainly the early strips are an explosive mish-mash of cultural references and themes and general light-hearted internetty fooling around. It’s fun, and it’s possible to enjoy things that are fun, but I’m not sure there’s that much more to say about it.

Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians is a tale of extravagant wealth, designer dresses, catty relatives, wonderful food and a lavish wedding.

The obligatory couple at the centre of all this is Rachel Chu and Nick Young of New York. Unbeknownst to economics professor Rachel, Nick is the scion of one of the wealthiest families in Asia – so when he invites her home for the holidays to attend a society wedding in Singapore, it’s something of a shock for her. For their part, Nick’s family isn’t terribly impressed that he’s determined to marry a nobody.

What follows is a not-exactly-revolutionary romantic comedy, as Rachel navigates the convoluted rituals and customs of the society she’s inadvertently stumbled into, facing the contempt of Nick’s family, the jealousy of the women who want him for themselves, and the impossible standards she must now live up to. Will their relationship survive this turmoil?

I enjoyed it primarily as escapism, a glimpse into the kind of lifestyle that is for the overwhelming majority of people utterly out of reach; a chance to live that life vicariously, through fiction. In other words, I experienced it as a comfort read, consolatory and conservative: it never criticises the extraordinary privilege of its characters, or the systems which produce such privilege, and as such, it shores up that privilege, encourages us to admire and aspire to it, protecting the hidden injustices on which it rests.

This conservatism overwhelms the gestures the novel does make towards a more nuanced engagement with its subject. It’s most problematic when it comes to the novel’s ableist title, which signals that we’re meant to read the characters’ wealth as ridiculous while simultaneously propping up a value system that (indirectly) enables their privilege in the first place. And while I appreciated Kwan’s recognition of how deliberately exclusive the rituals of the wealthy are, how calculatedly obfuscatory they are to outsiders, how difficult, in other words, it really is to be Cinderella, the fact remains that this is a world that Rachel inevitably eventually chooses to enter, and so one that’s validated as desirable. It’s the ultimate fantasy: as a woman, you just have to be nice enough, persevere long enough, be romantically interesting enough, to overcome those barriers.

There are good things, of course; most obviously, the fact that this, a novel aimed squarely at a mass-market Western audience, is populated entirely by Asian characters. It’s also, despite/because of its conservatism, a lot of fun to read – the narrative beats come exactly in all the right places, a familiar, comfortable, cosy rhythm. I think it’s okay to enjoy things like that, as long as we can acknowledge their flaws too, and call for better. For now, though – there are two sequels to get stuck into…

Review: Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel, which (astonishingly, when you think about it) puts it relatively early in the series. It’s the third novel about Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, a police force which is slowly regaining relevance under Commander Samuel Vimes.

As with all of the Discworld novels, the plot is so encrusted with wordplay and humour and rich vital detail that it’s pretty much vestigial, but it is, more or less, a murder mystery. Someone has been killing old men. Somehow, the golems of the city are involved: giant clay people without voices, who are feared at worst and ignored at best, although they’re highly prized as workers because they don’t need to rest or eat or sleep. There’s also a plot to depose Ankh-Morpork’s supreme ruler Havelock Vetinari, because there’s always a plot to depose Vetinari. And there’s a dwarf who defies convention by openly identifying as female, in what is possibly Discworld’s closest approach to a queer storyline.

There is, in other words, a lot going on. That’s one of the great joys of the Ankh-Morpork novels, though: how full they are of life and incident, of the anarchic and wonderful energies of the archetypal city. (Ankh-Morpork is pretty obviously a mirror of London, with its great curving polluted river, its Isle of Gods, its defunct city gates.)

Much of that energy is generated by the social tensions the novel lays out, conflicts between old and new: the centuries-old vampire who manipulates short-lived humans like pawns on a chessboard comes up against the newly-relevant Watch and its stubbornly working-class Commander Vimes, fast rising to prominence; the brand-new concept of dwarf femininity attracts the opprobrium of much of dwarf-kind; the idea of golems suddenly having rights and thoughts and plans of their own is abhorrent, even terrifying, to Ankh-Morpork’s citizenry. But there’s nothing schematic or straightforward about this broad pattern of tension. Cherry Littlebottom, the lipstick-wearing, skirt-clad dwarf, harbours a commonly-held prejudice against werewolves, which she expresses repeatedly to her friend Constable Angua, who is herself a closeted werewolf. Vetinari, despite being the best ruler the city has ever had, despite being despised by aristocrats and generally on the side of justice, is an unelected tyrant with the capacity for occasional cruelty. The golems aren’t really new, they’re old, much like the Watch: so old they’ve become invisible. It’s this seething complexity, this web of allegiances and relationships, that makes Feet of Clay one of the very best of the Discworld novels: its view on the world is not simple.

But there is an arc, of course, and it is the long arc of justice. Discworld, and especially Ankh-Morpork, is founded on a vaguely Victorian idea of progress: the idea that things are getting better, slowly, by degrees, but inexorably. Things tend to be slightly better for people at the end of a Discworld novel than they do at the beginning.

Which is what makes these novels so comforting to return to, over and over again, in a time when things seem to be going backwards, when civil rights campaigns are appropriated by the interests of capital. That reassurance that things will get better, coupled with that acknowledgement that the world is messy and complex. The energies of a city slowly climbing to the light.