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R&R 134 | Fifty Shades of Grey

E.L. James
Fifty Shades of Grey
First published in: 2011
This edition: Vintage, 2012
ISBN: 97-0-345-80348-1
Genre: erotic romance, adult
Pages: 514
Cover design by Jennifer McGuire; photography by Papuga2006 |

R&R 134 | Fifty Shades of Grey

Wow, it took a while for me to get back to reviewing. I'm a little rusty.

I could properly begin this review by first clarifying why I was hesitant about reading this book. It was not about its subject. I'm a 29 year old woman who was raised in an environment where sex was never a taboo. I have nothing against eroticism, whether it's subtle bed scenes in love stories, or Alcide literally jumping his were girlfriend's bones like WHOA! in True Blood. The only reason I will not watch Eyes Wide Shut is because I am repulsed by Tom Cruise, not because I'm offended by any sexual lifestyle between consensual adults, including the Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism or SadoMasochism (summed up to the acronym BDSM) lifestyle.

I didn't really plan on reading Fifty Shades of Grey because (sigh) it's Twilight fan fiction (that is how James started this series), and I really didn't want to relive Twilight, much less read a derivation of it, which in short is about Anastasia, a naive virgin who gets involved with hot billionaire / BDSM aficionado Christian Grey. They're way into each other. Steamy sex and spanking ensues. Fangs are not included.

So, hesitant. But rule number 1 of being a book reviewer is: don't judge it until you've read it. In the end I decided I wanted to have an informed opinion because it's all anyone's talking about right now. Oh and my American twin was going to read it, so I had to order a copy, too. We giggled on Skype about how utterly trashy it would be, and fun because of it. I found myself actually looking forward to reading it, and I freakin' loved the idea of reviewing it. "Dis gun be gud," I thought as I snuggled up in my bathrobe and fuzzy bath slippers, this book in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. I had my notebook at the ready and I read with an open mind, taking it all in.

I enjoyed it exactly because it was the crap that I thought it would be. It's that feeling that you know something is so bad, and that makes it… I won't say good, but I will say entertaining. It's why White Chicks is a movie I'll always watch when it's on TV. I had some laugh out loud moments with Fifty Shades, all due to cheesiness, like when Ana daydreams about "a Christian Grey flavored popsicle". Oh, yuck. But: lolz.

But being amused by a bad book still doesn't make it a good read. My second rule of being a book reviewer is: stay true to your opinion and be critical. Note the good (entertaining in ways & amusing – check) and never leave out the bad, no matter how many toes you step on or how bitchy people will think you are.

I understand why people enjoy reading this book, but I resent it being a "best book" of anything. And I'll tell you why: Fifty Shades of Grey's writing is heinous. And when I say "heinous", I want you to imagine the Law & Order intro voiceover guy (Steve Zirnkilton!) is the one who's actually saying it. Heinous. I tried to not get annoyed by this, but James left me no choice. I'm against this book being a hype and IT getting movie deals instead of any other book of substance that's actually well written.

E.L. James is British, and I could tell from the way she wrote certain things. There were obvious British colloquialisms (e.g. "dressing smartly", "ringing someone"), but I also noticed it in Christian Grey as an entire character. I'd been watching The Voice of Australia during the time I read this book, which features Seal as one of the judges. And one way or another, his British, silky voice snuck in my head when I was reading Christian's dialog. And it fit beautifully. There wasn't anything really American about Christian, not convincingly anyway. Not in my reading experience.

It gets worse: there's a painful amount of repetitive phrasing in this book. Several other reviewers have actually counted repeated phrases and posted lists. Examples: Ana blushes / flushes various shades of crimson throughout the book (which explains the photo for this review). Christian Grey runs his hand (with the "unusually elongated index finger", which is the most obnoxious penis metaphor ever – we get it, he's hung) through his hair countless times, chiding Ana again and again for endlessly biting her lower lip.
…where does James live? I want to mail her a thesaurus.

Almost every page of this story, narrated poorly by Ana, contained either an "Oh my!" or "Holy [insert hell, shit, crap, etc]!" or "geez". Ana also kept telling us about her "Inner Goddess" versus her subconscious. The phrasing makes me feel that Ana, like Christian, is an inconsistent character. This book reads like a teenaged virgin's diary, yet James wants us to believe this story is told by Ana, the intellectual literature graduate, who loves Jane Austen. (Jane Austen would turn over in her grave.) Having Ana mention her "medulla oblongata" randomly in order for her to sound smart after all doesn't cut it. It's just too bad this book isn't intentionally satirical.

I wasn't a fan of the epistolary style here, in the form of several email exchanges between Ana and Grey. They were cute at first but then James kept using this technique to fill her pages. Not every book can pull this off. Either you do it well (or briefly) or you don't do it at all.
A small nitpicky thing that bothered me was how Ana's mom rather uncharacteristically blurts out fanfic slang, like she and us readers would automatically know what it means. UST apparently means Unresolved Sexual Tension. If you're selling fanfic as a novel, edit it like one.

The sex scenes were well written at first but became uninspired quickly. I know this book is supposed to be a fantasy, but the sex scenes paint an unrealistic picture of women losing their virginity and female sexuality in general. I don't know or understand much about the BDSM lifestyle, but I don't think James understands it (I'll get back to that later) or eroticism, either. I don't think she really knew what she wanted this book to be. Her "heroine" is wide open for business and climaxes at the drop of a hat, all the while convincing herself she is now A Legit Sex Goddess. But she cannot say the word "vagina", instead referring to her lady bits as "down there", of course shyly blushing pink/red/salmon/burgundy while doing so, because "oh my."

Which leaves my biggest and most predictable issue with this book: the unhealthy relationship between Ana and Grey. And by unhealthy, I do not mean the BDSM lifestyle. By unhealthy I mean how Christian Grey is epitomized as Mister Right, with an immensely insecure Ana fawning over him. Meanwhile her sense of self, her values and her brains seem to just trickle out of her ears every time Grey so much as looks at her. Ana frequently mentions how hot and rich Grey is. Because apparently that is what gives a man merit. His looks and his checkbook. Oh and listening to classical music. #extracheese

Like I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I am aware that Fifty Shades is about giving female readers a fantasy story. Women like the idea of being able to fix a flawed, handsome man. Which is exactly my damn problem with this book. Because Christian's not just a flawed, commitmentphobe with a warm heart underneath it all, simply A Broken Handsome Man dealing with obstacles and heartbreak from his past who just needs some of Mary Sue's tender loving care. Nooo, Christian's a borderline psychopath who enjoys hurting women. I feel BDSM is stereotyped, and used to justify assholery – Grey gets off on slapping women but it's okay, he has a special room of pain and uses sensible whips only. It's sexy now. I mean, Ana climaxes all the time. (I later learned that he especially enjoys spanking women who look like his mother. What are you still doing here? Run for the FUCKING hills, ladies!)

I cannot believe a secretive, manipulative, emotionally stunted, arrogant control freak like Christian Grey (or his twin Edward Cullen) is Woman's idea of a Dream Man. I can't speak for the rest of you, but he's not MY idea of a Dream Guy, anyway. Or Ana's (after all, she kept whining and trying to change the guy!). Perhaps if the book remained erotic and sexual (with two people actually mutually enjoying each other) then I could see it being a fantasy and enjoy it as such. But no, it had to be a love story. Which for me ruined the fantasy part. This book is like a Nicholas Sparks novel on Heisenberg's blue meth. It doesn't work for me this way.

The only way for Fifty Shades to redeem itself to me is if Ana does not stay with Christian in the end. And that in itself is not my idea of a good romance story: when you end up NOT rooting for a couple.

So, is this book worth reading? Why ask, you've already read it! I'll leave that up to you, but advise you to take everything with a truckload of salt. I think women respond to fantasies differently and I for one am just not into Christian Grey.

The fact that this book is so popular does mean that – female – sexuality is less of a taboo with the sale of every copy. (It's like Sex and the City never existed, but ok.) That's never a bad thing. It's just too bad the book's message about love and sex literally blows.

I think I would have gotten more enjoyment from a Harlequin novel, and I say that in all seriousness. Because that's fantasy and romance, and enjoyable, but not trying so hard to sell a dysfunctional man as Mister Right, a messed up relationship as The Ideal Love Story, The Perfect Fantasy. No thanks. I'll stick to reality.


Books read so far, 2012

One more post before I get back to reviewing: a list of the books I've read so far this year. To give you an idea of what I've been thinking about in my absence, book wise.

Christopher Moore – The Stupidest Angel (my Christmas / NY break reread)
Mike Gayle – Wish You Were Here
Muriel Barbery – The Elegance of the Hedgehog (loved it)
Nicole Krauss – Man Walks into a Room (had trouble finishing but did)
Margaret Atwood – Oryx and Crake
Tina Fey – Bossypants
Julia Child – My Life in France (loved it)
Charlaine Harris – Deadlocked
Rachel Cohn / David Levithan – Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
Anne Tyler – Earthly Possessions
John Steinbeck – East of Eden (…wow)
E.L. James – Fifty Shades of Grey
George R.R. Martin – A Game of Thrones
Kathleen Winter – Annabel
Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Rebecca Skloot – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

And I've just started reading The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.

R&R 133 | Bossypants

Tina Fey
First published in: 2011
This edition: Sphere, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-7515-4783-2
Genre: humor, memoir, non-fiction
Pages: 285 (including Q&A, reading guide)
Cover design by Mario J. Pulice; cover photo by Ruven Afanador


In a nutshell?

Man. I was feeling really down the weeks before heading to the UK for our annual book shopping… I mean toy tractor show trip. And then I found Tina, which makes Bossypants my bible.

Comedy writer and actress Tina Fey (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock) has that delightful self-deprecating humor, which I already knew from being an avid watcher of her show 30 Rock, in which Fey plays herself a comedy writer named Liz Lemon, whose passion in life is a good sandwich.

So when I heard she'd written a memoir, I was on it so fast, I got it almost a year after it was first published, at a charity shop for what amounts to about 2 bucks. Now that's commitment right there. Right. There.

I'd just started reading Julia Child, bless her, but The Fey tempted me and I started reading that instead (after finishing Bossypants, I switched back to Julia Child and have her my full dedication). And I'm so, so glad I did. I needed this. I needed to crylaugh and be confronted with turning 40 ten years from now (an eye opener). But no, seriously. I did need this. Bossypants and the type of humor in it is the perfect prescription against having the blues.

Fey's memoir starts with this hilarious introduction – as I read it I swear I could hear Tina speaking to me… I'm Kaat d'Arc – ensuring you that you were about to read a winner. Fey proceeds to take you through her childhood, her teenage dreams, her experiences with her first jobs, That Palin Skit and how 30 Rock came to be. Bossypants is funny and varied; there's not a dull page in there. It's a wonderful way to get to know Tina Fey, if you're a fan, and I personally am really psyched that she wrote this. Tina Fey is honest and very personal about everything, with a healthy dose of self-mockery, and always keeps it upbeat.

But even if you appreciate humor – of the David Sedaris Genre, yes, I said genre – but have never even heard of 30 Rock (because you've been living under it), this book is for you. I had trouble putting it down. The humor isn't cheap or predictable, but exquisitely funny.

One of my favorite chapters is about Tina Fey's honeymoon, "My honeymoon, or A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again Either", describing how their cruise ship caught on fire, effectively ruining what cruise director 'Dan Dan the Party Man' hadn't already. (Fey is married to 30 Rock composer Jeff Richmond.) (And I'm never going on a cruise. You can forget about it.)

I enjoyed reading where The Bossy in Bossypants began: during her job at the (chapter is also entitled) "Young Men's Christian Association". It's fun to stay there. She also writes about improv, which I actually found very useful reading.

As a photographer I especially enjoyed reading about Tina's experiences with photo shoots and her opinions on retouching in "Amazing, Gorgeous, Not Like That". You kinda get to see it from a whole new perspective. It was one of the chapters which birthed one of several epic crylaughs: unstoppable laughter while the Niagara Falls streamed down my face. (Wil came into the living room during one of these momentous occasions, and proceeded to stare, not sure whether this was good or bad and whether he should hide yes or no.)

I appreciate her chapter "30 Rock: An Experiment to Confuse Your Grandparents", telling us how the show came to be, and introducing us to the people who have written or are still writing for the show using snippets of script to point out their various talents. (It was then that I learned Donald Glover, who plays Troy in Community used to be a writer on 30 Rock.) I appreciate the chapter because I am a fan of the show, but also because I think Fey did a wonderful thing by including her fellow writers in her book.

When I finished the book, I felt a little sad and empty. It was over and done with. I knew I would need to write Tina Fey a bunch of fanmail now begging, BEGGING, for an autographed glam photo and for her to write a second book. It was going to be a chore. I heaved a sigh, and then my eye fell on the Q&A and reading guide sections, usually reserved for the publisher to go all out and inspire us readers to discuss amongst ourselves the value of what we'd just read and the social impact.

But no, this wasn't standard. I encourage you not to skip these parts, as the humor just continues. It's a bit of a bonus. This was a Fey Encore and for now, I am a very satisfied reader. You will be too. Read this book.

The only thing that bothered me about Bossypants is that it didn't come with a free sandwich. But I suppose there's always room for improvement and I'm sure Tina will take my (one time, limited) free advice to heart when she works on volume 2. I'm sure of it.

In a nutshell

– Really funny. Really. It will cheer you up.
– and it's varied!

– Great for Tina Fey fans, but also for fans of humor in general
– You might experience crylaughter, which is both strange and relieving.
– Bonus: the Q&A and reading guide

– Re: sandwich not included.

Special thanks to Wil for agreeing to be my man-arms & man-hands.

R&R 131 | The Stupidest Angel

Aaaaand we're back! I'm going to do my best in 2012 to balance work & personal photography projects! Here's the first review for 2012! Yes, Christmas is over, but I didn't finish this book until after Christmas, which makes an untimely review acceptable. Make-up (and some photoshop to enhance the eyes and dead-looking skin) is inspired by Super 8's easy zombie make-up 😀

Christopher Moore
The Stupidest Angel: A Heart-Warming Tale of Christmas Terror
First published in: 2004
This edition: Orbit, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-84149-690-0
Genre: satire, fantasy
Pages: 243
Cover illustration by Steve & Sian Stone; design by Peter Cotton (LBBG)


In a nutshell?

It was Christmas, 2011. I'd just finished reading a book, and being a complete Christmas buff, wanting to get in the mood, I wanted to read a Christmas book. What to do, what to do? I hadn't yet gotten around to ordering my intended read for the year's holidays, the newer version of Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris, which would contain 12 stories instead of the 6 that are included in my older edition. So I repeat: what to do, what to do?

Why, reread The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore, of course!

Joshua Barker hopes he doesn't get into too much trouble for not being home on time. As he tries his best to make his way home, he just wishes that he won't be punished too badly. When he witnesses Santa (also known as Dale Pearson: scumbag) being hit over the head with a shovel, and falling over lifelessly, Joshua realizes he's REALLY in for it now. Please please please, somebody, ANYBODY, make this go away. Bring Santa back to life?

Enter Raziel (of Lamb fame), a beautiful blonde hunk of angelic being, who's – unfortunately – as dumb as he is magnificently gorgeous. In search of a child on earth to grant one wish to ("a Christmas miracle!"), he figures, "Sure! Let's bring the dead back to life!"

So obviously crap really hits the Pine Cove fan. Theophilus Crowse (Pine Cove's sole police presence) already has his work cut out for him in a town full of crazies, which includes Theo's own wife Molly, former Z-list actress best known for her role as Kendra: Warrior Babe of the Outland, and her psychosis. Add zombies to that list, and it's really no wonder the poor guy is at a total loss. Luckily, he has help in the form of a heartbroken biologist, a Warrior Babe with bonus voice in her head, Santa's ex-wife, a pilot and a chatty fruitbat with pink sunglasses.

I first read this heart-warming tale of Christmas terror riiiiiight before I started the Reading & Reviewing project, Christmas 2007. I remember being at my inlaws' farm the day I read most of the book, and how Broer (Wil's dad) asked me, "what are you reading?" and I replied, "Oh , someone's killed Santa and there are zombies, too". And Broer, perplexed, just started giggling (he's a giggler), because that was an answer he wasn't expecting. I think prior to that day, Wil's parents must have (mis)taken me for a Very Serious Reader.

When I visited Wil's parents again on Christmas 2011, I told Broer I'd started reading 'the one about Santa' again, and his eyes twinkled as he remembered that I told him about it 4 years ago. How could you forget a book about Santa murderin's & zombies? There hasn't quite been a book like it yet, and that's pretty much what you can say about every single one of Christopher Moore's books, most of which deserve to be read at least 2 times.

The Stupidest Angel has been the first one I've reread, though, possibly because it was one of the first I read (I was a Moore-virgin until the summer of '07, when I read A Dirty Job) and the timing was right, also because it was Christmas… but also because I have a soft spot for Moore's Pine Cove setting and characters, originally from the book The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove. I feel Theo, Molly + narrator, Mavis and Gabe make up for the funniest group of characters yet, with awesome dialog and interactions. A great addition to the cast is Skinner the Dog; I think it's so funny how Moore will sometimes shift to Skinner's point of view: "Will that guy give me food?" It's an example of why I appreciate Moore's humor so much. He's just a tad silly, but in an unpretentious, brilliant and memorable way.

The Stupidest Angel is a delightful treat of a book: unconventional, ridiculous and funky. Buy it, read it and then put it in someone else's 2012 Christmas stocking, and when they've read it, ask to borrow it so you can read it again during Christmas 2013.

In a nutshell

– It's really unforgettable & worth a reread
– Moore's best characters & setting are in this one
– Unconventional and original. Love that.
– Made of awesome: giggleworthy material aplenty

– None! (You should know what you're in for with Christopher Moore.)