Publisher: Text

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

Posted March 18, 2017 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

War and Turpentine by Stefan HertmansTitle: War and Turpentine (Goodreads)
Author: Stefan Hertmans
Translator: David McKay
Published: Text, 2016
Pages: 304
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Before he did, Stefan Hertmans’s grandfather gave him two notebooks which make up his life. Stefan held on to these notebooks for a while before he read them. Expecting the story of war he found a more detailed account of his grandfather’s life, from growing up in poverty, meeting his great love, war and a passion for art. Providing a more modern voice, War and Turpentine is a stylised account of what was in these notebooks. To call it a biography or memoir is a stretch but this literary hybrid is masterfully told.

Born in 1891, the author’s grandfather lived until 1981. While the key focus of the novel is the life of one person, I was particularly drawn to how it represented a whole country. This was a very turbulent time for Belgium. During The Great War, the occupation by German forces was so harsh that it is often referred to as the ‘Rape of Belgium’, which economically crippled the country and lead to a high unemployment rate. World War II was not as devastating but the country once again capitulated to the Germans.

There is a large section that focuses on the devastating nature of war to the people involved and the country. Despite the gritty nature, there is real beauty to be found. Like the title, War and Turpentine this is a novel of polar opposites; from gritty depictions from the trenches to almost dreamlike descriptions of the German zeppelins floating overhead.

Putting the depictions of war aside War and Turpentine also explores family, love, marriage and art, which allows a contrast from devastation to beauty. There is a real tenderness in the approach that Stefan Hertmans took in writing his grandfather’s story. I wonder what this story might have been if Hertmans produced it when he first received his grandfather’s notebooks. I think the 40 years between receiving the notebooks and writing this book gave him enough time to develop his craft and live his life. This I believe was necessary to come up with something so stunning and beautiful.

I love the title War and Turpentine simply because it accurately covers the balance found in the book. From destruction in war to the creation and beauty of art. This is a powerful piece of storytelling, masterfully executed. I am not sure where I found out about this book, I went into it not knowing much about it at all. The writing alone was enough to make War and Turpentine wonderful, which is a huge credit to David McKay’s translation. Everything about this book just resulted in the perfect balance of the dramatic and absolute beauty.


The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Posted December 15, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

The Story of a New Name by Elena FerranteTitle: The Story of a New Name (Goodreads)
Author: Elena Ferrante
Translator: Ann Goldstein
Series: The Neapolitan Novels #2
Published: Text, 2012
Pages: 471
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Following directly after the events of My Brilliant Friend comes the next novel in the Neapolitan series. Lila is now married and Elena’s own attempts of romance are a little more complicated. Although Elena is also focusing on her academic and literary career. The Story of a New Name continues the story of the two friends living in Naples from the age of about sixteen to their mid-twenties.

I was enjoying being in the world of Lila and Elena that I picked up The Story of a New Name as soon as I had finished My Brilliant Friend. A novel that I found far more enjoyable than the first one. The two woman are now adults, thinking about their lives and planning for a future. I found that their world had opened up a lot more, with more details about Naples and the political tensions of Italy. I like how Elena Ferrante wrote these books with the world expanding to the reader in the same way it would to the characters.

It is difficult to talk about the plot within The Story of a New Name as it would spoil My Brilliant Friend. However I have been enjoying the character development found in this series. Both Elena and Lila (and all other characters) often make unexpected decisions or stupid mistakes but this just makes the novels feel more genuine. It is hard to predict how a character will act because they are constantly growing and changing and when you think you have worked them out, they do something different. This has kept me hooked and makes me want to move onto book three Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, though I have decided to hold off.

The only problem I found with The Story of a New Name involved a sex scene at the start of the novel. I am not sure if this was the work of Elena Ferrante or the translator Ann Goldstein but when referring to both male and female genitals drastically changed. The terms “his sex” and “her sex” just irritates me and I have no idea why these terms were used in book two and not in the first one. I have heard that Elena Ferrante wrote this series without many re-writes so it is possible this was just a consistency issue but it still annoyed me.

I am loving this series, and like I said with My Brilliant Friend, it is not for the faint of heart. You get to experience all the highs and lows of the two women’s lives and there are some pretty devastating lows. Although they have hard lives, both Lila and Elena are strong, independent and brilliant women and I really enjoy that about these characters. I plan to read book three and four next year just to give myself a little break but I really want to return to this world. Only problem with that is I will finish the Neapolitan series far too quickly.


My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Posted December 11, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction / 2 Comments

My Brilliant Friend by Elena FerranteTitle: My Brilliant Friend (Goodreads)
Author: Elena Ferrante
Translator: Ann Goldstein
Series: The Neapolitan Novels #1
Published: Text, 2013
Pages: 331
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Elena Ferrante has become a literary sensation lately, with the four-part Neapolitan series. These books are a bildungsroman that explores the lives of friends Elena and Lila. My Brilliant Friend follows their childhoods and teenage years, living in Naples during the 1950s. There are speculations that this series is autobiographical but Elena Ferrante is so secretive and does not do interviews, so no one can know for sure.

First of all, I think I need to point out that Naples in 1950 was a rough time. Naples was the first Italian city to rise up against the Nazi occupation, in fact when American troops landed they found that the city was already liberated. After the war, while Italy was trying to rebuild and recover, a majority of the focus remained in Rome and this southern city did not much get more attention. The Italian Social Movement and neo-fascist movements across Italy caused plenty of political tension.

Having said that, for Elena and Lila, their entire world consisted of the few blocks they grew up in. Not knowing the devastation running across Italy, these two friends focused on their own problems, both having a very tough life with plenty of dark moments seeping into this novel. Do not expect a normal coming of age story, these two brilliant friends have to live through devastating moments and conditions, making this novel not for the faint of heart.

I compared My Brilliant Friend with The Valley of Dolls in the sense that it explores the life of these girls through their up and downs. I loved the experience of exploring their lives and I find myself taking the time with the book, not wanting it to end. Luckily there are three other books in the series and I did indeed move onto The Story of a New Name right away.

My biggest complaint with this book was trying to keep the characters straight. Elena is often called Lenù which can be confusing, and Lila is also called Raffaella. Most people have multiple names and it can be hard to tell who is a part of the Greco, Cerullo, Sarratore or Solara family. Luckily there is a list of characters at the front of the book to help understand who each person is and their relationship to everyone else.

While devastating, I really enjoyed reading My Brilliant Friend, and as I have already said, I started The Story of a New Name right after finishing book one. I enjoyed immersing myself this fictional world of Naples, I need to get all the books in this series. I wish I knew more about Elena Ferrante because I am curious to know how much of this is true to life. Her books seemed to become a sensation overnight, despite the fact that she had written a few books previously including The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter.


Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Posted December 7, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesTitle: Between the World and Me (Goodreads)
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published: Text, 2015
Pages: 176
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Between the World and Me is a collection of essays that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote to his son. In this collection, Coates reflects on the state of the world and the history in America over the last 150 years. Covering the history and his own personal story of growing up as an African American and attempting to answer some of the questions that his adolescent son might have about the world.

I have always struggled to review a collection of essays and Between the World and Me is no different. What can I say about this book that Ta-Nehisi Coates has not said already, apart from the fact that this is an impressive collection and very informative? Ta-Nehisi Coates is an elegant writer and I found so much beauty in the words, despite the fact that it was a very unsettling subject matter.

One thing that really stood out to me, is the fact Ta-Nehisi Coates offered no answers, no solutions and no hope. He comes across as feeling hopeless in the situation; like racism is never going to end. While this focuses on racism in America, it still manages to get the reader thinking about the topic in their own country. I buddy-read this book with Hanaa from Craving Books who is a Canadian, so we both were not American but still got a lot from the book.

This is an important book and while there are no answers to be found in Between the World and Me, I think just reading this will be a good start. Understanding is an important part of change, and if we can somehow get everyone understanding just how bad the situation, we might get change. Ta-Nehisi Coates really knows how to write and I find myself wanting to read more of his books; I know he has written a memoir called The Beautiful Struggle. I hope he continues to write, and I would love to see him try fiction, but until then everyone should read Between the World and Me.


Aquarium by David Vann

Posted August 12, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Contemporary / 6 Comments

Aquarium by David VannTitle: Aquarium (Goodreads)
Author: David Vann
Published: Text, 2015
Pages: 259
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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Caitlin is a twelve-year-old leaving with her mother in subsidised housing next to the Seattle airport. Every day after school she visits the local aquarium where she spends her time studying the fish. She dreams of becoming an ichthyologist when she grows up. One day she meets and befriends an old man by one of the fish tanks. This new friendship leads Caitlin to a dark family secret and causes her once blissful relationship with her mother to fracture.

I have great respect for David Vann as a writer; while I have only read Dirt previously, I have found his ability to write family dysfunction mesmerising. Dirt was a very uncomfortable read and when Goat Mountain was released in 2013 I was not emotionally prepared to tackle another Vann novel. Goat Mountain still sits on my shelf waiting for me but I could not resist picking up Aquarium and reading it.

David Vann frequently writes about the domestic life, exploring the way family members react to each other and often lead to arguments. Within Aquarium, Vann looks at how destructive secrets can be and how the suffering of a parent can greatly affect their children. Parents often have this idea that they need to protect their children from the horrors of the world, which is fair enough. However, what happens when a family secret comes out? In Aquarium, Caitlin’s mother is unable to handle the situation leaving her to try and navigate this big revolution alone.

Aquarium is a coming of age story of a twelve year old being thrust into adulthood and trying to navigate the world alone. Without the family drama, Caitlin has enough to worry about with the changes in hormones and her body. However do not confuse this with a young adult novel; David Vann tackles some dark themes (although this is more accessible than Dirt) and Caitlin is reflecting on the situation later in her life. This allows for a nice blend of maturity and naiveté to come through in the writing.

While this was not as dark as I expected, I think Aquarium is a great introduction to David Vann. I still need to read Goat Mountain, Caribou Island and Legend of a Suicide before I can give a more informed opinion but I recommend Aquarium if you want to try Vann out. If I compare this novel to Dirt, it is a light read about the family life but, in reality, it is a dark grim bildungsroman that deals with abuse and sexuality. Emotionally prepare yourself when going into a book like Aquarium; it is worth the journey.


The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright

Posted September 9, 2014 by Michael Kitto in Non-Fiction / 0 Comments

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare WrightTitle: The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Goodreads)
Author: Clare Wright
Published: Text, 2013
Pages: 539
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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In December 1854 Australia saw one of its most significant uprisings in its history known as the Eureka Rebellion. This act of civilian disobedience in Ballarat, Victoria was a protest to the expensive miner’s licence been imposed on them. The miner’s licence fee was a way around the taxation problem in the mine fields, allowing the Victorian government to provide infrastructure to the stockade. The miners didn’t see the fee this way and found it to be extortion; everyone had to pay the same amount no matter if they found gold or not, in fact you paid even if you weren’t a miner.

The Eureka Rebellion (or protest) led to the Battle of the Eureka Stockade, where police and British soldiers stepped in to break up the protest. This battle didn’t last long (around 15 minutes) but the effects were lasting. This piece of history has been taught in good high schools (not mine obviously) but it has always been focused on the men involved, even though about 40% of the mine fields consisted of woman and children.

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright is an attempt to remind people what happened and tell the untold story of the forgotten rebels. The term ‘herstory’ can be thrown around when talking about this book. My problems with this book was personal, I grew up in a small mining town that often talked about the gold rush in the 1870’s. I’ve heard enough about mining to last me a lifetime and I’m just not interested in the topic.

However I had to read this book for book club, so I made an effort and while I did find some interesting stories it felt too much like a chore. It didn’t help that the book started off as narrative non-fiction and turned into a text book half way through. In hindsight, the introduction was all I really needed to know about this piece of history, the rest just offered extra information.

I have to give the book credit to the huge section of endnotes found at the back. I respect a book more if they reference their work but I don’t seem to share the same concern with fiction. My concern however is the fact that the majority of references are second hand accounts of the Eureka Rebellion. It is true that most firsthand accounts of the rebellion were destroyed but I can’t help but take the information with a big grain of salt; it is like Chinese whispers.

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka won the 2014 Stella Award, a literary award for Australian women writers similar to the Baileys Women’s Prize which is possibly the reason we read this one for our book club. In fact, since the next book is All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyle which one the Miles Franklin Award (Australia’s biggest literary award), I have no doubt. If you are interested in Australian gold rush history or the forgotten tales of women in a key historical events then try The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.


Mini Reviews: Books about Books

Posted February 6, 2014 by Michael Kitto in Non-Fiction / 0 Comments

I don’t often write mini reviews but I do think they might be handy at times. I like to write a few hundred words on each book for documentation purposes, this is my reading journal after all. Having said that there are two books that I wanted to talk about, I can’t say I’ve ‘read’ them as these are the types of books you keep on your shelf and skim through. Both are a similar theme, my favourite non-fiction theme in fact (books about books) so I thought I would combine them into the one post.

The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud, Susan Elderkin

“Sick? Tired? Lost your job? Take one dose of literature and repeat until better.”

I would like to be known as a Bibliotherapist; it is on my twitter profile so it must be true. I received this book for Christmas from the most amazing person (my wife) and now I finally have the textbook to officially hand out some bibliotherapy. You have a shopping addiction, please go away and read American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (that’s what it recommends); I can tell you after that book you’ll not want to be so concerned about what clothing labels are trendy enough to buy and reference in conversation. This is the medical handbook that I can truly get behind and I had a lot of fun looking through it and finding out just how to deal with my parents during Christmas. I loved this book, it was so much fun to flick through. My only problem was the fact that Frankenstein was never prescribed to cure an illness, why can’t it help a god complex, isolation or something like that?

Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason by Nancy Pearl

“What to read next is every book lover’s greatest dilemma.”

Any real book lover knows that picking the next book is hard, but this is not the book that solves this issue. Book Lust is a collection of different reading lists for different topics, moods and so on. Say you want to know what Russian books to read or want a list of coming of age books. That is all well and good, hats off to Nancy Pearl for able to make a collection of book lists into a book series. The problem I found is book lovers are aware of most of the books mentioned in these lists; they have millions of books they want to read and this book doesn’t really help them at all. Personally I don’t think anyone apart from book lovers will read a book like this so really it feels pointless. There are lists in the book so obscure they start to feel like filler. My major beef with this book was there were no original thoughts, all books seemed like obvious choices and the presentation of each list needed work.  Each topic isn’t a book list and they are not essays of literary criticism either, for me, this just felt sloppy.  I will give credit to Nancy Pearl for being able to turn her love of book lists into a collection of books.


A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Posted November 10, 2013 by Michael Kitto in Contemporary, Magical Realism / 7 Comments

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth OzekiTitle: A Tale for the Time Being (Goodreads)
Author: Ruth Ozeki
Published: Text, 2013
Pages: 422
Genres: Contemporary, Magical Realism
My Copy: Library Book

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Sixteen year old Nao lives in Tokyo and has decided to take her own life. Her life isn’t great, being bullied in school, her parents are depressed but before she ends her misery she has one task to complete. She wants to document the life of her great-grandmother Jiko. She writes a diary to tell the story of her life. On the Pacific coast of Canada, a few months after the tsunami that hits Japan, Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the beach, inside there was a diary.

Starting with the story of Nao, A Tale for the Time Being was a fascinating look at the Japanese modern culture with references to pop-culture. It made me want to read more books like this; the Japanese culture, while similar is very different and unusual. The only problem with Nao was the fact I didn’t believe she was a struggling teenage girl, all references to being bullied or having a hard life seem to come across as non-issues. I think if someone is struggling to the point of suicide then these issues would be a major focus and never downplayed. This really became the underlining issue with this novel.

I expected this to be brutal and dark but it felt like it wasn’t taken seriously in the effort to make the book light hearted and humorous. The writing was beautiful but I felt it was too flowery and at times preachy. Ruth Ozeki is not just a novelist; she is also a Zen Buddhist priest. Now I have nothing against Buddhism and I think we need religious equality for all people but for some reason this felt heavy. I like books that teach me something I don’t know and A Tale for the Time Being does just that but I felt like it overdid this. I get that Ozeki is passionate about Zen Buddhism, it really showed, there is nothing wrong with that, just a little priggish.

As for the other major character (Ruth), which I couldn’t see as anything else but the author was rather dull in caparison. Nao’s story was fascinating, learning about Jiko was interesting but Ruth felt full of self-pity and two dimensional. I found myself wanting to skip over her story and return to Nao. Personally I think the Ruth character played no real part in the novel and cutting her chapters out completely would have worked just as well.

While the Zen Buddhist element did feel preachy the major downfalls were the believability of Nao’s struggle and Ruth. This is just too light and whimsical for me this really became a distraction from the themes and ideas the novel was trying to achieve. There was so much going for this but the negatives started to outweigh the positives. I must be one of the few that thought this novel wasn’t amazing.


The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Posted June 11, 2013 by Michael Kitto in Romance / 0 Comments

The Rosie Project by Graeme SimsionTitle: The Rosie Project (Goodreads)
Author: Graeme Simsion
Published: Text, 2013
Pages: 329
Genres: Romance
My Copy: Library Book

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Don Tillman is a highly successful Professor of Genetics, but he is also a very socially awkward single man that believes the solution to all his problems is a wife.  He embarks upon a search to find this wife; The Wife Project is a carefully designed questionnaire to find the perfect match for him. In comes Rosie, not a match, but Don finds himself helping her on search for her biological father.

Chick lit always seems to have a quirky woman looking for love, because apparently the message is that strong independent women are incomplete until they have a partner. That is probably a rant for another day but I have to wonder why Nick Hornsby and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project does not fit into this genre? All the same characteristics are there, the only thing different is the role reversal. My wife jokingly calls the genre dick lit but I don’t know why there is a gender bias in a genre. I thought Seating Arrangements would be considered chick lit but because it had a male protagonist people dismiss it as something different. Not really important but I thought it odd that just because the main character is the wrong gender it doesn’t fall under the same category, which is one of the many problems with trying to categorise books into genres.

Now let’s get back to The Rosie Project; this was an entertaining and quick read that just has too many problems with it. This over hyped book’s major flaw is the portrayal of Asperger’s; much like Addition, a mental health issue (or in this case a pervasive developmental disorder) is the quirky personality. Because underplaying a mental health issue is the answer to making a character quirky; why can’t people just be quirky without having to point fingers? Misrepresenting mental health seems to be the go to move for writers of books, TV and movies and it really isn’t helping people understand these issues. Also while I’m on the topic, why does socially awkward, introverted or quirky have to be considered as problems, why can’t we just be happy for people to be different without having to stick a label on it?

The other major issue I had with The Rosie Project was its predictability; you knew exactly what was going to happen from chapter to chapter and how the book would end. There were no surprises, nothing interesting, just a generic plot. So we have an unpredictable, generic and stereotypical plot; does that leave you with any good points? Not really, just that it was entertaining and there was some decent comedy but in the end I was glad to be done with the book. Remember that old Jack Nicholson movie As Good As It Gets? I have to wonder if this is just a modernisation of that movie, there were so many similarities. I also found a lot of similarities to Addition so I’m not sure if there is anything original left in this book.

For those that don’t mind something so formulaic and predictable, this book is entertaining and you don’t really need to pay attention. I ended up skim reading most of this book and I still felt like I didn’t miss anything, because I guessed what would happen before I read it. I know this book has gotten a lot of buzz lately and I’m still that bitter and cynical old man but I really don’t get it; I don’t see what was so appealing.

Good on Graeme Simsion for taking the world by storm with this novel, the buzz in Australia has started to die down but now the hype is starting around the world. I see it was one of the books been heavily advertised at BEA from Australia (the other being Burial Rites). For that I’m glad it’s doing well, it is nice to see Australian books getting talked about all around the world. Much like The Book Thief, I don’t see why there is so much buzz but I’m still happy when an Australian author reaches the international stage. I’m sure there will be a romantic comedy coming from Hollywood soon, so maybe that is a good reason to read The Rosie Project.


The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Posted May 24, 2013 by Michael Kitto in Contemporary / 0 Comments

The Imperfectionists by Tom RachmanTitle: The Imperfectionists (Goodreads)
Author: Tom Rachman
Published: Text, 2010
Pages: 277
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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With the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, climate change, the economy and constant tragedies and crime, a newspaper has plenty of material to fill its columns. But for the staff of this international paper based in Rome, the real stories are not the ones on the front page but the ones that happen in their own life. The Imperfectionists is a quirky novel about the people that write and read this newspaper.

My first thought of this novel was, this is going to be the newspaper equivalent of A Visit from the Goon Squad and in some parts it is, but I actually enjoyed this book. Don’t get me wrong, A Visit from the Goon Squad has some positives to it and a lot of people enjoyed it, but for me I just think it was over hyped and you get to know a character and then the novel moves onto something different. This is a problem with The Imperfectionist as well but I got this sense that each little story came to a relatively decent close; this is tiny little stories to give you a small insight into each life. These stories don’t really make up an overall plot; that happens between each chapter when you learn a little more about the overall rise of this paper.

This novel mainly focuses on the newspaper industry, founded in the late fifties, in a time where the paper is still the primary source of news for most people. This novel tracks the changing time and the effect it has on the people that work for this paper. Television and the twenty four hour news channels had a huge effect on the newspaper industry but this paper managed to stay in business and now with the information age and the internet they are really struggling to remain relevant. This newspaper refused to create a website and insisted on sticking to the old ways and this turns out to be their downfall.

Each member of the staff that show up in the chapters of the book have their own issues to deal with as well; love, relationships, parenthood and normal everyday life. The thing I enjoyed about this book was each character was unique and handled life differently but then all of them had their own issues to deal with that were more important than the problems facing the newspaper they worked for. Sure they worried about their jobs but life has its own challenges and these are what are explored with the newspaper industry decays.

This works like a collection of short stories, each have their own plot but then in between  each one there it the main plot which follows the newspaper from conception to where it is today. I really liked the way this was done; it felt like each story wasn’t irrelevant to the overall plot. Their names pop up and you have a sense of understanding that person enough to know just how they may feel. Each little story is different, but they are told in the same third person style so they seem to tie together really well.

There are some problems with this novel as well, sometimes you want more from a character you like and sometimes I found myself getting bored. As an overall novel I did end up enjoying it; I found myself racing through this book and that is rare for me when it comes to short stories. I don’t know much about author Tom Rachman; I know his has written another short story but not another novel. I would be interested to see how he goes with a follow up novel and see how he approaches it. The Imperfectionist was enjoyable but I don’t think I would recommend it to anyone, unless they want something similar to of A Visit from the Goon Squad.