Clare Mackintosh - I Let You Go

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There is obviously a specific genre of book that I don’t love, a kind of “chick lit with spousal abuse” thing that many people on the internet do go crazy for. As a result of their love, books get 4 and 5 star reviews that just really aren’t very good books. Then I get sucked into reading them. Then I get annoyed and don't care if my notes contain all the spoilers.

I’d like to propose a moratorium on allowing the word “twist” to be used to describe the revelation that a man is beating his wife, particularly in the thriller, chick-lit, or pulp novel genres. I’d like to propose an outright ban on allowing abuse and child murder/ torture in the same book. And I’d like to impose some kind of sanctions on having abuse + child harm + animal abuse all bundled into one package. It’s a cheap ploy, and I won't fall for it.

If I want to feel awful, I will read literature so I can feel awful for a good reason at the hands of a master writer. I am fine with that. Or horror, in which the author’s agreed-upon responsibility is to scare and/or freak my pants off. Or I will read non-fiction about important social or historical issues. Some of those books make me feel awful, too, and I am more than fine with that. 

But when I pick up something that is supposed to be entertainment, I don’t want to spend 50% of my time reading vivid descriptions of physical and sexual abuse. I don’t want child murder to be thrown in when the abuse gets dull. 

I’m annoyed that this is like the 4th time it’s happened in the last year. I think it’s weird that people read this stuff for fun. And I think female readers - to whom these books seemed to be aimed - deserve more intelligent plots and characters, even in light pulpy novels. So there. Moving on. 

Gail Honeyman - Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

In the vein of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk or even a Man Called One for the younger generation, this book shows why I’ll take a British writer over an American writer right now almost any day.

There’s not much in the way of plot here - awkward young woman makes a friend - but the characters are vivid. Also, after A Little Life, which I dislike more and more each day, it was wonderful to read a story about someone who had a difficult life who didn’t moan about it for 800 pages. The writer gets out of the way and lets the story unfold. 

Ann Patchett - Commonwealth

Ugh. This book was fine. But I’m sort of sick of/ over the avalanche of popular books from 2015-2016 in which (a) authors can’t start at the beginning and end at the end because they have a sneaking suspicion that the story and/or characters just aren’t actually interesting enough to pay attention to and (b) the stories are bleak for bleak sake.

My 16-year-old-self would be appalled that it’s come to this, but it seems that it has. Let’s be real. This is a book about  a blended family in which basically everyone dies. Why does everyone die? Because it takes place over something like 50 years. Sometimes kids die. Sometimes adults die. But the author doesn’t seem to care much about what happens during those 5 decades when people aren’t dying, so it all just gets stale. 

Why would you spend so much of your time, if you get to be a writer, writing about that part of these people’s lives? You get to be a writer! You get to imagine lives and make them up! And that’s the best you can come up with?!

The most interesting part of the whole book was the summer that one of the characters spends on the east coast with an older writer and his obnoxious New York friends. That was also the only part of the book in which someone wasn’t dying, just died, or reminiscing about the time that someone died. Oh, that and the baby shower in the first chapter and the birthday party near the end.

I blame everyone who read this book on the subway so openly and flagrantly for endorsing it and making me think I was missing out on something great (and its bright orange cover). 

Ann Cleeves - Shetland Series continued ....

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It’s not really clear why murder is a suitable antidote to the abuse and dark mayhem of the last few novels I picked up, but the next 4 books in Cleeves’ series became the spring palate-cleanser that I needed during a busy month. 

I read the first in the series last fall and liked it, but the books get better and better with each one. They’re like detective serials but with so much more space for the landscape and with really fully-drawn characters that grow and change. I feel no shame in binging on these four books, which deviate ever-more from the TV series.

The setting is obviously the best part - they’re called the Shetland series for a reason. After a few books, you can pretty much smell the salt in the air and taste the whisky. You can feel the dampness, I think, but that may also just be southern Ontario in the wettest summer on record. Hard to say. 

Hanya Yanagihara - A Little Life

A book about abuse so long and gruelling that it blurs the previously-unheard-of line between reading and intellectual torture. I finished this book because I needed to know if there had been a point to the layering of horror upon horror: Genius? (Is it all - life - worth it?) Pompous? (Look how crappy I can make you feel!) Insightful? (Stare directly into the abuse, do not shrug away) Exploitive? (Pile on the tragedy for the sake of entertainment!). 

It’s one of those books where you want to give the author credit because writing anything that long is a triumph and the characters are theoretically interesting, but where you also wonder if perhaps this is a call for help of some kind. I gave it leeway, thinking that the person who wrote the book must feel compelled to raise awareness for an issue - but then discovered afterwards the author has repeatedly been criticized for not doing any research at all. So I spent 700 pages submersed in fictional abuse without actually learning anything about the real-life issue, struggles of victims, and struggles of the people who want to help those victims. What was the point?

I walked away from the book wondering, not if life is worth it, but if this book itself was worth it. Why would an author feel the need to make so many people feel so awful for so long? Am I a bad person because I don’t actually like any of these characters? Because empathy was displaced by annoyance about 40% of the way into the book? 

What bugged me throughout the book was how much it felt like an adult, overwrought version of teen romance novels. In the teen novels, the plot goes something like this: girl who doesn’t think she’s super special has a problem, like a flat tire, and special boy drives buy, fixes tire, and also determinadly falls in love with her despite her own insecurities; he’s just so overcome with affection for her specialness that he can’t help himself. “Because she’s special” is the deus ex machina that is supposed to explain the entire novel. It didn’t work when I was 14 and it’s not working now.

In this book, Jude is just so uber-special that his entire adult life is spent collecting enormously wealthy and successful people who seem to have nothing better to do than to dote on him. He’s like a one-man Katamari Damacy of the New York elite. 

On top of that, the fact that Jude is also supposed to be a genius, highly attractive, a talented musician, a fine chef, an active swimmer, a world-traveller, etc etc makes his life pretty “perfect” (barring his relentless unhappiness). I couldn’t help but think about what a real person in his (preposterous) situation might actually have turned out like and how out of reach things like education, free 24/7 health care, multiple homes, free architectural services, etc. would be. I just couldn’t buy it.

Nathan Hill - The Nix

This was supposed to be one of the best audiobooks of 2016, and it was a victim of high expectations. It was fine, I guess, but not “best” of anything. Not even close. The book rambles and has little to no point. At the beginning, it seemed to wander in order to setup different characters. Fine. But then plot didn’t really kick in. It kept wandering. It felt super indulgent.

The gist of the multi-character wanderings is summed up with the statement that sometimes, "You're so wrapped up in your own story that you don't realize you're a bit part in someone else’s.” Yes, interesting point. But a point doesn’t make a novel, and this one feels more like the thought experiments of a teenager discovering postmodernism than something born of real craft. 

E.g., "I'll change your name to something silly, he tells ‘Periwinkle’.” Yes, I see what you did there. I see your self-reflexiveness. Clever. But not a book. These ideas are decades old, so I’m left with the impression that the author didn’t bother to read any of the postmodern writers who came before him. 

Characters come out of nowhere, named after and based on people from real life - Allen Ginsberg, a random comic foil, and Hubert Humphrey. (What was with the internal monologues of Humphrey, by the way?)

Also, the ending was a let-down, not just the plot but the writing itself. It was like even the author got bored and phoned it in. 

(And what was with the line line at the end about how pain just means it’s a new beginning, thus the looming economic crisis is a “good thing” because we can all start afresh? It was is just tossed in, out of nowhere.) 

Elizabeth Kostova - The Shadow Land

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Kostova's debut novel is a thing of much amusement in my house. I adored that book, a classic case of "right book, right moment". I gave it to someone to read and he declared, "This is just a book about a bunch of people doing research in libraries."

"No no, I said. It gets really good."

So he persists. To the climax. In which (massive spoiler alert) the villian (a vampire) captures the heroes and traps them so they will WORK IN HIS LIBRARY. 

...

Kostova's third book is exactly a mashup of any Dan Brown novel with Us, Conductors.

If you want to read US, Conductors but are daunted by the Serious-Canadian-Literature of it, or you want to read Dan Brown but are totally embarrassed by the Thrilling-Puzzle-ruined-by-the-Worst-Writing-Ever of it, then this is absolutely 100% the book for you. 

I was surprised by the Communist work camp storyline. After having delved so deeply into other Communist-themed novels in the last 4 months, I just didn't see this one coming. Definitely more politics in this book than the plot synopsis suggests ...

I was thrilled to read a book about Bulgaria. (Maps were definitely consulted in the reading of this book, and with some relief one of the characters near the end says "no one is really sure where this place is today.") While I am sure Bulgarians probably want to be known for more than historical work camp atrocities, at the very least I was introduced to the geography and political history of a new (to me) country. 

Also, part of this book conjured up Cloak and Dagger from my childhood. I won't give away the ending, but there is a moment when it is entirely possible that the old people aren't so nice after all. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah

I feel like we need to really wait 10-20 years to see how it ages, but for this moment in time, it’s such a great book for capturing current patterns of speech, academic, political, and social perspectives. It’s familiar, even when describing places, experiences, and cultures unknown to me. I finished it a couple of weeks ago and it’s lingered with me. 

This book sat on my shelf for a long time, largely because some of the reader reviews made it sound superficial. They mention “lengthy” excerpts from the character’s blog, long scenes where nothing is talked about except hair. Those criticisms are unfair. It’s not a challenging read in terms of the language, but the characters and the subject matter are so thought-provoking that there’s a lot to dig into. 

Plot-wise, it’s a fairly straightforward story of young love and separation. It’s not the plot that makes the book so engaging, but rather the characters (who are layered and who evolve over the years), the way the present era is captured, and the style. Race and outsider-ness is the dominant theme, but there are also interesting explorations of adulthood/ childhood, class, and gender roles.

A favourite excerpt:

In the den, Athena began to cry. Laura went to her and, soon enough, a string of negotiations followed: “Do you want this one, sweetheart? The yellow or the blue or the red? Which do you want?” Just give her one, Ifemelu thought. To overwhelm a child of four with choices, to lay on her the burden of making a decision, was to deprive her of the bliss of childhood. Adulthood, after all, already loomed, where she would have to make grimmer and grimmer decisions.

I’m so distracted by some reader reviews on this one. People who didn’t like it generally accuse the book of being rambling, of characters coming in and then disappearing. This is exactly one of the things I liked most about it, because life is like that. People pop up, hang around, and disappear. There isn’t a neat and tidy introduction-climax-departure cycle to normal relationships. Sometimes you really do only meet someone at one dinner party one time. Similarly, people are critical of the main character for being self-centred and sometimes contradictory. Most of us are - we see life from our point of view, not from the perspective of some omniscient narrator. This is an honest way of telling a story. Also, we change our minds. It happens. 

The other criticism comes from people who say the author preaches too much, comes across as judgemental. I don’t think that’s fair - an author should be able to put words into a character’s mouth without having to agree with those words. Just because it’s in the book doesn’t mean the author has to agree with it. 

For example:

“And we saw this quite unbelievable parade of little children with heavily made-up faces and then there was a lot of flag-waving and a lot of ‘God Bless America.’ I was terrified that it was the sort of place where you did not know what might happen to you if you suddenly said, ‘I don’t like America.’”

Does the author think that? Who knows? Who cares? A character said it in conversation at a dinner party, as people are wont to do. 

The Housekeeper and the Professor - Yoko Ogawa

Honestly, I saw that this was another novel about a mathematician and I figured “I’m already on a roll ….” That was my entire reason for reading this book (that, and the good reviews). It’s a quiet novel, simple. A woman becomes a housekeeper for a difficult client - a mathematician whose memory resets every 80 minutes.

The characters are well-drawn and you can’t help but feel affection for each of them.

Math. Baseball. Mystery.

The reviews all say things like “charming”, “gem”, “elegant” and words to that effect - and they’re right. 

What’s Next?

Something 2017y, buzzy. 

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk - Kathleen Rooney

An 85-year old woman walks through New York City on New Year’s Eve in the 1980s. As she walks, she reflects on her life. Comparisons to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry are inevitable. If you like one, you’ll quite likely like the other.

It’s a straightforward book, but what I got out of it most were two things. First, Lillian is a woman who valued her career more than family (in a way) at a time when that was an incredibly unfashionable thing to do. Her story is captured with all the nuance and conflict and anxiety that making such choices would bring upon someone in that era with more nuance and grey shading than the usual corporate-boss/ stay-at-home-mom tropes conjure up. 

Second, as you learn more about Lillian, this becomes an interesting book about identity and mental health. It sneaks up on you. But then it’s there. And it captures that notion that all city-walkers have that each person they pass may have a life of great depth and change hiding behind their eyes. It evokes a big city street, rather than simply describing one. 

Bonus points for some interesting insider knowledge of the history of advertising. I particularly enjoyed the scene when Lillian was asked to be part of a panel discussion, only to have her old work mocked by younger experts. The young experts, as they do, assume that those who came before them did what they did because they didn’t know how to do it “better”. Hadn’t yet discovered all the things that the young experts had discovered. They didn’t recognize that perhaps it was the right work for the right time and thus, brilliant work. They didn’t recognize that they only know what they know because others came before them. And Lillian’s response is fantastic.

Orphan Train - Christina Baker Kline

A solid young adult novel that I plowed through it in a weekend. I liked the characters, liked learning about the era of the Orphan Train that carried children (mostly urban immigrants) to families in the Great Lakes region to live or work (sometimes happily, sometimes not so much).  

The similarities/ contrast between characters who had lost their families and their connection to their roots (European, indigenous) trying to find their way in a difficult world is one of the more interesting aspects of the book.

I have mixed feelings, though, about the ending. It wasn’t the plot that fell flat, it was the writing style. It was like the book hit this point, about two chapters before the end, where the author was all like “I really want to be done now”. Before you know it, all the characters, all the plot lines, everything is all wrapped up and a big fat bow is slapped on the top. Book. Done. 

Moving on. 

Another Country - James Baldwin

I recently saw the documentary “James Baldwin: The Price of a Ticket”. It’s an older doc, recently restored and presumably released to generate interest in Baldwin before “I am not Your Negro” is released in more theatres. 

It rekindled my interest in an author I adored in high school/ early university. I realized I’d read his essays, but never his novels (of which there are many). Another Country is one of his best-known novels, and it’s generally considered a masterpiece. It’s one of those rare books that I think everyone should read, not because they'll love it but because it’s so provocative book that it’s worth some bandwidth.

It’s hard to explain without giving away key plot points/ surprises, but the book has different sections - it doesn’t end the way that it begins. Stuff and characters change. 

The dominant theme, of course, is race. There’s also an exploration of love and human connection, particularly love as it relates to minorities (race, class, gender, sexuality). 

There’s something for the brooding poet:

He had often thought of his loneliness, for example, as a condition which testified to his superiority.

And, 

The aim of the dreamer, after all, is merely to go on dreaming and not to be molested by the world. His dreams are his protection against the world. But the aims of life are antithetical to those of the dreamer, and the teeth of the world are sharp.

There’s exploration of male/ female power:

“No,” he said, frankly, “I don’t. I don’t believe all this female intuition shit. It’s something women have dreamed up.”
“You can say that— and in such a tone!” She mimicked him: “Something women have dreamed up. But I can’t say that— what men have ‘dreamed up’ is all there is, the world they’ve dreamed up is the world.”
He laughed. She subsided.
“Well. It’s true.”

There’s violence and tragedy, but there’s also hope:

... if you can get through the worst, you’ll see the best.

There are a few aspects of the book that are out-of-place in 2017. The fact that the entire book is about 4 chapters long makes it a little challenging to read on the subway. The fact that most of the characters are largely unlikeable will be tough for some readers (I subscribe to the notion that an author can write about unlikeable people without actually endorsing them). And the focus on characters over plot/ events is very much of its time (something I love but harder to get into for the whizz-bang-video-game-movie-app-blinky-blink-era). But honestly, there’s a lifetime of provocative thoughts and perspectives to discover in Another Country.

Haven't seen this yet: In his new film, director Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished - a radical narration about race in America, using the writer's original words. He draws upon James Baldwin's notes on the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark

The first time I watched Downton Abbey, I watched it with someone who was expecting it to be like Monty Python. As the hour-long costume drama unfolded, his face fell further and further. Downton Abbey is a fine show, but it was so far from what he expected that it didn’t stand a chance. You can’t recover from a shock like that.

Jean Brodie is described as a book about a “facist” teacher who develops a “dangerous” relationship with her students. She is described by some as one of the greatest villains in British literature. Noted detective novelist Ian Rankin describes this as the one book he can’t live without. Brodie is eventually betrayed by one of her students. Oh, the intrigue. 

I thought this book was about a manipulative teacher, some sort of murder, and ultimately betrayal. 

In fact, it’s a charming book about a manipulative young teacher who talks openly about sex with her young students. It is set circa 1930 and published circa 1960 so, you know, scandal. She summers in Europe and returns to Scotland with tales of the glamorous facists. Ultimately, it is her interest in politics that gives the school a reason to fire her. 

The book is a fine book. But there is no murder. There is no mystery (aside from wondering which student sold her out, which isn't really a mystery because Brodie was such a weirdo that someone tattling on her was inevitable).

It’s probably an excellent book, if you don’t spend the entire thing wondering “when will the bodies start piling up?”  I didn’t pay enough attention, thinking the “real” plot hadn’t started yet. I didn’t understand that the giggling over which teacher had a crush on which other teacher was the plot. That the “facist” teacher was truly just a teacher with facist sympathies. That the “dangerous” relationship with the students was one where she treated them as adults, rather than the children they were, but to little consequence. The “Prime” of Miss Brodie refers to her sexually maturity, not the height of her tyrannical power. 

All in all, it was a bit like jumping on a roller coaster only to discover it you're actually on an escalator - a perfectly serviceable thing. Just not what I was expecting. 

You think it's one thing, but it's actually something else. You like them both, just not for the same reasons. Happens all the time. 

You think it's one thing, but it's actually something else. You like them both, just not for the same reasons. Happens all the time. 

Howl's Moving Castle - Diana Wynne Jones

Before it was a masterpiece of a movie by Hayao Miyazaki, it was a short novel. And the novel is SO GOOD. It’s an action packed romp through English/ Japanese (can’t shake the movie) countryside with door portals that lead to Wales and witches’ curses and demon pacts.

I think that Sophie might be one of my favourite heroines of all time. The basic gist is the same as the movie, but the characters are deeper, funnier, and there is much more going on in the book. So much fun. 

Ken Follett - Eye of the Needle

After I watched Alien and Aliens for the first time a few years ago, I was immediately asked the question: which one do you prefer? For me, the answer was Alien, hands down. No contest. Aliens was good and fine, but it was typical of its genre. It didn’t surprise me. 

Only a few days later did I realize that Aliens was so influential that those characters and lines and moments that felt derivative all these years later were, in fact, the first of their kind. Everything in the genre that came after was inspired, in some way, by Aliens. It’s almost impossible now to see Aliens with fresh eyes, as it would have been seen in its day. It was the first of its kind, genre-defining - and now the genre is so familiar it’s hard to recognize the original. 

So, too, it’s hard to read Eye of the Needle in 2016 and understand why this book is considered to be such a classic. It’s a spy book. It’s a decent spy book. But it’s hard to see what distinguishes it from all the others out there, or why it caused such a sensation. I’m not a big fan of the “thriller” genre in general, which is not Follett’s fault. This is definitely a good articulation of the genre. But that’s about it. Spy spies. Spy murders to protect his cover. Spy tries to flee England (an island, thus it’s tricky). Government agents pursue spy. Inevitable conflict ensues. 

 

Abby Geni - The Lightkeepers

Part of reading is finding the right book at the right time. There’s a notion that some books are “great books”, but I think all that is is that some books are the right book at the right time for the most people. 

The hunt for the right book is half the fun of reading. It’s like trying to discover a perfect wine pairing, gem of a restaurant, or new band. 

This book was the right book for me at the time that I read it. It’s about a photographer who lives on the Farallon Islands near San Francisco for a year, documenting bird and wildlife migrations. I went to the islands a year and a half ago, so the place means something to me. I just watched Werner Herzog's documentary about Antarctica, so the notion of weird scientists living in remote places has a currency to it. After so many Soviet/ Russian spy and war-era stories, I wanted something simple, linear, and personal.

First, the islands. We went there on a whale watching tour when in San Francisco for a conference a year and a half ago. It was fall. The water in the bay was smooth as glass … until we passed under the Golden Gate bridge. Then, we were sailing through waves and chop like I haven’t seen before. At one point the waves were rolling so much that the boat seemed to be on a 90-degree angle. Looking portside meant looking up, to the sky. Most of the people on the boat became seasick. Then, we finally arrived at the islands only to learn that there’s no dock. Trespassers are shot. We weren’t getting off the boat. Instead, they cut the motor and we bobbed around looking at the bird sanctuary. 

If you know anything about boats, you of course know that cutting the engine in rough waters makes seasickness even worse. If you know anything about birds, you know that 250,000 birds are likely to produce an unimaginable stench. Basically, anyone who wasn’t seasick at that point, was overcome. Except me. I was just happy to be out in the sun. I think I even saw a whale. 

Second, Herzog’s documentary about Antarctica shows scientists working in remote locations to be … a little wonky. They’re great fodder for fiction. 

To say anything of the plot would be to give it all away. It’s a simple book - girl goes to island, stuff happens. A simple story, told neatly and with affection for the characters and places. No great social stakes. Just people doing stuff people do in an unusual place. With sharks and whales and seals and birds. 

Sean Michaels - Us Conductors

It seems a little strange that two Giller Book Prize winners in three years wrote epic historical fiction works about musicians living under the rise of violent Communist states. I guess your take on it depends whether you read Michaels or Thien first, but what are the chances that such an obscure genre would even exist?

I wish I’d read these books a bit further apart, to avoid the inevitable comparisons. They really are quite different. 

Michaels’ style is strong and compelling and I could picture every moment of the life of the scientist and spy, Lev. Based loosely on the life of the inventor of the theremin, it’s a crash course in both Soviet politics, music, and the invention of the metal detector. 

I do wish the love story had been shortened up a bit. There’s probably close to an extra 50 pages in this book because Michaels REALLY wants you to know how much Lev loves Clara. I get it. He really, really loves Clara and when he can’t have her, Lev becomes a broken man who will do things for his country. It left me a bit more tired than I needed to be by the end of the book, a bit more eager to see the last page and declare the book complete. But otherwise, this was a fantastic read. 

The flashback approach works a bit better here than in Thien’s book, but I’m aching for a story that starts in one place and ends in another. And, frankly, after so many tyrants and murders, something with a little less death.

Madeleine Thien - Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Network of family and friends in China during the Cultural Revolution experience conflict, oppression, love. Some end up in Canada where the next generation meet. There is tragedy. It’s a really hard book to explain or plot to describe - parts feel very contemporary. Parts are pure historical fiction. The non-linear structure makes sense in some ways (the theme of no beginning/ no ending and the need to discover the secrets of the past), but it also masks occasional bits of sloppy and unstructured writing.

Story-wise, I really enjoyed the book. It was an absolutely perfect follow up to the Russian historical fiction I’ve been reading. Characters were great. But the tone was inconsistent and some of the descriptions as overly flowery, vague. There were moments that felt like work. 

I learned a lot about a topic of which I know little and was fascinated beginning to end. Other favourite bits: the emphasis on music and the reminder/ introduction to Glenn Gould, whom I am now listening to daily. 

Liz Moore - The Unseen World (26)

The premise of this book is that the young Ada Silbelius is raised by her single father, a brilliant computer scientist. Until something happens. The characters are fully realized, haunting. I cried for about 35% of the book. There are secret codes. It’s partially set in the 1980s. I really loved this book. 

Sadly, I can’t say anything more about it without giving away the entire mystery. 

What’s Next?

Another female author, another father/ daughter relationship. This time, Canadian.