March 20th, 2013
Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome had been on my “this book seems interesting to me” list ever since I read the New Yorker article that Jonathan Franzen wrote, while the specifics of the article faded away rather quickly, the general sense that I should be reading more of her work stayed with me. We have done a version of this book for our public domain ebooks, and I glanced through it briefly, which gave me an idea of the tone and scope of the novel. But upon a closer reading, it’s actually quite incredible what Wharton accomplishes in the novella–she tells the entire story of the very sad, very tragic lives of Ethan, his wife Zeena, and her cousin Mattie with brevity, which actually allows for the weight of what happens to them to settle without it feeling overwhelming.
In short, Ethan’s unhappily married to a hypochondriac woman. Zeena wasn’t always that way–there was a point where she helped Ethan’s family out immensely (the reason they married), but for years they’d been engaged in a psychological battle. Zeena’s “illnesses” defining reasons why their lives are incapable of moving forward. When Mattie shows up, a poor cousin of Zeena’s without anywhere else to go, Ethan’s life changes. And when Zeena leaves for a far-flung doctor’s appointment, the two nights he and Mattie spend together have the potential to change their unhappy lives forever. For upon her return, Zeena means to turn Mattie out, and as she’s his last glance at happiness, Ethan will do anything to prevent it from happening.
Oh, the heartbreak in this little book. It’s truly and completely engrossing. Her choice of words, how she structures the story, it all comes together in a way that elevates the everyday-ness of the events to new levels. Parts of the house is described (and I’m paraphrasing) as “grungy” even for this poor area. Ethan schlumps and slogs through his life despite his relatively young age, and Zeena, with her greasy hair and dowdy clothes remains unbearable from day one. The narrator’s removed–a stranger, an outsider–they’re able to honestly look at what happened in ways that someone intimately involved with the events in the book would be unable to. Does their slight poverty increase the tragic elements in the novel? Absolutely. But it doesn’t define them. They act the way they do simply because they have no choice to otherwise. It’s a novel that explores how limited the choices are for women of a certain class, and it does that expertly. In a way, I enjoyed this little book even more than I enjoyed The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, both books I adore, by the way, because of its simplicity and sadness.
February 20th, 2013
I had a moment of panic over the weekend where I tried to get caught up on a bunch of work reading before a big presentation, and to my delight, found myself embedded in Sight Reading by Daphne Kalotay when I probably should have been doing something motherly, like, well, taking my child outside.
Here’s the opening: a middle-aged woman gets her toes done, steps outside in paper plate-improvised flip-flops and runs, spectacularly, into the woman who stole her husband. Yes, many years of passed. Yes, much water has flowed through under various bridges. But, still, Hazel, finds it hard to run into Remy, and the story moves back from there. To the first days of Hazel’s marriage to the gifted composer/conductor/music professor Nicholas Elko, to the how’s and why’s their marriage fell apart, to how he and Remy fall in love, their life together (she’s a violinist), and the many people and piece of music they touch. At its heart, it’s a simple story–but it contains everything that makes life complex. Human relationships don’t work–and even though it’s not always the fault of the parties involved, the sounds resonate throughout the rest of their lives on a very personal level.
Sight Reading is a play on words, of course, the skill whereby musicians look at a piece of music and play it in the moment (am I getting that right?), for the novel, it also means the difference between the many different layers of a relationship. A note can go up, it can go down–and the musician can recognize the subtle changes–and the same holds true for a life, for love. It ebbs and flows with time, as people grow, as they grow apart, and Kalotay has visualized it brilliantly in this novel. I’d compare it to the great novels by Ann Patchett or Barbara Kingsolver, but where those two authors have political undertones, globalization of healthcare for example in State of Wonder, or environmental concerns in Flight Behaviour, Kalotay roots Sight Reading very strongly in human emotion and experience. The music is the backdrop to the novel, and she understands musicians (I think?) very well.
Throughout the book, it’s apparent how long it takes Hazel to come to terms with the breakdown of her marriage, and the idiosyncratic nature of Nicholas makes it difficult for Remy, too, despite the long-term nature of their relationship. Love is gentle, kind, but also heartbreaking in this book–and it truly puts into focus something that everyone tries hard to understand, how it sometimes simply takes over a life and leaves wreckage in its path. But these are adults. They have flaws. They have sadness, happiness, embarrassment; they are parents, partners, lovers, best friends, and even it its simplicity, I found this book exhilarating. I read it one big gulp, often how I listen to classical music, too, in long uninterrupted stretches that drive my husband crazy. Sometimes, all you crave is a good book with a good story, relatable characters, and a strong sense of its overarching themes. Sight Reading is all this and more.
October 30th, 2012
The commentary that floats around the interwebs by some genre writers, okay, well, Jennifer Weiner in particular, about how novels by literary writers about subjects like love and family are treated much differently than when they are written by commercial authors. At its heart, The Marriage Plot, is a novel about a love triangle set in the early 80s at a very prestigious university (among other places). But it’s also so much more in terms of the themes that flow through the narrative–the implications of modern feminism, the quest for a more spiritual existence, the difficult and very trying reality of coping with a loved one with mental illness, they all meld and blend together as Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell graduate from college and start their lives.
Eugenides is an exceptional writer, but what’s more, he’s an exceptional novelist–the book is complete with rich, full characters who are both flawed and intensely drawn, which, when coupled with his gift for storytelling, makes for a novel that rips along. I couldn’t put it down and to say that I read it in one fell swoop while caring for a toddler–at the cottage–well, that’s dedication.
There’s a spark to the narrative that’s almost cinegraphic, whether it’s Eugenides contextualizing the time and place where the book takes place, or simply describing a house party where a piece of major action happens, the story rips along at a pace that I couldn’t match. I read this book as fast as possible, in almost one sitting (as much as one can sit with a toddler who needs to eat, be changed, be entertained), and enjoyed every minute of it. It was honestly the most enjoyable novel I’ve read all year.
May 25th, 2012
My admiration for Laura Lippman (the book cover isn’t final yet…) knows no bounds. I think she’s marvelously talented. She writes great commercial fiction with a woman’s edge that contain undercurrents of social and political issues. In her forthcoming, And When She Was Good (out in August), Lippman’s protagonist Helen Lewis (aka Heloise) is a suburban madam looking for a way out all the while protecting the people closest to her–namely, her son. Helen’s story feels at once familiar, girl falls in love with the wrong guy at an impressionable age, she’s looking to escape an equally horrible home life (her father’s abusive), and without education, without choices, she ends up first as an exotic dancer and then as a prostitute. Working over the years to build a somewhat solid, relatively ‘safe’ business, Heloise (aka Helen) gets to a point where her past catches up with her and to ensure any sort of future, she needs to leave the working girl life behind.
Unlike traditional thriller/mysteries, Lippman’s stand-alones don’t usually include a central “whodunnit”-type plot. They’re often more character-based, like And When She Was Good, where Lippman moves seamlessly back and forth through the past and the present to create a sense of suspense and urgency in terms of how the story’s going to turn out. Her books are fast paced and her characters are well drawn. There’s little for me to look critically at–even if the set-ups a little cliched, it doesn’t matter, the story rips along and drags so you deeply in that it was impossible for me to put this book down. And when you’re squeezing reading into the corners of your life, that’s saying something. I’d rather stay awake to finish the book than get some much-needed rest.
And When She Was Good doesn’t come out until August, and it’s a perk that I had an early galley to read (another part of my work-life that I shouldn’t take for granted), so I don’t want to spoil any part of it. I’m just going to say this: that I was honestly surprised by the parallels within the narrative and the ending was not what I expected…
Also this week, I read a very mediocre novel by Dashiell Hammett called The Dain Curse (#45). Not much more to be said except in this case, I totally guessed the ending and it wasn’t nearly so slick and entertaining as The Thin Man, which I desperately enjoyed.
May 3rd, 2012
I’ve been reading my bookshelves alphabetically for a while now, not consistently, if someone recommends a book to me or if I’ve got a book club meeting coming up, or if I’m particularly inspired, I stray, but I have managed to read many titles that have been sitting for ages this way, and I’m glad I’m doing it. I bought a copy of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in 1992. That’s right — that book has been sitting on my TBR shelf for twenty years. I went through a phase in high school where I read all kinds of beat literature, Kerouac, who still remains a favourite, changed my world when I first read him. I didn’t know books could be like that — On the Road was the perfect book for me as a kid, it filled me with a wonderful sense of curiosity, spit me out into the world, on road trips, to different provinces, adventures away from home and I have such fond memories of the physical act of reading those books.
So, I bought Naked Lunch way in the way back from Pages on Queen Street and started it once, twice, three, times, read Junkie in between and loved it, and carted the battered paperback copy around to a half-dozen apartments. Then, when I finally gave in to the fact that I honestly just had to suck it up and read the damn book, it took me a good three weeks because, and I am saying this with all honesty, I could not understand what the heck was going on half the time. So, yes, I know it’s a moderately incoherent, rambling, deeply intense and evocative piece of writing by one of America’s most controversial figures in literature. I can see why it’s important. But maybe I’m so far passed the point now of looking at my life as a long list of the “cool” things that I have read that all I really wanted was the good junkie story and far less of the Interzone oddities.
I really, really liked the Appendix, where Burroughs outlines his drug use, all of the effects, and what worked in terms of him getting clean. His dialogue is terrific, and there are some amazing characters sprinkled throughout the book, but the whole “cut up technique” (as described in my 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die text): “which serves to render the reader equally unable to make full sense of the surroundings.” Indeed. “Narratives begin, interweave, become lost, and are found again; scenarios are glimpsed then vanish from sight.” Exactly. And then all I’m screaming in my head is “What on earth is going on and that’s a lot of naked peeps and body parts and excrement and swearing and shooting up and holy hell I am one tired mother right now.”
However, I did listen to a lot of Junkie via this great link that Brain Pickings posted via Twitter, and was reminded that it is, indeed a terrific book, especially when read by Burroughs himself. Really all I have to say about this in conclusion is that I am really glad to have finished it. That’s all.
Other books read: The Last Tycoon by Fitzgerald (#39).
February 4th, 2012
Yes, I have hijacked #1, which was Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. With the amount that’s been said everywhere about Austen’s work, there’s nothing more I can add to the conversation except to say that the more of her novels that I read, the more I discover how indebted fiction in general is to her work. Fanny might be my least favourite of her heroines, but I did admire her utter dedication to morality and her ability to always do the right thing, especially considering how things turn out for poor Maria. It took me ages to read, and I was getting antsy, so I was glad to finish and turn my attention to The Night Circus.
At its heart, this is a love story, and like Rob Wiersma (review linked), it stops you in your tracks. It’s very classic in a way, star-crossed lovers, circumstances built into their lives to keep them apart, and the lengths that people will go to when their love is grand in nature. Celia, the daughter of Prospero the Enchanter, a magician whose magic is more a gift than slight of hand, thrusts his utterly talented girl into a fight-to-the-death game with his rival, Alexander’s protégé, Marco. Working through Chandresh Lefevre and using his own magic, Marco controls The Night Circus, an epic travelling show that enthralls audiences with its interesting blend of traditional circus fare and the tricks/spells/enchantments the two main characters engage in.
December 19th, 2011
Over the last few years, instead of sending sympathy cards for friends who have lost loved ones, parents, I’ve sent copies of The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s the one book that helped me on every level deal with the accident/death of my own mother. Didion’s exceptionally precise writing and her own deep, deep loss was both oddly exacting and yet comforting at the same time. It’s the most consistently accurate book about how to think about what the absence of the kind of love that we take for granted every single day does to the human heart, mind, soul that I have ever read. And then, we come to Blue Nights.
After the death of her husband, Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo, died a complicated death caused by inexplicable but utterly explainable cascading medical situations that seem to define the word tragedy. Blue Nights remains the author’s meditation, for it’s hard to refer to it as a memoir, on the loss of a child. But any discussion of children cannot be separate from that of motherhood, of its failures, of its successes, of its utter inability to define your life outside of it once it’s happened to you. And Didion, balancing the life of a writer with that of mother was never a cause for regret, per se, but of reflection — and the results are brilliant.
Having led a life already defined by the inexplicable kind of tragedy that Didion herself has experienced (and I am not for once “putting myself into her shoes,” I’m just saying that my life has not be easy), it’s impossible for me not to relate on every level to this work. I am happy that this book is free of the platitudes that usually plague books of this kind — that the honesty required of Didion to even write about what happened to her excises any of the typically movie-of-the-week emotions that would feather a lesser book into melodrama. Yet, when Didion describes her own frailty, her wonder at who her emergency contact might be now that both her daughter and husband have died, and the complex relationship she had with her beautiful daughter while alive, there’s an undercurrent of honesty that a lesser writer would simply be unable to achieve. Her writing is direct and simple yet it aches with emotion. The book can write in one sentence what would take me paragraphs. My heart will never be the same after Blue Nights. There are lessons in its pages, and maybe that’s more the point, for me as a reader, that my own words will never come close to being able to explain how profoundly this book affected my consciousness. I have put it back on the shelf — it’s one to keep, to reread, to remember.
September 2nd, 2011
#66 – A Gate At The Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Truth be told, I loved this book like a high school crush, I couldn’t get enough of it. The tragedy of it felt a bit forced but the writing remained so fresh and inspiring all the way through that I forgave Moore for the melodrama. Her writing reminds me a little of Miriam Toews (I’m reading Irma Voth right now) and perhaps that’s why I ear-marked about 100 pages of phrases and thoughts that melted my heart as Tassie Keltjin, a 20-year-old university student who becomes a nanny only for the entire situation to go so magnificently awry in the most horrible of ways (no death, nothing gruesome, just sad), suffers through one of the most pivotal years of her life. The book is so, so sad, but that’s what makes it so, so good in my estimation.
#67 – Pulse by Julian Barnes
Personally, and I’ll take anyone to task, I think Barnes is one of the best short story writers working today. It’s an amazing little collection. I liked every story. I love Barnes. I don’t know what else to say. Well, except that the package — the cover art etc., is terrible. Truly.
#68 – Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
My, when I started this book I raved and raved to my aunt that Elizabeth Hay was one of the best Canadian writers working today. The story of the young girl’s murder, the narrator’s amazingly intriguing aunt Connie, the setting (Ottawa and Saskatchewan), it all came together and gave me a reason to rip through the pages, and then half-way through the book, the whole thing sort of fell flat, like a ginger ale, really awesome when you first open it, then by the time you get to the bottom of the can, your teeth hurt and your whole mouth feels kind of fuzzy. It’s not her best novel, and that’s all I’m going to say at the moment because I am about to go and play some cards on my last night here at the cottage.
August 25th, 2011
Thunderstorms, summer colds, visiting friends, awesome weather, terrible weather, baby not napping — all of this contributes to being very behind in a) reading and b) blogging. Anyway, I’m going to try and get caught up…
I ran hot and cold with this novel. I searched for a plot, and then realized that it was more a novel about character than action, which was okay with once I decided to just go with it. The story of an aging poet, Harry Quirk, who has just been tossed out on his elbow from not only his home but his thirty-year marriage to Luz, the novel meanders around their lives, intersects meaningfully with the lives of their children, and brushes up against the lives of many of their friends.
Harry reminded me a great deal of Charles Bukowski, not in appearance, voice, or anything other than the fact he was a poet and liked to have a drink every now and again. That coupled with his rambling persona as he walks the streets of Brooklyn, well, I couldn’t get Bukowski out of my mind — that’s not Christensen’s fault. Anyway, Harry tries and tries to get his wife back, to convince her he is not, nor has he ever been, having an affair with his best friend, a photographer who has just lost her husband. I really liked the relationship between Harry and Marion. It’s rare to see a platonic relationship between a man and a woman so accurately and responsibly produced in print. (more…)
August 7th, 2011
I enjoy David Liss’s novels so much. They aren’t my typical reading material — I don’t read a lot of true historical fiction (I do read a lot of literary fiction, a lot of which takes place during historical moments but, somehow, it’s not quite the same). Regardless, Liss writes rollicking adventure tales that are smart, intricate and remind me a little of the best of Charles Dickens. You never quite know what’s going to happen and you can be sure that every single detail will mean something by the time you get to the end of the book.
In The Devil’s Company, Benjamin Weaver, the hero from Liss’s previous A Conspiracy of Paper, takes on an evil man named Cobb who has gone about buying up the debts of his friends and loved ones to force Weaver into doing his bidding. Of course, as the reasons for Weaver’s indentured servitude unravel, no one turns out to be who they seem to be, and surprise after surprise drives the plot towards its conclusion. I quite enjoy Benjamin Weaver — his brash, fists-first way of attacking a problem as his mind figures out the best way to get himself out of a situation. Soon Cobb has him acting as a thug/go-to man for one of the East India Company’s most industrious and, well, evil men. Everyone, it seems, is protecting his or her interests, not only in the company, but in the trade of cotton as well — and fortunes are both made and lost in this novel.
Overall, all I can really say about this book is that it’s a rollicking adventure that I read quickly and without prejudice (if that makes any sense.