my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

August 7th, 2011

#60 – The Devil’s Company by David Liss

The Devil's Company by David LissI 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.

July 28th, 2011

#59 – Still Alice by Lisa Genova

My RRHB has a saying whenever anyone asks him contracting advice about their basements: “you can’t win against water.” This saying kept echoing and echoing through my mind as I read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice last night into the wee hours because the baby woke up at 2AM, and I couldn’t get either to sleep or back to sleep, so I pretty much finished the book in one sitting. The only other Alzheimer’s-related story I’ve read is by Alice Munro, and it’s aching, brilliant and cutting at the same time (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain“) so I sort of expected the same emotional resonance that carried throughout that story to be found in this novel, and I don’t know why, but it’s just not there.

Alice, the title character, starts having strange episodes involving her memory. She’s a “brilliant” psychology professor at Harvard who has devoted her life to understanding linguistics, and her equally brilliant scientist of a husband might just cure cancer (honestly); the two share a wonderful life, three equally brilliant kids, and a whole host of truly awful dialogue as the episodes become diagnosed as early-onset Alzheimer’s. I know the book jacket tells me this is an award-winning NY Times bestseller but, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why. It honestly read more like a really bad Lifetime movie of the week in parts, and I couldn’t abide by the melodrama.


July 27th, 2011

#56 – The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky

The Big Oyster - TP Edition

When I alphabetized by bookshelves to gain some order over the suburban sprawl of my TBR piles (read: four book shelves), I neglected to include any nonfiction in my overall reading strategy. I see now this was a mistake because I really love narrative nonfiction, especially when it’s well-written and about New York City. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, while, yes, might be a bit repetitive and contain perhaps one too many historical recipes that feel like filler, fits the bill. I have never read anything else by Mark Kurlansky but I am ever-curious to read more of his nonfiction after finishing this book.

From the early Dutch settlers to the heyday of the Golden Age, New Yorkers have always consumed copious amounts of oysters. The social-anthropological thesis behind Kurlansky’s narrative fascinated me: human beings, in any situation, will simply ruin a natural, wonderful thing (oysters in the NY and surrounding harbours) by industry, profit and greed. And what’s worse, while the environmental message rings clear in this book, it’s amazing to me that even if they did bring the oysters back, the water at the bottom is so dead (no oxygen) that they wouldn’t survive. Ironically, as many activists point out, oysters are like vacuums cleaning up the waters for us. Annnywaay, that’s my rant about the ruination of our earth.

Back to the more fun things. It’s fascinating to examine the growth of a city through food — how it evolved, how it became an industry, and how said industry changed once the product disappeared for good. I loved how everyone in NYC: rich, poor, tourist, eats oysters — heck, my RRHB and I even took his parents to the beautiful oyster bar in Grand Central Station for dinner — all throughout history. Starting with the native peoples who first traded with the Dutch, through the English colonization and then downfall of their rule, and into the Golden Age, one thing remains constant: an unwaivering appetite for oysters among the inhabitants of one of the world’s greatest cities.  (more…)

July 26th, 2011

#54 – Suddenly

First, I am going to preface this review with a statement: I adored Bonnie Burnard’s The Good House. It’s a novel I picked up on a whim from Book City when it was first published and sang its praises to everyone who would listen for years. It’s a classic, right up there with The Stone Diaries, Clara Callan, and Away (book I read all around the same time), and so I was excited to read Bonnie Burnard’s latest novel Suddenly, if only because it’s the first one she’s published in 10 years. That’s a long time to wait.

Sadly, I probably never should have read this book. It’s neither the right time of my life (it’s a novel about truly middle-aged women) nor am I in the right frame of mind (having spent the last nine months battling my own life-threatening disease, I couldn’t quite cope with the breast cancer victim at the centre of the novel) to appreciate the gift of Suddenly. There’s no doubt in my mind that Bonnie Burnard’s a wonderful writer. She has an ability to bring the everyday to the page that’s unparalleled by many of her contemporaries. It’s a unique gift, and her voice reminds me deeply of Carol Shields, which is why I was so very disappointed in this book.

Sandra, our heroine, finds an evil lump in her breast at the end of the summer — her grandchildren have just gone back to the city with her husband, and she sits alone after a swim contemplating the hard reality of her future. Of course, her friend Jude has battled breast cancer and survived, and Sandra hopes she will too. Alas, it is not to be, and the majority of the novel takes place on her deathbed, that awesome Canadian-woman-writer-trope, where the family rallies around and all of the action takes place in reverse as the dying go through their lives, their relationships, their happiness and their regrets with a fine-toothed comb.

But one remains easily lost within this book because the point of view isn’t that simple, it switches from Sandra, to her best friend Colleen (who is beautiful, but childless, natch, and married to Sandra’s brother, the surgeon Richard), to her other best friend Jude (the ex-hippie, jilted by a Texan lover who left her on a farm to go fight the Vietnam war after casually fathering her son), to her husband Jack, and back again. It’s all over the place and the pronoun “she” doesn’t help matters when all three main characters are women…

It’s a tedious book, with tedious, unbelievable characters: Sandra’s a saint; so’s Colleen only she’s beautiful too, Jude’s “wild” but reformed, and they all feel so old they’re covered in a layer of dust. These are the women of my mother’s generation, one of them could have been my mother, and yet they have no sense of humour, no sense of adventure and really no life in them at all — even when it’s “flashing” before them as their best friend fades away in a cloud of morphine and horrible pain from an awful disease that takes far too many women. The title confused me for nothing happens quickly in this book — Burnard takes pages and pages to describe the most mundane aspects of everyday life, episodes that would have been best excised, and the whole novel would have been better for me if it read chronologically, if I got to see these women through their lives and not just as flashbacks in Sandra’s journals, which, of course, she kept religiously her entire life.

But I feel bad being so critical, which is why I think that my original statement, that it’s neither the right time of my life nor am I in the right mindset to contemplate a novel about someone so willingly giving in to a disease — not fearing death is one thing but Sandra’s utterly unrealistic in terms of her approach to illness; no one is as saintly as she’s portrayed on the page, no one. There’s no anger, and even when there is, it’s slightly ridiculous — two women having slight “words” during a winter storm and then poof, it’s back to celebrating Sandra and her ability to hold the other two women together. Yawn.

I much prefer Lionel Shriver’s approach to illness: frank, honest, angry, and also accepting — there’s something raw and real to how she writes about sickness, and I appreciated it. There’s tedium to being sick, to having tests, to being stuck in a bed, and anger, relentless, unceasing anger about the fact that your body just isn’t doing what it’s supposed to. And I’d hope that Sandra would have a glimpse of this throughout the book, that someone, anyone, might rage against the dying of the light just a little before rubbing more lotion on her cold feet or recalling some other wonderful thing she did during her abnormally normal life and marriage.

So don’t blame Burnard — it’s a great book club book for women of my mother’s age, it’s a terrific book to give your mother-in-law for Christmas, and it would have done wonders if Oprah’s Book Club still existed and ever considered that Canada has a literature from which to choose reading material. But Suddenly, with its long, drawn-out conclusion (Sandra dies! People mourn!) just didn’t cut it for me, a girl of a certain age who has battled a mean-ass frustrating disease for months.

#53 – The Retreat

This may be hyperbole, but I think David Bergen is a national treasure. It’s quite a statement to say that over the course of reading four of his novels, his Giller winner (The Time in Between) remains my least favourite. People, it won a major prize! Overall, I devoured A Year of Lesser and See the Child, and thought they were both excellent. But The Retreatmight just be my favourite Bergen novel so far — but I haven’t read The Matter with Morris(just the first 50-odd pages for work), so I am reserving judgment until then.

The majority of the action in The Retreat takes place at a camp, the retreat of the novel’s title, near The Lake of the Woods, just outside of Kenora. The landscape, having spent about a week there at a cottage of an old ex-boyfriend way back in the way back, is beautiful. The Lake of the Woods itself is huge, with crisp blue waters, but the pond close to the property isn’t. It’s murky, filled with reeds, and just as dangerous — it’s an important distinction, because major accidents and/or incidents happen throughout the book on or close to the water, and Bergen’s ability to weave such an archetypal theme (man vs. nature) within his more specific, personal story, remains one of the book’s true accomplishments.

But let me digress. Raymond Seymour, an 18-year-old Ojibway boy, finds himself embroiled in an love affair with niece of the local police. Their relationship — hot and heavy — burns out quickly, and not just as a result of the intervention of her father and uncle but, because, it’s just not meant to last. Alice’s uncle takes Raymond out onto the Lake and dumps him on an island — expecting him not to return. This dynamic, bad cop/good kid, feels familiar, and it should, the relationship goes exactly where you expect and the penultimate action remains utterly heartbreaking. It’s 1974, and Bergen chooses as a secondary background of sorts, to wrap The Kenora Crisisaround his story, even though Raymond and his brother, who has just returned from being “raised” (read: forcibly removed) by a Mennonite family in the south, are tangentially involved in the uprising.

When Lizzie Byrd (17) and her family arrive at The Retreat, a quasi-commune run by “the Doctor,” a self-important, psycho-babbling fool who cons people into believing he can heal their souls by “talk” and the simple life of camp, she’s reluctant to participate. The births of her younger siblings have been hard on her mother, and her father desperately tries to save his family and her sanity by granting her every wish — in this case, it’s to spend the summer at The Retreat. Lizzie meets Raymond and a cautious friendship evolves into something more substantial. As the summer progresses, their feelings grow deeper, regardless of whether they truly understand one another’s complex situations (her crazy family; his unfortunate situation with the cop that never seems to end). But as the season comes to an end, the novel finds its conclusion — the characters, distraught, damaged and utterly changed by the events of the summer. It’s an amazingly quiet novel for the amount of emotional damage that is wrought on the people within, which remains Bergen’s exceptional ability as a writer — to place people in crisis and not let them entirely recover.

This is my favourite kind of book, a great setting, a complex, real issue that meant something in history, family dynamics that remain complex and difficult, and action that’s both believable and well-paced. In short, it’s an excellent read, probably one of the best books off my shelf. The Bs have been utterly kind to me (Barnes, Bergen, brilliant!).

March 13th, 2011

#25 – The Incident Report

Sometimes, there’s a clear reason how and why books end up on my shelves. Mainly they’re inherited from friends in publishing, rarely they are gifts, and often they are books that I’ve purchased for some reason or other. But when the time comes to actually reading and reviewing them, I can’t remember the impetus — the review, the award nod, the discussion — that precipitated the book collecting dust over the months and months it lingers on my shelves. Such is the case for Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report. I know it was long-listed for the Giller in 2009, and the Globe review must have intrigued me, but having never read The Shape I Gave You (it’s on the shelf; don’t worry, and I know exactly where it came from), I’m surprised I’d have two books by one author unread…usually I’ll at least try to read something by an author before buying another work.


At first, I didn’t know what to make of the book: is it a novel, a collection of linked short stories, the dreaded micro-fiction? Instead, I’m choosing not to put a label on it or to define it in such a way because I think it takes away from what Baillie was trying to do. I enjoyed the book very much overall, especially the vignette-esque parts to the story — those little episodes that took place outside of the main character’s life itself (they reminded me of the interviews in Up in the Air with the employees who had been let go; that was my favourite part of that film, I think, also, the most original). Each morning, Miriam Gordon rides her bike to the Allan Gardens branch of the Toronto Public Library, where she works as a newly rebranded “Public Service Assistant.” When anything untoward or out of the ordinary happens at the library, said “PSAs” are required to fill out an Incident Report, which is how the collection is organized. Short, snippets of incidents that make up a life — both in terms of work (the strangers that come in and request and/or do strange things) and her personal life (a burgeoning relationship with a younger cab driver named Janko, with whom she falls in love).

Because this is a Canadian novel, there’s a lot of tragedy, which to expand upon would ruin the book, so I won’t say anything beyond the fact that, as a reader, I have grown a little weary of reading about “damaged” people. I know pain makes for exceptional sentences. Yet, I am craving a little everyday in my books these days…maybe because I’m living so much in the day-to-day myself, and have had enough tragedy in my own to fill fourteen lifetimes that I am sometimes exhausted with it in novels. However, the nature of the narrative in Baillie’s book isn’t exploitative — it’s simply stated, matter of fact, even — and that helps to dampen the emotional overbearing nature of the events themselves within the incident reports.

Some of the novel remains unresolved. Miriam’s finding notes in various places around the library — hidden in books, left behind on the photocopier — that have echoes of a Rigoletto opera that her father once loved, and she’s reimagined as the heroine. This was the weakest part of the book from my point of view. The mystery isn’t necessarily solved nor is it suitably explained but, in a sense, that’s okay, because it’s more about how Miriam perceives what’s going on than what actually happens that seems important. It’s a way for her to explore her relationship with her father and for the reader to know more about the background of her tragic life — how she ended where she is emotionally.

The love story is sweet, and Janko and overwhelmingly lovely character. Some of the passages had echoes of Ondaatje for me, “The Cinnamon Peeler”-type stuff, and I didn’t mind it at all (only rolled my eyes once, and for those of you counting, it was, yes a “ride-me-like-a-stallion-Morag-moment within the book”). In a way, Janko was such an innocent character, consistently reading children’s books, living in a small, small apartment, someone displaced by the ideals of a better life — there was a story behind his life that we never got to know, only because this is Miriam’s life, and so we know him only in relation to her. Had the novel been more traditional, I’m sure we would have known far more of his back story but then I think we would have lost the beautiful sense of wonderment that comes across throughout the sections of the reports dedicated to their relationship.

So, I wouldn’t say I was swept away by The Incident Report like I was with the next book I read, Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and how much I appreciated its brevity. Also, it’s another book off the shelves and into the box of books to be donated, shared, shipped off, and/or sent away to anyone who might be interested.

#23 – You Or Someone Like You

I’d never heard of Chandler Burr or Your or Someone Like You before our sales conference, maybe a year ago, maybe longer. A friend in the office read and adored the book, so I ordered a copy in to read and there it sat on my shelf at work, and then at home, for months and months. So, coming to the “Bs” meant finally reading it, and what a surprise, it’s actually a terrific novel, and completely not what I expected.

In a way, Burr’s narrator, Anne, reminded me of a character Lionel Shriver would create: intelligent, uncompromising and, at times, aggressive in terms of what she wants out of life. At it’s heart, this is a book about words, what they mean, how we use them, and how books enrich a life. Anne’s got a PhD in English Literature. She’s been married to Howard Rosebaum for years. He’s a huge Hollywood producer and they’ve been living in LA for years. They are the elite of the elite of LA, they know everyone, and everyone knows them.

Anne’s background, British by accent, raised around the world by her parents as her father served in the Foreign Legion, has taught her that home is always where you choose to be; Howard, her husband, feels like home is where you go back to, where people always have to accept you. This fundamental different might not seem like much, but when religion becomes involved (Anne never converted; Howard is Jewish but not Orthodox or necessarily practicing), it becomes a fissure that threatens to tear the couple apart. And when their son Sam announces that he’s going to visit Israel, to explore his roots, something happens to shake Howard and Anne’s marriage to the core.

Surrounding the family drama, Anne begins a book club — more like an intense canonical reading group — and she takes directors, screenwriters, producers, line producers, and the like through the books as a means of self-improvement and understanding. From there, it gets out of control, an article in Vanity Fair, and then all of sudden she’s about to produce her own movie. Not always likable and not always saying things that prove popular, when Howard has a crisis of conscious, Anne breaks all boundaries to get him back. In a way, she has chosen love and family above all else, and without Howard, she’s not home, she’s not where she wants to be. But how she gets there, and her opinions, and what she has to say to impact him, to pull him back from where he ended up, well, it’s neither politically correct nor all together sane.

The book is delicious in its irony, and carries the weight of its words very well. It’s hard to write a book about high literature, about some of the greatest books ever written, include many of their words, and not expect the book to hold up to the same kind of scrutiny. I didn’t agree with a lot of what Anne said sometimes, especially towards the end, but that’s the point — she was trying to be argumentative, fighting with all of her words to get her husband back, and regardless of the outcome (SPOILER: she gives a disastrous speech in front of a lot of truly “important” people), you can’t fault her reason or her passion. But I think the most successful aspect of the novel is the fact that it truly doesn’t go where you expect a simple story about a marriage either falling apart or coming back together goes. In fact, there’s nothing simple about this book, and that’s to be celebrated.

CHALLENGES: Off the shelf…

March 7th, 2011

#21 – The Lemon Table

My bookish love affair with Julian Barnes continues, and I thoroughly enjoyed his short story collection, The Lemon Table. It’s funny, a lot of the criticisms that I leveled against Sarah Selecky’s work — mainly its use of the second person, a story in epistolary format, and general the “twee-ness” of much of the stories — can be set against this collection as well. Barnes uses the second person, which normally makes me crazy; he has a story that’s all letters from a kooky old lady to himself, wherein the self-referential nature of it all would usually enrage me; and the last piece could be described as microfiction with no “real” plot per se but a selection of descriptions that come together to tell the tale of an egotistical composer. All of the above normally have me throwing the book against the wall and giving up in exasperation. But gracious, these stories are excellent.

The last story, “The Silence” tells me that lemons are a symbol of death in Chinese culture — I’m not sure how reliable the narrator is in this last piece, so I am not going to take that verbatim. But it does give the reader and understanding of the general theme that pervades the entire collection. Musings on the ends of lives, on divorce, on death, on widows and the children left behind, on relationships that could have been but never were — and I imagined ‘table’ more of tableau — of that terrible acting exercise where your teacher yells “hold” and everyone freezes in whatever position they landed upon.

It’s a terrific collection, cohesive even though none of the stories are linked; rich in language and metaphor; paced brilliantly and truly honest in its interpretation of the human condition. In a way, these stories reminded me of Alice Munro, only there’s a little bit more sex and bad language, especially in “Appetite,” which like her story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” deals with the tragic and debilitating affects of Alzheimer’s. Both Barnes and Munro have a distinct talent when it comes to creating characters and situations that highlight the slightly awkward and sometimes terrible aspects of human nature. In this, the stories feel real, they feel relevant, and they feel complete, but not overwritten.

On the whole, I can’t get over the immense breadth of Barnes’s talent for creating characters that cross decades, even centuries, are so wholly different in voice, and are so utterly believable (even when he writes from a woman’s perspective). In the epistolary story, entitled, “Knowing French,” a spunky pensioner sends the author Julian Barnes a number of letters, each progressively more familiar, with little gems of humour and slices of life: “What I was trying to say about Daphne [a fellow “inmate” at her home] is that she was always someone who looked forward, almost never back. This probably seems not much of a feat to you, but I promise it gets harder.”


And then, in an amazing story about misguided and unrequited love, “The Story of Mats Israelson,” he writes, “Barbro Lindwall was not convinced of her feelings for Anders Boden until she recognized that she would now spend the rest of her life with her husband.”


And then my last favourite line from the book, it’s from the last story, the microfiction-like one about the egocentric, aging, and silent-for-years composer: “Geese would be beautiful if cranes didn’t exist.”

You see!

I can’t stop. I earmarked a half-dozen, maybe more, pages, and kept putting the book down on my chest just to savour particular passages. In “The Things You Know,” two elderly widows sit down for a terribly polite breakfast once a month and what comes out of their mouths is completely different from the thoughts in their heads: the resentment towards one another only palpable as a fork stabs an egg or a waiter brings hot water instead of a purely fresh pot of tea — it was actually one of my favourites among an already rich collection.

Overall, now I think I want to read every single book Julian Barnes has ever written. It’ll be a challenge to find books this good on my shelves as I continue through them. Thankfully, I’ve got a few books from publishers to get through before I get back to my challenge. I need a bit of a break from the pressure of the 300-odd titles staring at me day after day from my desk chair.

March 4th, 2011

#20 – Turtle Valley

I really must confess that the last couple books have really been not up to snuff in terms of the quality of reading that I’ve been finding on my shelves — I mean, I’ve discovered some truly excellent authors I had never read before (Julian Barnes) and inhaled the backlist of others that I had come to love (Elizabeth Strout). I really wanted Turtle Valley by Gail Anderson-Dargatz to turn things around for me. Alas, it did not.


Turtle Valley has to be one of the most frustratingly erratic novels I have read in a long time. The narrative suffers from a distinct lack of focus and can’t really decide what it is — a ghost story, the tale of a woman’s marriage falling apart, a story of seemingly never-ending family tragedy? Instead, all of these plots and themes are muddled up together in a rushed, convoluted, awkward book that had so much promise.

But let me digress. I really loved The Cure for Death by Lightning. And, if I can remember, I enjoyed A Recipe for Bees too. Anderson-Dargatz is a talented writer, no one is denying that fact, but this is not a cohesive novel that shows off her storytelling ability. Kat, short for Katrine, arrives home to Turtle Valley with her preschool-aged (I’m imagining; his age is never given) son Jeremy and disabled husband Ezra in tow (he suffered a stroke; tragedy #1) to help her aging parents pack up their house as a forest fire rages in the area. The natural disaster provides an excellent backdrop to the story, and allows a sense of natural urgency and drama to inhabit the narrative — this is the good stuff. But where the novel falls completely apart is how Kat unravels the mysteries of her family’s past, hidden letters, hidden stories, unforgiven truths, and a ghost that haunts them all.

There’s no straight shooting in this novel. Anderson-Dargatz wants to tell things slowly but then there are places where the book just doesn’t make sense, where it would have benefited from a serious sense of grounding just so the reader can believe what’s going on. In one scene, Kat’s lifting dinner out of the oven (wha?) and then discovering her grandmother’s letters and racing off to the neighbour she once had an affair with (tragedy #2, lost love) and then suddenly the fire’s on top of them and her father’s dying (tragedy #3). Then she’s telling her older sister about a moment of tenderness between she and her husband (marital discord and eventual divorce; tragedy #4), which is a scene we READ, that had nothing to do with the retelling or any of the moments she described, and this goes on throughout the entire novel.

Far too many scenic moments and heavy-handed imagery plague the narrative (how many times can we be told about the ladybugs, how many!!!) and, in places, the dialogue is terrifically awful, and I found myself doing the patented eyerolling, yelling in my head, “people don’t talk that way!” as I was reading. The whole book would have benefited from a far more dedicated sense of time and place, and there needed to be far more attention to detail. Maybe if there wasn’t so much going on — ex-lovers and dying fathers and dead grandfathers haunting the place and half-bonkers mothers and angry husbands and ever-looming fires getting closer — the book wouldn’t feel so all over the place. In a sense, I felt overwhelmed by the trouble in the novel, by Kat’s inability to actually cope with one aspect of her life at any one time — she’s racing around like a firebug, jumping from thing to thing, and we barrel along with her, much to the novel’s disadvantage.

The real fire in the Shuswap happened in 1998 and, like I said, Anderson-Dargatz uses the event well, but I often wonder if so much tragedy feels or reads realistically — it all felt so forced: her husband’s stroke (how old was he, how did they explain the stroke, what was his prognosis, how long has he been sick, none of this is explained); their marital problems (which, of course, led to her wanting to rekindle a relationship with the hot potter next door whose own wife suffers, OF COURSE, from MS); the drama surrounding her grandfather’s death (that’s the big family mystery); her father’s cancer and her mother’s increasing dementia, that there are just too many awful things happening in this novel.

I know life is like that sometimes, terrible tragedy upon terrible tragedy, but I just didn’t get Kat. She pleads with her husband to let her in, to let her love him, and then she cheats on him; her family keeps secrets upon secrets from her, and then they spring the truth on her at the very moment the fire’s about to take all the proof away. And when they finally discover the love letters between her grandmother and her great-uncle (her mother’s mother; her father’s uncle), she races off with them even though, as I said above, she just took a pot roast out of the oven. And no one says ANYTHING. All in all, the erratic, convoluted nature of this book disappointed me throughout. I wanted to love it. I wanted to be swept away in the scenery and the shock of the fire — I wanted to believe in the ghost story, the haunting, and I wanted Kat to redeem herself by the end, but there’s too much in this novel for it to be wrapped up quickly, and yet, that’s what Anderson-Dargatz attempts to do. The end of Kat’s marriage is glossed over in one sentence, and then wrapped up awkwardly, as if it was simply a tool to insert even more drama into an already conflict-heavy, relationship-based family story.

All in all, I’m not sure how I feel about the book. I sped through it, so it definitely grabbed my attention, but I definitely expected more from this book, and this author.

READING CHALLENGES: Off the Shelf, and if I was doing a Canadian challenge, it’d be one for the books there too. I skipped the 1001 Books section of the shelves this time around, I really want to save those chunky books for the summer at the cottage, so I am trying to power through the Canadian, American, International and British sections over the winter/spring. Also, I only have one Austen left, Mansfield Park, and I don’t want to read it just yet. So I might skip the “As” and come back around to it when I’m not so disappointed in my reading. Thank goodness for Julian Barnes. I’m reading his short story collection, The Lemon Table, now and it is excellent.

#19 – In The Time Of The Butterflies

When tackling this whole “off the shelf” challenge I have consigned myself to this year, I’ve been judging books by their page length, which, in my reading world, translates to how long it’ll take me to get through it. In the Time of the Butterflies, from start to finish, clocks in at 324 pages. That’s about three hours for me — so maybe a day and a half in baby time. But GOOD GRIEF this book took me forever to read because I just couldn’t get into it.

While I have no doubt it’s an important novel — the weight of the language, the heavy-handed metaphors and sentences dripping with meaning, tells me as much — and the history that forms its central plot, the murder of the Mirabel sisters in the Dominican by the ruthless dictator Trujillo, is actually really fascinating. But the book does not, in my mind, “[make] a haunting statement about the human cost of political oppression.”

In a way, this is women’s history. The novel centres around the 4 sisters and their daily lives — their marriages, the birth of their children, and it’s a domestic novel for the most part. And all the while, the four sisters are charging forward with a revolution. I just wish there was more revolution in the book and less meandering. I wanted to know more about the revolution and less about ribbons. I know that’s probably quite sexist of me, that the fact that these were women revolutionaries challenging the male-established dictatorship means the novel should necessarily include discussions of the domestic, but it slowed down the action to a crawl. And by telling the story from all four of the sisters’ points of view, Alvarez manages to disjoint the narrative so completely that you only get a fraction of each of their lives. Personally, I would have preferred the novel centre around Mirabel, the most dynamic and active of the four sisters. But, I didn’t write this book.

First published in 1994, I think this book suffers a little from the trappings of the time — long-winded and overly descriptive, I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine goes to see The English Patient (let me just state, for the record, that I loved both the book and the film), rolling her eyes the entire time in boredom. At least I think that’s what happened — I think that might be the only episode of Seinfeld that I’ve actually seen from start to finish. Annnywaay, she just doesn’t get what the big deal is, and I feel that way about this novel. It’s a national bestseller, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and blah de blah, accolades and great blurbs. Yet the book failed to keep my interest and over and over again I found myself not wanting to finish. It was written at a time when long, flowery sentences and the cult of Gabriel Garcia Marquez was going strong. And the importance of the novel, the politics, the very real struggle, the incredibly tragic murder of these four women, gets lost within the precious nature of the prose, the inevitable storytelling that never seems to actually tell a story but circle around it, planting pretty flowery sentences along the way.

Overall, I was disappointed, and found myself just wanted to get to the end, to see how they die — and then, of course, it all happens off stage, which made me furious. They died violently, brutally, unnecessarily, and Alvarez should have had the bravery to write it. Instead, the book simply stops and then switches perspective again, heads back into its dreary narrative and tries to cover it up by describing their dead bodies as the remaining sister, Dede, identifies them. There’s no power to this narrative; the power is in the truth of the events themselves, and Alvarez coasts along because of it. I know it’s harsh but, again, books should stand the test of time, prose shouldn’t feel dated, and a story of such importance should actually read that way, and not hold itself up on some bronzed pedestal.

READING CHALLENGES: Off the Shelf, and Around the World in 52 Books. Alvarez was born in the Dominican, and I usually really love Caribbean literature, but not so much in this case.

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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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