December 19th, 2011
Getting caught up with book reviews might be an impossibility at this point. There are a few that I think deserve full, thoughtful reviews. But for some of the books that I’ve finished over the last little while I just want to note that I’ve read them, you know?
So, here’s my lesson: do not buy multiple books by the same author if you a) have never read the author and b) don’t know if you’d like the author’s voice in the first place. Way in the way back, I bought a copy of The Polished Hoe because it won the Giller. Then, because I thought to myself, Clarke was a Giller-winner and therefore must be a great writer, I bought a copy of another novel of his, More, before actually reading The Polished Hoe. And I found More an exceptionally hard book to get through. I’m glad I read it — it’s an interesting look at a woman living in downtown Toronto who abandoned her life’s dreams upon arriving here after taking up with a rogue of a man and having a son who becomes difficult to raise as he grows older. Yet the story, told in extreme stream of consciousness over the course of a few days when Idora discovers her son is missing (and she refuses/is scared to go to the police), remains incredibly hard to follow. And the voice, complex, issue-driven, and difficult, yet heartbreaking at the same time — it’s a highly personalized narrative, but it’s also confusing in terms of locating a coherent time/place in terms of the story. And that about did me in, I often found myself wondering where is she, what happened? how long has passed? throughout each of the diversions from the actual time frame of the novel. And then, I discovered that The Polished Hoe is written in much the same vernacular. Oh boy. Avoiding reading The Polished Hoe had me reorganizing ALL of my books in alphabetical order (instead of alphabetical by country/reading challenge) JUST to put it off for a few more days/weeks.
I read this book over a few weeks on my iPad and enjoyed it immensely. Former EW writer Jennifer Reese. Over the course of many, many months Reese undertook an enormous task: is it actually cheaper to make anythings and everything at home? From butter to cheese to vermouth to chickens to turkeys to you name it, Reese tried to make it. And you know, the results were fascinating. It was an interesting experiment — and wholly interesting in terms of the comparisons. I don’t think I’d ever make a cheesie from scratch but I might actually go back to using our breadmaker in the new year (if I can find it). The only downfall was that the formatting of the ebook was terrible — drop boxes ending up in places that didn’t make sense, strange typos, and odd recipe layouts.
To be perfectly honest, I have no idea how this book ended up on my shelves. I avoided it for months, giving up my British shelf to focus on the Canadian, because I had zero interest in reading this novel. And yet, the novel was a complete delight — the story of a young girl, coming of age, coming out, who has to cope not only with being an awkward, outcast of a teenager, but with her mother’s manic depression. Jesse wants nothing more than to fit in and, after her mother returns from hospitalization, her father moves the family to a new town where she falls in with the popular (cruel) kids. The difficulties of leading a double life, not only hiding her mother’s troubling state of mind from her friends, but also her own sexuality, come to fruition with a somewhat cliched but still utterly engrossing conclusion. This novel completely surprised me, in a good way. Beale’s a strong, empathetic writer, and by the end I was rooting so hard for Jesse that I had to remind myself she wasn’t real.
SJ Watson’s thriller seems to have done the impossible — thrilled literary and non-literary readers alike with an insanely addictive novel that is literally impossible to put down once you’ve started. In many ways, we, as a society are spoiled by the massive amount of entertainment that’s available to us. To someone who consumes a lot of pop culture, surprises are hard to come by. I mean, I can count on one hand how many times in the last ten years I’ve actually been fooled by “twists” in movies. I’m not going to step out and say that Watson’s novel is perfect — there are little inconsistencies that made me a little mental — but here’s the trick, I roared through this novel in less than a day and that’s while working full-time and taking care of a toddler. And that’s saying something about the power of his writing. When Christine wakes up, she has no idea who or where she is, amnesia has taken her life, and not for weeks, for years. Kept carefully and safely by her husband (or IS she?), Christine slowly manages to both overcome her medical condition and discover what really happened all those years ago. The novel keeps you hooked (although, like I said, anyone who knows their pop culture/thrillers/Julia Roberts movies will guess the ending) and it’s a terrific novel for a rainy Sunday afternoon when there are no good films on your PVR .
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.
March 14th, 2010
Oh, I fell hard for you from the very moment I cracked open your spine. Your story, about a collective of young people who work at a Chicago advertising agency during a time when the country was facing tough economic times. You have such a way with words, with storytelling, that’s unique, modern, and terribly engrossing. Sometimes, you’re sentences were so lovely, my heart ached a little in turn.
Sometimes, because your story was so much like events in my own life, I could recognize myself in your characters — the close-knit working quarters, the ambitious feeling of being young, in your first or second real job, and having routines. I’d imagine it’s hard to write a convincing novel about something as mundane as work, but you manage to make it feel relevant, current and interesting. I think, in a way, anyone who works in an office environment can relate to the trials and tribulations of being “walked Spanish down the hall.” Of the resentment and anger you feel, of the pressure to move on maybe before you’re ready, of the way life sometimes forces you in a direction you never imagined.
Your story rolls along, and you feel like you’re sitting on the dock on a hot summer’s day, being lulled by words instead of waves. Even when you are writing scenes, stories, thoughts that have been said so many ways before, your story still feels original. Maybe it’s your voice. Your use of “we” throughout. Maybe it’s how you never give in to the apparent. How you continuously surprise us with your narrative — sure you deal with topics that can be construed as “well trodden territory” (breast cancer; angry, belligerent ex-employees pulling a Michael Douglas) — but your book never takes the easy way out, you never write what’s expected.
March 5th, 2010
My goal for February was to read a couple books for Black History Month. Not surprisingly, I managed one: Ralph Ellison’s classic, Invisible Man. The novel is substantial, both in its scope and narrative approach. It took me ages to read–and I abandoned it at one point and picked up a different book, read magazines, anything really to escape the relentless story.
The title, metaphorical, not literal, refers to the narrator’s lack of identity as a black man. He can walk down a street and no one sees him. He can stand on the street and people will pass on by as if he wasn’t even there. Invisibility — blessing and a curse — defines his life. And what a troubled life, kicked out of school (not his fault), and settling in New York City, things go from bad to worse for the man. The novel, which was first published in 1952, and it was interesting to read it now, over fifty years later. Ellison’s writing style, while imbued with the tone and tenacity of the time, doesn’t feel dated. In fact, the book reminded me a lot of The Best of Everything, not in its subject matter, characterization or plot, but more because of its uncanny ability to bring the story to life and embed in a very particular time and place.
My 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die tome suggests the novel has existential themes, and I’d agree, the narrator can’t help but contemplate his existence; it’s the purest form of a Manichean dialogue, race goes beyond allegory, it’s essential and he’s essentially being defined against it by just about everyone he comes into contact with him. There were moments when the cruelty of the world became almost too much for me to bear — I turned away like I did when I watched Inglorious Basterds, when the violence, meant to be too much, shocked me into tears.
I was first supposed to read Ellison’s masterpiece in university. At the time, I was too wrapped up in Faulkner, a writerly obsession I carried with me from high school. Since then, I’ve carried my same copy around with me from apartment to apartment, keeping it on that metaphorical ‘to be read’ someday shelf with many other books from school. Slowly but surely, I’m working my way through a lot of them. Because I read so much modern Can Lit, and let’s face it, books that are published by the houses where I worked over the last five years, I’ve been rebelling a little. When I go to the shelf I’m inspired to pick up big, heavy books like Invisible Man and give my brain a work out. I imagine writing a paper filled with literary theory, can smell the air in the library as I do research, and think that Invisible Man does exactly what a classic piece of literature should do, it lasts.
READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books, natch.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: I can’t blog about the book I read this week, Emma Donoghue’s Room (#13), because it’s not out until Fall 2010. But I will say this, it’s exceptional — a literary page turner of the likes I’ve never read before, and it’s become one of my favourite new books of the year. I can’t wait to talk to people about it once it’s actually published. So I’m going to try to finish the totally absurd The Third Policeman (also a 1001 Book), and a couple other Irish writers because it’s March and my theme is, well, Irish writing this month.
November 13th, 2009
I’m not keeping any secrets here when I admit that I had a really, really hard time reading American Pastoral. In fact, I would say I was very anti-Philip Roth after finishing that novel. Never wanted to read another of his books again. Openly gave my copy of The Human Stain the stink-eye for littering my TBR shelf. Yet, I’m also addicted to lists (for reasons I’m still trying to work out, seriously, in therapy), and decided to give it a shot — after all, I didn’t hate the film, and I really liked the beginning of the book when it landed on my desk about four years ago.
Fast forward a few years. As I’m trying to clear off my shelves before bringing any more new books into the fold, I took The Human Stain OFF the giant TBR shelf and moving it to the bedside table. And am I ever glad that I did (how many of my book reviews start out this way? With my preconceived and often wrong perspectives of the various books on my shelves?).
In short, I loved this book.
The Human Stain tells the story of Coleman “Silky” Silk, a semi-retired Classics professor is forced into full retirement over the disgrace after using the word “spooks” (meant as ghosts; read as racist). The novel’s narrator, a writer who hides up in the hills of this small Massachusetts town, slowly reveals the deep, and shaded, history of this broken man. An odd friendship between the two develops as Coleman’s disgrace becomes at once both unbearably personal and utterly absurd at the same time. No one, least of all the woman who was married to him for years, and who subsequently died during the whole fiasco, knows the truth about the man — (and if you’ve seen the movie this isn’t a spoiler, if you haven’t then SPOILER) that he’s actually black and has been passing as a white, Jewish man for over 40 years.
At 71, Coleman has found a renewed interest in life post-incident in the relationship he’s been having with 34-year-old Faunia, a janitor at the university who lives at a dairy farm, milking the cows to pay for her rent. Damaged by a disastrous relationship with her ex-husband, who has severe PTSD after returning home from Vietnam, Faunia is also coping with the tragic losses of her two children who died in a fire.
No one escapes untouched in Roth’s world, characters are flawed, ashamed, damaged, destroyed, suffer physically, mentally, anguish over all kinds of things, and yet, in this novel it all works. At first, I thought he really didn’t like women, when I read that Faunia was molested, illiterate and beaten, I did roll my eyes a little — but then as you go deeper in the novel, she’s actually one of the stronger characters. Sure she makes up lies to get through the day, but who doesn’t. And sure she hasn’t had a very nice life, but she also doesn’t make excuses for herself. Regardless, their relationship seems almost redemptive in a way, for both of them. Which means, of course, SPOILER, that drastic, awful things must happen.
The narrative structure of the novel is simple — a writer tells the story of Coleman’s life, so close sometimes that we forget he’s even there — and that leaves way for Roth’s complex and rich sentences to pull you deeply into the lives of these characters. It’s an effective, literary novel, one that rewards the reader by the quality of the writing and not just simply by the essence of the story, if that makes sense. All in all, the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list didn’t let me down this time. But Roth’s still one-for-one: I’m still not convinced he’s entirely an author for me.
READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books.
December 22nd, 2005
Let me get something straight, I have nothing against velvet, nor do I fear any tipping of it, but lord, this is the first book in a long, long time I really didn’t like. The story felt so contrived and soap-opera-inspired that I was bored mid-way through. And considering Sarah Waters’s epic is over 400 pages, that’s a lot of trudging to get to the end.
Generally, I love a good Victorian thriller, but this is neither thrilling nor purely Victorian. Oh, it’s chalk full of great historical tidbits—if I truly wanted to know that dildos existed in 1985, which I really didn’t need to know. And if tons of hideously cliched sex scenes get you off, well Tipping the Velvet is the book for you. Because it certainly wasn’t for me.
I don’t like it when books feel contrived. When they set out to prove a point more than tell a story. The story itself was a good one, a young girl in Victorian England leaves home when she falls in love with a music hall singer named Kitty Butler. When Kitty can’t face what life would be like coming out in that century, she betrays Nan, the protagonist, who then runs away.
A lot of other things happen to Nan before the story comes full circle toward the end as Nan joins a burgeoning socialist movement at the behest of her ‘sweetheart,’ a very noble and dedicated woman named Florence. But in the end, it felt too much like the author’s voice was interfering with Nan’s story. That characters were simply devices for her to explore the lesbian community in the 1890s, which I think is a fabulous goal, and if it felt organic, I’d be the first one to cheer from the rafters.
All in all I finished the book because it was a book club choice and I’m looking forward to debating why I hated it so much at our next meeting! After loving Fingersmith so much I was convinced I couldn’t go wrong suggesting the book, whew, how wrong was I.
Edited to add: Is a sex scene any less contrived because it takes place between women? Just because the sex in the novel is lesbian sex should I hold it to different literary standards? I don’t think I should, but this book, if you look at it in terms of shows like Queer as Folk where the point of the matter was to bash the viewer over the head with the idea of gay sex until they came to accept it, maybe I should be more sympathetic to the book. But if it’s badly written with ‘torn bodices’ and ‘panting’, it’s bad writing, regardless of its subject matter. However, the fact that it was her first novel might be worth mentioning. And Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith is truly excellent; there’s not a cliche in sight.
March 28th, 2005
…I couldn’t put this book down. I read it in about two hours. It’s a young adult book about four friends who find a pair of magic pants; pants that give them strength, support and courage during the first summer they spend apart.
My life lesson today: don’t ever assume you’re too old to read kid’s books. Sometimes, they can surprise you, like your sweet, sweet nephew cuddling with you on the couch because you’re still sick at Easter dinner and feeling sorry for yourself.
The book makes me want to tell my girlfriends how much I love them; how much I’m looking forward to getting old with them; how much they inspire me and give me strength; they make me stronger than I could ever be standing alone in this crazy, fucked up world.