Posted on October 01, 2019 under Books
Another month has come and gone, with nine books read for a total of 90 in 2019. Yay! This month, amongst others, I read four Booker nominees. (I could have finished all six, but I’m waiting on two that aren’t yet out in Canada to arrive from the UK. They’re supposed to get here this week, which will keep me on track to finish the shortlist by the winner announcement on October 14.)
Here’s what I read in September.
Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope
The peak of this book is its cover.
After committing a horrible crime, twenty-six-year-old drug addict Adam leaves New York City for an Israeli kibbutz with the mission of returning his late grandfather’s brooch to its rightful owner. Interesting portrayals of secular Jewish cultural traditions and the exploration of atrocity without atonement and closure ultimately give way to lazy stereotypes and shallow political engagement. Misogyny permeates the portrayal of a young Belarusian kibbutznik; mental illness and addiction are pathologized and treated unrealistically; racism expressed against Palestinians is never challenged by the text; indeed, there is a complete refusal to consider the importance of Palestinian sovereignty. I objected strongly to the politics of this novel, and I found its premise overdone and banal.
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
Nigerian chicken farmer Chinonso falls in love with the wealthy, educated Ndali after rescuing her from suicide. Her family objects to their union, and Chinonso decides to pursue an education in Cyprus in order to win their favour. But when he arrives in Cyprus after selling his modest assets, he realizes that he has been scammed. The story is narrated by Chinonso’s chi, or guardian spirit, and the incorporation of dense Igbo cosmology into the narrative and prose is wonderful. The story is socially-relevant, tackling themes of racism, (post)colonialism, classism, diaspora, and immigration. It’s an ambitious novel with a lot to say, and while I found a lot to like about it, it stopped quite short of perfection for me. Ndali, the driving force behind the narrative progression, is tragically underdeveloped; there is a lot of foreshadowing through heavy-handed metaphor; the pacing felt off. This one is absolutely brimming with potential, and it’s clearly the work of a talented, accomplished author. It just doesn’t quite get there.
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
Rushdie confronts the opioid crisis and modern America through a satirical, absurdist retelling of Don Quixote. In less capable hands, the abundance of big ideas in this novel would have suffered from a lack of synthesis. But Rushdie manages a strong indictment of Big Pharma’s complicity in the opioid epidemic, a touching portrayal of fractured family dynamics, an investigation of racism as part of the American (and British) experience, and a lot of metafictional musing. This book seems to insist that there is something rotten at the core of American culture. This is a novel that is certainly smug and self-impressed at times, but it satisfyingly and thoroughly works through a set of enormous, complex, difficult, interrelated ideas.
Autumn by Ali Smith
Written and set in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016, Ali Smith uses the relationship between thirty-two-year-old precariously-employed art history lecturer Elisabeth and her centenarian former neighbour Daniel as a way of working through sociopolitical uncertainty. As Daniel lays dying, Elisabeth visits him weekly, constantly returning to memories of their touching (though unconventional) relationship as a form of escapism in frustrating and scary times. Smith’s poetic prose moves quickly, and I found myself having to force myself to slow down and linger in the poignant moments she creates. She evocatively captures the atmosphere of a fractured nation as well as the longing to return a simpler past. An interesting novel that is much more complex than it appears on the surface.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Set fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel reads to me as a clear opportunistic attempt to tie the Hulu series and the novel more closely together while expanding on a creative property that has proven very lucrative. Atwood’s prose is always strong, and the world she has built is well-developed, believable, and clever. I remain stuck on the reaction I had when this novel was first announced: that it is extraneous. Nothing in The Handmaid’s Tale indicates that it’s anything but a standalone novel, and if it had been conceived of as the first in a series surely that sequel would have arrived sometime prior to thirty-four years after its publication. But then I have to ask myself it that matters in evaluating its merits.
The narrative framing of verbal testimony is not believable. People do not speak the way Atwood has written them, especially not when giving testimony in court. Much of the novel was predictable; I saw every major twist coming, which is disappointing to say the least. The theme of women’s complicity in their own oppression is interesting, but that thought was not pushed far enough. Can Aunt Lydia be sympathetic if she has also suffered? Can she atone? It’s not that I object to the idea that even people who commit acts of extreme evil are people, with complicated histories and inner lives. (Indeed, villains generally shouldn’t be presented as caricatures.) I just struggle to find any sympathy towards someone who is directly responsible for mass sexual violations of women, as well as torture and death on a large scale. This is especially true when we remember that Gilead is an explicitly white supremacist society, as depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale – an element that the television show does not adopt and which The Testaments certainly glosses over. (In this novel, there doesn’t appear to be any sense of racial difference.) What a missed opportunity for a timely and relevant discussion of the white woman’s perpetuation of racism, the idea that white women will frequently align ourselves politically with whiteness over womanhood. Current right-wing populism adopts overt white supremacy as a political strategy; a novel written in the current era, which is clearly trying to reconfigure the original story of The Handmaid’s Tale to make sense of contemporary society (and to fit into the modern storyworld of the show), should acknowledge this. That said, Atwood is probably not the person to incorporate a nuanced critique of white supremacy into anything she writes, given that she… hasn’t ever broached that topic.
I have major issues with the end which I can’t really articulate here without spoiling it, but safe to say it undermines the reality of oppressive regimes as well as the atmosphere of the original text. Much of the power in The Handmaid’s Tale was its ambiguity, its refusal to give us answers. It was the story of one woman who lacked agency and knowledge, the story of minuscule modes of resistance. We didn’t have answers about where Offred ended up; we didn’t even know her name. While The Testaments leaves something to the imagination, it is richer in information and answers enough questions (either explicitly or through implication and links to the television show) that it diminishes the power of the original text. Answers are not always possible, necessary, or desirable. In the case of The Testaments, they are a liability.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
A fascinating novel that confronts and challenges normative modes of novel consumption, both intellectually and physically. (It’s hard to hold such a large book! It’s hard to know when to stop reading!) Ellmann holds nothing back in her exploration of modern American culture, weaving in ideas of grief, domesticity, the instability and polarization of contemporary America, environmental disaster, gun violence, nostalgia, motherhood, family… The one-sentence, stream-of-consciousness framing, rather than being gimmicky, is a strangely accurate literary approximation of human thought processes, making use of association, digression, and non-linear patterns of thought. There’s a lot of attention paid to the domestic space – as a site of repression, comfort, and even terror. The narrator’s interest in film is fascinating – it can be read as a desire to inject glamour and structured narrative into a repetitive, banal existence. When considering film’s long association with the public domain, it’s an interesting contrast with the domestic setting of the novel. The narrator also has a deep nostalgia for American cultural texts of the past, constantly invoking old Hollywood films and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Here is a longing to return to perceived simpler times, especially in the face of the complexities and anxieties of Trump’s America. (This also reflects the narrator’s constant return to her painful past, particularly to the unresolved loss of her mother.) Our nostalgic, innocent, loving, family-oriented narrator represents a moral compass that has largely been lost. This is a thoroughly modern novel that meticulously captures an era of American (and global) history. It’s a difficult text, but well worth the time, effort, and attention it demands.
Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury by Sigrid Nunez
A fictional biography of the (real) pet marmoset of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Sigrid Nunez reconstructs early twentieth century literary England with immense care and attention to detail. Nunez beautifully articulates the importance of pets in the lives of those who love them. (This is a fascinating theme that she also explores in 2018’s The Friend.) She brings the Woolfs to life, too, tenderly portraying the difficulties and joys of their marriage. Yet there seems to be something in Nunez’s writing that I simply cannot fully connect with. She has a rather spare writing style, and I wonder if that might cause me to feel a distance from the compelling topics that she renders with skill.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Nguyen follows up his Pulitzer-winning fiction debut The Sympathizer with a collection of short stories about Vietnamese immigrants in California. It’s a solid collection for the most part, but it doesn’t wow me the way his novel did. Predictably, some stories are better than others; there are a few that are truly touching, even devastating, and some that feel incomplete. One in particular, about a young gay Vietnamese refugee’s sexual awakening in 1970s San Francisco, has a frustrating amount of potential while ultimately displaying only a surface understanding of the emergence and embodiment of young gay identity. The overarching strength of this collection is in its insistence on the multiplicity of experience. The decision to give each protagonist a common heritage and site of displacement is clever: this feels like a relatively small field of humanity, yet Nguyen brilliantly portrays the diversity of Vietnamese immigrant life. Centring a perspective that is so frequently peripheral is a political act that I can certainly get behind.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Known for years only as Emily Doe, the sexual assault victim of Brock Turner and the writer of a viral victim impact statement, Chanel Miller has stepped out of the shadows with a statement that cannot be ignored. Equal parts hopeful and angry, Miller’s writing is bold, brave, and unapologetic. She describes what it is like to navigate systems that work to retraumatize victims and uphold rape culture. She beautifully elucidates moments of clarity, pain, and optimism. She is a remarkable person; my admiration for her work is immense. During the trial, Brock Turner’s defense lawyer used the gap in Miller’s memory to attempt to rewrite the story of her rape – but here Miller takes charge of the narrative. It is an unspeakable injustice that a sentence of ninety days in county jail constitutes a relatively good outcome for a sexual assault trial – but the recall of Judge Persky, the change in California’s definition of rape, and the amplification of Miller’s voice prove that justice can manifest itself in many ways. Should Turner still be behind bars? Yes. But we live in a world in which everybody knows that he sexually assaulted an unconscious woman, where tens of millions of people have read her victim impact statement and many more will read her book. Brock Turner is a washed-up swimmer and convicted sex offender; Chanel Miller is a force to be reckoned with, and he could not take away her humanity, her intelligence, her compassion, her strength, her resilience – nor could he dilute the love and support of her family, friends, and strangers from all over the world. There were moments where I felt that the text could have benefited from a bit more editing to tighten up the prose, but Miller’s writing, attitude, and approach are enough to reduce anyone to tears. I am so glad I knew her name and her story, and I hope she continues to use her powerful voice.
Posted on August 31, 2019 under Books
I didn’t read quite as much this month as I’d hoped to, mostly because I went on the type of vacation where I spent all my free time with family I hadn’t seen in a while. But I still managed 9 books for a total of 81, which is nothing to scoff at. In September and October I’m going to be focusing on the Booker shortlist (which comes out on Tuesday!) to hopefully read them all before the winner is announced.
Things are changing a lot for me in September – I’ve left my job after a year in order to start my PhD! Between my own work and my TA responsibilities, I imagine my free time will be rather reduced. If I read 5 books a month until December, I’ll get to 100, which I think is doable. In the meantime, here’s what I read this month:
A Boy of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews
Hosea Funk, the mayor of Algren, Manitoba, has one goal only: to keep Algren’s population an even 1500, in order to qualify as the smallest town in Canada and receive a visit from the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, a young woman named Knute and her four-year-old daughter Summer Feelin’ move back to Algren from Winnipeg in order to care for Knute’s father. What unfolds is a typically funny, heartfelt Miriam Toews dramedy. It’s clear that this is an early-career novel – though it’s just as charming, irreverent, and funny as I’d expect of Toews, it lacks the depth of her best novels. Her most recent books – All My Puny Sorrows, Women Talking – show that she has the range to tackle truly heavy subjects, while her earlier works betray a lack of confidence at truly committing to devastating her readers even as she makes us laugh. I don’t think it’s possible to not enjoy a Toews novel – each is entirely its own thing, and her writing is so damn funny – but they don’t all pack equal punches.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
In the mid 1930s, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis makes a terrible decision that irrevocably changes her life – not to mention that of her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of the wealthy Tallis family’s cleaning lady. This decision haunts all three throughout the war and beyond, and Briony wonders if it is possible to atone for her actions. The writing is lush, the characters heartbreaking, and the narrative framing effective. It’s vivid, evocative, devastating, and endlessly thought-provoking. Is it fair to blame an imaginative thirteen-year-old for doing the wrong thing in a state of shock? How old does somebody need to be to take agency for ruining somebody’s life? Is atonement ever truly possible? What is the role of art in mediating difficult truths? Sure, the beginning of the novel is a bit tedious in its portrayal of upper-class British life in the interwar period, but it makes up for it later on.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
In post-Arthurian England, an elderly married couple sets out to find their son. One problem: they can’t remember where he lives, why they haven’t seen him in years, or really anything about him due to a mysterious memory-erasing mist plaguing the country. Despite Ishiguro’s beautiful writing, I found this to be a pretty bland literary interpretation of the fantasy genre. It follows a simple journey narrative (we need to get from point A to point B, along the way we are obstructed by secondary tasks we must complete in order to fulfil our ultimate goal, we pick up some stragglers as we go). The result is a story with many a dull point which ultimately feels a bit rote. The fantasy elements were subtle, which I suppose is an interesting artistic choice, but fantasy feels like a genre that’s necessarily about going all-in. I liked the main characters – it’s not often a novel centers around an elderly couple. There were lots of interesting ideas about individual and cultural memory, who we are without memory, memory as a potentially destructive force. But ultimately these ideas were bogged down in a narrative that was not particularly interesting.
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing’s seminal second-wave feminist novel of ideas felt, at times, like a chore to get through. It’s packed with insights on domestic relations, (post)colonialism, communism, marriage, and motherhood. It’s framed as a novella split into several parts and punctuated by the thoughts of the tortured writer Anna Wulf, who splits her journals up according to subject. Anna is still living off the royalties of her only novel while raising her young daughter alone and having a series of very unfulfilling and definitely unhealthy relationships. The writing itself was meticulous and admirable. I found certain sections fascinating – Anna’s past in colonial Africa and her disillusionment with 1950s communism were very interesting. I also liked the novel-within-a-novel to a point. The exploration of compartmentalization and the fragmentation of self was fascinating and well-done. There was a lot of biting criticism of the relations between men and women. (Isn’t it depressing to read second-wave feminist texts and realize how so little has changed?) But, yes, a lot of this novel is tedious and difficult to get through. Anna’s relationships with men are frustrating beyond belief. There’s a certain point where reading pages and pages and pages of a woman being completely passive and putting up with being treated poorly ceases to be enjoyable. I think the novel successfully plays with the conventions of the genre and is structurally a well-realized execution of an ambitious concept, but it dragged in a lot of places for me.
Out by Natsuo Kirino
In the suburbs of Tokyo, a young mother murders her abusive, irresponsible husband. She recruits her coworkers on the overnight shift at a boxed lunch factory to help her dispose of his body and avoid prison time. This was a smart, dark exploration of the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy. The crushing cycle of debt and low-wage work compounded by domestic strife affects the cast of female characters in various believably bleak ways. The characters were interesting and the descriptions of gore were satisfyingly unflinching. The pacing was a bit slower than I’d expect for a thriller and there was never a moment of extreme tension (except, perhaps, for the very end) – which I didn’t mind, but which might disappoint some people who are expecting something super quick and heart-pounding. The ending was a letdown – it felt undermining, and while I understand that Kirino was trying to do with it, it just didn’t work for me. Still, this is a fun revenge-fantasy thriller as long as you can stomach some serious violence.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
In 2003, twenty-nine-year-old Romy Hall begins serving two consecutive life sentences for murdering her stalker in front of her young son. There were some passages that I found incredibly moving, and the writing was strong generally. It’s obvious that Kushner has done a lot of research about the California penal system, and I think this was a strong critique of the prison industrial complex and the way it dehumanizes people who are frequently victims of social inequality. The characters were rich and sympathetic, and I think the novel successfully portrayed how criminality is not inborn but generally caused by structural socioeconomic problems. Women who resort to crime due to lack of options or because they are in abusive situations are continually retraumatized by the penal system and exploited for capitalist gains. This is a difficult, complex topic treated – from my vantage point, at least – delicately and accurately, though I’d certainly welcome information to the contrary. Romy’s trial and incarceration are incredibly frustrating: she was the victim of relentless, terrifying stalking, and she never had a chance at navigating the so-called justice system.
Despite being both asborbing and thought-provoking, there were some elements and storylines that I found extraneous. There’s a storyline about an ex-cop in a men’s prison which doesn’t add much to the narrative; the inclusion of passages from Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto was bewildering. Romy was a fascinating, well-developed character, but the focus on the ultimately sympathetic educated white protagonist will always read as a little tone-deaf. Granted, Romy was a lower-class sex worker and drug user and victim of a sexist justice system, which makes her a more interesting narrator than Orange is the New Black‘s Piper, who is an upper-middle-class white woman and certainly not a victim in the same way. That said, Romy does have access to various privileges which many of her fellow inmates lack, and she is consistently differentiated by her level of education. That’s not to say that the other characters aren’t sympathetic – in fact, they’re portrayed as extremely intelligent and cunning if not book-smart – but it’s always worth interrogating whose stories are told and why. Romy is not more of a victim because she’s white and literate, and I hope readers are able to think critically and not automatically lapse into thinking of her more sympathetically because of her privileges. There are many woman in similar situations to Romy who are not perceived as victims, because sex workers and drug users are seen as deserving whatever happens to them, particularly if they are racialized and lack the signs of formal education. That’s not to say that this story is not important, touching, or well-written – I just think it’s imperative that we always think about why some perspectives are privileged over others.
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
The theme of prison runs through much of Margaret Atwood’s work, whether we’re talking about literal prison (Bodily Harm, Alias Grace, Hag-Seed), another form of physical imprisonment (The Handmaid’s Tale), or mental imprisonment (by the past as in Cat’s Eye, in a bad marriage as in The Blind Assassin). In this speculative novel, a young married couple named Stan and Charmaine exist in a form of near-future late capitalism that has them living in their car, trying to avoid being robbed while barely making ends meet. Then they discover a new town called Consilience which guarantees every resident a job and house. The catch? Everyone alternates between one month living in the idyllic town and one month in prison, because the prison industrial system has been proven to generate so much profit, or something. (I never felt like the “benefits” of this model were fully explained.) But even when they aren’t in the prison, Positron, nobody is allowed to leave the town – which means everyone’s a prisoner all the time. I found this premise interesting – the idea of the prison industrial system adopted as a model for society feels relevant. But ultimately I think it was a bit underbaked, and I was left with a lot of questions.
I just wanted this to go further in its critique of the prison industrial system, when in the end it felt more like a tedious, shallow interpersonal drama with a resolution that ultimately didn’t say anything meaningful about society. To be fair, I did read this immediately after The Mars Room, which was clearly very well-researched and outwardly political, so it’s no wonder this falls flat in comparison! The world in this novel seems similar to that in the MaddAddam trilogy, and while that series doesn’t knock my socks off, its treatment of these ideas is a lot more complex and successful. The characters are really bland. There are various minor plot holes that are pretty annoying, especially when I normally think of Atwood as such a meticulous writer. Generally, I simply didn’t find that there was anything about the story, characters, or ideas in this novel that compelled me to keep reading. I don’t object to a comical treatment of dystopia (actually, I think that can be really great when done properly), but this just ended up feeling underdeveloped and banal. Definitely the worst of the twelve Atwood novels that I’ve read so far.
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
At the age of fourteen, awkward working class Wolverhampton native Johanna Morrigan embarrasses herself on local television and decides to reinvent herself as an edgy music journalist named Dolly Wilde. This is Caitlin Moran’s first novel, but it doesn’t make any difference that I read its sequel first. (Both work find as standalone novels.) Anyway, they’re peas in a pod: funny, cheeky, irreverent; quick and enjoyable; coming-of-age stories with a liberal feminist twist. I love the 90s setting: it’s rendered beautifully, and it’s an era that I love to see represented in media. (I think my fascination comes from the fact that I was born in the mid-90s, so while I only have a very small child’s memory of the decade, I feel some sort of claim to it.) The writing isn’t spectacular, and as always there’s more than a hint of “ironic” racism that colours all of Moran’s work. I’d categorize this as a fun, feminist-adjacent vacation read, but nothing too intellectually strenuous. I bet the upcoming film version starring Beanie Feldstein will be worth a watch.
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
A very ambitious retelling of King Lear set in late-70s rural Iowa. The domineering, cantankerous owner of a thousand-acre farm decides to divide his land between his three daughters; the youngest, a big-city lawyer, has reservations, and she is excluded from the deal. Cracks begin to form between the two older sisters, their husbands, and the father almost immediately. This is a slow-building, rich portrait of a repressed, tragedy-stricken family. This is undeniably a feminist take on Lear; the older daughters – here called Ginny and Rose – are robust and realistic, and there are a lot of details that recast the story in their favour. After all, they are pretty one-dimensionally terrible in the original play, and it’s probably more believable that a very powerful and wealthy man abuses his power and is generally the worst than that his daughters are unaccountably awful. This is a very dense novel with ideas about the dissolution of family bonds, motherhood, and the link between body and land. It’s a clever, successful retelling. The setting may seem a little bizarre, but I actually think it works beautifully – the land in this novel is much more easily conceptualized than the kingdom in Lear, and it becomes a character in its own right. I’ve spoken to a few people who had to read this for high school English and (probably predictably) didn’t like it, but it was probably the standout of this month for me.
I will be back in a month with some thoughts on Booker nominees!
Posted on July 31, 2019 under Books
July was a very productive month, with 12 books read. That makes for 72 in 2019 so far!
In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
In the early 1950s in Elizabeth, New Jersey, fifteen-year-old Miri Ammerman has some pretty typical teenage concerns: trying to maintain her relationship with her single mother, drifting away from her best friend, and falling for a guy who goes to another school. But then Miri witnesses a plane dropping out of the sky. A few weeks later, another plane crashes in Elizabeth, narrowly missing the high school Miri will be attending in the fall. And then a third plane, this one killing seven people on the ground as well. Based on true events, In the Unlikely Event fictionalizes a compelling story, with the usual Judy Blume treatment. Miri is a believable teenager, her troubles realistic. The Ammerman family dynamics were very touching, particularly the bond between Miri and her uncle, the ambitious journalist Henry, who finds opportunity in tragedy. The setting was well-developed and detailed. However, I really don’t think this book needed to be 400 pages long, and some of the character perspectives felt extraneous, introduced just before they were narratively important. I think the whole novel would have been stronger if it had focused more on the Ammermans, though I understand Blume was trying to explore the impact of tragedy on a community. An enjoyable read, though certainly not without flaws.
Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler
When 67-year-old Barney Panofsky’s enemy publishes a memoir painting Barney in a negative light, he decides to write an autobiography. The allegations against Barney range from being a bad husband to killing his best friend, a crime for which he was acquitted in the 1960s. This novel is an exemplar of the unreliable narrator trope. Richler expertly puts Barney’s credibility into dispute by framing the narrative as a response to damning allegations, peppering the text with footnotes containing pedantic factual corrections from Barney’s son, and weaving Barney’s memory loss into the text. Is Barney’s version accurate? If not, is this deliberate or simply a function of his descent into dementia? Even if Barney is innocent, he’s still a hedonistic misanthrope, which propels this hilarious narrative. Barney is a fantastic character, classic Richler. He’s cranky, cynical, and kind of a terrible person, but he’s also full of the most raw, tender, painful love for his third wife, Miriam, and genuine regret for how he has wronged her. Barney is over-the-top in his flaws and awful behaviour, but there is something very vulnerable about him – particularly in old age – which makes him seem real and even sympathetic. (I have to admit, he reminds me a lot of my grandpa, who, like Richler, was a Montrealer born in 1931, so that could account for some of my fondness.) Richler’s writing is incisive and exacting, nowhere more so than in the commentary on all things Canada. A lot of CanLit wouldn’t necessarily go over the heads of international audiences, but Richler is so precise in his rendering of the Montreal, Quebec, and broader Canadian sociopolitical climate that it feels particularly special and wonderful to read it as a Canadian (with a connection to Montreal, no less). Anyway, even if you won’t get all the Canadian humour out of this one, it’s still worth a read.
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
A companion to Oryx and Crake, this novel looks at the overlapping lives of two women: Toby and Ren, both former members of an eco-religious cult called God’s Gardeners. In the wake of a bioengineered disease that wiped out most of humanity, Toby and Ren are each isolated – Toby in the luxury spa she runs and Ren in the high-end brothel she works at. Both wonder if they are sole survivors of disaster. The bulk of the novel takes place in the years before the disease, more fully developing the wasteland of the ultra-capitalist world Atwood introduced in Oryx and Crake. I found Oryx and Crake incomplete and a bit tedious, and this one felt more interesting and fleshed out. The cult was particularly convincing, with a robust and somewhat credible theology, and the portrayal of environmental and capitalist dystopia was more believable than in Oryx and Crake. I did find that the story lagged in the middle, and ultimately I came away still not totally impressed with this particular world. Of all of Atwood’s novels I’m not really sure that Oryx and Crake was the one that needed to be expanded into a trilogy. Then again, I think she’s at her best when she’s meticulously deconstructing women’s relationships with the world as we know it, which makes something like this seem like a waste of her talents, no matter how competently-done.
The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews
A precursor to Toews’ stunning All My Puny Sorrows, here we have a familiar premise: sisters with a six-year age gap, the eldest wanting to die, the youngest trying to pick up the pieces. In this version, it’s older sister Min who has two children: fifteen-year-old Logan, who is both sensitive and stoic, and the chatterbox eleven-year-old Thebes. Faced with her sister’s hospitalization, younger sister Hattie decides to take the kids on a road trip to try to find their long-lost father. There is some suspension of disbelief required here; there is a lot about the road trip that feels improbable, and Thebes is almost too precocious. The novel lacks the emotional depth of All My Puny Sorrows, and the bond between the sisters isn’t quite so well-developed. However, this is enjoyable if only for how damn funny it is. I know – with a premise like that, you’d think it’d be the opposite. But, if anything, the overarching emotional note is a sort of bleak humour. This isn’t Toews at her absolute peak, but I enjoyed my time reading it. I find it hard to believe that there is a Miriam Toews novel that isn’t at least pleasant to read, if not truly knock-your-socks-off good like All My Puny Sorrows.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
In the mid-1950s, career English butler Mr. Stevens sets out on a journey to visit a former coworker. His new, unconventional American employer urges him to take this trip after decades of unrelenting service. Stevens spends his journey across the English countryside pondering what it means to be a butler and thinking about the thirty-odd years he spent in service of the now-disgraced Lord Darlington. This is an incredibly insular novel, as Stevens’ entire life revolves around Darlington Hall. The prose is flawless, the characterization masterful. There was not a single moment that I didn’t feel like I was truly reading the thoughts of a mid-century butler. There are a lot of interesting explorations here: the relationship between master and servant, how far someone must go to provide a service, what it truly means to have dignity. Stevens is a thoroughly tragic character, and although the general tone of the novel is quite sad, I was surprised by how devastated I felt at the end. And yet somehow there is just enough humour maintained throughout, particularly in Stevens’ awkwardness in social situations. I can see why this novel is so highly-regarded.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
In the quiet, uneventful planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, avant-garde photographer Mia Warren arrives with her teenage daughter Pearl. Pearl becomes subsumed into the family of Shaker Heights’ fiercest-advocate, third-generation resident Elena Richardson. Mrs. Richardson values order above all else and has a picture-perfect life: four children each spaced a year apart, a solid marriage, and a respectable job as a reporter for the local newspaper. As the mysterious Mia’s landlady and employer, Mrs. Richardson feels some suspicion towards her, which turns into outright hostility as the two find themselves on opposite sides of a high-profile custody battle that exposes the seedy side of sleepy Shaker Heights. Meanwhile, the four Richardson children and fifteen-year-old Pearl are all dealing with their own teenage issues. Meanwhile, Mrs. Richardson is determined to slot together the pieces of Mia’s past and find out the identity of Pearl’s father. A convoluted summary, but that’s only because that’s how this novel feels. There is a lot going on here: the teenage dramas, Mia’s backstory (which was by far the most interesting section), the fate of the adopted baby girl. The theme of disrupted idyllic suburbia is overdone, and this was not a fresh take on it. The multi-arc narrative felt disjointed and incomplete; the novel was simply too short to satisfy everything it was trying to do. One of the Richardson children, who is at the centre of the climax of the novel, was conspicuously and frustratingly underdeveloped. The strength of the book was the exploration of motherhood: who is able to access it, how it is embodied differently, how it is judged. There was a particularly compassionate portrayal of how “neglectful” parents may simply lack resources, not love or competence. I didn’t think this was terrible, I just think it was a bit flat, and I’m baffled by the huge amount of praise it’s getting. (I do think it’s better-suited to a TV format, so maybe the upcoming Hulu series will be better. Reese Witherspoon as an annoying busybody in a TV adaptation is a proven formula, after all.)
The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
Based on a true Victorian divorce case, The Sealed Letter revolves around the friendship between first-wave feminist and businesswoman Emily “Fido” Faithfull and her close friend Helen Codrington. Helen, who has always been deeply unhappy in her marriage to a much-older military man, has returned to London after seven years in Malta, and the women rekindle their relationship. Things between them soon sour, however, as the uptight Fido discovers that Helen has been having an affair – and has made Fido complicit. When Helen’s husband discovers his wife’s infidelities, he launches a divorce case – rare at the time – in which Fido is implicated. At the heart of the case is a mysterious sealed letter, which could ruin Fido’s chaste reputation. I found this delightfully-written and juicy without being tawdry. Every character is equal parts sympathetic and just plain pathetic; they are all implicated in how events unfold. At times, I felt deeply for each character, and at times I thought each behaved deplorably. Donoghue beautifully explores the juxtaposition between famously repressive Victorian society and the passionate, messy sides of love, marriage, and friendship. There are a few minor but satisfying twists at the end, too. Emma Donoghue is a writer whose work I always enjoy, no matter what the subject matter
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
A story-within-a-story-within-a-story: octogenarian Iris Chase Griffen sets out to write down the story of her life and that of her sister Laura, whose only novel was published posthumously after she drove off a bridge at the age of twenty-five. Born into a wealthy family, the interwar period is not kind to the Chase sisters, and Iris reluctantly marries her father’s competitor at age eighteen in an attempt to raise her family’s fallen status. Meanwhile, Laura, who is dreamy, bizarre, and obstinate, descends into deep, impenetrable unhappiness. Chapters of Laura’s novel, The Blind Assassin, alternate with Iris’s account. The Blind Assassin tells the story of two clandestine lovers: a well-to-do woman and a man on the run, who over their illicit encounters tells the woman a pulpy, pastiche-y story about virgin sacrifices on a faraway planet. As the novel unfolds, we begin to realize that Laura’s novel is an integral part of Iris’s story, and we question the provenance of the novel. Here is another great example of the unreliable narrator, a woman who, we are to find out, leaves out enormous chunks of her own life story which would normally be considered narratively important. All of the stories within this novel are puzzle pieces which don’t always slot together pefectly. The two sisters are tragic characters: smart, interested, full of life, but repressed by their circumstances. I always find Atwood’s writing strong, but here it is truly impeccable. There is endless depth to this novel which I look forward to mulling over and returning to in the future. An interesting, ambitious novel that plays around with the very structure of its genre to thought-provoking and stirring ends – definitely a worthy Man Booker winner.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Beautiful covers let me down so frequently…
In the 1960s, an affair initiated at a christening prompts the joining of two families. Over the next fifty years, the adults and children of this blended family weave in and out of each other’s lives, a tragedy in the 70s creating closeness and tension between family members. One of the kids, Franny, has an affair with a famous novelist, who writes a novel based on the Cousins-Keating family’s story. There were various things I found interesting about this novel that I nonetheless didn’t particularly care for. The narrative jumps in chronology and alternates between different perspectives, and most of the action is implied. Patchett has successfully created a story out of the mundane, but implication can’t do all the work. Much that is hinted at – family dysfunction, the breakdown of a relationship with a thirty year age gap – never makes it to the page. I found the amount of characters overwhelming: for example, in the first chapter, there are a few paragraphs from the point of view of a priest who marries a main character’s sister, neither of whom we ever see again. I found the novel lacked focus, as well; the blurb implies that it’s about Franny’s relationship with the novelist and the appropriation of her family’s story, but that relationship exists only in a few scenes, and the fallout from the publication of the novel isn’t explored fully. While everything pivots around the tragedy, I didn’t find that there was a convincing or robust portrayal of trauma. I also didn’t find the prose anything to write home about from a technical standpoint. I can appreciate what novel is trying to do, and there were a lot of sparks of potential, but I simply never felt like the story or the characters were that interesting.
The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson
65 million years ago, on a distant, technologically-advanced planet, scientist Billie Crusoe and a human-like robot named Spike board a spaceship destined for a newly-discovered planet. The resources on their home planet of Orbus have been nearly exhausted, and a mission is deployed to destroy the dinosaurs on Planet Blue so that humans may live there. In the course of their expedition, they fall in love despite Spike’s apparent lack of capacity for emotions. And then the story shifts, and it is Easter Island of the 1700s. And then we are on Planet Earth after the Third World War. Billie and Spike – or approximations thereof – exist in all three timelines. This summary is inadequate; this novel is difficult to describe, one that must be experienced firsthand. There is always a haunting, bleak, achingly beautiful quality to Jeanette Winterson’s writing that I connect with viscerally. Here, she stunningly explores humanity’s apparently pathological destruction of the Earth, the dangers of capitalism and unrestricted military power, what it means to be human, the power and impossibility of love… This is a pastiche, in many ways: it’s playful, it relies heavily on tropes. But it doesn’t feel overdone or surface-level. It’s an environmental dystopia, yes, but it’s also a love story, and a critique of capitalist destruction that uses the past, present, and future in mind-bending ways, and an example of the power of language. The interconnected stories and vastly different timelines are difficult to parse, and there are so many details and ideas packed into a 200-page novel. Yet this feels complete in a way similarly idea-laden short novels often don’t. Winterson’s command of language is stunning, and she has a way of exploring human pathos that is profoundly devastating in the best possible way.
(Unrelated, but fun fact: this was the third book in a row I read this month which includes a book-within-a-book that shares a title with the novel itself.)
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Born on the day a member of his community jumped to his death in an attempt to fly, Macon “Milkman” Dead grows up in a loveless but well-to-do Michigan family. His mother is the daughter of a prominent Black doctor; his father is a successful businessman, resented by many as a tyrant of a landlord. As a child, he reconnects with his mysterious maternal aunt Pilate, who lives in the same city though she is estranged from Milkman’s father. As an adult, Milkman travels to Virginia in search of gold – and his family’s history. This is a beautiful portrayal of family dysfunction and inherited trauma. Toni Morrison persuasively addresses the legacy of slavery: its denial of the ability to name oneself, its destruction of family history. In the absence of concrete history, myths become crucial in developing senses of self and community, and Morrison draws extensively on mythology and magical realism. I found this novel difficult to get into at first: the characters are difficult people and the story is slow-moving. But the time spent on establishing characterization and family dynamics pays off in the form of a cast of deeply flawed, richly-drawn, unforgettable characters rounding out a complex, rich, and deeply symbolic story. This is a vibrant, meditative, and thoroughly satisfying novel.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Fifteen-year-old Christopher discovers his neighbour’s brutally-murdered poodle and decides to launch – and record – his own investigation. Christopher is incredibly intelligent, logical, and literal, but he hates being touched and struggles with social interaction. At its core I think I can say that this is an enjoyable book: it’s a quick read that stays engaging throughout, and its gimmicks keep it interesting. I consider this a successful example of a believable first-person narrative voice: Christopher’s perspective on the world is very distinct, and reading this novel is an interesting exercise in thinking of mundane, accepted things as extraordinary or even illogical. However, I think it’s important to note that this is an inaccurate and offensive portrayal of autism. Christopher displays a lack of empathy and a tendency towards violence, stereotypes which hurt autistic people. Here is an in-depth article from the blog Disability in Kidlit for anyone who wants more details about that. This is a case of a deep lack of social responsibility married with something that is artistically-competent. I can’t say I didn’t find things to praise about this novel – but the inaccurate portrayal of autism means I cannot in good conscience recommend it. I don’t believe that people can’t write from perspectives that aren’t their own – but I do believe in the profound and critical importance of responsibly, compassionately, and accurately portraying others, especially those who are socially disadvantaged.
July was a great month for reading: I read a lot, and I enjoyed much of what I read. My bookshelf is now officially full to capacity, so whatever August brings on a literary front, it will also be bringing more storage space for all my books!