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
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!
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