Well, halfway through the year already and I’m doing very well with my reading! I read 10 books in June, for a total of 60 in 2019. I’m still somewhat loftily aiming for 100 in 2019 – the next two months will really determine if that’s possible or not. Here’s what I’ve made space in my brain for lately…
Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
In the spring of 2012, I read Slaughterhouse-Five as an independent study novel for my grade 12 English final essay. Timequake, Vonnegut’s last “novel”, was the final one I had to read after seven years. (I like the neat math of having read fourteen novels in seven years.) Timequake is Vonnegut’s retrospective on his literary career and his life, with a fictional edge treated in his usual absurdist way. The Timequake is an event that caused everyone to repeat ten years between 1991 to 2001; while everyone was aware that this was happening, they could not change a single thing they did the first time around, grand or mundane. Vonnegut blends past and present, fictional and real, in mind-bending ways. The Timequake in question occured in 2001, but the book was written in 1996 – so he is speaking in the past tense of something which happened in a future that he had not yet experienced. The “novel” is framed as the second version of a novel with the same premise, but Vonnegut mostly writes about his own life, while sprinkling in some ideas and passages from the original novel, which he scrapped. Yet the characters in this novel are treated as real people who he knows in the year 2001. (It’s funny to think about how 2001 used to sound impossibly futuristic, and now it just sounds like… this. And I guess also world events of long-lasting global consequence.) The theme of my 2012 essay was Slaughterhouse-Five‘s treatment of time, so I suppose this is a satisfying thematic end to my Vonnegut journey. For Vonnegut fans, this one is pitch-perfect: moving, sad, cynical but hopeful, and really funny. Because it’s not a novel in the sense of his other books, this makes sense to me almost as a nice way of wrapping up his body of work, alluding to many of his recurring themes and philosophies and giving us one more absurd Vonnegut situation to ponder.
The Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Esi Edugyan
Two-time Giller Prize winner Edugyan’s first novel is about a Ghanaian immigrant who uproots his Calgary-based family in the late 1960s after inheriting his uncle’s small-town home. The community struggles to accept a Black immigrant family, and here the novel shines. Edugyan beautifully articulates the chilling, subtle forms xenophobia frequently takes. The family dynamics are fascinating, too: Samuel’s marriage is ice cold, and his twin daughters Chloe and Yvette are creepy and possibly pure evil. The themes of second chances, the futility of trying to shed a dissatisfying past, and guilt over leaving behind a motherland were compelling, but not always fully explored. Unfortunately, I found the execution lacking generally. The characters were completely opaque, and while that may serve to underscore their hollowness, I just couldn’t find anything to fully sink my teeth into. The spooky twins were central to the story, but the climax of their sinister behaviour was rushed. The pacing was choppy, very slow at some points and then rushing past points of drama and interest too quickly to explore their pathos. I think it’s pretty clear that this was a first novel! However, I really enjoyed Edugyan’s most recent Giller-winner, Washington Black, and I’d still like to read more of her work.
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
Two sisters, Elfrieda and Yolandi, grew up in a repressive Mennonite community in Manitoba. Now middle-aged women who have left their religious community behind, the sisters have maintained their closeness. Elf is a celebrated concert pianist; her younger sister Yoli is a twice-divorced novelist who makes a lot of bad decisions about her love life. Oh, and Elf really, really wants to die. This is the most convincing, compassionate exploration of suicide I have ever encountered. Elf is never presented as selfish for her many suicide attempts; instead, this novel confronts us with the question of whether it is cruel to force somebody to live, especially in a psychiatric facility in which their autonomy is completely undermined. Is life worth it when it can only be sustained under duress, locked up and denied basic agency and simple pleasures? Can every case of suicidal ideation be cured, or are there some untreatable cases? Is suicidal depression not a chronic, agonizing condition that can, sometimes, only be alleviated by death? Can assisted suicide in instances of severe psychological pain be the truly correct and compassionate option? These are difficult, scary questions, and Toews does not shy away from them. She constructs a set of beautiful, strong characters, an imperfect but ultimately fiercely loving family who must come together under impossible circumstances. I really don’t know how she has managed to make a book so sad and so funny and so real. I’d call this a must-read, with the obvious caveat that this is a book about a suicidal woman and that it will undoubtedly be triggering for many people.
Stealing the Show: How Women are Revolutionizing Television by Joy Press
TV critic Joy Press uses several TV shows from Murphy Brown to the present day as case studies to explore the rising influence of women in the television industry. Each of her case studies looks at a show created by a woman (or, in the case of Transparent, a nonbinary person) about a strong woman with significant presence of women writers. This is well-researched and I really enjoyed the exploration of the cultural period each show belongs to, although I could always do with deeper acknowledgment of mass culture as a reaction to social and political movements. I sincerely wish there had been more acknowledgment of the many other roles women play in the creation of a TV show; the focus on showrunners as auteurs doesn’t tell the whole story, and female editors (of whom there are many) and other crew members play a huge part in shaping the TV landscape, both onscreen and behind the scenes. However, my biggest issue with this book is Press’s ultimate defense of Lena Dunham. Please, feminist media critics, I am begging you, evacuate her butthole. Most frustrating is that there’s always an acknowledgment of the terrible things she’s said and done, all of which are immediately swept under the rug. It’s like, “YES Lena Dunham’s concept of New York includes only white people, YES Lena Dunham outed her sibling to their parents, YES Lena Dunham accused a young biracial woman of lying about being raped, but the real reason she is so hated is because she is BRAVE and TRANSGRESSIVE and NOT SKINNY.” Okay. No. Please do not try to tell me about Lena Dunham’s “disarming humour”. Lena Dunham traffics in shock value at the expense of pretty much every population that she doesn’t belong to, her “feminism” entirely self-serving. We NEED to move past this.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The first in a trilogy, Oryx and Crake imagines a world that has been reduced to a disease-ravaged wasteland. Its (apparent) only inhabitants are a group of genetically-modified superhumans who have the intellectual capacity of children, terrifying animal hybrids, and a human named Snowman, who is apparently the only person who remembers the world as it was. The narrative alternates between the past and present (a trademark of Atwood’s writing), and we get to see the segregated, capitalist world that existed before total collapse. There are a lot of interesting things to pick out here: the aggressive advertising of self-improvement products, the obsession with youth, the fact that corporations pretty much own everything. This is a very different dystopia to that of The Handmaid’s Tale, one that focuses less on regressive patriarchy and more on how bad capitalism is. Atwood’s writing and worldbuiling is always sensational, so no complaints there. And yet this was not really my cup of tea. First of all, there was only one female character who really matters, and she’s kind of an Orientalist fetish object who exists exclusively as the target of Snowman’s sexual obsessions. Like, if a man wrote this book I would probably be really mad. But Margaret Atwood can’t just get a pass for being Margaret Atwood! Don’t be racist, Peggy! I’m begging you! Anyway, the first book in a series can often feel a little bit incomplete, so I’ll continue on with it, first of all because I bought the second book at Value Village for $5, and second of all because I’m trying to read all of Atwood’s novels.
Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being by Amy Fung
Amy Fung, an immigrant from Hong Kong who has lived in several major Canadian cities, writes not only about the experience of being a first-generation Canadian and all that entails but also about her position as a settler on unceded and Treaty territory. Functioning as a long-form land acknowledgment, this collection of essays takes a confrontational and unflinching look at the tensions between the experiences of being a racialized immigrant and someone benefiting from the legacy of colonialism and exploitation of Indigenous territory and natural resources. The necessity of confronting complicity in the ongoing disenfranchisement of Indigenous people is made clear, often uncomfortably so. Fung writes about the Canadian art landscape and its marginalization of Indigenous artists, the way “diversity” in the art world panders to the “progressive” white gaze. There were moments where I found the writing a bit clunky, taking me out of the argument, but generally it was seamless. There are a lot of big, uneasy ideas packed into this slim volume, and all of them felt fully explored. This is a perspective that all people living in (formerly?) colonial states should consider.
Such a Lonely, Lovely Road by Kagiso Lesego Molope
Kabelo Mosala wants nothing more than to impress his frigid parents by following in his doctor father’s footsteps. Growing up in a small South African township where everyone knows everyone else’s business, Kabelo is forced to deny his feelings for his neighbour, Sediba, for fear of disappointing his parents and community. But as Kabelo enters adulthood, it becomes impossible for him to deny to himself that he is gay. I fully expected to like this Canadian-South African novel, but I struggled through it. First of all, I have never read a novel this poorly-edited. There is an astounding amount of typos and other errors a copy editor should have caught; some of the prose is clunky, making the whole thing feel amateurish, sloppy, and like a first draft. I wanted more depth out of Kabelo’s narration; though it’s clear he’s going through a lot of inner turmoil, I found him lacking interiority. I wanted to know more about him. The blurb promises that this story is set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, but AIDS is barely mentioned until the last third of the novel. Ultimately, it feels predictable. The setting is different, and I thought that the South African sociopolitical dynamics were interesting and believable – the racial tensions as well as the disparity between townships and cities were rendered well. But at the end of the day, this is a pretty simple narrative of a gay man struggling to decide whether or not to stay closeted, and the South African context wasn’t enough to elevate it beyond that for me.
Dancer From the Dance by Andrew Holleran
The Great Gatsby meets the interesting period of the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS New York gay scene. A group of pretentious, hedonistic gay men spend all their time partying, pining, and being emotionally hollow. The prose is lush and paints an evocative picture of this particular slice of gay cultural history. I have no doubt that at the time of its publication in 1978, this would have been a rather groundbreaking novel. However, I simply want more out of LGBTQ fiction than just… being about gay people. The characters are not likeable, there are a lot of racist and misogynistic sentiments that characters expressed (unchallenged by the narrative), and the whole thing feels excessively hedonistic to no real end. I get why people like this, and I get why it’s always included on lists of must-read gay literature, but if we’re going to get into stories about pretentious gay hedonists I want something with grit and texture like Alan Hollinghurst’s spectacularly self-indulgent and thoroughly enjoyable The Line of Beauty.
Silver Girl by Elin Hilderbrand
In Elin Hilderbrand’s world, everything that happened to you in high school is of the utmost importance when you’re 50; everyone is nominally “liberal” but it’s perfectly acceptable to struggle for years to accept that your child is gay, leading to a three-year rift between you; when your boyfriend of six months gets you pregnant and tells you, against your desires, that he’s “not okay with you killing one of God’s creations”, you have the baby and spend thirty years married to him until he dies of brain cancer; and there is not a single problem that cannot be solved by a summer on Nantucket. I’m not sure I want to live in this world. Well, I wouldn’t mind the last part, because I know my problems are easily solvable considering what our two protagonists, estranged best friends Meredith Delinn and Connie Flute, are enduring. Meredith’s husband has just been sentenced to 150 years in federal prison after being found guilty of the worst financial crime of all time. (Think Bernie Madoff, the obvious inspiration for this story.) Meredith and her oldest son are both under investigation as well, and, sick of the public scrutiny, she begs Connie to spend the summer at Connie’s summer home on Nantucket. Connie has her own problems: she’s still grieving over the loss of her husband, and she’s estranged from her only child.
Now, let me be clear. This is a fluffy beach read, and that’s how I’m evaluating it. A work of literary genius it is not. But a solid, engaging bit of light reading perfectly suited to a vacation? It is certainly that, despite its questionable politics. The story is juicy, the characters have more depth than the genre requires, and the descriptions of Nantucket are compelling. It’s overwritten in many places and generally nothing to write home about style-wise, but the story itself is fun and it’s compulsively readable. This is the third Hilderbrand novel I’ve read, and I can’t deny that she knows how to come up with an interesting premise and surprisingly well-developed characters. Sure, the endings are always predictable, tidy in the most unrealistic way; sure, it’s a stretch to feel sorry for a woman who falls from extreme wealth into the horrors of an upper middle-class life; sure, some of the social views displayed are questionable. But when you’re literally sitting on a beautiful beach looking out at the beautiful water, this is the kind of book you want to read. (Well, maybe you don’t. I do.)
Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee
Sisters Miranda and Lucia Bok couldn’t be more different. Miranda, the older sister, has always been sensible and practical out of pure necessity, while Lucia is a free spirit. Following a sudden marriage, Lucia begins hearing voices, and is eventually hospitalized with schizoaffective disorder. The relationship between the sisters is troubled but loving and very believable. Lucia’s illness is treated compassionately; she is depicted as competent, passionate, intelligent, sensitive, capable of loving and being loved. The scope of the book is fairly wide in time, setting, and theme, but the pacing never felt rushed. There’s a lot of exploration of immigration, what it means to belong, the inescapability of family ties, what responsibility we have to those we love. I wasn’t a huge fan of the way the novel shifted between first and third person narration, which felt jarring and unnecessary. I also wanted to spend more time with Yonah, Lucia’s kindhearted, larger-than-life first husband. Generally, though, I think this is a tender, realistic, empathetic portrayal of an incredibly stigmatized mental illness. (Between this and All My Puny Sorrows, it’s been a good month for books about sisters navigating the devastating effects of mental illness.)
My favourites this month were All My Puny Sorrows and Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being, if you couldn’t tell.
August will probably be fairly busy for me, so I’m trying to really focus on reading in July. I do have a few (very) hefty books in my to-read stack, so we’ll have to see just how much progress I make! Regardless, I’m doing really well and truly enjoying reading this year.
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