Happy Canada Day! We’re now halfway through 2018 (ahhh!) and I’m feeling very good about how this year is going books-wise.
May was a bit of a wash; I was travelling and then preparing for and executing a cross-continental move. But I got back in the swing of things in June, and I think I managed to read a respectable amount. In these two months, I read 6 books, bringing my yearly total up to 25 – which means I’m halfway to 50 halfway through the year. I set a goal of 30 for 2018, so I think it’s safe to say I’ll be meeting that. Since I’m doing so well, I’d be happy if I could stay on pace and meet (or exceed) last year’s total of 51.
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
This book is based on the real-life case of Debra Lafave, who molested one of her fourteen-year-old students. (Generally the media describes Lafave’s in softer terms such as “seducing” her student, because that’s how we talk about female sexual predators, I guess.) It absolutely succeeded in getting me in the head of a pedophile, which ultimately is not a place that I care to be. Celeste’s monologues were very well-written, reminding me a lot of Amy Dunne’s self-righteous, angry narration in Gone Girl. Clearly, Nutting is truly talented, and that talent is what elevates this book above the simple category of “shock value smut”. That said, I don’t think it’s an especially complex novel, and since the subject matter is so stomach-turning it’s not one I’d ever revisit or even recommend to anyone. Needless to say, it has the potential to be incredibly upsetting if not triggering, so please proceed with caution.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
I wrote a very scatching review of this book on Goodreads. Here are some of the salient points, though you are very welcome to read the whole thing (as well as some of the other one- and two-star reviews on there, because they’re amazing):
You know those people who use their extensive knowledge of pop culture as a substitute for a real personality? This is the literary equivalent of that. I’m not against a book whose primary function is spectacle over substance; sometimes you just want to be dazzled as a reader. It’s like the cinema of attractions in book form. That’s cool. It’s just that this wasn’t a spectacle that I particularly enjoyed.
[Lack] of incredible writing chops does not necessarily deter me from enjoying a book. A formulaic, predictable plot does, though. Watery social commentary that any half-sentient sixteen-year-old could come up with does. A novel that is packed full of pop culture references but completely lacking in any indication that the author has heard of a single woman in his life does. … Art3mis is afforded the wonderful plot of “Is she hot in real life and will she sleep with our protagonist?” She’s a blatant male fantasy: chock full of all the requisite masculine nerd culture references but a curvy, pretty woman instead of a basement-dwelling man. Wonderful! Emailing Art3mis to warn of imminent danger, Wade charmingly adds “PS – I think you look even more beautiful in real life,” because every intelligent, accomplished woman wants unsolicited, condescending affirmations about her appearance when she’s being hunted down by an evil corporation.
Ready Player One depicts a bleak future, but it doesn’t draw any attention to one of its most disturbing elements: the lack of female influence on the cultural, social, and political landscape. This book is a celebration of a male-dominated nerd canon disguised as an adventure novel slash social critique. If you’re into the male-dominated nerd canon, you might enjoy its spectacle. Clearly, I did not.
Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez
Scarborough is a suburb of Toronto, amalgamated into the city in 1998 by an evil premier who we will not speak of. (I’m not a fan of amalgamation, but that’s another story.) It’s one of the most ethnically diverse areas of Toronto, itself one of the world’s most multicultural cities. Scarborough compassionately and complexly tells the intersecting stories of various low-income people who live in Scarborough. They are all united by a morning literacy programme offered at a local school, with many of the children attending for the promise of free breakfast. Almost all of the characters in this novel are people of colour, and Hernandez’s care and research in representing their cultures and experiences living in Canada is evident. She writes children and adults equally convincingly, affording every character compassion and nuance. The standout character is the literacy programme coordinator Hina, who you just hope is really out there supporting low-income communities, standing up for herself, and just generally being lovely and strong. Though this novel certainly has its fair share of sad – and even heartbreaking – moments, it’s not tragedy porn. It’s simply the story of a community and its resilience. I absolutely love reading novels set in Toronto, and I’m so glad that Scarborough exists to such local acclaim – these are stories that are not often told but that are so important for us all to understand as neighbours. I don’t remember the last time I was so gripped by a book that I read it in one sitting!
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
Some of the best modern fiction is being written by Nigerian and Nigerian-American women, and I’m so glad that books like this, Homegoing, and of course Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s works are gaining international attention. Under the Udala Trees is about Ijeoma, who comes of age during the Biafran War in the late 1960s. Sent away to be a housegirl for a grammar school teacher and his wife, Ijeoma meets and falls love with a Muslim girl named Amina. While I found the prose a bit stiff at times, the story was beautiful, the character of Ijeoma so richly-drawn and believable. In general I never tire of LGBTQ narratives, but it is true that so many are white and Western. I’m endlessly glad that this book exists, and Okparanta has so much to say about homosexuality in Nigeria, both within the novel and outside it.
Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro
Some of the best feminist-oriented coming-of-age stories have been produced by Canadian women. Alice Munro is best known for her short stories (she’s won a Nobel Prize!); Lives of Girls and Women is her only novel, though it could be argued that it’s a series of short stories centering on the precocious Del Jordan. Born in the 1930s, Del is raised by an enlightened, progressive mother in the small town of Jubilee, Ontario. The book follows her from age nine to young adulthood as she navigates the social and sexual expectations of a rapidly-changing world. The lives referenced in the title represent the different people Del is throughout the book as well as the different paths she could take. Her mother represents what she would have been reduced to had she been born a generation earlier; her friend Naomi represents the more conventional path taken by women. But Del is not a beacon of feminist consciousness like her mother. She is curious and sharp, but she pushes back against her mother’s progressive politics, looking for something greater than herself but also craving normalcy. She’s a fascinatingly complex character, a very convincing portrait of a young woman in the 1940s and 50s.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
I got it into my head that I want to read all of the books on that fake BBC-endorsed “100 books to read before you die” list, mostly just to say I had but also because there’s probably some good stuff on it. I’m still trying to decide if I should do it or not, and the biggest deterrent is the 50,000 pages of Dickens I would have to read. I thought I’d dip my toes into it and read some of the books I’m actually interested in, and I started with The Picture of Dorian Gray. Obviously I knew the basic story, but hadn’t actually read it. I ended up really liking it – it’s full of drama, intrigue, murder, and hyperbole about how having to watch a bad play is a truly torturous experience… basically everything you need in a late 19th century novel. I thought the character of Lord Henry was the most interesting; though the novel centres around Dorian and all of his soulless indiscretions, Henry is just as terrible – and he hasn’t even sold his soul for eternal youth. Of course, the dramatic tension of the plot was enough to reel me in, but it’s also a fascinating character study.
Out of the six books I read in May and June, there was only one I really disliked – all the others were very enjoyable. Can’t complain too much about that!
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