Books Read: August 2019

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!

Books read: July 2019

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!

Books read: June 2019

Posted on July 01, 2019 under Books

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.