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Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Hilarious Review of the Ikea Catalogue!

A German literary critic, Hellmuth Karasek, reviews the Ikea catalogue:  http://www.cbc.ca/books/2015/08/wheres-the-living-room-damn-it-literary-critic-reviews-ikea-catalogue.html

According to a friend, "Apparently Karasek is a lit-crit god, so this is a bit like Northrop Frye doing a self-parody."

I hope my book reviews are half as interesting.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Reviews Archive: "Orhan's Inheritance" by Aline Ohanesian


   4 Stars

This year marks the 100th anniversary of what is known as the Armenian Genocide, an event which the Turkish government denies.  Here’s a novel based on the events in Turkey in 1915, giving both Turkish and Armenian perspectives.

Review of Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

Orhan Türkoğlu returns to his home village in Turkey when his grandfather dies. He learns that he has inherited the family business, but the family home has been left to an unknown woman, Seda Meltonian, who resides in an Armenian nursing home in California. Orhan travels to the U.S. to meet Seda in hopes of getting back his ancestral home and learning about her connection with his grandfather Kemel.

The story alternates between 1990 and 1915. Orhan’s story, of course, is set in the more contemporary time period. Seda and Kemel’s stories are revealed in flashbacks to the last years of the Ottoman Empire when able-bodied male Armenians were killed or forced into labour and when women, children, the elderly and infirm were deported and sent on death marches leading to the Syrian desert.

This is a timely novel since this year marks the 100th anniversary of what is known as the Armenian Genocide, an event which the Turkish government denies. Six years ago, I read Summer Without Dawn by Agop J. Hacikyan so I knew a bit about the massacre which scholars believe may have been the model for Hitler’s Final Solution. Ohanesian’s description of events beginning in 1915 will inspire readers to do further research into Turkish and Armenian history.

The author presents history from both Turkish and Armenian perspectives in both the past and the present. We see how the lives of Kemel and Seda are swept into chaos. Both of them make choices that impact their lives but both are also victims of political decisions. We understand and sympathize with both of them. Then we see how their descendants have been affected 75 years later. It is for a reason that William Faulkner is quoted at the beginning (“The past is not dead; it’s not even past”) and that Kemel tells his son that he wants to “meld my past to your present.” Though one could understand a temptation to blame Turks, that is not the case. Seda speaks about there being good Turks who “had nothing to do with what happened to my family.”

Certainly, a major theme is how one should address wrongs of the past. How should Armenians deal with what happened to their people? Surely, it is important that the story of the Armenians be known; Seda’s niece mentions that Armenians want to tell their stories not just to themselves but to “’the rest of the world.’” Seda, however, wants to leave the past in the past and she tells Orhan that her niece “’has too much past in her veins and you have none.’” How should the Turkish people of today be held accountable for the actions of their ancestors? Should there be a public apology by the Turkish government? But simply saying one is sorry is not enough as Seda says: “’But sometimes empathy is not enough. Sometimes empathy needs to be followed by action.’”

The book is beautifully written. I loved sentences like “Time and progress were two long-lost relatives who send an occasional letter.” And the imagery is so effective. Orhan describes life in his village where “every person, object, and stone has to have some sort of covering, a layer of protection.” As it happens, history is also covered up, and Orhan has to get to the truth, an action like “peeling . . . off . . . an ill-fitting coat.”

This book should appear on must-read lists. It entertains: it contains a lot of suspense as there is much mystery and danger. And it teaches about a historical event not well-known. Readers cannot but be emotionally drawn into the story as Orhan learns about the true nature of his inheritance.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review of "In a Dark, Dark Wood" by Ruth Ware

In a Dark, Dark Wood  2 Stars

I read this book because The Guardian put it on its latest “best recent crime fiction novels” roundup.  I can’t imagine this is one of the best!

The novel begins with Leonora Shaw (Lee or Nora or Leo) regaining consciousness in a hospital after an accident.  In a series of flashbacks we learn about the events leading up to it:  her receiving an email inviting her to a weekend bachelorette party for Clare Cavendish.  Clare was Nora’s best friend in school, but Nora cut all contact and hasn’t spoken to her in ten years.  She chooses to attend though she keeps wondering why she was invited.  Nora remembers the party except for things that happened the second night at the remote house deep in the woods chosen for the venue.

The plot is very predictable.  The villain in the piece is easily identifiable and even the motive can be surmised.  The novel is very contrived:  ten years of misery could have been avoided with one conversation, the post-accident amnesia seems just too convenient, and Nora’s withholding the reason for her break with her past is just a way of manipulating the reader.  Keeping secrets from the reader is not usually a sign of narrative finesse.

The characters are flat.  Each of the guests has one distinguishing trait.  For example, Flo is devoted to Clare; Nina is blunt; and Melanie is worried about being away from her infant son.  Those identifying characteristics are given when the characters first appear, and nothing else is ever added. 

Leonora is a problematic character.  By profession she is a crime fiction novelist, yet her behaviour suggests she knows nothing about what she shouldn’t do:  try to evade the police and revisit the scene of the crime.   Certainly the encounter at the scene of the crime is totally unbelievable. 

The title is misleading.  It suggests that the novel will have an eerie atmosphere, but it really doesn’t.  Actually, the novel has very little to recommend it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

New Release: Review of "Woman of the Dead" by Bernhard Aichner

  2 Stars

This book, the first of a trilogy, has been a #1 bestseller in Austria so I requested an ARC of its English translation to be released on August 25.  I cannot understand why it was a bestseller.

Brünhilde Blum, the anti-heroine of the novel, is a mortician.  After the death of her adoptive parents, Blum is happy until her husband Mark, a police detective, is killed in a hit-and-run accident.  When she discovers that he was in fact murdered, she sets out to avenge his death.  To do so, she must track down five men who are responsible for that crime and other heinous acts as well (abduction, unlawful imprisonment, assault, rape, and murder).

It is the character of Blum that will immediately catch the reader’s interest.  She chooses to be called Blum, “Just Blum, because she hated her first name, she’d never been able to bear it. . . . A name that had nothing to do with her . . . A name that she had banished from her life.  Only Blum now.  No Brünhilde.”  And it is not just her name that she banishes; like a cross between Dexter and Lisbeth Salander, she has no difficulty removing people from her life.  She is a damaged individual brimming with hate and a desire for revenge. 

The book has a strong opening, but its initial promise is not kept.  The plot becomes very improbable.  Blum must find five men known only as the photographer, the priest, the cook, the huntsman and the clown, yet she manages to track them all down with minimal difficulty.  Everything just falls into place.  She is repeatedly able to break into homes and kill and dismember people without being caught; it’s almost as if she commits the perfect crime over and over because any problems are easily removed.  And she is able to do all this even when she takes unbelievable risks such as watching to see who will find a decapitated head she has left in a very public place.  She is successful even though abductions are not planned very carefully.  For example, only once a man has been abducted does she begin “looking for the perfect house, a house with a drive they can disappear down in broad daylight.” 

Some of the events make very little sense.  One minute a co-operative witness says he doesn’t recognize the name Dunya :  “’Don’t know her. There were so many of them, the whole staff hostel was full of foreigners. . . . I never paid attention to the names.’”  Then later he says that a particular man “’was often at the hotel when Dunya worked there’”?  A man described as the “village pastor” lives at the presbytery of the cathedral in Innsbruck?  He is abducted near his home but then his car, not used in the abduction, is found near the Italian border?  Someone intent on blackmail wouldn’t have extra copies of photos, especially in the age of digital photography?  Would a photographer bother printing photos when they can be kept on a computer?  One minute, Blum pleads with a man, with whom she has already had sex, “’I just want to see you,’” but then when they meet, she pushes him away, telling him “he must understand that she is thinking only of Mark.’”  She doesn’t expect this man to suspect her motives but she later worries that he is going to be suspicious of someone else whom he has no reason to suspect?  Would the smell of urine escape from a casket?  After gagging and tying up an unconscious person and wrapping blankets around him before placing him in a coffin, is it logical to put “tape around the casket to make sure there is no chance of escape”?  One minute, Blum learns about an actor’s whereabouts from “media reports” but then blames his “production company” for that information?

The writing style is weak.  Sometimes there are lengthy conversations between two people, conversations not interrupted with identifiers, so the reader has to keep track of who is saying what.  At other times, there is needless repetition.  For instance, at the end of one conversation, Blum observes that the man with whom she had spoken is not guilty:  “He didn’t know what she was talking about . . . He was surprised.  He racked his brain and found nothing, his astonishment was genuine.”  Later, after a second conversation, she thinks, “Briefly, she believed in his guilt.  But now she realizes that he had nothing to do with it. . . . His face had given that away.  In the restaurant and now here, his astonishment had been genuine, as had the confusion in his eyes.”  And I have rarely read about such expressive eyes and hands.  There are statements like, “She says these things without words, only with the touch of her fingertips” and “Blum knows that she has made a mistake, she was thinking only of herself; she knows she will hurt him if she tells him to go away.  She knows that, and his fingers can feel it” and “That’s what his raised hands say and his eyes” and “his eyes said no” and “Only his eyes say she reacted too slowly.”

I read the following statement about the author:  “Writing with breakneck narration and rapid-fire dialogue, Bernhard Aichner is poised to follow in the steps of Jo Nesbo, Camilla Läckberg, and Jussi Adler-Olsen to become Europe’s new breakout star in crime fiction.”  Having read and enjoyed Nesbø, Läckberg, and Adler-Olsen, I will be genuinely surprised if this prediction comes to pass. Something was lost in translation?

Note:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Happy birthday, A. S. Byatt!

Happy 79th birthday, A. S. Byatt!
  One of my favourite novels is Possession for which she won the 1990 Booker Prize.


Today is also the 125th anniversary of the birth of Jean Rhys who wrote another of my favourite novels.  
Product Details     Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Margaret Atwood Censored?

Censorship is defined as “the suppression of speech, public communication or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.”  It is not a practice I support.

It seems that there has been a recent case of censorship involving an opinion piece Margaret Atwood wrote for the National Post on August 21.  Here’s that piece which Atwood described as a “flighty little caper on hair”:  http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/hair-is-in-the-election-season-air-but-is-it-crucial-to-your-vote.  (Note: This is the censored version!)

Shortly after the satirical op-ed was posted on the newspaper’s website, it was removed and then re-posted but with sentences, which made reference to Harper’s political donations and the Duffy cover-up, removed.  The deleted statements about campaign donations are “Why is Harper still coyly hiding the two-million-dollar donors to his party leadership race? Don’t we have a right to know who put him in there? Who’s he working for, them or us?” Also, after this statement (“Why is he hiding what he knew about the Duffy cover-up, and when he knew it?) two additional sentences were omitted:  “He’s given four mutually exclusive answers so far. Is there a hidden real answer?”  Read this article which offers an interesting perspective on what occurred:  https://ricochet.media/en/557/margaret-atwood-vs-the-national-post

Regardless of your opinion of Atwood’s opinion, her freedom to express it must be supported.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Review of "Elizabeth is Missing" by Emma Healey

  
4.5 Stars

The narrator is Maud Horsham, an 82-year-old woman whose ever-increasing memory loss suggests she has Alzheimer’s.  She is obsessed with the fact that her friend Elizabeth is missing; in her confusion, she visits Elizabeth’s house, pesters her daughter and doctor, and drops in at the police station repeatedly, though she has no recollection of doing so.  There is another mystery, however, that occupies Maud.  Her sister Sukey went missing in 1946 and was never seen again.

What is remarkable about the book is how the author portrayed the thoughts of a dementia sufferer.  We do not know whether the portrayal is accurate, but it is certainly convincing.  Behaviour and comments which might seem totally illogical to an observer make complete sense when seen from the perspective of Maud’s interior monologue.  For example, Maud has a tendency to dig with her hands in back gardens and her actions are perceived as peculiar, but it becomes clear why she is doing so; she cannot even articulate why she is doing it, but the     motivation for the compulsion proves to be perfectly rational. 

Maud’s memory loss gets worse over time.  She forgets doing something minutes after doing it, loses words for common objects, and at times does not even recognize family members.  She repeats herself constantly, telling people Elizabeth is missing and asking, “Where is the best place to plant marrows?”  Some reviewers have criticized this repetition but it is necessary for the sake of accuracy.  She more and more lives in the past and those flashbacks to her childhood slowly tell us about Sukey’s disappearance.

The reader has to do some work.  Since Maud is an unreliable narrator, the reader must sometimes try to make sense of what she is remembering or describing.  Maud’s daughter Helen is in the same position – trying to figure out some of her mother’s comments.  Inevitably, she sometimes becomes frustrated with Maud, and we can understand why caregiving for someone with Maud’s condition can be very taxing.

There is a sadness that permeates the book.  In the flashbacks we see the vibrant person Maud once was but no longer is.  And through Maud we see the effects of aging:  the indignities, the patronizing remarks and attitudes of others, the awareness of being a burden to others.  But there is also humour throughout.  Maud has retained a sense of humour so some of her comments are priceless:  “I only really need glasses for reading, but they make you wear them all the time once you reach a certain age.  It’s part of the uniform.  How would they know you were an old duffer otherwise?  They want you to have the right props so they can tell you apart from people who have the decency to be under seventy.  False teeth, hearing aid, glasses.  I’ve been given them all.”  At one point Maud goes to a newspaper to put in an advert asking for information about Elizabeth.  The woman taking details from Maud thinks Maud is missing a cat so there is a hilarious conversation between them:  “’Have you asked your neighbours to look in their sheds?’ . . . She asks if Elizabeth has a collar, and it seems like an odd question. . . . ‘Is Elizabeth microchipped?’”  In another incident, Elizabeth tells Helen she should fire the latest girl she hired to look after her:  “’That girl you’ve hired, she doesn’t do any work.  None.  I’ve watched her. . . . She leaves plates by the sink and there are clothes all over the floor of her room. . . . You should ask her to leave, I think.  Get someone else, if you must.  I always did the housework myself at your age, but then the younger generations expect everything to be easy.’”  Maud doesn’t realize she is describing her granddaughter Katy.  What could be a dreary read is not because of the lighthearted moments. 

This is a wonderful book.  It has a couple of mysteries which Maud and the reader try to solve but, more importantly, it deepens our understanding of what it means to be human.  

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Humourous Look at the ART of Reading

Check out my blog posting from yesterday (August 20) about the art of reading and then note what The Huffington Post tweeted today (August 21):
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/13-people-who-are-definitely-reading-books-and-not-just-posing-for-a-painting_55d63346e4b07addcb46123c?ir=Books&section=books&utm_hp_ref=books&kvcommref=mostpopular.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The ART of Books and Reading

Reading has often been the subject of art.  I’ve started a Pinterest board which I’ve entitled The Art of Reading which has, thus far, 370 pins:  https://www.pinterest.com/schatjev/the-art-of-reading/.  My Pinterest board is certainly not the most extensive.  Check out  https://www.pinterest.com/grottylotty/  which has 52 boards devoted to the art of reading  which its owner, Charlotte T. Jackson, describes as “An evolving library science/art history project on Readers in Art- how this theme has evolved over the centuries, and differences in portrayals of the sexes.”

One of my prize possessions is a Delft tile based on a Rembrandt painting depicting a woman reading a book, and another is a Boch Frères plate depicting an old woman reading, but Schatje’s Shelves also has an art book that illustrates the joy of reading:  
   Reading Women by Stefan Bollmann is a selection of paintings, drawings, prints and photographs of women reading through the ages.  (This book was also published under the title Women Who Read are Dangerous.)



Of course, books themselves possess beauty.  
A Book of Books has 52 black-and-white photographs of unusual books by Abelardo Morell.  For once, I agree with a book jacket blurb:  “A visual tribute to the printed word, this sumptuous ode to books will be irresistible to anyone who treasures the touch of fine paper.”

Update:  And then there's the art made from books:  http://bookriot.com/2015/03/20/book-art-awesome-large-scale-installations/.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Reviews Archive: Pre-Execution Novels - "The Execution of Noa P. Singleton" by Elizabeth L. Silver and "Burial Rites" by Hannah Kent

I mentioned in a blog recently that I viewed the film The Stoning of Soraya M. about an Iranian woman being stoned to death.  The film reminded me that I have read two books about women awaiting execution:  The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver and Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.  Here are my reviews of those two novels.

Review of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver
3 Stars
   Thirty-five-year-old Noa is on death row; six months prior to her execution, X-Day, Marlene Dixon, a high-powered attorney and mother of the woman Noa was convicted of murdering, decides to petition for clemency and has hired a young lawyer, Oliver Stansted, to assist in having Noa’s sentence commuted. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about Noa’s childhood, her single mother’s serial monogamy, her friendship with Persephone Riga, her very public miscarriage, her reconciliation with her absentee father Caleb, and the murder of Sarah Dixon. These flashbacks alternate with Marlene’s letters to her dead daughter.

Noa is not a likeable character. She feels alienated and expresses that alienation in a cynical attitude. Her voice is brusque and unemotional. The real problem, however, is that she doesn’t behave as a supposedly intelligent person would. She is the salutatorian of her graduating class and is accepted to Princeton, yet she makes terrible decisions that are illogical. For instance, her initial involvement with Marlene makes little sense. During her trial, she also refuses to participate in her own defense. Her passivity may be the result of latent guilt over an incident involving a childhood friend, but her motivation is never clarified.

The development of Marlene’s character is more interesting than the revelation of Noa’s background. Marlene is initially sympathetic: she is a grieving mother and cancer survivor. Gradually, however, she emerges as a master manipulator who bullies people into doing her will. One of the major questions throughout is why Marlene is in favour of clemency for her daughter’s killer when she spoke in favour of capital punishment at Noa’s sentencing hearing. Does she have a hidden agenda? There are several possible explanations for her behaviour (i.e. learning the truth of what happened when Sarah was killed, alleviating her guilt in her daughter’s fate or in Noa’s death sentence), but, again, there is no real clarification of motivation.

The book examines guilt. Noa mentions at the beginning that she is guilty of shooting Sarah: “I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea when I pulled the trigger.” Although she does not contest her guilt, there is a suggestion that there are degrees of guilt. In one conversation with Oliver, Noa says, “’Everyone’s got something [to feel guilty about].’” And there is certainly the suggestion that others may bear some responsibility in what happened to Sarah and that she may not be the only victim.

Certainly, the reader is left to question the appropriateness of Noa’s punishment. The author uses Noa as a mouthpiece to express her opinion on capital punishment. Noa discusses the inequality of the law and judicial system: “The law has created a protected class of individuals. People who, on the basis of their age or status, are more valuable to society. If they are killed . . . the party responsible must die. . . . A nation that prides itself on equality treats its victims ever so inequitably in ritual. . . . Some states have gone so far as to codify capital murder, applying the sentence of death somewhat less haphazardly. . . Aggravating factors, they call it. Like murder can be any more inflamed than, well, what murder already is.”

At one point Noa accuses Oliver of “linguistic foreplay,” an apt phrase for that of which the author is occasionally guilty. At times there are awkward metaphors which jar: “My hands were cuffed, facing each other like confused children outside the principal’s office” and “My eyes pickpocketed the room” and “[Perfecting the art of the guilt trip] is isolating, like a termite scuffling up your innards” and “even his voice was typecast to match his hairstyle and choice of wardrobe: docile as a prostrated ocean” and “His moans lubricated the phone lines like a sexually transmitted disease. Whirls of tornadic subjugation seeped through the little holes of the telephone receiver” and “[The sun’s] talons skewering the clouds beneath. That elongated stretch through the clouds; that beam downward, pointing like a strict schoolteacher” and” [The clumsy excuses of unwilling jurors are] melodious sacraments to my dissonant entr’acte.” Such affected prose does not work.

Despite its occasional florid, overwrought style, the book is sufficiently entertaining and does provide food for thought. As a companion piece, I would recommend Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, another debut novel which also features a woman awaiting her execution.



Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
4 Stars     
  This is a fictionalized account of the final months in the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. It is 1829 in northwestern Iceland; Agnes is placed in the custody of a farmer in the months leading up to her execution. As she awaits her end, she helps with the farm chores and comes to know the family who are her custodians. She also meets with a clergyman, Thorvadur “Tóti” Jónsson, who is to serve as her spiritual guide but who becomes her confidant; it is to him that she relates much of the story of her “miserable, loveless life” (211).

Agnes emerges as a fully realized character. There is a great deal of sympathy for her since her life was nothing but “a dull-eyed cycle of work . . . nothing but chores, chores, chores . . . the stifling ordinariness of existence” (210). There is also much to admire about her: intelligence and compassion. She even shows compassion towards a woman who spreads gossip about her. She is not perfect, however. Because her life was circumscribed by isolation, loneliness and abandonment, she naively fell in love with a man who paid her some attention: “For the first time in my life, someone saw me, and I loved him because he made me feel I was enough” (210). And she was certainly slow in realizing the truth about her relationship with this man.

One of the themes is that truth is not simple and straightforward, but open to interpretation. Agnes herself claims that there is “’No such thing as truth’” (105) because different people think different things are important, and for her, “There is only ever a sense that what is real to me is not real to others” (106). Agnes tells Tóti “’All my life people have thought I was too clever. . . .If I was young and simple-minded, do you think everyone would be pointing the finger at me’” (126). She believes she is not believed because, “’how other people think of you determines who you are. . . . People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down’” (104).

Agnes tells Tóti her version of the crime, but it does not tally with what the officials believe happened. Does she tell him the truth or is the District Commissioner correct when he says, “’I do not doubt that she has manufactured a life story in such a way so as to prick your sympathy’” (162)? Does she choose a “young and inexperienced” churchman believing that she can manipulate him into appealing her death sentence? Certainly her thought that, “I will have to think of what to say to him” (97) could suggest forethought and planning.

There is no doubt that being an audience “to her life’s lonely narrative” (158) influences the listeners. At the beginning everyone is reluctant to have anything to do with Agnes; Lauga, the younger daughter, is openly hostile. Margrét fears for her family’s safety with a murderess in the house, and Jón worries about the influence Agnes might have on his daughters. Their attitudes change gradually. Margrét, who initially speaks of Agnes as a murderess and a criminal, later tells Agnes, “’No one is all bad’” (259) and “’You are not a monster’” (307). Margrét realizes that her relationship with Agnes has become “more natural and untroubled” but what is also interesting is that “Margrét worried at this” (192).

Tóti’s reaction to Agnes is also interesting. Agnes tells him that they had met years previously when he had helped her ford a river, yet he “couldn’t remember meeting a young woman” (78). Later, however, he “thought again of their first meeting . . . a dark-haired woman preparing to cross the current . . . Her hair had been damp against her forehead and neck from walking. . . . Then, the warmth of her body against his chest as they forded the foamy waters on his mare. The smell of sweat and wild grassing issuing from the back of her neck” (200). Does he really remember this first meeting?

The Icelandic setting is almost another character in the narrative. The descriptions of the harsh climate, the increasing darkness as winter looms, and the barren landscape certainly reflect Agnes’ feelings of loneliness. There is also no doubt that such an environment can have an influence on people’s actions. At one point, Margrét says, “’It’s hard to be alone in winter’’’ (260). As winter advances so do the reader’s feelings of dread about what will happen to Agnes.

It is evident that the author did considerable research and she gives a vivid picture of rural life in Iceland in the early 19th century. I was not aware of the high level of literacy amongst Icelanders as far back as that time period. The inclusion of historical documents provides some facts about the case and stylistic contrast to Agnes’ interior monologues.

There is much to like about this book. It is not perfect because some of the minor characters, especially District Commissioner Björn Blöndal, are stereotypes, but it does have much to recommend it: suspense, a great mystery, a wonderfully atmospheric setting, and interesting character development.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Review of "His Whole Life" by Elizabeth Hay

4 Stars
   Having read virtually all of Hay's previous fiction, I rushed to the bookstore on the release date of this, her latest book.  It did not disappoint.

Covering a period of about five years, the novel is set in the mid-1990s, around the time of the Quebec referendum.  The protagonist is Jim Bobak who is 10 years old at the beginning.  He lives in Manhattan, where his American father George feels most at home, but spends summers in the Ottawa Valley cottage country where his Canadian mother Nancy is most comfortable.

This is not a plot-driven novel.  The major events are those encountered by most families some time in their lives:  illness, happy times, rivalries, disputes, reconciliations.  Familial relationships evolve.  The feelings and motivations of the characters are those experienced by everyone:  guilt and regret because of past actions, frustration with oneself and others, the need to be loved, the desire for forgiveness, conflicts between loyalties.

Conflicting choices serve as the framework of the novel:  Quebec, “a place torn between staying and leaving, and therefore always dissatisfied” (226), must choose between sovereignty and unity; Nancy must choose living in Canada or living in the U.S.; Jim is torn between rural life and urban living; Nancy must decide whether to stay with George or to leave him; Lulu, Nancy’s best friend, and George must both choose between reconciling with a brother or continuing the estrangements. 

The observations about family I found interesting.  The relationship between a parent and a grown child:  “Fragility itself, the construction of camaraderie between a parent and child after the child leaves home.  Blown down by the least rebuff” (20).  And the pain of family estrangement:  “the old family loneliness – that immeasurable desolation – and looking for some way in” (136).  Who wouldn’t agree with this comment:  “How strange and unknowable families were.  Relatives could be so savage with one another and so caring at the same time” (345)?   So why do we love our family members?  Maybe “People love others not because they are lovable necessarily but because it takes such a weight off the heart” (308).

Forgiveness in families is also touched on.  Nancy quotes an Alice Munro story: “’”Forgiveness in families is a mystery to me, how it comes or how it lasts”’” (47).  She makes the observation that apologies may take different forms:  “’In the way he accepted your affection, he was saying he was sorry’” (234).  Keeping faithful to the framework of the novel, the author even studies the dual nature of forgiveness:  Nancy questions whether forgiveness is “in some terrible, overeager way a lack of curiosity.  It was a big, powerful hose that washed everything away. . . . Forgiveness was the premature end to the story.  She had skipped to the last page instead of reading the book through” (82).  Or is forgiveness “a kind of movement in one’s chest that made it easier to breathe” (350)?

The novel examines how people make choices.  It can be difficult to make choices because of divided loyalties.  Nancy even says to George, “’you can be loyal to what disappoints you. . . . Who’s to say we can’t have many loves and many identities?  We can hold more in our hearts than we think’” (193 – 194).  And the novel also examines how people can move forward after they’ve made poor choices.  Jim begins this theme by asking his parents, “’What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’” (3) on the opening page.  Nancy understands that her son is asking what to do after doing something bad, though he chooses not to tell her what he did.  Nancy also understands that decisions made with the best of intentions may turn out to be horribly wrong:  “But what was admirable in the moment became inexcusably self-serving in hindsight.  It must happen to others, she thought.  You think you’re doing something brave.  Only later does it seem so baldly wrong that it’s hard to understand what you were thinking at the time” (286).  The answer seems to be “’Don’t rush’” (276) when making decisions, but it’s never too late to correct a bad choice (206).  Most importantly, we should remember, “’Doing something terrible doesn’t define you for the rest of your life’” (300).

The characterization of Jim is wonderful.  He is sensitive, intelligent, observant, and curious.  He thinks about his own behaviour:  “Jim knew he had the same effect on people sometimes, trying too hard and not knowing how to quit” (90).  He wants to learn how to live:  how to defend himself without being nasty (81).  In this regard, the best advice he receives is, “’Be firm but don’t yank’” (236), just like when walking a dog on a leash.  It is often Jim’s comments about the behaviour of adults which are most perceptive; for example, George makes a particularly nasty comment about Lulu in Jim’s hearing though shortly after he complains that Jim does not respect him.  Jim thinks, “he respected [George] enough to believe he meant what he said, and if he meant what he said, then how could he respect him?  A father who wants to be admired should think these things through” (292).

This is a book for readers who are willing, like Jim is advised, to be patient and not to rush.  It resonates with issues about life and its complicated, conflicted, and confused relationships.  It is definitely worth reading and probably more than just once.

Monday, August 17, 2015

All That THIS Book Lover Wants in Life . . .

A list of what a book lover wants in life has been making the rounds on various social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest).  I decided to make my own list:

1.     Books
2.     Time to read books
3.     Books
4.     A library with shelves and shelves of books (but with some room for more)
5.     Books
6.     A comfy chair to read books
7.     Books
8.     Money to buy more books
9.     Books
10.   A partner who supports my love of reading and books
11.   Books
12.   A reading lamp to allow for comfortable reading of books
13.   Books
14.   A cozy quilt (preferably handmade just for me) for comfort when reading books
15.   Books
16.   Friends with whom to discuss books
17.   Books
18.   A cup of tea or a cappuccino or a glass of wine or a glass of Bailey’s (depending on my mood)         to drink while reading books
19.   Books
20.   Godiva chocolates to nibble on while reading books
21.   Books
22.   Appropriate music to listen to while reading books
23.   Books
24.   A never-ending list of recommended books
25.   Books

Hmmm . . . I think I have all of these – though, of course, I could always use more of #8.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review of "The Hired Man" by Aminatta Forna

Earlier today I listened to Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Aminatta Forna on Writers and Company on CBC (http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Writers+and+Company/ID/2673177555/).  I have read her most recent book The Hired Man.  Here’s my review:

  
4 Stars

The novel begins in 2007 in the Croatian town of Gost. The narrator, Duro Kolak, is a middle-aged handyman who gets himself hired to help Laura, an Englishwoman, restore “the blue house” which she and her husband have purchased. Past and present unfold at the same time: Duro tells the story of the present (working on the restoration of the house and getting to know Laura and her teenaged children, Grace and Matthew), but he also flashes back to several time periods in the past: his childhood, his first love, his military experiences, his return to the village, etc. Gradually it becomes obvious that Gost is not the pastoral ideal it might seem to the undiscerning.

One of the strengths of the novel is the slow buildup in suspense. As Duro drops subtle hints about what lies hidden, the reader experiences curiosity and then unease because of a growing sense of something evil lurking. For example, how is it that Duro knows the blue house so well? Who created the mosaic which adorned the front of the house? Why was the mosaic plastered over? How did Duro’s father and sister come to die at the same time? Why is there such animosity between Duro and his childhood friend Kresimir around whom he feels “the chill of unfinished business”?

The blue house functions as a metaphor for the village and its mosaic functions as a symbol of the past which the villagers have tried to bury. Just as Grace exposes the mosaic from beneath a thin layer of plaster, Duro exposes the not-so-distant past of the village and its inhabitants. Grace removes the whitewash from the house’s façade and Duro works at removing the whitewash covering the past. It is noteworthy that though the façade of the house is repaired, there are still problems indoors, specifically a “patch of rotten plaster.”

The use of foil characters is very effective. Duro is very much aware of the town’s history and its secrets, whereas Laura is totally oblivious; when she is first introduced, Duro describes her assurance in speaking “to a stranger in a foreign land in her own tongue and [expecting] to be understood. Clearly she enjoyed the luck of the innocent.” Her outlook and that of Duro are clearly contrasted: “To Laura’s way of thinking the past is a place of happiness, of safety and order . . . the past was always better. But in this country our love of the past is a great deal less, unless it is a very distant past indeed, the kind nobody alive can remember, a past transformed into a song or a poem. We tolerate the present, but what we love is the future, which is about as far away from the past as it is possible to be.” When fifteen-year-old Grace asks her mother about the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Laura naively tells her that nothing happened in Gost: “’Nowhere near here, darling. . . . It’s not even the same country any more. None of those sorts of things happened here . . . Anyway, it was for ever ago. You were only just born, it’s all long forgotten now.’”

Of course it is this civil conflict that is very much a part of Gost’s past. Interestingly, the author gives virtually no background information about this ethnic conflict; even the words “Serb” and “Croat” are never used. The novel examines how people had to survive the war and then survive living with the knowledge of what they and their neighbours did during that war. Duro speaks of events “of which I’d found a way to live with. I’d had no choice, none of us had, though some were better at it than others.” He feels that “somebody must stand guard over the past” so he rejoices when the house and the past are resurrected: “Something that had been neglected and left to wither was being restored.” He is not above using Laura and her family to recreate the past in order to send a message to his neighbours in Gost. He believes that people must not forget the truth about the past and must come to terms with it: “Probably you wonder how we all stand each other as I do sometimes, but the truth is we have no choice. In towns like this there is nothing to do but learn to live with each other.”

The novel is not flawless. Though Duro emerges as a multi-dimensional character and the portrayal of Laura’s two children is very realistic, Kresimir and Fabjan remain rather flat. Sometimes the cryptic nature of the conversations between Duro and his former friends becomes annoying. Also, the transitions between past and present are abrupt in some instances, although the discomposure felt by the reader is probably intended to reflect Duro’s.

Nonetheless, the strengths of the book far outweigh its weaknesses. Its examination of how people try to establish a sense of normalcy after finding themselves in the midst of an ethnic conflict may leave the reader feeling disconcerted, but that consequence speaks to the power of the novel.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Harper Lee and Truman Capote Friendship in a New YA Novel: "Tru & Nelle"

   Truman Capote and Harper Lee were childhood friends in Monroeville, Alabama.  Truman was supposedly the model for Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Harper was the model for Idabel Thompkins, a character in Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948.  Harper also did a lot of research for In Cold Blood

Now, Greg Neri, an American YA author, has written a book based on that friendship; the book, entitled Tru & Nelle, is scheduled for release in March of 2016.  

There is that wonderful biographical film about Truman, entitled Capote and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, in which Nelle Harper Lee is portrayed.  Harper is played by Sandra Bullock in another film about Truman entitled Infamous.  Will there one day be a film about their childhood?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review of "The Stranger" by Harlan Coben

 
2 Stars

I have heard of Harlan Coben but never read any of his books, so I finally decided to read his latest.  It was a disappointment.  I don’t know why he is so highly regarded by so many readers.

Adam Price learns from a young stranger that his wife lied to him about something significant a couple of years earlier.  Adam confronts Corinne but before she can give him a complete explanation, she vanishes.  Adam sets out to find her on his own, but soon other secrets about Corinne emerge and eventually the police become involved. 

The opening certainly caught my attention.  The inciting incident (being told a secret kept hidden by a loved one) is interesting, but shortly after that I started rolling my eyes at the improbable events.

Adam is a lawyer and so would have investigative resources at his disposal, but he chooses to go solo.  He does things he would warn a client never to do.  When his wife goes missing, he doesn’t seem to be particularly worried and, though he claims to know her so well, he accepts strange behaviour on her part as natural?  He lacks personality so it was difficult to identify with him.

There are other characterization issues.  Corinne we get to know only through Adam and through accusations made against her, so the ending does not have the impact it should.  Adam and Corinne’s two sons, Ryan and Thomas, don’t behave convincingly:  their mother is missing yet they just carry on as normal.  Then there are so many minor characters, none of whom is really developed, that it is difficult to differentiate among them. 

Then there’s the plot.  I expect plot twists, but there are just too many coincidences.  So many people are simultaneously looking for one person, all for different reasons?  Johanna, a police chief from Ohio, travels to New Jersey “on [her] own dime” to question Adam.  She leaves, but then is back at a crucial moment to assist Adam?  Actually, she charges in more than once!  And the incident at the log cabin in Pennsylvania is just not believable.

Adam may wish he had never met the stranger, and I too am left wishing I had not met The Stranger.  Weak character development and improbable events are not the elements of a good book.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Meaning and Beauty of Libraries

   I’ve been coming across reviews of The Meaning of the Library:  A Cultural History edited by Alice Crawford.  The Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/the-meaning-of-the-library-ed-by-alice-crawford-review/), Kirkus Reviews (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/alice-crawford/the-meaning-of-the-library/), and Maclean’s (August 10, 2015 issue) have had reviews.  I think I will buy this book.













  These reviews had me browsing through a book in my library which a friend gave me as a gift a few years ago:  The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World by Jacques Bosser.  It is a photographic tour of 23 of the world’s historic libraries from 12 countries. 

Of course, there are a number of websites offering photos of the world’s beautiful libraries.  I like http://mentalfloss.com/article/51788/62-worlds-most-beautiful-libraries  and http://www.bestvalueschools.com/50-most-beautiful-libraries-in-the-world/, both of which feature two Canadian libraries:  the Library of Parliament in Ottawa and the Vancouver Public Library. 

But my favourite library is still Schatje’s Shelves!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Reviews Archive: BIG Novels - "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt and "The Luminaries" by Eleanor Catton

Having just finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara with its 700+ pages, I got to thinking about the other two novels of that length I read in the last two years.  Here are my reviews of those tomes:  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which won the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction.  Does this bode well for A Little Life?

Review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt   2 Stars

  
I finished this book with regret – regret that I had invested so much of my time reading this 771-page tome. It has received many rave reviews and was chosen as a Best Book of 2013 by the New York Times. Last week it was at the top of the best seller list in Maclean’s. I am obviously in the minority, but I found it wordy and pretentious.

Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker survives a bombing at an art museum, but his mother is killed. He escapes without anyone noticing him and takes with him The Goldfinch, a painting by a 17th-century Dutch painter. He is provided a home by the family of a schoolmate before being taken to Las Vegas by his father, a man whose personality is dominated by the addiction gene. Later he moves in with Hobie, the business partner of a man who spoke his dying words to Theo after the museum explosion and who (Theo believes) told him to take the painting with him. As he drifts into adulthood, he keeps the painting despite experiencing tremendous guilt about having it in his possession. Eventually he is drawn into the criminal underworld which uses stolen masterpieces as currency.

I was expecting the novel to examine the power of art on our lives, and I was not disappointed in this regard. There are several discussions of the impact of art. Hobie tells Theo, “’And isn’t the whole point of things – beautiful things – that they connect you to some larger beauty’” (757)? Hobie insists that a painting can change “’the way you see, and think, and feel’” (758). For Theo, The Goldfinch is a thing of beauty but it also connects him to his mother who loved the painting. At one point, he says that “The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary” (559). At the end, he summarizes that “Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. But the painting has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time” (771).

Theo, the narrator, is not a likeable person. At the beginning one would have to be totally heartless not to sympathize with a child who loses a parent he desperately loves after having been abandoned by a selfish, unfaithful father. The Barbour family takes him in and provides him with a home, but it is a temporary arrangement and Mrs. Barbour is not the maternal type. When Theo’s father reappears, he proves to be anything but a model parent. It becomes difficult to sympathize however, as Theo continues to make one poor decision after another, well into adulthood. Even when provided with a stable home and support and affection, Theo comes across as an ingrate as he behaves in ways that put all that in jeopardy. One could make a plausible argument that Theo suffers from post-traumatic stress, but from the very beginning he wallows in self-pity and behaves in ways that are self-destructive and hurtful to others; for example, after his father left, Theo engaged in petty criminality even though the staff at his school was very supportive and even though he understood the consequences for him and the hurt his beloved mother would experience.

Then, in the end, he makes an appraisal of his role in preserving art; arguing that love follows art through time, he decides that he played a “bright, immutable part in that Immortality.” And he concludes with a lofty statement: “And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next” (771). His mother once said to him that “’anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’” (28) and he implies that he has helped perform a miracle?! Oh please!

As a teen in Las Vegas, Theo meets Boris who has a tremendous impact on Theo’s life. I found Boris unbelievable. He is fluent in multiple languages and reads Dostoevsky even though he is drunk or high most of the time? Hobie is another unbelievable character; in his case, he is just too good to be true. When Theo finally admits to Hobie of an illegal scheme that could have dire consequences for both him and Hobie, Hobie isn’t angry; instead, he blames himself: “’I’m as much to blame for this as you’” (497). When he later learns of Theo’s further criminality, he says, “’It does all swing around strangely sometimes, doesn’t it? . . . How funny time is. How many tricks and surprises’” (753).

The plotting is very slow and occasionally stretches credibility. The description of the explosion’s aftermath made me wonder if Theo would ever find his way out of the museum. And when he does, he manages to get out without anyone seeing him? The drinking and drug use sessions in Las Vegas go on and on. The descriptions of the effects of drugs become tedious in their repetitiveness. The extensive tangents are unnecessary; for example, if I were interested in furniture restoration, I’d consult non-fiction books written by an expert in the field. Horst, “a bad junkie” (572) goes on for pages about the technical skill of various artists. And the number of coincidences is problematic. Boris, for instance, makes an appearance just when he is expected to do so. There are so many coincidences that it seems the author feels she has to justify them: “’Who was it said that coincidence was just God’s way of remaining anonymous’” (758). Characters are always exchanging meaningful glances: “A glance was exchanged – the heft of which I recognized instantly” (531) and “They looked at each other and some unspoken something seemed to pass between them” (570). The scenes in Amsterdam, those outside Theo’s hotel room, are perfect for an action film but are not in the same genre as the rest of the novel.

Much has been made of the style of the book. There is no doubt that the author is intelligent and educated, but at times I sensed some pretension. The number of literary and artistic allusions is impressive. German, Russian, Polish, French and Dutch phrases are used. But is a sentence of over 200 words really necessary (715)?

There were several times when I considered abandoning the book; however, I kept hoping I would encounter something that would change my largely negative opinion and that somehow the book, unlike the tethered goldfinch in the painting, would be able to soar. It did not. At one point, Theo describes the finch in the painting as “fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place” (306). The book does the same.


Review of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton   3 Stars
    I picked up this tome with some trepidation; its length of 832 pages is daunting. What swayed me was its winning of both the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the 2013 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction. After finishing it, I would not have chosen it for these literary awards, but it is interesting enough and will especially appeal to lovers of 19th-century novels.

This historical suspense is set in the 1860s during the gold rush in New Zealand in a mining town on the South Island’s west coast. Twelve men gather secretly to discuss three events that occurred two weeks earlier: the death of a hermit, the disappearance of a young man, and a prostitute’s near death due to drug overdose. Their meeting is interrupted by the arrival of Walter Moody, a newcomer to the goldfields. In Part I of the novel, 360 pages, they reveal what they know; each man has at least one piece of information the others don’t; “No one man could really be called ‘guilty’, just as no one man could really be called ‘innocent’” (350). In the rest of the novel, the men seek out each other and tidbits of information emerge in their conversations. Flashbacks help to give the back stories so that in the end the reader can piece together a fairly complete picture of what transpired and why.

The variety of characters presented is wide: a whoremonger, a Maori greenstone hunter, a Jewish newspaperman, a Chinese prospector, a chaplain, a prostitute, a hotelier, a ship’s captain, a politician, a magistrate, an opium dealer, a brothel owner, a gaoler, among others. In keeping with the style of a 19th-century novel, straightforward character appraisals and physical descriptions are given whenever a new person is introduced. At times it was difficult to keep all the characters straight in my mind, but the character chart at the beginning was helpful.

The book has all the accoutrements of a Dickensian plot: long-lost siblings, murder, conspiracies, phantoms, assignations, secrets, purloined letters, shipwrecks, lost treasure, eavesdropping, betrayals, a séance, power plays, sex, opium, and love affairs. Of course there are numerous chance encounters and coincidences. Moody even refers to the number of coincidences: “’A string of coincidences is not a coincidence’? And what was a coincidence . . . but a stilled moment in a sequence that had yet to be explained” (350).

Because the plot is non-linear, the reader might find him/herself becoming confused: “What a convoluted picture it was – and how difficult to see, in its entirety” (343). Fortunately, the author assists a great deal by occasionally offering recaps to make certain the reader has all the details.

The style of the book is very much 19th-century. Besides the blunt character descriptions and old-fashioned plot elements, the syntax is that of the time period. Chapters are prefaced with synopses, expletives are concealed with dashes, chapters end with cliff hangers, the narrator is omniscient and intrusive, and the book even has a dark and stormy night opening.

The structure of the narrative is complex. It is based on the astrological calendar. There are twelve parts, and each part is half the length of the previous. The first part has twelve chapters, and each part thereafter has one less chapter so the last part has only one. All of this suggests a waning moon, as further emphasized by the cover art. Also, the various characters fade into the background as others ascend in influence. The traits of the characters seem to be determined by their sun signs. The related influence of the planetary figures (as mentioned in the character chart) is particularly telling. I know little about astrology so there is probably much that missed my notice. I will admit to some discomfort with the inclusion of astral soul-mates (716).

This is a novel of plot, not a novel of character (since all characters are static) or a novel of theme. There are, however, some observations, mostly made by Moody – whose influence, appropriately, is Reason – which serve as commentary on the human condition. The one topic on which he repeatedly comments is the unknowability of the complete truth. He tells the group of twelve that, “’one should never take another man’s truth for one’s own’” and “’there are no whole truths, there are only pertinent truths – and pertinence . . . is always a matter of perspective. . . . But your perspectives are very many, and you will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole’” (282). Later, he cautions himself that “a man ought never to trust another man’s evaluation of a third man’s disposition” (392). The chaplain agrees: “’If I have learned anything from experience, it is this: never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view’” (620 – 621). It is appropriate, therefore, that in the end, there are some unanswered questions. The reader has enough information to make a good guess as to who did what, but some assumptions have to be made: “How opaque, the minds of absent men and women! And how elusive, motivation.”

Having read other of the nominations for both the Man Booker and the Governor-General’s Award, I do disagree with the final choices of the judges. The Luminaries is an interesting read with a complex plot and structure, and the author can be commended for her research (e.g. elements of 19th-century fiction, astrology, New Zealand gold rush) but, for me, it does not have the luminary quality I expect of a book chosen to receive these prestigious awards.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Review of "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara

4.5 Stars

Every year I seem to read one 700+-page novel.  This is the one for 2015.  I just finished it and feel as if I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster ride for the last few days.  Whew!  I won’t soon forget this one.

The book is about the lives of four young men who became friends in university and moved to New York to begin their careers.  They are Willem Ragnarsson, a waiter and wanna-be actor whose family ranched in Wyoming; Malcolm Irvine, a biracial man from a wealthy family who is beginning his career as an architect; J.B. Marion, the son of Haitian immigrants whose goal is to become a renowned artist; and Jude St. Francis, a lawyer about whose past virtually nothing is known.  We see how they maintain their friendships as they become established in their professions.  Gradually, though, the focus turns to Willem and Jude’s friendship and the revelation of Jude’s traumatic childhood. 

Though the book covers about 40 years, there is a timelessness to it.  There are no references to specific years or historical events, though it is clearly set in contemporary times.  For example, 9/11 receives no mention.  This sense of things happening in an eternal present gives the book a fable-like quality.

This is not an easy book to read.  There are graphic depictions of suffering.  Abandonment,  physical and sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, rape, prostitution, addiction, self-harm, domestic violence, suicide, and grief are detailed, so readers need to be prepared for an emotionally harrowing experience.  Most of these miseries are revealed in flashbacks to Jude’s early life, “the snake- and centipede-squirming muck of Jude’s past.”  The relentlessness of Jude’s traumas reminded me of Sisyphus, though Jude has committed no great sin.  The novel can be seen as an examination of the effects of trauma.  Jude emerges from his upbringing physically and emotionally damaged:  “those fifteen years whose half-life have been so long and so resonant . . . have determined everything he has become and done.”  Chronic pain, shame, insecurity, and self-hatred are just some of the effects.  Because of what happened to him, Jude can think of his life only in terms of “its smallness, its worthlessness.”

On the other hand, the book is also an examination of friendship.  Willem thinks about friendship:  “Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship?  Why wasn’t it even better?  It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.  Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs.  It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal  moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”  Later, he tells Jude, “’I know my life’s meaningful because . . . I’m a good friend.  I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.’”

Though friendship has its value, certainly giving Jude some solace, the book also suggests that it has its limitations.  The friendships Jude has cannot repair him.  As in All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, a character concludes, “how hard it is to keep alive someone who doesn’t want to stay alive.”

It is some of these friends who are a weakness in the novel.  For thematic development, it is necessary for Jude to have friends.  The difficulty is that he has so many who remain unstintingly loyal and concerned regardless of his behaviour.  It would be expected that some of those friends would fall away, tiring of his repeated actions, but that is not the case.  No one ever seems to outgrow a friendship.  Except for Willem, Malcolm and J.B., however, those friends are not differentiated.  Often, they are just listed:  “Citizen, or Rhodes, or Eli, or Phaedra, or the Henry Youngs” and “Andy, JB, Richard, Harold and Julia, Black Henry Young, Rhodes, Citizen, Andy again, Richard again, Lucien, Asian Henry Young, Phaedra, Elijah.”  Willem, when trying to explain to Jude who he is, says, “’You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.’”

But the characterization of Jude can only be called amazing.  His inner turmoil is detailed so specifically that there is a vividness to his character that will remain with the reader for a long time.  We may not approve of his behaviour and we may want to shake him and yell at him, but we will certainly understand his motivation. 

This dark and disturbing novel will leave the reader almost overwhelmed.  It is a totally immersive read.  Though it may seem implausible in parts, it will nevertheless leave a lasting impression.  I’m in awe that all that was accomplished in only 700+ pages.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Review of "Dark Places" by Gillian Flynn

Image result for dark places book  The film version of Gillian Flynn's second novel is being released today.  Here's my review of that book.

4 Stars

Libby Day, 31, is encouraged  to examine whether her brother Ben is guilty of killing their mother Patty and two of their sisters.  She testified that she saw her 15-year-old brother commit the crimes but she was only 7 years old when the murders occurred.  She goes to visit her brother in prison, after refusing any previous contact with him since 1985, and comes away not convinced of his innocence but open at least to considering it.  She sets out to visit everyone involved in the case who might have information.
The book has alternating narration.  Libby’s story is set in the present and is narrated in the first-person; Ben and Patty’s stories are flashbacks to the day of the murder and are narrated in the third-person.  

Libby is not a likeable person; on the first page she admits, “I was not a lovable child, and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult.  Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs” (1).  She describes herself as feral and begins her narration by stating, “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ” (1).  She is lazy, angry, and manipulative and an obsessive thief – clearly a damaged person.   In the end the reader comes to at least understand why she is as she is, and may even admire her knowledge of self.

There is a great deal of suspense.  Some is created by Libby getting closer to learning the truth; more is created in reading about Patty and Ben’s activities as the time of the killings approaches.  Often a chapter ends with a cliff-hanging revelation.  

The ending is a surprise, but clues are given early on, so the reader does not feel cheated.  The problem I have is with the motivation of some of the characters.   There is a very unique motive for murder – which I didn’t find convincing because it is unlikely the Day family would possess the necessary pre-requisite.  The motivation of one minor character who serves as a catalyst for some of the events is not satisfactorily explained.  Also, Ben’s girlfriend remains an enigma and her relationship with Ben left me puzzled.  What was in it for her?  In fact, most of her relationships are strange.  

The book is more than a mystery.  It examines how children can cause “something to happen, something that got bigger than they were.”   The portrayal of children and their motivations is very realistic.  Children do lie and exaggerate to please adults or to get attention and are subject to peer pressure – and this is not necessarily a description of Libby since the actions and statements of several children in the novel impact others as well as themselves.

The novel is a compelling read; the reader will find him/herself drawn in quickly.  Parts are reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but it is a thriller well worth reading.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Bookish Films - Most on Netflix

I love Book Riot (http://bookriot.com/); the site has interesting articles and lists.  They have come up with two lists of bookish films that can be watched on Netflix, one posted last year and one today.  I thought I’d share them.  A book is invariably better than its film version, but sometimes we just want to curl up on the couch with some popcorn to watch a movie. 

Last year’s list, “The Big Bookish Netflix Round-Up,” can be found at http://bookriot.com/2014/07/05/big-bookish-netflix-round-2/.  Its categories are Adaptations of Classics, Contemporary Adaptations, and Documentaries.

This year’s list, “60 Bookish Films Streaming on Netflix,” can be found at http://bookriot.com/2015/08/04/60-bookish-films-streaming-netflix/ and repeats only two films from the previous article.  The categories are Comedy, Romance, Maybe You Didn’t Know it was a Book, Suspense/Thriller/Horror, Television, Cult Classics, Based on Real People, For the Whole Family, Drama, and Best.

Not Yet on Netflix
Of course there are bookish films that are not yet available on Netflix.  These are two I recently viewed and would recommend, though perhaps not because of their faithfulness to the books:
The Woman in Gold which is based on The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer written by Anne-Marie O'Connor.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is based on These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach; if you liked this movie, there is a sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which was released earlier this year.
Maybe that will be my next project:  compiling a list of bookish films not yet available on Netflix.  Suggestions?

Currently in Cinemas
In theatres right now are the following films based on books which I plan to see:
Paper Towns based on the book by John Green
Far from the Madding Crowd based on the book by Thomas Hardy
Suite Française based on the book by Irène Némirovsky – one of my favourite books

And this Friday sees the release of Dark Places based on Gillian Flynn’s book; this novel was written before Gone Girl but after Sharp Objects which is apparently being made into a tv-film.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reviews Archive: "Above All Things" by Tanis Rideout - a Great Debut Novel by a Canadian Writer


   

5 Stars

This is a book I hesitated to pick up because it is about mountain climbing, a pursuit in which I have no interest. The many positive reviews it has received changed my mind, and I’m so happy I was persuaded. It’s not just about mountain climbing, and it is a wonderful read.

The book tells a fictionalized account of George Mallory’s third attempt to conquer Mount Everest, in 1924. The expedition is described from two points of view: that of George’s and that of the expedition’s least-experienced climber, Sandy Irvine. The Everest sections are alternated with one day in the life of Ruth, George’s wife, as she waits for word about her husband. The mountain climbing sections kept my attention because the focus is on the men and their thoughts and reactions and not just the physical obstacles
encountered. The other half, with its imaginative rendering of “what it would mean to be married
to a man like George Mallory” (352), was equally interesting.

Climbing Mount Everest has become an activity for almost anyone with sufficient funds; none of these tourists face the challenges of Mallory and his contemporaries who “willingly endured the discomfort and pain of freezing temperatures and the many dangers of extreme altitudes dressed in little more than Burberry tweeds” (352) at a time when some viewed the use of oxygen tanks as “unsporting” (254). And, unlike Ruth Mallory, the loved ones of modern-day tourists need not wait “for months at a time with nothing but long-delayed letters, delivered by steamer, to soothe [their] worries” (352). At one point Ruth comments, “’The letter. It is weeks old. Everything has already been decided and there’s nothing we can do to change it’” (299), as she copes with the possibility that her husband might not come home.

One aspect of the summit attempt about which I was curious was the question of why the obsession to climb Everest. Mallory once gave the enigmatic response, “’Because it’s there’” (107), but other motivations are suggested. At one point Rideout has Mallory talking about climbing as an escape (130) and the ultimate adrenaline rush: “’Isn’t that part of why we go out there? The fear, the possibility of it all ending? To really feel alive’” (155). As he tries to explain to a doubtful Ruth that the sacrifices involved are worth it, George argues that “’It’s for something greater, Ruth’” (222) and “’A chance to make it up to all of those in the war’” (271). And then there’s the beauty that Irvine describes: “He was enjoying this – the sweep of the mountains around them, the brilliance of the sky. The total silence . . . There was only the sound of his breath. The swish of his boots through the new snow, the crunch of ice below. He thought he understood why George loved mountains. . . . Everything seemed impossibly perfect . . . “ (166). In the end I still didn’t understand why the great desire, but the author’s speculations gave food for thought.

The role of Everest in the relationship between George and Ruth is fascinating. From the opening page it is obvious that Ruth sees herself as competing with the mountain for her husband’s affections as she asks: “’Tell me about this mountain that’s stealing you away from me’” (1). Clearly Ruth’s views of love change because of her husband’s obsession; she observes, “When I was small I imagined love as something safe, something without sharp edges, only the sweeping, enveloping curves of romance and happiness. But it isn’t . . . There are edges and they cut” (177). She even tells George, “’It feels as though we’ve spent more time apart than together . . . That’s not a marriage’” (222). George realizes that his efforts to reach the summit of Everest have had an impact on his relationship, and he thinks that succeeding at his goal will make things right between him and Ruth: “If he came home empty-handed, all the sacrifice would have been for nothing. . . . Ruth had lived for the past five years on the promise that he would reach the summit and then everything would change for them. Disappointing her would break his heart. And Everest would still be there, between them. The great mass of it and the years it had consumed. For nothing. Only claiming the summit could make things right between them” (222 – 223). Was this his ultimate motivation? Yet I found it impossible to imagine that if he had returned, he would have kept his promise never “’to go away again’” (222).

It is George’s character, of course, that is most interesting. He is not an ordinary man; the book jacket describes him as “a man of uncommon athleticism, passion, and ambition” and that is an apt description. He argues that “’Moderation has never led to greatness . . . No, give me a wild temperament’” (153), although others tell him, “’You’re always so damned rash’” (317). Was he selfish and self-centered and a glory hound: “’As long as everything works out in your favour, . . . it doesn’t much matter what happens to anyone else. As long as we’re still there to play the audience to your adventures’” (313)? There is certainly something both admirable and repulsive about someone so single-mindedly determined to achieve a goal.

The book gives one pause to ponder the idea of sacrifice in the pursuit of a goal. Mallory argues that it is “important to risk something if you believed in the end goal” (30), and Sandy’s father tells his son, “’There’s a cost to pay for something worth doing. Anything worth doing. . . . Sacrifice is the watchword’” (64 – 65). Sandy is, however, also given further advice by another expedition member: “’But you have to decide for yourself what price is too high’” (232). At the end of the novel I wondered whether the price paid by Mallory and Irvine was too high. What about the price paid by Ruth and her three children? Mallory thinks that coming home after a failed attempt would mean that “all the sacrifice would have been for nothing” (222), yet he never contemplates what not coming home would mean? And then there’s the question of whether he reached the summit!

I highly recommend this book. It is an indication of the writer’s skill that she kept me entranced throughout, even about a subject in which I had minimal interest and even though I knew the outcome from the very beginning.

(from October 2012)