Truly, Madly, Guilty: The Unexpected Pleasure

I don’t believe in diets. In fact I’m pretty vocal about how ridiculous and counterproductive they are. Part of the reason is because of the fast-binge cycle: your body isn’t built for nutrient deprivation and so you get hungrier and hungrier until you find yourself crouched over the tub of icecream in the middle of the night wondering for what purpose you ever started out.

It seems the same may be true of novels. Once I’d read the terrible John Grishman novel, I felt I’d opened a floodgate where instead of reading nutrient dense fantastically rich and inspiring and energizing novels, I’d give it all up and go on just reading sugary crap. Forget that reading well written novels is far and away my favourite way to spend free time (or time that isn’t free, that I read anyway). I was now a person who read trash and so I might as well embrace it.

So when I found myself with S. and R. at the bookstore in the town near the cottage I thought ‘given that I’m not a person who reads trash, I ought to buy a terrible novel so I can continue to clog my mental arteries (and secure my impression on this blog as an utter literary snob).’ So I bought Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty. Mostly I bought it for the title: a) because it pays homage to my all time favourite song, Truly Madly Deeply (for which I do not apologize because I understand I have horrendous taste in music and because I want to bathe with you in the sea) and b) it is a title that screams I Am Not a Serious Novel. Plus it was on discount because it was such a mad bestseller.

Imagine my surprise (and outrage!) when it turned out to be… pretty good. Like an almost perfect balance of absorbing and well crafted (note this is not the same as brilliantly written), with a thoughtful moral question and reasonably well drawn characters. I’m not saying this is a beautifully written book – it’s not. It won’t have you pausing to admire the quality of a sentence, or to note the layering of meaning. Everything is pretty on the surface here. But what is there is well done. It reminds me a little of a novel from one of those make-your-own layered soup jars. You know the sort where there are beans, and then a layer of grain, and a layer of dehydrated vegetable, and all you have to do is pour everything into the pot with some water? Well this novel has that sort of feel. Moriarity spent the time to figure out the motivation of characters, the pacing and scheme of the plot, the central moral question and then stirred it altogether with doses of humour and wit.

The general premise (I should at least offer you that) is the question of how one event can change everything and always have you wondering ‘what if.’ In this case the Event That Cannot Be Named happens at a BBQ and it changes the three couples who attend radically. You spend a great portion of the novel working up to what the Event is – and I’ll admit I was alternately intrigued and frustrated by the failure to just SAY WHAT HAPPENED ALREADY. But I suppose it’s part of the suspense building and page-turning quality. (I do think on balance I found it more annoying than gratifying, but it’s an okay level of annoying).

We explore the event itself and its fallout in alternating chapters (not strictly alternating, but more or less) and from shifting third person limited narration from those who attended. The consequence of this narrative voice is an attachment and investment in all those who attended, as well as a believable interest in how the characters have been impacted. The characters really are well done with complete backstories and believable development (again the instant-pot comes to mind, as I do think Moriarty had some kind of chart where she described each character to the degree that she knew their favourite food and type of shampoo).

So while you may be tempted to read this one on an e-reader, or to wrap it in some sort of covering so that no one knows you’re reading a book with such a ridiculous title… I do think you’d have a lot of fun reading it. Might be the perfect sort of book to read while wearing a heavy sweater and sipping a pumpkin spice latte. Because believe me. If you’re reading this novel you’re also okay drinking a PSL.

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The Racketeer: What a Tub of Icecream is to Literature

I packed for the cottage: Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, a collection of the best of Alice Munro, and the only Margaret Laurence novel I’ve never read, The Fire Dwellers. I was set with the triumvirate of excellent Canadian authors (who also happen to be white ladies). I imagined sitting on the dock taking in the changing leaves and lapping lake while absorbing some of the best of Canadian literature. Instead I got to the cottage, put out all the books on the coffee table and immediately… picked up the copy of John Grishman’s The Racketeer from the cottage bookshelf. Turns out what I really wanted was to eat a tub of mental icecream. And I did. And I felt appropriately sick after, so there you go. I seem to recall C. using a similar description in her guest post, so thanks C. for making me think of novels as tasty treats!

Yep. I remember a time when I read *all* of John Grishman’s novels: The Pelican Brief, The Client, A Time to Kill, The Other One You Read. And then I realized a) all of these novels are more or less the same and b) all of these novels are terrible But! They do work like icecream in that they go down easy.

This one (in case you’re aching for analysis) is terrible for lots of reasons: ludicriously one dimensional characters (particularly the (only) woman), unbelievable – to the point of head shaking – plot and an absolute commitment to not being about anything (other than the value of wealth). What makes it readable – and voraciously so – is the sugar of Another Unbelievable Plot Turn and Another Description of a Leather Attache Case Filled With Money. There are more pages devoted to describing the interior of houses and the quality of fabric than the personality or motivations of all the characters combined.

And I didn’t even enjoy it! I was sort of resigned to reading it once I’d started. I’ll claim that I began as a bit of a lark, a ha ha look at me slumming it with Grisham, and S. found it funny. But then I was fifty pages in and I just… couldn’t stop. So don’t make my mistake. Beware the chunky cover and the promise of a page turner. We here at Literary Vice do not condone junk reads. Just icecream.

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Birdie: Why my book club friends are always wrong.

There are books you read because you want to, books you read because they’re recommended, books you read because you’re required, books you read out of curiosity and books you read because you should. For me, Tracy Lindberg’s Birdie is a novel I was required to read for book club and a book I thought I should read because Lindberg brings voice in fiction to the narrative of murdered and missing indigenous women. While I’m glad I read it, I didn’t enjoy the novel, or think it was particularly well written.

That said I’m glad I read it because Lindberg offers a fresh representation of time and trauma: trauma as a kind of loop of time that Lindberg pairs with an indigenous way of knowing or making sense of time in its own circular sort of way. The titular Birdie recounts her story in a series of concentric loops. As she remains bed bound she flies through her own history sharing the stories that brought her to this point of intense introspection and an inability to literarly or figuratively move (presumably forward). While much of the writing suffers from being over wrought and fussy, the structure is interesting in the looping and layering (though it does take sixty odd pages to figure out where and what is going on).

*SPOILER* The book club group discussed whether the celebratory ending was earned and whether we found it believable. I’ll admit at that point I was just glad Birdie was getting out of bed and getting on with things. It turns out I have little patience for working through feelings. Book club also wondered about the representation of men in the novel (they don’t come off well) paired with the acknowledgements section that explictly acknowledges the men in Lindberg’s life. Hence we strayed a bit into a biographical reading.

I share these book club points not to make you super jealous of book club (obvs. you already are), but because I didn’t find myself captivated by the book while everyone else in book club did. So while I’m just as likely to say this isn’t a book to spend your reading time on, I acknowledge that others thought it was very good and/or very worthy. So I guess if you’re casting about for a novel that is neither particularly well written nor particularly captivating, but is likely to be talked about and is certainly one you might consider as a ‘should’ read… then on you go.

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Elizabeth is Missing: The best literary thriller yet

I finally used one of the little neighbourhood ‘libraries’ that have cropped up all over the place. I’ve walked passed dozens of them (one on my way home from the bus stop) and each time I think I ought to stop, but don’t, because another part of me assumes that these must be ‘garbage’ books – the sort that someone read and don’t want to keep and can’t be bothered to give away. But there’s one of these little libraries on my neighbour’s front yard, so I hardly had to detour and it felt impolite to not at least flip through, so I dropped off Nick Mason and picked up Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing: a fantastic choice to finish my summer of reading literary thrillers.

Narrated by the incredibly unreliable, Maud, we follow as our elderly and dementia-riddled first person protagonist attempts to piece together what happened to her missing friend, Elizabeth, and to her missing sister, Sukey. I thought on reading this description on the book jacket that I’d be annoyed by a protagonist that can’t remember anything (after all – I live in my own head where I am hard pressed to tell you what day of the week it is), but Healey strikes a master stroke by weaving the present day – a circular, repetitive and disorienting forgetfulness – with past scenes that are rendered in straightforward, linear prose. With this blend the reader can return to the scenes of the present with fresh sympathy for Maud, and a renewed patience as she stumbles through trying to locate Elizabeth and tries to keep straight where – and who – she is herself.

Maud is accompanied by a rich cast of supporting characters, including her daughter, Helen, and granddaughter, Katy. Much of the strength of the narrative is in the way we glean information through these more reliable sources, even as filtered through our increasingly unreliable Maud. Scenes with her family are moving as we witness through Maud the sadness and loss that Helen and Katy feel as they support, witness and bring a stunny patience to Maud’s steady decline.

So while the novel is clearly driven by the central conflict “What happened to Elizabeth?” (and soon the added question ‘what happened to Sukey’), it is as much and more about what is happening and will happen to Maud. And gosh but the novel succeeds in making the reader care – deeply – about all three of these questions.

No surprise that this one showed up on many – many – best of lists: it’s a terrific read.

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