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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The Hopefuls: On the Pain of Reading a Novel About Obama in 2017

No matter what year it would be painful to read Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls because the novel is bad, but it’s particularly tough to read a novel set during the Obama years and following the Obama White House staff when we are currently enduring… I’m not really sure what to call the catastrophe of American political and social life and national institutions.

So if we take as stipulated that my complaints about the novel are not generated from a nostalgia for the Obama years (though that is certainly present as you’re reading), but rather from the novel’s singular lack of imagination, character developement and troubled gendered politics. From the first person perspective of Beth – wife of Matt (and that’s how she’s regularly introduced: I think in the first instance we’re supposed to get the wink and the nod, like yeah, we know she’s her own person, ha ha, see how she gets introduced as ‘just’ the wife, or as belonging to Matt, but then as the novel progresses and Beth really is just the wife I started to wonder how knowing this introducing really was…). Anyway, from Beth’s perspective we follow her marriage to Matt as he navigates his political ambitions as a white house staffer and campagin manager. You’re probably thinking, but E., unless it’s The Marriage Plot, can a novel sustain itself for 400 pages by considering a marriage? And you’re right. It can’t. Particularly when the only complication is to add in another couple – Jimmy and Ash. And the book flap tells it all: Matt is jealous of Jimmy because Jimmy is good looking, effortlessly charismatic and seeminly destined for political success. So the plot in a nutshell: Matt is jealous of Jimmy. What effect does this jealousy have on the marriage? Likely in a more competent novel this question would yield nuanced answers. Here, it’s as predictable as you think: jealousy is not good. Or more appropriate to 2016-2017: jealousy is BAD!

The novel is at its best in the opening scenes which are wry takedowns of Obama staffers. (It comes as no surprise that our author lives in D.C. and has had ample opportunity to mine conversations; not to take away from her delivery – these scenes really are funny and evocative). And with that hook the reader is somehow committed for the full 400 pages, each page hoping to get back to that initial satire and whimsy. And just… failing. There are so many needless inclusions in plot and character and distracting details (why do we need to know the nail colour of Beth’s sister-in-law? or the colour of outfit of the baby? or who ordered a hamburger at the restaurant?) that this reader found herself alternately exasperated with another tired description, and in a sort of awe that no one suggested massive cuts to Close in revisions.

These pointless inclusions might be overlooked if the core of the novel was something interesting or substantial, but instead we’re left with what feels like one giant insider nod, a flimsy plot pulled from a hat in order to allow for the setting (Washington) and the atmosphere (hopeful). Close would have done much better to write an essay. If we take the plot and characters as given, these are likewise dissatisfying. Beth’s ostensible character motivation is to find her passion (to be some kind of writer), and we watch as she flounders, spending most of her time reading novels and watching TV. We hope that by the end of the story she’d have reached some kind of sense of self, or development, but the novel concludes with her continuing to devote her energies to supporting Matt in his political ambitions. Likewise throughout the novel we get glimpses of a complex character opportunity in Beth’s wrestling with whether and when she wants to have children. Rather than take this question on with any depth, we simply note that she has questions and then flash forward in time to when she has a kid. #wtf

So yes. The Hopefuls, like it’s title, was a hopeful read for me. I’m addicted to political news these days, and relished the idea of diving in to a novel set in a heady political moment. But no. Deeply disappointing. Sad.

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