419: A gripping exploration of economic inequality (without it feeling like a book about economic inequality)

I continued my summer of reading literary thrillers with Will Fergusen’s 419. I was late to the party on this one, with folks suggesting I read it for years. Something about it made me resistant to reading, and it wasn’t until it was the *only* book to have come in to the library from my list of requests that I gave in and picked it up. That 419 is terrific only (once again) proves that I am ridiculous for following my arbitrary whims when it comes to book covers and gut feelings.

It follows a sort of three part structure with three distinct characters and plots that (eventually and inevitably) insercet. All story lines are tied to the Nigerian economy. The effect of having the three distinct threads is to demonstrate in character and plot the complexity of the titular 419 scheme. I say complexity and mean both in how such a scheme is set up and executed, but also – and more importantly – the moral ambiguity of the scheme as the reader comes to appreciate the motivations of those setting up the scheme, just as we come to sympathize with those who fall victim to it. It is in this complexity that 419 does its best work – demanding that the reader simulatenously occupy multiple points of sympathy, and rendering all positions around the issue as at once explotited and powerful.

There were a few parts in the initial descriptions of the Nigerian oil economy that I found dragged; likewise in the initial scenes of desert crossing. I suspect this had as much to do with the contrast between these opening scenes and the opening scenes in Calgary, which are plot heavy and familiar as it did with the return to an emphasis on setting and mood as opposed to plot. I also found the characterization of Lauren a bit thinly drawn: her moodiness and loneliness felt declarative rather than earned, and I was annoyed with her more often than I ought to have been when the aim was to cultivate my sympathies.

Putting these minor complaints aside, the novel offers an (at times) gripping exploration of global economic inequalities without it feeling like you’re reading a book about global economic inequality (always a plus). And it has a snappy little mystery to hook you in, so if you’re at all resistant (as I was), give it the first 30 pages and you’ll be snagged.

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Black Lands: How to find a ‘literary’ thriller

It’s summertime and I’m in the mood for mysteries and thrillers. (What’s the correlations or causation?! between summer and mystery/thrillers? That my attention span is shorter because I’m wisked away by beach and dock and sun? Or that I want some mental candy to accompany the literal candy I seem to inhale between the may long weekend and labour day?). Anyway. I began a quest for mysteries and thrillers to read that weren’t terribly written. I’m not a librarian. Nor an avid user of things like Goodreads, so my quests usually begin (and end) with internet searches. (Apologies to my librarian readers; I really ought to have begun my search with you). Try typiing in ‘literary mystery’ and you’re not going to find easily parsed results. Cue several weeks of ordering books from the library, shleping over to pick them up, beginning the first chapter and throwing up my hands as I read (yet another) description of sandy blonde hair, or the pulsing sadness of the trees. Finally I found my way to a list of the Edgar Award winners, and then something about a Dagger winners. And while I know literary prize lists are often fraught, in this instance I was ready to turn to the list for guidance.

Happy days as it pointed me to Belinda Bauer’s Black Lands which was both well written and sufficiently plot-y to satisfy my summer craving. And it had a fascinating central character! Of course it wandered into serial killer-gratitious-violence territory that means this won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’re someone who can handle (or perhaps enjoy) this exploration then on you go. The novel takes a young boy, Steven, as its central focus: Steven’s uncle was killed by a serial killer when his uncle was Steven’s age (12? Something like that). Steven is fixated on finding his uncle’s body, as he thinks bringing this closure will ‘fix’ his family. The book is at its best in the rendering of family life – a heartbreaking mix of intergenerational trauma and poverty. When the novel strays to imagining the point of view of the serial killer, things get a little… less imaginative and interesting. I recognize the curiosity the author is exploring: what would be the consequences on later generations of such a traumatic event? but i’m not convinced that we needed the point of view of the killer in order to get this empathic exploration. Instead it felt a bit to me like Bauer wanted the gratitous and the racy and so offered up a thrilling (and sufficiently page-turning) climax that was much less believable (and so, consequential) than the character exploration rendered through Steven.

All this to say it’s a worthy ‘literary’ (in the sense of being well written, focused on theme and character as much as it is plot) mystery/thriller to bring along to the beach (or the cottage, or the subway, or the lunchroom at work – wherever you find yourself this summer). Unless the discomfort with (perhaps unnecessary) scenes of violence. Which I get. So… maybe more ambivalent than I started out. There you have it.

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Of Mice and Men: Meh; Or, How to Rate a Classic

Okay, okay, I’m not doing well at vacationing. Whatever. More guest posts to come and I’m not reading anything but magazines right now (!), so this is really and truly the last post from me for a few weeks. Plus Of Mice and Men is a novella and takes a couple of hours to read, so there.

Read it for book club and we had a decent discussion of the representation of women, the moral messages of the novel (life is suffering, individual ambition is foolish, mercy and justice are tricky) and the origins of the title (from the Burns poem, and not – as I thought – a message about the equivalence of mice and men in the order of the universe (OR IS IT…). And then the discussion turned to how you rate (or recommend) a ‘classic.’ (In our book club we each rate the novel on a scale from one to ten). Is a novel like this one – so tight, so well wrought, so contained and yet impactful – exempt from such reviews? Should we just take as stiuplated that if a novel has endured and continues to offer such rich readings that it is as a matter of course worth reading and recommending?  

I concluded that I wouldn’t recommend this one, not because it had any faults or was in any way objectionable to read (though the representation of women did raise some questions), but… why not? I guess for me it felt stodgy and slow and entirely concerned with being an impactful piece of literature (I’m loathe to consider it, but I suspect if I returned to my – once favourite – East of Eden I’d find the same to be true). It makes a great novel to teach literary ideas, or to strucutre a Unitarian sermon, but it falls short – for me – of inviting a novel perspective, or — and this is silly — being that much fun. 

That said, it does provoke unconsidered questions and is masterfully crafted. So I’m hardly going to say don’t read it. More I’m curious how you approach classic works: do you take for granted that they are excellent? Do you find yourself predisposed to a positive reading because you ‘ought’ to be? 

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction

Excessively planned reading for vacation: Guest post and solid advice

Thanks to R.T. for this fantastic guest post on reading suggestions for holiday and vacation. Turns out R.T. is not only smart, funny and great to work with, but a super star of a reader, too. 

I’ve developed a habit over the past few years that is activated whenever I am planning to go on vacation, “vacation” meaning anything that gets me out of my normal routine for more than a night: a conference involving a hotel stay, camping or cottaging for a 2 day weekend or longer, holidays at home, or proper vacation. The habit is this: once I know a “vacation” is on the horizon, I plan what to read, and plan to diabolical excess.
When I determined in March that I was getting the opportunity to go to Halifax in June for a conference followed by a road trip of Nova Scotia & Prince Edward Island with my husband – finally making a long term dream of traveling the east coast possible – the very first thing I did was gleefully plan out what to read. The actual accommodations planning happened in the 11th hour, but boy, did I ever know what I’d be reading while potentially sitting on my suitcase in the street! I documented books set around the east coast, books I’ve been wanting to read for a long time, romantical vacationy books, emotionally challenging books – all things I would be inspired to dive into with this bucket-list-checking break from routine.
In the two weeks leading up to my trip – about the time I got the travel bookings completed – I consulted back to my now months-old, trusty, grandiose reading list and began regularly checking out and holding ebooks and audiobooks. Here’s what I (managed to, holds permitting) checked out, whether I read them, or whether they collected digital dust:
Audio
  • Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou – Started this in the Public Gardens of Halifax and finished it in Point Pleasant Park the next day during conference week (yes, I actually attended the conference as well)! This was a great book for taking in nature and feeling feels. In this book, Maya talks about her life through the lens of her relationship with her mother. It was unique, human, and touching.
  • Hatchet by Gary Paulsen – Oh boy. Moments after finishing Mom & Me & Mom, I thought to myself “you enjoyed that so much in this natural setting, you won’t top it right now, please don’t start something new, please don’t start something new, please don’t start something new”…I lasted 15 minutes, then started Hatchet, all while still wandering Point Pleasant Park. I remember seeing kids my age with this book countless times when I was young, and retrospectively wanted to know what the fuss was about. But much like a beloved-by-others childrens’ movie seen years too late – which for me is The Neverending Story seen in my 20s – I did not partake in the fuss whatsoever. I think I’m just too old for it, that and/or my parents aren’t divorcing currently so I don’t need the emotional support and life-or-death metaphors to help me understand what I’m going through – though I appreciate that this book could be a great help to kids. Good to know it exists, I suppose.
  • The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore – Husband and I have enjoyed reading Christopher Moore books in print, so I thought a couple of his audiobooks might be a good fit for a road trip. Sadly, this audiobook was abandoned 1 hour in. Husband is eager to read this on paper where he thinks the style and characters and plot will work better; I am not so eager. I would much rather go back and re-read Lamb.
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris – Excellent road trip book. I’ve listened to this before and enjoyed sharing it with my husband. David Sedaris just knows how to write, and tell, a story.
  • Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson – I took this on myself after getting through Hatchet. It certainly satisfied my east coast setting quota, but was too saccharine, even for this avid Anne fan.
  • Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer – Husband and I tried this YA after listening to David Sedaris. It was fine, but pretty boring. I wonder whether I somehow would have found this more exciting in print? One of my favourite things about listening to this book was the Irish accent of the narrator when reading as Artemis, so probably not. I doubt I’ll continue with the series. You want a good vampire / magical / fantasy YA novel? Try Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On AND Fangirl.
  • Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore – Didn’t get to it, but somewhat by choice. Serpent made me fearful to try another Christopher Moore book in audio form.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle – Didn’t get to it.
  • How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran – Didn’t get to it.
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris – Didn’t get to it – sadly.
eBooks
  • Where the Words End and my Body Begins by Amber Dawn – This was so short and sweet I started and finished it before even leaving on the trip. Whoops! I really enjoy Amber Dawn’s writing which is honest and strong.
  • The Shipping News by Annie Proulx – I really liked this book, and thank goodness because it took me the entire trip to read. I always love a good family drama and/or moving-on-from-catastrophe type story – and this was a somewhat light one at that, one might say as beach-read a family drama story could get!? Strangely, I don’t have much to say, so there you have it. It was good.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Didn’t get to it.
  • The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields – Didn’t get to it.
  • The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling – Didn’t get to it.
  • A Whale for the Killing by Farley Mowat – Didn’t get to it.
  • Island by Alistair MacLeod by Didn’t get to it.
  • An Abundance of Katherines by John Green – Didn’t get to it.
My east coast trip lasted 14 days. I checked out 18 books and 8 of them “happened” – 7 read, 1 abandoned. While I’m sad I didn’t get to more ebooks during the trip, I’m excited that I got through so many total books in a short span of time – indeed, part of the enjoyment of my vacation reading sprees is admittedly quantitative. What’s interesting is that of the 4 books I’d say I really enjoyed – Mom & Me & Mom, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, Where the Words End and my Body Begins, and The Shipping News – I was already familiar with those authors and/or the very book itself for 3/4 of them. Perhaps my next excessively planned vacation reading should gear towards voices of familiarity if what I’m looking for is a safe bet, but I can’t say I’m disappointed. While some of those audiobooks were a bit of a pain to get through, I still enjoyed the journey, and if nothing else, perhaps it will come handy in a trivia question sometime soon. I am now looking ahead to a short 4 day Toronto visit + Bon Echo camping weekend. I wonder if any books are set in Bon Echo…time for another research and planning session!

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