All the Devils Are Here: Fun!

Louise Penny and I have been on something of a Pandemic Journey. At first I was reading her mysteries because they were the only books that could sustain my focus (plot!) and give me some hope (Armand is so kind!) (even his eyes are kind!) and then I was reading them with guilt because shouldn’t I be done *needing* mysteries after month three of quarantine? And now I’m just in a place of delight. Like it’s delightful to me how much I enjoy the books, and the books are delightful in their coziness (sure with threats on life and murder and drama).

And this latest instalment in the Gamache series, All the Devils Are Here proves even more enjoyable for the departure from Quebec and the endless descriptions of the kindness of the villagers in Three Pines. Set in Paris, we’re offered something fresh in the setting, and something fresh in the plot through the involvement of the Gamache children. It’s an altogether delightful departure.

That said, the consistent inclusion of descriptions of rich and delicious food was appreciated.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Mystery

The Overstory: Beautiful, but…

Having married a person who works with trees, I regularly find myself in proximity when tree-related questions are tossed his way. Sort of what I imagine those working in medical fields must encounter: any social gathering is an opportunity to solicit advice (though with fewer on the spot requests to examine moles or rashes, I suspect). S. also suffers the ‘owl’ conundrum so brilliantly outlined by David Sedaris in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: should you ever express a passing interest in something, say owls, you will find yourself on the receiving end of owl-related gifts, gadgets and whimsy for the Rest of Your Life. So it is with those who work with trees. No shortage of tree themed tea towels, stationary, wall-art or coffee table books. Which is to say, we have many Tree things. (Which is partly owed, I think, to the relative resistance of S. to inquires about his desires when it comes to gifts and the what-else-can-we-do-throw-up-the-hands-lets get-him-another-Tree thing result).

So it was that Richard Powers’ The Overstory was recommend to me because it is all about trees and so I’d likely enjoy it because… S. (Of course the book has also been suggested to S., but given his Terrible Flaw in that he doesn’t like fiction (*gasp*) hardly a chance he’d be inspired to read it). Maybe also recommended to me because I/we spent a lot of time in the forest?

Whether or not I had any involvement with S. it should have been recommended to me for the beautiful writing. Powers has a delightful tone in the book – something that bridges poetry and prose, coupled with a sort of achronology where the characters and setting all feel somewhat out of time, or beyond time, (like a tree!) even while they are clearly situated in time and space (also like a tree!).

The first half of the book reads as a series of short stories. A character introduced each chapter who has some passing or central connection to a tree. Having not read much about the book before, I wasn’t sure whether these characters ever come together, or whether there was some wider plot we were working toward. But! In another instance of form marrying content, we do see these seemingly separate characters come together into one narrative arc (form-content in the sense that one point of the book is to illustrate that there are no singular trees, rather all trees are intimately connected) as some of them try to save the giant Redwood trees and others sort of glom on to the scene in efforts to understand, capitalize or undermine these efforts.

But. And I’m sorry there’s a but. I want to offer a full-throated endorsement of this book because the writing really is beautiful and the message of the Value (far beyond monetary) of trees and the forest ecosystem is essential. But it’s… pretty dull.

Like there are only so many pages you want to read about the connections of roots and moss and leaves. Even while you’re like this is beautiful writing! And isn’t nature incredible! And aren’t these trees Truly Miraculous.

It’s a strange feeling. To be so bored by something so magnificent. Maybe there’s a special prize out there we could offer Powers for achieving this rare balance of banality and brilliance?

Anyway. I’m at something of a loss in suggesting whether you should read it. If anything, I’d say read the first long part that has the chapters on each character. As a series of short stories they are excellent and well worth your time. After that… well, I won’t think less of you if you put aside the poetry and homage to nature and… read a Louise Penny mystery. Just as I did.

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half has a LONG waitlist at the library, and so when I found it on the ‘Seven Day Quick Reads’ shelf I scooped it up (knowing, as I did, that I would be accruing serious fines as the likelihood of me finishing it in seven days was… poor. Given I was still reading A Little Life. Alas. The library deserves my money. ANYWAY.). Long waitlist, no doubt, because the book tops many of the top recommendations for 2020 novels and hits the right notes for a bestseller: family saga, race and identity in America, rich people, good writing. And I fault no one for recommending it, and no one for seeking it out and reading it.

You can feel the ‘but’ coming, can’t you?

But. The novel takes it’s ‘point’ and makes it just too didactic for this reader’s enjoyment. Like if you took a Bernenstain Bear’s picture book that has a literal moral on the front page and made it into well written literary fiction. Just as preschoolers can smell the moral a mile away and find the badgering about sharing or politeness or bullying (or more recently, environmentalism) to be off-putting, the way this novel continues to circle, draw arrows, reinforce in bold its message that identity is created and identity is performative and well, it gets to be a bit distracting.

So right – the plot: twins are born in Mallard, an African-American town premised on its preference for light skin. In their teenage years they run away and separate: one twin, Stella, goes on to live her life ‘passing’ as a white woman, the other, Desiree, returns to Mallard to raise her darkest-dark skinned daughter, Jude. Jude meets Stella’s daughter, Kennedy. The history and present of the family collapses, collides, secrets and ‘truths’ threaten and reveal. [Oh and Jude falls in love with a trans man, Reese, whose addition to the story reads as entirely about driving home for the reader the gaps and tensions between who we are, how we are ‘read’ by the world, how we perform and the meaning our bodies create and signify – and of course the material consequences of how others read us.] And the book does make that clear. That as much as Stella has the option of passing, Jude would not, that the idea that all identity is performative runs up against the way the world reads us, not ever simply or only how we wish to be seen or valued.

So yes. I do think there’s enough of interest her to make this a book well worth reading, and certainly an excellent selection for a book club. Just not a book you’ll read without feeling (at a few points) like maybe it was written to be taught in high school or undergraduate classes. Or a book club!

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Book Club, Fiction

On Re-reading A Little Life

I haven’t fallen into a literal hole. I am still here. But I did fall into rereading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (original post here) and well, it turns out that rereading one of your favourite books that happens to be 700+ pages takes a few weeks. Both for the length and because I purposely drew it out. Took my time. Tried to remember what it was like reading it for the first time, and how I might have changed since the first reading.

The most obvious difference the second time through is that I knew what had happened to Jude and what would happen to him. On the first reading a major part of the experience is learning, along with Willem, the history and present of Jude, and learning, along with Harold, what Jude’s life becomes. It’s a gradual unravelling and the beauty and pain of it is all mixed up. This time, though, I knew – dreaded, and knew – what was coming and so could both understand Jude better from the beginning, as well as feel ever more wrenched worrying about him.

A more subtle difference, I suppose, is in my interest in the question the novel explores around what makes a meaningful life. Reading in the middle of a pandemic, with the American election looming and the planet heaving, along with the arrival of a new small human, really brings the existential questions Front and Center. And for Jude and his friends, the only-once-spoken question of what makes a meaningful life circles all they do. I didn’t notice the first time around that none of the four main characters have children (maybe because children and life meaning was less important to me personally, or maybe because I’m inattentive, or was concerned more with the story of Jude). There is one brief scene where they talk about this and do away with the long held idea that children bring life meaning; instead, they pose friendship, true friendship, as a worthy inheritance. Of course there is all the art they create and consume, all the hours of effort put into rich and fulfilling careers, but the centrepiece of existence does seem to be this relational commitment. Indeed, Jude makes it for as long as he does on the basis of his feeling that he owes something to Harold (someone I’m sure could do a useful comparative read between this book and All My Puny Sorrows), and the effort and energy the characters give to friendship reads as the ‘commitment’ one might expect from a spouse or a parent. Of course the novel does explore the parent-child relationship with Harold and Jude, and the spousal relationship with Jude and Willem, so it’s not as though these relationships are completely absent, more that on this reading I found myself drawn to these affiliative relationships and the true sense of purpose they offer.

So yeah. My mum thought it unwise to reread such a difficult book in such difficult times, and there were certainly moments where I agreed with her: it is hard to read this book and not find yourself living in the story such is the brilliance of the writing. That said, it is somehow entirely… I was going to say ‘uplifting,’ but that’s definitely the wrong word. Affirming? Some word that gets at the idea that good art, great art, as this novel is, spurs hope, generates optimism, even while the subject itself is as grim and dark and heartbreaking as they come. Something to do with the contrast then. Is there a word for this? Beauty maybe? Lol. I don’t know. I do know that once again I loved the book, and once again, I’d urge you to read it.

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Filed under Erin's Favourite Books, Prize Winner