Category Archives: 100 Books of 2011

10-10-12 for 2013

I’m doing it again. I realized I’d only read 30 books this year and I feel like that’s just not enough when the world is so full of great books to read.

The categories I’m considering:

-Prize Winners
-Canada Reads
-Young Adult Fiction
-Alice Munro
-Books about God and religion
-Books with one word titles
-bestsellers of the 1990s
-Book club books
-Books in translation
Suggestions within these categories? Suggestions for other categories?

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A Year in Reading: On Finishing 100 Books

I’ve been scared to write this post for weeks now. Ever since I realized I’d actually finish the project of 10-10-12 – reading 10 books in 10 categories in 12 months – I’ve worried about how to tie it all together, worried that I haven’t had profound enough insights, worried that I’d have to have a final word. Continue reading

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The Kite Runner: Predictable


The Kite Runner does everything according to convention and so deserves, then, to be as popular as it is; yet I find myself resisting, find myself reluctant to recommend it, refusing to call it an unquestionably ‘good book.’ I hope this isn’t a case of elitism, a belief that my tastes might be too refined for populism, but I leave that open as a possibility.

Instead I’ll suggest that the book lacks imagination. Sure it’s plot has “twists,” but they are twists this reader could see coming, or when they were “surprising” felt (obnoxiously) like the only possibility in a book that must follow the particular arc of redemption. Plot events come burdened with symbolism – everything that happens reads as though accompanied by swelling music – and character decisions are fraught with the burden of Here Our Character Meets a Crossroads and Will He Be Redeemed? This is a complaint then that the book lacks nuance, it lacks subtly, it lacks – and this is a hard thing to articulate with example – it lacks confidence. It reads as a perfectly workshopped novel that refuses to take risks. It picks a plot arc, picks a character flaw, picks a conflict and adheres – with an admirable tenacity, I suppose – to these devices. But it does leave the reader with a frustrating case of predictability.

Amir, our protagonist, the admitted coward and first person narrator, also lacks sympathy. We’re meant (I think) to dislike him a little for his childhood weakness, but I suspect we’re also meant to root for his redemption. Except at no point in the novel am I convinced that his redemption is worthwhile, or that he wants to be redeemed, or that if redeemed, he’ll do anything differently. And these options are perhaps a little too laden with interest, too laden because I really didn’t care much what happened to Amir one way or the other. That I read the scene of his near death with an abstracted indifference is not my failing, but rather the failing of a novel that has a (remarkably) detached first person narrator who fails – at every opportunity – to deepen or complicate his character. Much of this falls out because he describes his responses “I felt sad,” rather than showing them in actions, and so he can only ever be a surface character; but it may also be that we’re never given the chance to see his vulnerability – the effect of a dual chronology – as we already know the outcome of his actions.

So sure, The Kite Runner has enough action to read quickly, it has enough symbolism to read as Important, and a setting that makes it relevant to readers in the West trying to understand the “barbarism” of the Taliban (as if it is only these murderous monsters who sexually abuse boys, or these beastly Muslims who oppress women). But it does it all too neatly and too nervously. It is a beautiful narrative body without a narrative soul.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Bloody Chamber: Wolves, Wives and the Colour Red


I begin reading novels with the presumption of brilliance; I begin reading short stories with the expectation of disappointment. It is for novels to fail; it is for short stories to triumph. Call me a genre-ist, call me a novel-ist (no really, call me a novelist!), call me what you will.

Angela Carter’s collection (as recommended by E. – thanks!) The Bloody Chamber does so well as a collection it more than proves its burden of brilliance. And here’s my hypothesis for why it’s so great: it sets out to be a short story collection. Most of the other collections I’ve encountered read as patchwork efforts wherein a writer realized they’d amassed enough stories to call it a collection, puzzled out some central themes, maybe did some edits, and worked on a good title. With Carter, however, it’s clear – or at least I hope this is the case – that she decided to write a collection of fucked up fairy tales and did just that. So it’s no surprise that scenes repeat, characters share characteristics, the themes – curiosity, sexuality, youth, virginity – bleed (ha! get it? Bloody chamber?) from one story to the next. My terrible pun is evidence of this too, as blood and the colour red penetrate all of the stories as characters must confront the physical body and its (mostly sexual) urges. So many deflowered virgins.

I also enjoyed Carter’s willingness to see the human as one other kind of beast caught up in a fantastical world of desire and impulse. That we often behave without reason, or more often still, counter-reason, is exploited by Carter in a number of the stories when the reader watches in car-accident-attention-horror as yet another woman falls victim (or rather, agentally victimizes herself) to yet another beastly man or manly beast.

Here’s a good example:

“That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never case to mourn their own condition” (112).

Swap out “beast” and pop in “human” and you’ve got the collection covered. Well, add a bit more blood and you’d have it covered.

Each story provides an unexpected narrative point of view (I loved, for instance, the animal perspective of Puss in ‘Puss in Boots’ – at long last a non-human protagonist I enjoyed!), some twist classic fairy tales, others simply allude to them. In either case the resonances make for a disturbing read.


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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, British literature, Fiction, Short Stories