Category Archives: Book Club

The Girl With the Pearl Earring & Madam Bovary: What happens when I drink too much.

I didn’t set out to read Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring in combination with Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary (WHICH as it turns out, I read already  but didn’t realize it until like page 200 both because of a terrible memory and because the book isn’t that memorable). And sure, Pearl Earring is set in the 17th century, and Bovary in the 19th, so not a direct historical overlap, but the books share some of the same concerns with Honour and Fallen Women and how to preserve morality by shaming women and their sexuality.

Because I read them in sequence (and Flabuert, obvs, in translation) I couldn’t help but draw comparisons (btw: why do we draw comparisons? It’s a strange verb choice and I’d like it explained. Maybe it has roots in tracing paper?). Similar plot set up: respectable woman (in the case of Pearl, respectable maid, but still) catches the eye of powerful man, powerful man proves enticing. Then the books diverge in their responses. While our maid protagonist, Greit, totally wants to sleep with Vermeer (the painter), she resists – or they resist – and instead marries the butcher (like how much more of a contrast to romance do you need than fancy painter versus Butcher) and prospers because of it (like she gets to eat meat for the rest of her life). Emma as we know, dies penniless and alone because of her adulterous and lavish ways. Differences aside, both are unhappy and feel cheated out of their true desires because of restrictive expectations for women’s behaviour.

And I’m sure there’s some great and lasting moral lesson in both tales that has startling resonance in 2019 – something about how women continue to have their bodies, sexual desires and aspirations policed by a misogynistic state – but yawn. I wasn’t into the morality tale of either and mostly felt frustrated and annoyed for both characters, but also for the enduring ‘present’ of both ‘historical’ tales (knowing of course that Flaubert isn’t historical fiction!).

Maybe it’s a sign I need to be reading more speculative fiction where gender is exploded or women all have tails and use these tails to strangle things/people that get in their way. I don’t know. It could also be the three cups of coffee.

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

A Thousand Splendid Suns: I Just Don’t Believe in Happy Endings

I can’t explain it. I’m an optimist. An obnoxiously optimistic optimist, like I’ve had to consciously learn how to listen to folks when they’re having a problem and just say ‘that sucks’ rather than ‘oh oh! here’s why there’s a silver lining to your total misery.’ So how can it be that I’m so irritated by happy endings? I don’t find them plausible. Sure, I appreciate that sometimes things work out, but mostly? no. Which, okay, is at odds with my claim to optimism. Maybe it’s just that my outrageously privileged life has led me to believe that things will (mostly) work out for *me*, even while they mostly do *not* work out for other people/the world.

So cue my dissatisfaction with Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, which *spoiler* has a ‘happy’ (well happy-ish) ending. Don’t confuse the happy-ish ending with a happy story. The book is full to bursting with very difficult scenes of domestic abuse – many of which I ended up skimming over because I found the level of detail to be too much for me. And there are all kinds of moments of pain, grief, loss, disappointment, betrayal. So maybe Hosseini felt like after making the reader – and the characters – suffer through all that they do, they/we were owed a happy-ish ending? To me it just wasn’t plausible, though, that after all that had happened, that things would end out working out as they did,

Anyway – broad strokes, the book follows Mariam and Laila through thirty-odd years of Afghan history. I appreciated the historical fiction aspects, as I’ll admit to a spotty-to-non-existent understanding of pre-2000 Afghan history. Both characters are reasonably well drawn, and their particular motivations and interests thought through, though I would say that Laila is the more believable of the two. Mariam reads as a little underdeveloped, particularly in her transition from downtrodden wife to heroic sister/friend. Similarly, Rasheed, the abusive husband/father felt like a caricature to me. I’m not expecting a sympathetic portrait of a violent, abusive, volatile man. At the same time, I might have believed his character more if there was some nuance to his actions.

The effect of these somewhat underdeveloped characters was to have me doubt the reliability of the rest of the narrative. What I mean is that because I didn’t fully believe in the reality of the characters, I doubted the veracity of the rest of the narrative. Like if these characters were caricatures, maybe the depiction of Afghan life under the Taliban was being similarly reduced to its most extreme or most recognized elements. What I will say about that doubt, was that the reading prompted me to read more non-fiction to find out how closely the narrative followed ‘actual’ events and circumstances, so perhaps there’s a silver lining there…

And there we go. Full circle. A book I didn’t really like that I am – optimistically – suggesting might have some merit after all.

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Cottage Reads 2018: Death, Dying and Jonathan Franzen

Every summer I set out an ambitious list of what I’m going to read (usually complete with suggestions from you folks). And then I find various benches, beaches and buses (such fun with alliteration!) and read the list. I then humble brag about how much I’ve read. I make new and more expansive lists for the fall. I revel. Continue reading

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Red Clocks: The book you need to read this year + I cry about babies. Again.

Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks is the book you need to read this year. Set in the near future, we find ourselves in an American where abortion laws have not only been repealed, but women are prosecuted as murderers for seeking abortions, in vitro is banned and adoption is limited to two parent families. The pink wall bars women from seeking help in Canada, as Canadian border officials, nervous of losing ground with the country’s biggest trading partner, mercilessly enforce the law by returning women to the States for prosecution. It is, in other words, an altogether too relevant read. Continue reading

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction