Category Archives: Fiction

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

Dear Edward: Sole Survivor of Airplane Crash or; Why Keep Going (+ a lot of ‘quotes’)

I was part of the last cohort of students in Ontario to take OAC’s (or grade 13). It meant five years of high school instead of four (though *cough* *humble brag* I still did the five years in four years) and included a suite of ‘advanced’ courses that were intended to prepare you for University. Courses like “World Issues,” and “Writers Craft” and “Super Fancy Latin.” One of my favourites was “Philosophy,” which managed to cram into a semester the entire canon of Western philosophy. Sort of. The teacher, Mr. Morrison, was cantankerous and brilliant. He taught me how to write a good essay (or good enough for first year University instructors to be impressed, anyway) and how to purposefully swear. Of the lessons he taught though, the one I keep coming back to – probably in an already oversimplified and misremembered way -, is the one on existentialism. I remember him banging away on the idea that to face the void of existence we have to either ‘destroy something’ or ‘create something,’ and (implied) our imperative as we set out into the world was to find something worthy of our acts of intentional creation. That we wouldn’t find meaning in God or the state, but we might just find it in art. Twenty-odd years later I recognize Mr. Morrison’s lecture wasn’t earth shattering, but it was… significant to me at the time, and something I continue to return to all these years later.

So when it was Mr. Morrison I thought of after reading Ann Napolitano’s Dear Edward. The premise is simple: titular young boy, Edward, is the sole survivor of a giant plane crash where 191 other people die, including his parents and older brother. How does this person (hard to call him a child after surviving such an event) make a meaningful life? How does he make sense of his survival (how do others make sense of it, and how does he navigate their efforts to force meaning on him)? How can he reconcile his sense of loss with the losses of those around him – can such things ever be compared? (and why do we bother comparing grief?) [The best example of this in the book is in comparing Edward to his aunt who adopts him. She has had multiple miscarriages and her sister has died, surely, the book asks, her grief is Significant? But nothing, it seems, touches the loss for Edward. In part because he is made to stand in for all 191 others who died and asked to be for them in life what they might have been.]

Through years we watch Edward develop relationships with his aunt and uncle, with the girl next door, with his therapist and with his teachers. We see him do something like ‘come to terms’ with his trauma, by doing as Mr. Morrison-by-way-of-philosophy advises: creating. He figures out that he won’t ‘get over’ his trauma, rather he will create himself anew. And as he does that he comes in to millions – millions and millions – and sees a way forward through giving others the chance to create what they want through Money.

Which let me just say the answer in this book slips precariously close to ‘money is the answer,’ but pulls it back, I think, to ‘community’ is the answer (which my bleeding Unitarian heart can’t help but nod vigorously at while I’m reading), and yes, ‘creation.’ So Mr. Morrison, if, somehow, you are reading this: thanks for teaching me all that you did. And if you need a new book to assign (if you’re still teaching), maybe you could do Dear Edward or maybe just, you know, keep doing you.

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Filed under Fiction, Prize Winner