Category Archives: American literature

State of Terror: Such Fun and Why Not Now

Guys you need something fun. You need something that makes fun of Trump and has little dashes of totally unreasonable and ill founded hope and goodness. Louise Penny can be counted on for these qualities, and when the novel is co-authored with Hillary Clinton… well, it’s just fun.

State of Terror follows the barely fictionalized Secretary of State for the President just following President Dunn (the Trump stand in) as she tries to thwart a nuclear attack on the United States. It attempts to Seriously Grapple with the ethics of preemptive strikes, of torture, of the relative moral standing of the US in the world, and while it does dabble in those themes, it does it in the most gentle of ways. With mere seconds on the bomb left to tick down the anxiety never ratchets far: we know we are in safe hands.

And with a cameo from Inspector Gamache and plenty of descriptions of delicious food, we know that the primary pen here must be Penny, but with plot credit going to the presidential nominee.

I paid so many dollars in late fines for this one (it was a ‘quick read’ and while it *is* a quick read, my life is a hellish landscape of email and toddler snacks) and it was worth it. Even more so because Guelph is doing away with late fines in 2022 and so I may as well give them all my $ now.

Leave a comment

Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Mystery

Crossroads: Dear, God

You’re thinking, Erin, you haven’t read much in October. And you’re wrong! I read Empire of Pain at a neat 550 and then chased it with Jonathan Franzen’s newest, Crossroads, at 600, and so find myself owing the library A LOT in late fines because I – ridiculously, ambitiously, foolishly – persisted in keeping four other novels waiting on my nightstand that were CLEARLY NOT GOING TO BE READ in their two week loan window, but what, dear reader, do I have to offer the world if not my unrealistic and ill-founded font of never ending hope? (It’s true, I can also offer pie).

And was Franzen’s book ‘worth’ the investment of three weeks and $9.00 in late fines? I don’t know, maybe? Probably? I mean, if it was just straight up library free, then sure. But should you pay for it? Which isn’t that the same as saying should it exist at all because what are books if not to be marketed and BOY DO I DIGRESS tonight.

Right right. So it’s a big, fat American family novel in keeping with Freedom, Purity and The Corrections. This one follows each of the members of the Hildebrandt family (with the notable exception of the youngest, Judson, who is – I gather – too innocent/good/pure to warrant his own narrative voice yet) as they abandon/give up/stray from/wander/fall apart [pick your verb] the good/straight/normal/predictable [pick your adjective] path/journey/role/life [and noun] and instead demonstrate the thousands of ways everyone is failing to live up to any kind of normalized ideal and is instead holding it together on appearance and self proclamation.

The God part of the book was tricky for me as a reader. Dedicated atheist etc, I approach novels assuming the same and what Crossroads pitches isn’t that there is a God necessarily, or that God is the answer, but instead explores how religion functions for individuals and communities in America, and how belief – in this case in God – functions as some kind of anchor, even while the ‘institution’ surrounding that belief is corrupt and decaying.

Set in the 1970s the simplicity in plot where catastrophes can take place because cellphones don’t exist was also charming. And where the yearning for something steady or someone to whom an answer could be demanded is equally resonant.

So yeah. The writing has some really great moments, the characters (particularly Perry) are terrific, and on the whole it’s reasonably interesting. But no, I wouldn’t give up your holidays to read it. Instead, pick a bleak month like early November and have at it.

And sure, ask me why I keep reading Jonathan Franzen novels when every time I end up being like “shrug.” I DON’T KNOW. Dupe for the marketing? Probably. No straight answers tonight, folks.

Leave a comment

Filed under American literature, Fiction

When No One is Watching: Gentrification is BAD

Alyssa Cole’s When No One is Watching is good. But it’s also annoyingly insistent on its message: gentrification is bad.

It’s good for its play with genre – it’s something of a mystery, something of suspense, something of a straight realist character novel. Good, too, for not being fussy with its racial politics – in the sense it isn’t trying to be comforting to a white reader, instead just explaining clearly how the arrival of white people in historically black neighbourhoods causes direct and indirect harm.

I guess the ways it is annoying extend beyond that repeated hammering on the effects of gentrification. It’s also bad for the romance plot – like there’s this sex scene that I was just like: where did this come from and it was so sexy. Not that I can’t read a sex scene! Just that it felt out of place in the tone and pacing of the rest of the book.

So I’m not convinced this is a story that needed to be a novel. A rewrite as a short story would be interesting? Maybe.

Leave a comment

Filed under American literature, Fiction

The Fourth Child: Pick it for your book club

Jessica Winter’s The Fourth Child is (oddly) hard to put down. Odd because it’s not plot-y, but instead a family drama that follows Jane, a devout Catholic mother, and her eldest daughter, Lauren, as they live the pro-life/pro-choice division. So why was it hard to put down? I guess it’s the smooth writing (smooth writing? what is that? Just trust me. Smoooooth) and the fascination with watching as Jane tries to live in the impossible extreme of ‘no exceptions’ in the pro-life argument.

I appreciated that the book kept the reader as some distance from the intensity of decision making around abortion, and instead allowed characters to explore these options in the gaps between chapters or the switch between limited third person narrators. This distancing kept this reader from being overwhelmed by a call to personal connection that might have made empathy challenging. Instead the reader is offered a sympathetic and entirely human portrait of trying to navigate the political, personal, religious and maternal dimensions of abortion that keeps enough distance to avoid triggering the reader’s existing beliefs about abortion and to invite the observation of how these women make sense of it.

I struggled in parts with what I think was meant to be subtly and slow revelation of some climactic character development, but for this tired reader was just too nuanced for me to make sense of. There’s a section, for instance, where Jane is revealing something [avoiding spoilers] about her children and her past, and I just… didn’t get it. It’s possible I missed an earlier reference point that would have let me make sense of what she was revealing, but whatever the case the section didn’t land and I was left thinking maybe it would be resolved later, but never was. I really can’t decide whether this is a fault of the book or of my reading habits which I freely admit involve a lot of the last twenty minutes before falling asleep right now, and so are not at my… sharpest.

This book was made for discussion among a book club, and I’m SO hoping my book club can resume in the fall, perhaps with this one (hey crew? maybe?). If your book club decides to read it, do let me know the kinds of questions that get explored. I mean you could read it by yourself, too. I GUESS.

Leave a comment

Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Fiction