Category Archives: Prize Winner

Disappearing Earth: Why do short stories keep sneaking up and Being Great?

Man. Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth is so good. And I’m so annoyed by it because it’s effectively a collection of short stories. I’m not going to revise my opinion that short stories are impossible to love because I continue to be frustrated by getting attached to characters and then having to give them up 30 pages later, HOWEVER, this book is probably a novel? Yeah, it must be – just with really focused chapters on very different characters.

The book opens with a chapter following two young girls in a Russian sea-side town as they are kidnapped. In the following chapters, each a subsequent month in the year, the narrative microscopes on a character touching the life and investigation of the kidnapping. Together they offer a portrait of a town fractured by racial divisions between the indigenous population and those of more recent settlers, between those committed to Soviet ideals and those aiming for something different. Threads of corruption and patriarchal control weave through, but with nuanced explorations and substantial counter portraits.

If anything the ‘novel’ is an argument for community, and how we have come to imagine ourselves and live our lives in isolation from the necessary communities that surround us. (Ah – that’s an argument for the form of discrete chapters, too!) It’s incredibly strong writing and a pleasure to be immersed in.

My complaint – and I’m reluctant to call it even a complaint – is the ending. I don’t want to say too much lest I spoil, but I did find it dissatisfying. Maybe it was a lack of foreshadowing? Or probability? Or that I’m simply opposed to pat resolutions. Anyway, you read it and let me know what you think of the ending.

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Filed under Fiction, Prize Winner, Short Stories

Trust Exercise: Weird, but/and ultimately boring

Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is formally fun in that it plays around with narration and point of view, with authorial perspective, with time in ways that are surprising, and so, sort-of engaging. The trouble is, the plot and character aren’t compelling enough to stand behind the formal play, and so this reader was left debating whether it was worth marching on through another teenage dramatic scene (literally – the protagonists are teenagers in a drama program at a fancy arts high school; and figuratively – they are also in love and thwarted by pride and ego) in order to get to the next quirky formal element.

I decided two thirds of the way in that, no, it was not. So I can’t tell you if it has a sudden turnaround where all the hours of hand wringing longing for the lost lover is satisfied. I can tell you that there are some strange sex scenes (if that’s your thing), and uncomfortable moments of power imbalance between adults and children, and a pretty good adult recollection of how painful feeling are when you’re a teenager (which, being an adult recalling this period, I must say I am poorly equipped to comment on whether this is an accurate picture of how proper teenagers feel). So I don’t know, if your thing is weird formal elements and a kind of engaging, but not really, romance/gender plot, then… have at it.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Prize Winner

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Non-fiction? What?

So I haven’t read a non-fiction, non-parenting book in years. Actual years. (Which makes me feel a little sheepish for the grief I give people who don’t read a single novel in a year, or the scorn I (privately?) feel for those who shrug novels off as ‘just made up’. Not sheepish enough to change my view, obviously, as these non-novel people are clearly Bad). But I kept seeing Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity on best-of lists, and, more promisingly, described as ‘novelistic.’ So off I went and read it. Continue reading

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Filed under Bestseller, New York Times Notable, Non-fiction, Prize Winner

What is Left the Daughter: In which I only realize I read the book before after writing this review and the two reviews are… not the same.

BIG NEWS. First time ever, but I wrote this review and when I was typing in the ‘tags’ realized that I READ IT BEFORE. And REVIEWED IT BEFORE. And I had NO MEMORY AT ALL that I’d ever encountered the book before! AH! My brain! Anyway, When I read this (in 2011) I was ambivalent. Almost ten years later (let’s grant that the intervening decade may be why I don’t recall it At. All.?) I am less easily swayed. If you want to read the earlier review you can find it here. I will say that 2011 Erin was far more impressed by detail. And actually thought this was a book I’d ‘keep thinking about’ LOL.

And now… the review I wrote before I realized I’d reviewed it before!

It shouldn’t be so boring. What is Left the Daughter opens with a dramatic love triangle that renders protagonist Wyatt Hillier an orphan. It has the drama of U-boats and the war and murder! But then it also has tedious descriptions of scones and gramophone recordings and definitions of words.

Ostensibly told as a series of letters from father to daughter (though what letter would ever include Such Outrageous Detail I don’t know) the novel follows the life of Wyatt as he comes to Middle Economy, Nova Scotia, and becomes a… wait. Try to imagine the most boring job you can imagine. Did you guess toboggan and sled maker? You’re right – that falls outside the scope of imagination for most boring, but there it is, all true. He falls in love, but the woman of his affection loves another man. A *gasp* German man amid WWII Nova Scotia. Drama-drama, family-drama. Except… no real drama. Just agonizing mundane exhaustion.

So yeah. I would have stopped reading this one, but I kept thinking it was going to get better. It doesn’t. Don’t. Bother.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, National Book Award, Worst Books