Tag Archives: best book blog

Daughter of Fortune: Bold Claims to Begin 2016

sf_panomap_1846-7

I have been known to get carried away in recommending books. I have said out loud on more than one occasion ‘this is the best book you will ever read.’ About different books. And I was going to start this post by saying Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune is the best book I’ll read in 2016. But then I picked up H is for Hawk this morning and now all bets are off. It’s probably better to stop ranking things (this is good advice all round, actually) and accept that there might just be many books that are very, very good and worth pausing whatever you’re doing in order to read (just as there are many pies worth eating and why do we need to have a best one? Because best lists are the best that’s why. And obviously raspberry. Oh fine, let’s carry on with having bests).

ANYWAY. So the book. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Bestseller, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

The Heart Goes Last: Your Contract to Read All Atwood Has Been Voided. Thank God.

0927-BKS-JOHNSON-master675.jpg

As a student of Can Lit I am always going to get the new Margaret Atwood novel. It was in the contract I signed when I chose my field. Or did I not read the fine print? Or bother to inquire? If I had I might not have so readily signed on because at a certain point (as in The Heart Goes Last) reading the new Atwood is an obligation and chore, rather than pleasure and delight.

I jest about contract signing because this novel-that-ought-to-have-been-a-short-story-but-who-is-going-to-tell-that-to-Atwood focuses on the ways people ‘freely’ choose their subjugation and constraint. Yawn hegemony. Made more complex, perhaps, by the setting of a post-depression era North America where 50% unemployment means the collapse of society as we know it. You could read other reviews that will praise the way this question of choice is taken up in relation to technology. You won’t read that here because I read this as – at best – an obvious consideration of the reach of technology in regulating individual life and desire. You don’t have to look far – *cough* The Circle – for similar, if far better executed, allegories and literary prophesies.

*spoiler alert* Though it’s not much of a spoiler as so much of this plot is either predictable or uninspired: Stan and Charmaine, out of work, sign on to live in Consilience, a town that provides employment and safety. The trade off is the town is selling body parts and making people into sex slaves. The bit about working for a month in a prison and a month in the town is neither necessary to know nor interesting in the plot, it seems to be there just for shock value.

Had this been an interesting novel (or a compressed and worthy short story) I might have been taken with the ideas explored around individual choice. The tone of the novel blames Stan and Charmaine for their choice to sign on to Consilience, as if they ought to have read the fine print or been brave enough to choose ‘freedom over security’ (that familiar binary). One of the unitarian principles I appreciate is the idea that individuals have choice, but choice within constraints. That what we can do for a more just society is to create conditions under which individuals have the maximum range of choice and are equipped and supported in choosing. (This push to create ‘choice conditions’ is part of the reason the church has such an aggressive (if you can call unitarians aggressive about anything) social justice mandate as part of their non-doctrine-doctrine.) So sure, you can make an argument that the two ought to have chosen violence over the promises of the town, they ought to have known such a thing was (in every way the adage) too good to be true. But you could also make an argument they – like we – made a choice inasmuch as they could choose anything within their constraints. It bears repeating, however, that the novel doesn’t do much – at all – to further this line of questioning or explore this nuance. It simply blames them – and us – for being dupes and moves on.

So don’t be a dupe. Give this one a pass. You can choose how to spend your reading time, even if I can’t.

2 Comments

Filed under Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Worst Books

Everything I Never Told You: Secrets, Lies and Misunderstandings

secrets

One of the questions at the heart of Celeste Ng’s excellent Everything I Never Told You is what might be the difference among secrets, lies and silences, and where responsibility falls for speaking (truth or lies) and for listening.

At first blush the novel is about unravelling mystery and secrets. The opening sentence “Lydia is dead,” invites the immediate line of questioning of who, what, when, where and how. Talk about using conflict to drive plot. In exploring the mystery of her death we learn of Lydia’s family – Marilyn, James, Nath and Hannah – and how they collectively and individually both keep secrets and assign meaning to one another’s behaviours (and silences).

To me the most engrossing parts of the novel are those when characters inaccurately – and frustratingly – ascribe meaning to someone else. Layers of misunderstanding and misinterpretation are confounded by a resolute and seemingly intractable refusal to ask one another about the validity of these (deeply held) (and false) beliefs. Of course the more certain we are of the motivations and beliefs of those we love the less likely we are to realize we might be best off checking whether these are, after all, true. Hardly the case that those we love are lying to us, or keeping secrets, rather the responsibility for the falsehood is ours as we fail to check our assumptions and instead walk around certain of the falsehood we have created.

It’s been well established that I love good character-driven stories, and the characters here are richly drawn. There are moments when their motivations seem a bit rigidly defined by what the character is ‘like,’ but these motivations do evolve as the characters learn about themselves, grow and change.

The first line (and chapters) primed me for a murder mystery, but this is not a who-dunnit novel. The initial frenetic pace of setting the scene for Lydia’s death tempers after the opening chapters and settles into something more of a family and character drama. I say that not as a complaint, but more of a caution that while you may find yourself staying up late to read this one it won’t be because you’re driven to figure out the crime, so much as to figure out when – and if – the family members will recognize their false assumptions, the limits of their beliefs about themselves and those they love, the necessity to openly share.

I’ll be putting this one on my ‘books to buy or borrow’ list (post to come soon…) as you think about possible holiday shopping. I’d say it’s a great book to buy for any reader on your list, and perhaps for yourself. And certainly one to prompt you to ask yourself what do I actually know about my family and myself, what stories do I tell myself, and when is a secret simply the question we never thought or borthered to ask.

1 Comment

Filed under American literature, Fiction, Mystery, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?: My Ongoing Love Affair With Dave Eggers

Clifford illo

Dave Eggers doesn’t know it, but I love him. Hard. I just double checked his bibliography and I’ve read most of it (see my reviews of The Circle, A Hologram for the King, and Zeitoun for proof. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What is the What date from the dark time in the Era Before the Blog). Count me among the devotees of The Believer and McSweeney’s. I’m not ashamed to love him (why would I be? It’s not cool in the McSweeney’s universe to be sincere). I love him for the earnest efforts to share literacy, the belief in his novels in the power of storytelling to make social change, the imagination in the form and voice of his texts.

Did I love this book? No. But happily a reader can not love a book and still love an author. So there. I did like it a lot. Here’s the premise: disgruntled, slightly off-kilter, Thomas, kidnaps a heap of people so that he can interrogate them on a wide range of questions. The novel is told entirely in dialogue (the reviewers love this sort of formal play, and I did find it neat) as Thomas tries to get to the bottom of why an astronaut isn’t on a shuttle, why his friend was killed by the police, why his mother wasn’t a better mother, and, you know, why the crisis among American youth.

It’s this last question that really undergirds the novel. It’s not so much a question as it is the thesis: the promise of hard work is a lie and the lie has led to all sorts of sadness. Those who insist on perpetuating the lie – media, government, state officials, parents – do so at their own peril, as the ‘disaffected youth’ who are confronted by the gap between the promise and their experience are set up for all kinds of volatile response as a result. Cue kidnapping a senator.

Why didn’t I love it? The form felt a bit forced. The argument a bit overwrought (and while I can’t imagine any other way of ‘stating’ the argument in a book that is entirely statements I did think Eggers could have trusted me more to work out the argument (come to think of it I think I had the same complaint in The Circle).

Despite these annoyances, it’s a timely book for the start of another academic year. As students flood my campus I wonder what might happen if I stopped each and every one of them and asked the same kinds of pointed questions Thomas does: why are you here? what are  you hoping to accomplish? what is it you believe the point of this whole thing to be? stop using your credit card (okay, not a question). How would I answer these questions? How do I channel my own frustration at not having the job I was promised – despite ticking the right boxes? The answer of course is I read the book and it demanded I ask myself and reflect. And I don’t need to stop each and every one, I just need to get them to all read Eggers (easy, right?).

2 Comments

Filed under American literature, Fiction, Funny