April 21, 2016 · 5:23 pm
I know I’m a few years behind the tide on hating J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, so forgive the belated review: it’s a boring book and you shouldn’t read it.
Set it Pagford, a quaint British town (think the Vicar of Dibley), the story follows a ragtag cast of characters after the death of town councillor Barry somebody-I-don’t-remember-because-I-don’t-care. The book tries to make itself relevant and interesting by including cyber bullying, drug use, domestic abuse and racism. It succeeds only in being interesting by virtue of how terrible it is. And how difficult it is to remember who any of the characters are because they are all so boring and yawn.
I suspect the editor of the first draft wanted to put the whole thing in a fire, but felt compelled by the sheer force of the Rowling name to let it see the public eye. I jest (only a little). It’s not punishing to read, but it certainly belies the substance of the book to call this a ‘compelling’ read (as do some reviews) or a (ha!) page-turner. With nary a plot detail to compel, nor a character developed enough to be of the slightest interest (Rowling is surely the master of characters defined by a single character trait and stubbornly resistant to any change through circumstance or reflection) it’s a book you read out of a sense of inertia and a quiet fascination with how someone who wrote Harry Potter could also write this terrible thing.
What, if anything, could I say this book is about? Small town politics? Teenage relationships and the lack of parental engagement with youth? Hardly. I do think it’s trying to be about the social mores of our contemporary moment, but reads as an afterschool special that forgot that in order to make a reader care about an issue you first have to provide a compelling… something.
I have to admit I’m pleased it was so bad. Coming off the glory of A Little Life I was pretty sure whatever I read was going to pale in comparison. The Casual Vacancy did not disappoint in this respect. With my palate cleansed I feel ready for another terrific read: suggestions?
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April 18, 2016 · 3:44 pm
It’s been hard to write about Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Hard to find words for how affecting I found the novel, how much I appreciated it. I really, really, emphatically, as loud as I’ve ever claimed it, think this is a brilliant novel. It’s not worth it to have best lists, I get it. But if I was someone who kept best lists (okay, I do) this one would be near the top. I can’t think of a book in recent (or any?) memory that has lived so fully in my mind, has occupied such a significant place in my thinking while – and after – I was reading it. Note I didn’t say “enjoyed” – it’s a hard story to live within, and you really will live within it (and for days and weeks after you finish it – it’s still following me around). It’s a long book, but you won’t notice the length, except maybe the anxiety of realizing you only have half of it left, the worry that eventually the last page will come. It’s a book that wants you to feel deeply and succeeds through masterful – truly – narration and character development in making you feel so. much. Continue reading →
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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Book Club, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, Prize Winner
Tagged as A Little Life, American literature, best book blog, best books, Bestseller, book clubs, Booker Prize, Erin's Favourite Books, fiction, gem, Hanya Yanagihara, memory, narration, New York Times Bestseller, New York Times Notable Book, so good, trauma, young men
April 8, 2016 · 1:30 pm
I joined a book club for the friends, but the real value of the club has been the introduction of new authors and titles that I’d not have found myself (Okay, bit of a stretch, the friendship (and wine) has been pretty valuable, too….). Don’t despair if you’re not the book club kind of person, you can get the same direction to new kinds of reads from your librarian, your independent bookseller, or *cough* your favourite book review blogger.
That said you probably don’t need me to introduce you to Alison Pick. Because (unlike me) you probably know about her: Far to Go was nominated for the Man Booker, she’s won a bazillion important prizes, been on all of the lists of best books, identified as “the” up-and-coming Canadian author. Oh and she’s an alumnus of the University of Guelph. So… I had a little literary blindspot. Tiny. So thanks book club friends for getting me sorted. Now that I’ve found her writing I’ll not be forgetting it (or stopping at this novel). All this to say Far to Go is excellent and you should read it, too. If you’ve not met Pick’s writing yet either, let this be the moment of unexpected pleasure. If you’re already familiar then I have to know: Why didn’t you tell me sooner? (An aside – why aren’t all of you sending me recommendations all the time? I could stand to have more variety pointed my way… Anyway.)
So the book. Set in Czechoslovakia in 1939 it follows the story of Marta, a governess for a rich, secular Jewish Bauer family as the Nazis seize control of the country. Woven throughout are short passages of the narrative of a contemporary researcher in Canada who researches the lives of the Kindertransport: Jewish children ferried out of occupied countries at the outbreak of war.
These short contemporary flashes make explicit the constructedness of the imagined life of the past, the sort of hiccuping self-awareness of historical fiction’s reminder to readers that we know history through fragments, and we create a pieced together narrative from these fragments, filling in gaps with fictions so that we can have the assurance of plot. Serving more than the usual ritual of historiographic metafiction, the attention to the holes of history work here as a thematic expression of the loss of life and attendant story that the Holocaust represents: the absence in the present that can only ever be filled by imagination.
The bulk of the narrative is given over to Marta and her commitment to the Bauer family (a parallel to the way the contemporary narrator is similarly invested in the families she chronicles in her research), with questions of how Marta defines her worth independent of this family. Marta’s actions and motivations are rich, complex and entirely fascinating. The Bauer parents – Pavel and Annelise – are somewhat less fully developed, but are nevertheless compelling. Marta’s young charge, Pepik, is a brilliantly captured five year old. The novel rarely leaves the household – either literally or figuratively – yet it doesn’t feel claustrophobic; rather it reveals the way the grand historical moment is experienced in the small, domestic. Taken together the family and their impossible choices that they must nevertheless make what could feel sweeping feel heartbreakingly particular.
The writing is extraordinary. I often complain about writing that is trying to be literary and so comes across as overly workshopped (I’m still trying to figure out how to best describe this writing – all I have right now is ‘knowing it when I see it.’) Far to Go is a beautiful example of not this effort-ful beauty. It is just. beautiful.
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Filed under Bestseller, Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner
Tagged as Alison Pick, beautiful writing, best book blog, Bestseller, book club, canadian literature, excellent, Far to Go, fiction, gem, Globe and Mail, historical fiction, Holocaust, Man Booker Prize, prize winner, Wars of the 20th Century
April 4, 2016 · 2:09 pm
For years I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden every spring. I read it in the spring because its setting was the lush Salinas valley (okay – “Eden”); I loved it because it held the idea that we can choose the direction of our life. (I also probably loved it because it was one of the first books I read during the end of highschool/undergrad that I recognized – on my own! – the way the book was artfully (though not subtly in this case) making meaning: all of the A names are good! The C names evil!). I wanted to believe then (just as I do now) that we humans can make choices (within the constraints of our circumstances…).
Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies (as the title suggests)also explores this idea of the limits of choice. The novel follows the marriage of Lotto (short for Lancelot – as if we needed the reminder that the name of characters signifies something about their thematic role) and Mathilde as they navigate a life of literal and figurative theatre: he is a playwright, they both perform for the world and one another. Attempting to be on the stage of life what they think will earn them the most love (and applause), eschewing honesty for its risk: loss. The novel did not succeed (for this reader) in bringing anything new to the idea of a fated life or one full of intention. It plays around with the ways deception (both the explicit lie and the untold truth) frustrates and enables choice with some interest, but for the most part circles familiar territory.
In its form it recalls Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train in a sort of repressed hysteria of women-can’t-be-trusted and the self-satisfied triumph of revealing as much in a formal break in narrative voice midway through the text. The first half of the novel gives us a third person limited on Lotto: his love for Mathilde, his tortured relationship with his mother and family inheritance, his need for approval and adoration. The second half brings us something like a Gone Girl explosion. Mathilde is not what she seems! Women are mostly temptress, seductress whores unless they are beacons of goodness (*cough* another East of Eden parallel…). Under the calm exterior of every woman is a roiling example of evil incarnate and barely controlled fury. Throughout both section the narrator/authorial voice interrupts in parentheses to let us know what is really going on – the playwright inserting the intended reading. It is, at moments, a compelling device, however it is unevenly deployed (almost as though it’s been forgotten at some points and at others with little effect except to be novel). I suppose that’s my complaint about the form of the novel: it reads like a overly workshopped story, intent on being taken seriously, a little too satisfied with the creativity of its changing narrative voices.
Unlike Gone Girl there’s merit in this novel. There are interesting ideas about choice and deception, and moments of great writing and formal play. The caveat is that you have to muck about with a bunch of obvious Symbols and handwringing Theme for those moments. A good one to take on a plane or to the beach in that it reads quickly and requires very little of the reader. Plus there’s a bazillion sex scenes. Because you know, women. They’re so sexy. And furious.
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Tagged as best book blog, Bestseller, east of eden, Fates and Furies, fiction, Gone Girl, Lauren Groff, marriage, National Book Award, New York Times Bestseller, theatre, women, Women in literature