Tag Archives: family drama

The Association of Small Bombs: The Book You Won’t See On the Display Table, But Should Definitely Seek Out.

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Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs was on the New York Times list for the best books of 2016. I went through the list and requested books at the library, most of the list had a wait list dozens, or hundreds, deep. Not so for The Association of Small Bombs. It was on the shelf at my preferred location. Maybe because I was requesting books the same day the list came out? Or maybe because readers are silly and thought they wouldn’t like a book about terrorism in India? Whatever the case: be me and get yourself to the front of the line to read this one. It’s terrific. Continue reading

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Filed under Fiction, New York Times Notable, Uncategorized

In the Unlikely Event: It’s Just Not that Good.

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Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event is about three plane crashes in eight weeks and the effect of such trauma on the citizens of the small town of Elizabeth where the novel (and ‘real’ historical experience) is set.

I say it’s about the effect of the trauma on the citizens, and I do think it’s meant to be about that, but it mostly reads like a novel that wants to describe three plane crashes and then looks for characters to justify this plot. Continue reading

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Filed under Book Club, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction

Everything I Never Told You: Secrets, Lies and Misunderstandings

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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.

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

The Green Road: What we mean when we say ‘a good book’

Countryside-scene-in-repu-008Imagine you’ve just finished reading a good book. You put it down and you think to yourself, ‘gosh, that was a really good book’ (okay, you probably don’t say ‘gosh’). You try to put your finger on what made it good. If someone asks you about it, you don’t hesitate to tell them to read it, but you probably don’t go out of your way to recommend it. You think about the characters again for a few days, but then the specificity of their story seeps into a wider feeling you have about the book: it was good.

I’ve just finished Anne Enright’s The Green Road and I can safely report it’s a good book. The writing is at once grand in its capacity and small in its attention on detailed, particular moments. With a compelling use of a shifting third person limited narration, the plot traces the Madigan family over decades. Each long chapter follows one of the four children in a specific moment in time, richly evoking place and character. Each successive chapter moves chronological leaps forward, always toward something. That something is the eventual family reunion when all children are gathered at their childhood home for Christmas.

It wouldn’t be an outrageous argument to claim these chapters are linked short stories, such is the telescopic focus on the one child, the particular time and place. For instance, the (best) chapter following Dan through the gay community in the 1980s, AIDS ravaged New York, is a tight story unto itself. Even while the development of Dan’s character comes to have resonance in the eventual reunion chapter such that this earlier chapter is necessary for the latter, the chapter could be self-contained for its own sake.

To this point on the function of the character-focused chapters: Perhaps because the mother in the story, Rosaleen, does not get a chapter onto herself (in this way the form mirrors the message that she has devoted her sense of self entirely to serving her children), the climactic moments that focus on her feel less pressing than they might had we had time to connect with her first-hand. That said, the children’s reaction to these climactic scenes give the reader a firm sense of the importance and reverberations of the moments.

It’s a good book for exploring questions of familial loyalty, of how and when identity becomes fixed, of who we want to be versus who we might actually be, and of what we owe our family (read ‘owe’ as broadly as you can: what debts we aim to repay, what we have because of them, what obligations are due). These questions get worked out in individual chapters and across the whole with each successive chapter adding layer and echo as the reader comes to piece together both chronology and family hierarchies.

A good book, then, is one that is well written, with strong character development and thematically rich. It’s not a great book because it doesn’t quite leave you shaken, not changed by the beauty of the work or by the questions it explores. This one then is good, and given the profile of Anne Enright, will probably be described as great. You be the judge.

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