Tag Archives: gender

419: A gripping exploration of economic inequality (without it feeling like a book about economic inequality)

I continued my summer of reading literary thrillers with Will Fergusen’s 419. I was late to the party on this one, with folks suggesting I read it for years. Something about it made me resistant to reading, and it wasn’t until it was the *only* book to have come in to the library from my list of requests that I gave in and picked it up. That 419 is terrific only (once again) proves that I am ridiculous for following my arbitrary whims when it comes to book covers and gut feelings.

It follows a sort of three part structure with three distinct characters and plots that (eventually and inevitably) insercet. All story lines are tied to the Nigerian economy. The effect of having the three distinct threads is to demonstrate in character and plot the complexity of the titular 419 scheme. I say complexity and mean both in how such a scheme is set up and executed, but also – and more importantly – the moral ambiguity of the scheme as the reader comes to appreciate the motivations of those setting up the scheme, just as we come to sympathize with those who fall victim to it. It is in this complexity that 419 does its best work – demanding that the reader simulatenously occupy multiple points of sympathy, and rendering all positions around the issue as at once explotited and powerful.

There were a few parts in the initial descriptions of the Nigerian oil economy that I found dragged; likewise in the initial scenes of desert crossing. I suspect this had as much to do with the contrast between these opening scenes and the opening scenes in Calgary, which are plot heavy and familiar as it did with the return to an emphasis on setting and mood as opposed to plot. I also found the characterization of Lauren a bit thinly drawn: her moodiness and loneliness felt declarative rather than earned, and I was annoyed with her more often than I ought to have been when the aim was to cultivate my sympathies.

Putting these minor complaints aside, the novel offers an (at times) gripping exploration of global economic inequalities without it feeling like you’re reading a book about global economic inequality (always a plus). And it has a snappy little mystery to hook you in, so if you’re at all resistant (as I was), give it the first 30 pages and you’ll be snagged.

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Filed under Uncategorized, Canadian Literature, Prize Winner, Bestseller, Giller prize

Life After Life: Why you shouldn’t quit reading the book you’re not enjoying

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A few years ago I tried to read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I made it 20 or 30 pages in and thought ‘meh,’ and gave up. So when my book club selected it, I was reluctant (sorry book club). And then I was chagrined because this is a terrific read. Sure you have to make it past the initial 30 pages (evidence if you’re ever looking for it that a book should be given a fair shot – whatever that might be – before quitting) and the initial conceit which takes repetition to become clear for the reader: our protagonist, Ursula, can die and be reborn in her same body/family/set of experiences. The novel explores the extent to which her actions can control or change the outcome of her life (and the limits of these choices – how and in what circumstances does she end up right back in the same troubled spot or… dead). There are a few instances where we turn our attention to how other people influence the outcome of our life, but usually this is cast in relation to how Ursula reacts and acts against the other. I did think this was a potential area of conceptual weakness as (to me anyway) it placed too much agency on the individual in relation to an other.

That said, the book does do a masterful job exploring the limits of individual agency in relation to society or community. Ursula is born in England in 1911 and so we witness through her experiences WWI and WWII, with far more attention given to WWII (which makes sense given her age and the narrative point of view). In setting her experience against these historical backdrops, the novel invites readers to play the thought experiment so often brought up in History classes of ‘what if X had changed’ (e.g. Hitler had been killed). (In the case of ‘what if Hitler had been killed the novel is less than subtle and just… plays out ‘what if Hitler had been killed’  in a manner that this reader found a bit too obvious for total enjoyment (in fact, C., at book club raised the idea that this may have been the creative entry point for the author that allowed her to imagine the life after life conceit).

Putting aside the conceptual questions of the novel, I also appreciated the quality of writing that is at once terrific and unpretentious. The exploration of gender is nuanced and provocative. I do think the novel lets questions of class slide easily by (particularly knowing that the post WWI period triggered a mass shift in class structure – the novel dodges by having our patriarch a ‘banker’ and so, presumably, immune to market fluctuation. That is another minor complaint – Hugh (the father) – also fights in WWI and comes back remarkably (okay, impossibly) unscathed in body and mind, perhaps a necessary characterization to allow him to continue to stand as an emotional cornerstone in the eyes of Ursula. But I digress).

All said, I’d encourage you to read the novel if only for the creativity of its plot and conceptual conceit. But I don’t have to leave it at that, I can also encourage you because of its great writing, character development and exploration of gender and history.

Oh and my other book club is taking up God in Ruins (Atkinson’s novel following Life After Life) next month, so stay tuned for review part the second.

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Filed under Book Club, British literature, Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

The Secret Place: Because you like to read about violence.

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I can see why some people read only mystery and suspense novels. They are so. fun. Or at least, Tana French’s The Secret Place was so. fun. I mean, if you look past the murder of a teenage boy and the fraught and disturbing presentation of adolescent femininity and friendship. Yep. If you can focus just on the investigation, the unravelling of who did what and when, the certainty that everyone is lying all the time (but why? to whom?) then it’s a lot of fun. Continue reading

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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction, Mystery

Swing Time: Was this Book-fate?

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A week ago Donald Trump was elected President. A week ago I put out an urgent plea for book suggestions that would give my mind somewhere else to be. The same day as my request, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time arrived for me to review. I won’t claim to believe in book-fate*, but it sort of felt like book-fate.

It wasn’t book-fate. It was a great read, yes. Continue reading

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Filed under British literature, Fiction, Funny, New York Times Notable