Tag Archives: gender

Fierce Kingdom: So… Being a Mom Makes You a Better Human? What?

Gin Phillip’s “literary” thriller (the claim to ‘literary-ness’ is a dubious one. I’ll accept if the only criteria for being ‘literary’ is to describe child’s breath as ‘warm’ and ‘milky’ 15 000 times in the span of a 300 page novel) Fierce Kingdom follows Joan and Lincoln (mother and son) as they try to escape shooters in the zoo. This plot takes several things for granted that are worthy of pause:

1. Joan needs to have an exhaustive understanding of zoo layout. No flimsy paper maps for her. So in a stroke of good fortune we find she and Lincoln visit the zoo almost daily and so she knows all the ins and outs of zoo topography. Phew. Makes sense. Because what else is a woman to do with a four year old except not-work so she can take the kid to the zoo every. day.

2. Joan needs to not have a cellphone. Yes. Those pesky devices that keep us tethered to the world and make hostage plots so… lacking in suspense. So Joan *throw it away*. Because that’s exactly what you would do when held hostage and hiding. You would throw your phone away. Literally throw it away. Well thank goodness. I wouldn’t have wanted to be able to communicate with the outside world either.

3. Joan needs to have absolute moral clarity on the purpose of her life: Keep Lincoln Safe. And she needs to encounter a classic ethical dilemna (baby crying while Bad Men With Guns approach) in order to test and be sure about her Purpose. And to stand firm. And then she needs to abnegate that Purpose within 20 pages without any rationale, reflection or consideration. Because this book is full of ethical quandries that are not to be taken lightly. Noted.

4. This last one is perhaps the most disturbing for how little it ruffled this reader: we need to accept and expect that mass shootings occur with enough frequency as to not be particularly noteworthy. To instead be a plot premise from which other questions and issues might be considered.

So with those stipulations noted there are other… troubling aspects of the book.

The reader needs to care about Joan and Lincoln in order to make any of the suspenseful elements of the book work. We need to be worried about whether and how and when they will escape. Except this reader found Joan to be… irritating. The sort of put-together perfect-mom that you see in tampon commercials: making her own yogurt while sorting laundry and doing yoga stretches while she teachers her baby Mandarin and plays lullabies on her harp. Like she just happens to think every. little. thing. Lincoln does is precious and perfect and evidence of his sensitivity and genius. And not once during the three hours they are held hostage at gunpoint does she think ‘Gosh I wish I had someone here to help me,’ or ‘Why won’t this kid stop whinging about being hungry?’ She is, in other words, not entirely believable as a character. I only know some mums, but the mums I know are excellent people and often-to-most-of-the-time excellent mums. And part of what makes them excellent is that they are also their own person. They have ideas, and needs, and wants, and thoughts that are often about their kids, but often about other things, too. And it might just be me (hey, it really might just be me) but I’m more interested in reading about a mom character who is a character and also a mom, than a character who is only known or considered by way of being a mom. It’s just really, really hard to care about an archetype without a personality, history or future attached to it. And maybe the most troubling part, but Joan seems to think – and the reader seems to be expected to reflexively think, too – that being a mom is the highest calling and the most sacred duty. Which isn’t for me to say it is, or it isn’t. Just that the novel presents this as an Unassailable Truth. Like OF COURSE being a mom makes you a better and more worthy human and full of Purpose. Other non-parent-people are nice and good, too, and probably shouldn’t be shot by mass shooters, but… is it so bad? I mean… what are they really living for anyway? So… troubling.

And then there’s the quality of the writing which is at once polished and predictable. It reads smoothly, which is nice because it allows the reader to focus on plot! Some exceptions: the descriptions of the setting are muddy and confusing, I had a hard time picturing where they were or how they were navigating particular enclosures or forests. It feels like maybe Phillips was writing this to be optioned for a movie and so could ‘see’ her scene playing out this way and just trusted the reader would go see the adaptation? The other exception is in descriptions of Lincoln. This poor kid has no character development (except he likes to tell stories about super heroes. Oh wait. That didn’t conjur a complex character for you? Wait, I’ll add that he likes to be snuggled.) and endless descriptions of warm breath. Yawn. Oh and the tired and repeat analogy to ‘animal instincts’. I get it. I get it. You’re a mother protecting her cub and you’re in a zoo. Please. Spell it out for me.

So many complaints! But you’ll still read this one. I know you will. Because it’s the sort of book that can’t be resisted. The Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (that these women are called ‘girls’ in the title ought to be warning enough) except now… she has a baby to protect. So once you’re finished let me know if I’m just grumpy.

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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction, Worst Books

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne: You Should Not Read this Book Alone in January. And a #metoo digression.

As if to test whether I am in fact cured of my reader’s block, I read Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Published in 1955 the novel accords with its time in offering a methodical character study touching on themes of religion/morality, gender and class. It is to Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train what organic, fair trade, shade-grown, bird-friendly, coffee  is to maximum fizz cherry coke: infinitely more substantial, if tasting a little too healthy for satisfaction (and with all the same self-righteous satisfaction for reading it).

But really, if you accept its pace and its narrow focus, you’ll find yourself utterly absorbed and utterly devastated. The novel follows Judith Hearne as she attempts – once again – to meet a man (any man!) who might love her and rescue her from her desperate financial and social straits*. She is entirely pitiable, and (perhaps inevitably) primed to make you either appreciate the social connection in your own life, or to descend into a pit of wallowing sadness about your own isolation and loneliness. Probably not a book to read in January when temperatures are -40 so you can’t go outside and your only companion doesn’t do language and so you find yourself muttering about the existence of God and the dignity of single women. I mean. That could be any one. I’m just saying. That is to say, Moore does a tremendous job of encouraging the reader to empathize with Hearne, even while she is represented as boring, irritating and desperate: quite the feat.

*The reader should, of course, take issue with the representation of women as entirely dependent on men for sense of self and fulfillment. And not to excuse this representation because certainly there are many novels published in Canada in the 1950s that offer alternate visions/realities of femininity, (Gabrielle Roy, for instance) but this reader was willing to read the novel of and by its time and didn’t take too much umbrage with the way Judith casts about for meaning in the form of a man. Where I did find myself concerned is in scenes of sexual violence that present and uncomplicated representation of male violence as instinctual or impulsive, while simultaneously blaming the female character and/or altogether ignoring the consequences for her life of the experience of such violence. We might reasonably ask questions about what we can expect from Moore, writing when he is, and writing female characters. While we might make some allowances for the social mores of his time, I did find these scenes disturbing and the treatment of the women (that is to say, their literary representation, not their literal experience in the novel) put to service the characterization of the male predator, a frustrating and disturbing double “use” of the female character. Perhaps I am overly sensitive (yes, let’s blame me for my ‘sensitivity’) awash as we are in the #metoo moment, but I suspect most readers would find some level of irritation at the surface treatment of sexual violence here and the way it is rendered both quotidian and inevitable.

Okay. All that said, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book (enjoyed seems like the wrong word for a reading experience that is so successful in making you feel so… sad). So if you find yourself looking for something to make you feel suitably smug about your reading habits… go ahead. Read it on the bus with its cover in full display, for you are someone who reads Literary Things. (also Literary Vice).

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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. Continue reading

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

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