Tag Archives: love

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender: This Book is Wildly Overrated


The internet loves Lesley Walton and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. They love the love story. The magic. The mystery of the ending. They love love love this YA novel. It’s enough to fill this reader with despair. How can so many people love a book that is so completely and totally average?

Maybe it’s like every time I’ve ever had a glass of wine with C. and R. I get super excited about the $15 bottle and its smooth taste, because really I can barely tell the difference between red and white. You get me – I’m accusing readers of The Strange and Beautiful as having unrefined tastes. Even though the readers are meant to be young adults who haven’t tasted enough to know what’s good or not. Ohmygoshdidshejustwritethat. Yes. Yes I did. Sometimes you need a trusted sommeli (*cough* let me, like Walton, make my analogy clear: a librarian. a teacher. a well-read friend) to steer you in the right direction. To correct your gushes of enthusiasm for the overly sweet – the gewurztraminer you can’t get enough of, the wine spritzer you claim as life changing.

On the surface this book should be good. It uses magic realism to explore… oh wait, nothing. Babies born with wings and mothers with a magical sense of smell, aunties that turn into canaries. All to suggest – get this – those who are different are sometimes mistreated by the rest of society that doesn’t quite understand difference. An overly pious man who brutalizes a young woman lets us know sometimes religion is hateful. It offers up some beautiful writing and then includes sentences like “death smelled like sadness” and images of women wearing *actual* wedding dresses to signal virginity. And then *actual* dirty wedding dresses to signal sexual awakening.  You could defend these trite and surface elements as a consequence of the novels intended young adult audience, but then you’d run up against the inclusion of sexually graphic scenes and vivid moments of violence  that – while certainly not to be forbidden the young adult, nevertheless read as intentionally provocative inclusions at best. Add in the underdeveloped and internally inconsistent characters, the absence of any plot conflict worth describing and a thematic depth better described as evaporation and you get… a wildly overrated novel.

Am I being overly arrogant in claiming to know what’s good or not in books? What makes for good value in reading? Sure. But it’s not a matter of taste. Books are not simply neutral objects awaiting the individual preferences of readers (*bracing for onslaught of outrage*). I appreciate different readers will enjoy different things – your Merlot for your Cab Sav – but there are qualitative differences and popularity is not one of them. Trust me?


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Filed under Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Young Adult Fiction

Americanah: Love and Dog Ears

american heart

“How was it possible to miss something you no longer wanted?” (Adichie, 7-8) asks our protagonist, Ifemelu, of herself in the opening pages of the (brilliant) Americanah by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie (also author of the brilliant Half of a Yellow Sun). In asking the question Ifemelu sets up the parallel plot threads that cycle through the story: love lost-found-lost-found-lost and immigration arrival-settle-resettle-departure-arrival-settle-resettle. More specifically she’s asking the question about a recent breakup – a question that – for this reader at least – resonates. In any case, throughout the story we witness Ifemelu grapple with determining what she wants, where she wants to be, what she wants to be doing, who she wants to be – and the ways she can, and cannot, make these decisions (and the ways these decisions are restricted by overt forces/characters or by the less direct, but no less powerful, figures (because they do often have personified characters) of race, class and gender.   Continue reading


Filed under Book Club, Erin's Favourite Books, Prize Winner

Say Her Name: Lessons in (Im)permanence


I heard a story last night while at dinner with P. and E. about a young woman who died suddenly and seemingly without cause. While running this morning I listened to Radiolab’s podcast on “Things” that explored (among other things) how it is that we, human beings, are able to devote ourselves to objects – but more importantly, to other people – when we know, and are constantly reminded, of the impermanence of both.

The two stories helped me make more sense of (or maybe complicated?) Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, a memoir that follows Franscico – Frank – as he grieves the death of his wife, Aura, after she dies in a “freak” or “random” accident. While these two threads in the book – grief and the apparent senselessness of her death – weave together (his grief is magnified, he thinks, by the accidental nature of her death; the senselessness of death is magnified by its material influence on those who continue to live), their separation is important – I think – in allowing all readers (and certainly this reader) to put loss into, and out of, scale and perspective.

What do I mean? I mean that because the book thinks about death as both loss *and* impermanence, it lets the reader see the ways we must continuously convince ourselves of the permanence of those we love (and the ways we love them), even while we are confronted, also continuously (and often violently) with the awareness and experience of their (imminent or inevitable) loss.

The book looks at this experience in the grand displays of grief, the bureaucratic consequences of death (lawyers, estates), but also in the mundane and material experience of trying to live in the space formerly occupied by the loved, now dead. It explores the capacity of others to recognize – at the most basic scale of seeing and the more complex of empathy – grief; the urge of others to “fix” and “finish” grief for the grieved; the incapacity of others and society to make space and time for the continuation of loss and the fundamental change to the grieved.

But more than a book about how Frank grieves – much more, really – it is a book about and of Aura. Her life – her liveliness, humour, potential and warmth – “live” on the page (in one of my more cliche descriptions) as character: a superbly drawn, wrenchingly humanized and believable character. The book presents no photos of Aura directly – though it does offer a few traces (shadows) in a way that shows the extent to which the book is not interested in “fixing” Aura in place, not of making her – here in the book – permanent in a way she – and none of us – can ever be, but instead lets her fill the pages and the reader’s imagination with the full force of description, action, belief and dialogue. We know her through the fragments of her writing contained in the book, but what we really know is the Aura Frank experienced. We know her through him and through text and the rendering he offers is simply beautiful.

It is a book worth reading not only for its beautiful writing, its expression of love and its exploration of character, but for its explicit evocation of “relative” scales of grief. Frank knows his loss is not empirically greater, nor his reaction or feelings. What he describes is the absurdity of trying to make such comparisons. Instead the book gives a portrait – a briefly permanent representation – given to each reader, of love, loss, Aura and Franke. It gives to each reader a sort of assurance that here – in words and in the reading of them – we find for the duration of reading a groping towards sense and permanence.

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Filed under Non-fiction, Prize Winner