Book Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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Black Swan Green – David Mitchell (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2006)

This was the fourth book I’ve read by David Mitchell and his work surprises me each time. If you’ve read Cloud Atlas then you may know Mitchell as an author who isn’t afraid to play with form. But what really impresses me about Mitchell’s novels is how entirely different they are from one another.

Black Swan Green is thirteen chapters containing thirteen stories in a year of the life of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor. We begin in January and end in January of the following year and watch Jason’s life unfold in the village of Black Swan Green in the early 1980s.

Jason lives a fairly ordinary, middle class life with his family. His middle-management dad, housewife mom, and his older sister. Each chapter shines a light on a crucial moment or experience in Jason’s life. Sometimes this occurs over a few weeks, sometimes only a few hours.

Having never been a teenage boy in England in the 1980s, I can’t speak to the authenticity of Jason as a character but can only say that Jason’s voice as narrator feels very real. There is cadence, slang, and rhythm that feel very authentic and honest and how a boy of Jason’s age, time, and locale would speak. Jason has a stammer which Mitchell uses to show character development in a subtle manner. While the stammer doesn’t define Jason, it clearly dominates his life in some unexpected ways. Mitchell does a great job at showing how it blocks Jason’s speech and effects his interactions, particularly in school, and how it creates a distance between Jason and those around him, keeping him from sharing his true thoughts. Jason refers to his stammer as “the Hangman”. I haven’t seen a speech impediment used in fiction much before and found this fascinating.

Black Swan Green – both the book and the village – is peopled with a variety of characters. Funny, affectionate, morbid, mysterious. We get to see the same characters pop up throughout Jason’s year and as the book (and year) continues, we see some behind the scenes developments. Some of these are a part of Jason’s story while others are simply hinted at. This gives the novel a strong feeling of existing in a real world, filled with individuals who have their own lives and tales.

All together, I loved the novel. Jason is a strong character. He feels very human but with enough traits to make him an interesting one to follow for a year. And Mitchell certainly captures how truly awful being thirteen can be!

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What I Read – April 2018

READ:

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains – Yasuko Thanh (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

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I went to school with Suko and so was familiar with her unique style and had an idea of where her interests lie. This historical novel set in Vietnam lined up with my expectations and I love her short stories (Her collection Floating Like the Dead is great) but I struggled with this one a bit. It came together in the end for me but took me a while to get oriented.

Funny Once – Antonya Nelson (Bloomsbury, 2014)

These short stories were great but it took me so long to read them that I think a lot of the impact was lost on me. The fault was my own – I borrowed this as an online resource from the library and so read it on my laptop. And reading books electronically just does not work for me. Turns out I’m kind of old-fashioned when it comes to books.

When I was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson (Picador, 2012)

Overall, I enjoyed this essay collection. I really like Robinson’s writing and I agree with her on a lot of theological and political questions. However, some of these essays felt really American and so I had trouble staying interested. They also felt overly optimistic about America, which made me realize how much the world has changed since 2012.

The great narrative, to which we as Christians are called to be faithful, begins at the beginning of all things and ends at the end of all things, and within the arc of it civilizations blossom and flourish, wither and perish. This would seems a great extravagance, all the beautiful children of earth lying down in a final darkness. But no, there is that wondrous love to assure us that the world is more precious than we can possibly imagine.

  • Marilynne Robinson, “Wondrous Love”

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – Hilary Mantel (HarpeCollins Publisher, 2014)

I found myself much more engaged by this collection of short stories. This was my first read by Mantel and although I enjoyed it I still don’t feel the need to read any of her novels. The title story of this collection did force me to do some reading up on Margaret Thatcher though, since I knew shockingly little.

Brother – David Chariandy (McClelland & Stewart, 2017)

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Loved this book. Read my full review here.

All around us in the Park were mothers who had journeyed far beyond what they knew, who dreamed of raising children who might have just a little more than they did, children who might reward sacrifice and redeem a past. And there were victories, you must know. Fears were banished by the scents from simmering pots, denigration countered by freshly laundered tablecloth. History beaten back by the provision of clothes and yearly school supplies.

  • David Chariandy, Brother

Black Swan Green – David Mitchell (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2006)

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I reviewed this one too! Maybe I’m on a roll! Check back on Wednesday for the review.

If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, “When you’re ready.”

  • David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Didn’t Finish:

White Cat – Holly Black

Someone raved about this book to me once and so I’ve long had it on my list and finally got a copy of it. As soon as I picked it up at the library I knew it wasn’t my normal fare. I don’t read a lot fantasy but wanted to give it a fair go. I think I got about halfway through. I can see why a fantasy reader would love it but it’s not for me. (I also, in general, hate book series and that biased me against it further.)

Currently Reading:

The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien

The Redress of Poetry – Seamus Heaney

[Poetry] becomes another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a more fully empowered way.

  • Seamus Heaney, “The Redress of Poetry”

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The Boat People – Sharon Bala

 

Book Review: Lost in September by Kathleen Winter

Lost in September – Kathleen Winter (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

“This book is so weird,” was my almost constant thought as I read Lost in September. It wasn’t until I was around three quarters of the way through that I felt I had a handle on what I was supposed to believe/see. Sometimes that made for a frustrating reading experience but overall, Winter handles it with charm and though I began the novel thinking I wouldn’t finish it, I found myself pushing through to find out what was going on.

While I’m not sure the names Wolfe and Montcalm are world renowned, you can’t make it through the Canadian school system without hearing them paired together, along with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. This battle in Quebec between the French and the English determined the fate of Canada. Ie: why most of us speak English today.

Less known is that a few years before this monumental battle James Wolfe was scheduled to have eleven days leave from his army position. Unfortunately, his leave overlapped with a switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and those eleven days were lost completely. Wolfe never got his longed for holiday and instead died on the Plains of Abraham.

Lost in September takes place in 2017, where every September Wolfe roams Montreal, heartbroken over what he has lost and searching to replace those eleven missing days. He meets a man dressed all in yellow who has recently regained his sight, a woman writing a book about James Wolfe, and he lives in a tent with a strange sort of guru who may or may not be helping him.

He unfolds for us his strange and co-dependent relationship with his mother, his intense friendships with the men he served with, and his very subdued love affair with his former fiancee. All while wandering through Montreal, wondering how it can still be so French when the English won the battle, and avoiding a visit to a certain Madam Blanchard. Surely, these are the ramblings of an insane man, right? There’s no way James Wolfe himself is spending September 2017 in Quebec.

The truth, while apparent throughout, is skillfully revealed and all possibilities are thrown into question. Wolfe (or Jimmy as he’s sometimes called) is an increasingly sympathetic character because whether he’s Wolfe come back to life or a mentally disturbed homeless man, Winter imbues him with glimmers of clarity and intelligence. Whatever has happened to him, this wasn’t always who he was and the reader longs for him to be restored to the life he should have had. After all, this is a book all about alternate realities.

While the story of Wolfe may be unfamiliar to non-Canadian readers, I think the story in and of itself here in Lost in September is strong enough to engage even those who might be new to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham or uninterested in history. Just be prepared, this book is so weird.

What I Read – September 2017

(My dad felt that my summer reading level had dropped off so I have done my best to boost my numbers this September. However, please keep your expectations low for October.)

The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina – Kara LaReau (Amulet Books, 2017)

The Good People – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, 2017)

The Wind is not a River – Brian Payton (Ecco, 2014)

How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer (Vintage, 2003)

All We Leave Behind – Carol Off (Random House Canada, 2017)

Lost in September – Kathleen Winter (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2017)

Didn’t Finish:

The Wonderling Mira Bartok (Candlewick Press, 2017)

Currently Reading:

The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf

Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill

Book Review: Abroad by Katie Crouch

IMG_6119This is one of those books that dwells in my mind for days after I finished it. So while it might not be the most literary or the most well-written, it certainly succeeds on some level.

The novel is a not-at-all thinly veiled re-telling of the murder of Meredith Kercher. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because the name of Amanda Knox has taken over the story in popular media.

Abroad is the story of Tabitha Deacon, an Irish girl in her early twenties, on a year-long exchange to Italy. She will spend the next year in Grifonia, living in a rundown little cottage with two Italian roommates and another exchange student, an American named Claire. Tabitha, or Taz as her friends call her, is studious, a little shy, but looking forward to a year of new adventures, of being someone different, away from everyone who knows her. Claire is beautiful, vivacious, impulsive, and affectionate. The two girls become friends although their social circles remain largely apart.

Taz’s social circle becomes the B4 – Jenny, Luka, and Anna – three dazzlingly beautiful and wealthy British girls who attract attention and power everywhere they go. When they invite Taz to complete their foursome, she knows she doesn’t quite fit in but she is excited to join their circle. With the B4 she is part of a desired circle, with access to extravagant parties and places. It’s clear from early on that while Taz is part of their group, she isn’t close with any of the girls and they are holding her at arm’s length from the true dynamics of their friendship. Compared to this, Claire offers a friendship that is almost immediately too close.

There’s a key conversation between two of the characters about how they “get to be this happy right now”. It was a great expression of how young adulthood is so often viewed – as if your twenties are the only time you truly have to be free and happy before you are saddled with real responsibilities and life grows more and more depressing. While some of this is true – Taz, for example, is living on her father’s dime and her responsibilities are limited to her schooling (which she doesn’t seem to devote much time or energy too). But as someone fresh out of my twenties, I can’t help but rebel against this fallacy. I loved my early twenties and I loved the freedom and atmosphere of university and the friendships I had there. (Much healthier relationships than Taz has, by the way.) But I’ve also loved the adventures and responsibilities that my late twenties and, now, my thirties have brought. Happiness is not a finite resource. We can have it at different times of our life and part of the tragedy of Taz’s life and death is that she never learns this.

Much of the tension of the novel comes from the fact that the reader knows early on that Taz will be murdered. Taz is the narrator of the story (reminiscent of The Lovely Bones though not, I think, as well-rendered) and refers to her own murder though how it happens and why and by whose hand remains a mystery until the very end. As well, throughout the book are historical stories of “good deaths” and a mysterious society who orchestrates these deaths, always of young women. The novel puts a lot of emphasis on the Etruscan history of Grifonia (a fictional city), including a course that Taz takes. At times this becomes heavy-handed and by the time we see the importance of the “good deaths” in Taz’ own life the connection feels tacked on. I think it’s modern day connection should have been fleshed-out better, if the author wanted to go in that direction but I think, overall, it was an unnecessary addition.

In the end, the novel left me with an uncomfortable feeling of looking too long at something private. It made me wonder, How soon is too soon when it comes to fictional re-tellings of real life events? How would Meredith Kercher’s family feel about such a story? My gut reaction is that the too much of the story’s tension and suspense comes from its connection to the real life death of a person. While there are a lot of additional details and plot lines that Crouch has created, the story, setting, and characters follow real life very closely and I think the book suffers for that.

What I Read – November 2015

November has seen a vast improvement on Pearl’s night-time sleep. Which is awesome but has really cut into my reading time. So this month’s list is a little shorter but there have been some good reads.

1. The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James (Modern Library

2. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, & Company, 2013)

3. The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld (HarperCollins, 2014)

4. AbroadKatie Crouch (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014)

5. The People’s Act of Love – James Meek (Harper Perennial, 2005)

6. Immortality – Milan Kundera (Grove Weidenfeld, 1991)

(translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi)

7. Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler (Scribner, 1968)

(translated from the German by Daphne Hardy)

8. Fortune SmilesAdam Johnson (Random House, 2015)

9. The Pearl – John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 2000)

You could also look at November’s reading list like this:

  1. Young lady taken advantage of in Europe
  2. Death row prisoner in Iceland
  3. Death row prisoner in possibly magic prison
  4. Young lady murdered in Europe
  5. Escaped prisoner and extremist religious sect in Russia
  6. ???
  7. Political prisoner in Russia

Currently Reading:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan

(Yes, still. I am really enjoying it, as evidenced by how I keep telling Peter facts from what I’ve read. I’m just working away at it slowly. Very slowly.)

No Great Mischief Alistair MacLeod

 

What I Read – October 2015

The Tenderness of Wolves – Stef Penney (Penguin Canada, 2006)

Read my review here.

The Bone Sharps – Tim Bowling (Gaspereau Press, 2007)

Read my review here.

Remembrance – Alistair MacLeod (McClelland & Stewart, 2012)

The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes (Vintage Canada, 2012)

Beatrice & VirgilYann Martel (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010)

The Talent Thief – Alex Williams (MacMillan Children’s Books, 2007)

Jack MaggsPeter Carey (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)

If I Fall, If I Die – Michael Christie (McClelland & Stewart, 2015)

Love Wins – Rob Bell (HarperOne, 2011)

Every Good EndeavorTimothy Keller (Riverhead Books, 2012)

AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)

Grace RiverRebecca Hendry (Brindle & Glass, 2009)

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)

Pragmatism – William James (Dover Publications, Inc., 1995)

(An interesting read but I’m so far from qualified to review this so don’t hold your breath!)

The Bishop’s Man – Linden MacIntyre (Vintage Canada, 2009)

Read my review here.

Currently Reading:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan

The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James