Book Review: Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

You know how, as you get older, you begin to realize that your family is maybe not so normal? That all the things they do that you thought were average, might actually be a little crazy? That’s what’s happening to Matty Telemachus.

Sure, Matty’s always known his family is unique. Not many families once travelled the country and performed psychic feats of strength on television. But that’s all years in the past and nobody in the Telemachus family has done anything amazing in years. Until Matty suddenly leaves his body one day and begins to wonder if he might also be an Amazing Telemachus.

Teddy Telemachus is the family patriarch, the driving force behind their once upon a time fame. Teddy met his wife Maureen when participating in a highly secretive government study of psychic powers in relation to the Cold War. Maureen, or Grandma Mo, has been dead for years and her children have largely rejected their own powers. Frankie is something of a low-level con, in debt to the mob and hiding too many secrets from his wife. Irene has just moved back in with her dad, along with her own son, Matty, and struggles to form real relationships because she knows when people are lying to her. And Buddy…well, Buddy might just be the World’s Most Powerful Psychic but he hasn’t spoken much in the last few years and he’s building some kind of weird project in the basement.

This novel is fun and goofy and if you’re willing to suspend belief, it’s a good read. Even aside from the psychic powers, the real world plot is pretty over the top too. The story moves between perspectives of Teddy, Matty, and the three siblings and the sections are pretty balanced in terms of interest and enjoyability. These are strange and flawed people but they’re likeable too and easy to root for. It’s not terribly difficult to see where it’s all going to end up but it’s fun to travel along as Gregory takes us there.

What I Read – May 2017

Silence – Shusaku Endo (Picador Classic, 2015)

translated from the Japanese by William Johnston

But Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt – this is the realization that came home to me acutely at that time.

(from Silence)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineGail Honeyman (Viking, 2017)

The Collected Stories – Grace Paley (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

They walked east and south to neighbourhoods where our city, in fields of garbage and broken brick, stands, desolate, her windows burnt and blind. Here, Faith said, the people suffer and struggle, their children turn round and round in one place, growing first in beauty, then in rage.

(from “The Expensive Moment” by Grace Paley

Holding Still for as Long as Possible – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2009)

Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

Trust No One – Paul Cleave (Upstart Press, 2015)

Everything was Good-Bye – Gurjinder Basran (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2010)

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre, 2016)

The Red Pony – John Steinbeck (Penguin Classics, 2009)

Currently Reading:

Green Mansions – W.H. Hudson

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie

What I Read – December 2016

Check back tomorrow for my complete 2016 reading list, including the highlights of my reading year. (If you’re into that kind of thing.)

The BellmanHeidi Barnes (Vireo Rare Bird Books, 2016)

The Wonder – Emma Donoghue (Harper Collins, 2016)

The Fox at the Manger – P.L. Travers (Virago Modern Classics, 2015)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and other stories – Leo Tolstoy (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) (translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky)

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light – Cordelia Strube (ECW Press, 2016)

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (An Airmont Classic, 1963)

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed – John Irving (Arcade Publishing, 1996)

Currently Reading:

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis

News of the World – Paulette Jiles

Book Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

IMG_6025I’m very low-key about my hair. I get it cut maybe twice a year. I don’t colour it and I rarely use product in it. I go to the drug store and I buy whatever shampoo and conditioner is on sale. I’ve never given much thought to the privilege this represents.

There is an eye-opening scene in Americanah where one of the main characters, Ifemelu, is told to straighten her hair for a job interview in the United States. She does so, using relaxers, and soon her hair begins to fall out due to damage. Later on in the book, the regime she uses to keep her hair natural is described. I’d never really thought about why it is that I can go to a drug store and buy cheap shampoo and not think about it. That shampoo is made for hair like mine because it’s targeted to a market that assumes most people have hair like mine. Or if they don’t, that they should aspire to it. (By which I mean, not my hair in particular because I don’t think there’s anything super special about it, but hair that is straight.) In short, the hair of a white person. Ifemelu is African and she has naturally kinky hair. The drugstore is full of products that don’t work for her. From shampoo to foundation to “nude” band-aids that don’t match her skin colour. This is what is meant by racial privilege in America.

Americanah presents a perspective I haven’t read before. But I’m coming to expect that from Adichie, whose writing I’ve been greatly enjoying this year. Ifemelu states that she never felt black until she left Africa, until she moved to the United States where being black suddenly became a part of her identity.

The novel divides between Ifemelu and Obinze, beginning in high school when they meet and fall in love. Obinze is quiet, smart, the son of a professor. Ifemelu is stubborn, a little brash, the daughter of a radically religious mother and a father long unemployed for his refusal to call his boss, “Mummy”. Their connection is powerful and immediate. Like any young people, they make plans for their future together. But they are living in an unsteady climate and country. Their time at university together is continually disrupted by strikes. When Ifemelu has the chance to move to the United States, they decide together that she must take it and Obinze will join her as soon as he can.

For many reasons, not least of all a post-9/11 America, Obinze never gets his visa and they are never reunited in the U.S. We follow Ifemelu’s transition to life in America. Poverty, success, relationships. We follow Obinze’s struggle in Nigeria, his attempt at an undocumented life in England, his later successes.

This is an immensely readable book. While it deals with modern day Nigeria, racial identity, and immigration in Western countries, it really is a book about relationships. Adichie skillfully offers a perspective that many Westerners may not be familiar with and she does it in such a deceptively simple manner that you might think you’re just reading another good novel.

Book Review – Jack Maggs by Peter Carey

Jack Maggs, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998

Jack Maggs, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998

If I say “Dickensian London” the English reader generally knows what I mean. Industry, soot, fog, poverty. Children working dangerous jobs for little pay.

Jack Maggs has just arrived back in London after what was supposed to be a life sentence to Australia. When the man he desperately seeks, Henry Phipps, is nowhere to be found, Maggs ends up as a footman in the house next door. His new master is Percy Buckle, a former grocer who has become a gentleman after an unexpected inheritance.

Maggs is everything you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. He’s rough and powerful, overly sensitive and ready for violence at any moment. When he has a sort of fit while serving dinner to Percy Buckle and the author Tobias Oates, Oates sees it as the perfect opportunity to delve into one of his pet interests – the Criminal Mind. He and Maggs strike a deal and, under the guise of curing Maggs’ fits, Oates delves into Maggs’ past via hypnotism, searching for content for his next great novel.

It’s the characters that really make the novel. Maggs is rough and unlikeable but Carey creates a certain sympathy for him as we learn about his past, his tragically Dickensian childhood, and his current quest. Buckle is a fascinating character. Someone who has made the journey from poverty to riches. I found my opinion of him constantly changing as his actions began to reveal who he was. Carey paints a portrait of a weak ineffectual man and then slowly reveals what his impoverished past has created within him. The character of Buckle is heavily nuanced, particularly as we learn more about his relationship with his housemaid, Mercy Larkin. Mercy is headstrong, and either brave or foolish as she dares to get closer to Maggs than any one else.

When I compare this novel to Dickensian literature its because Carey’s inspirations here are clear. This is a clever re-telling of Dickens’ Great Expectations, from the perspective of Magwitch, the secret benefactor of young Pip. Carey borrows heavily on the imagery and flavour of London as Dickens saw it. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from the more unsavoury aspects that Dickens only alluded to – adultery and abortion in particular. The writer, Tobias Oates, stands in for Dickens at the beginning of his career. One success behind him already but desperate to be able to find his next money-maker. It isn’t a flattering portrait of the author as Oates mines the lives of unwitting victims around him but it seems like more of a send-up of the entire profession than Dickens alone and so Carey points the finger back at himself as he takes from the literary landscape of another author.

Whether or not you have read or enjoy Great Expectations (and it’s my least favourite Dickens novel) Jack Maggs makes a good strong read. The book loses nothing if you don’t pick up on the allusions to Dickens and his work and if you have read Dickens then Carey still offers some unexpected turns.

Book Review: Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

Beatrice & Virgil, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010

Beatrice & Virgil, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010

Sometimes you reach the end of a book and you have to go into the other room and simply sit and stare at your sleeping baby for a few minutes.

Yann Martel is, of course, best known as the author of The Life of Pi. A book that powerful is a hard act to follow and while Beatrice & Virgil doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, it nonetheless packs its own punches.

The title characters are two taxidermied animals – a donkey and a howler monkey. Our protagonist is Henry. Henry is a very successful author who has just spent five years writing his second book. It’s an unusual fiction/essay combo about the Holocaust and when he presents it to his publishers they tell him it’s unpublishable. Henry argues this but eventually gives in and instead he and his wife move to a new city where Henry works in a chocolate shop, acts in an amateur theatre group, and awaits the birth of his firstborn. Clearly, Henry is a prototype of the author himself, who also has a son named Theo and wrote a book about the Holocaust that was deemed unpublishable.

When Henry receives a letter and a portion of a play from a reader also named Henry, he ends up meeting this other Henry in person. The other Henry is in his eighties and runs a taxidermy shop. He is writing a play about Beatrice and Virgil, who are taxidermied animals in his shop. The play is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, involving the animals talking and not doing much. The taxidermist wants Henry’s help but is reluctant to answer questions, about either himself or the play. Henry begins to understand that the play is about the Holocaust. But it isn’t talking about the Holocaust in a way you might expect and his final realization of the truth of the situation has serious repercussions.

While Henry makes a number of choices that I wouldn’t make (like hanging around a taxidermy shop), Martel unfolds the plot carefully and steadily so that Henry’s actions are easy to understand. Henry is a normal, likeable enough guy, caught up in a strange situation. To some extent, the thing he is most guilty of is an inability to be rude. On the other hand, the taxidermist seems almost unreal. We learn very little about him though his actions and his personality are mostly off-putting. When Henry’s wife meets him, she deems the taxidermist creepy and I had to agree. But it’s a fascinating type of creepy and, like Henry, the reader wants to know more.

Where the novel falters is in long asides and descriptions. Particularly pages long details about taxidermy. There were several spots that I found myself skimming over and the book is really not that long. At the same time, though the play within the novel is fascinating and becomes more interesting as we understand more of its significance, some of its scenes drag on too long. The ending however, will get you in the gut. I found it hard to read with just how intense it got but that’s clearly Martel’s intention.

Having heard Beatrice & Virgil described as a disappointing follow-up, I was pleasantly surprised by it. If you’re expecting a book as powerful and well-articulated as Life of Pi this isn’t it but Martel is clearly an excellent writer.

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

What I Read – June 2015

Requiem for a Nun – William Faulkner (Penguin, 1961)

Aside from As I Lay Dying, I haven’t read much Faulkner so I can’t say whether or not this book is typical of his style. The format is definitely unique. The action of the story is a play, centred around the death of a child and a murder trial. But each act begins with a long narrative sequence about the history of this fictional location: Jefferson, Mississippi. We learn the history of this place and how it became a town, revolving around the building of the courthouse and jail. Faulkner’s talent shows here in long, winding sentences and excellent use of repetition. He’s given to some grandiose verbiage. Reading some of it aloud, there was a strong rhythm (Pearl seemed to enjoy it) and the repeated phrases add a lot of power to Faulkner’s message. I have no idea how those sections would work in an actual play though.

After finishing the book I learned that it’s a sequel, of sorts, to Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Until close to the end I felt a little lost as to what was going on but it is sufficiently explained without having to have read Sanctuary.

The long narrative sections serve to point the reader’s attention to a broader theme. The fact that Faulkner is telling a bigger story than Temple’s or Nancy’s. My pocketbook from the sixties touted Faulkner as a great voice for African-Americans in the South, which seems strange to me since he was definitely white, but he does offer a detailed look at history and race in the South. And be warned, the book doesn’t shy away from use of the n-word.

The Other Side of the Bridge – Mary Lawson (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Last year I read and enjoyed Lawson’s novel Crow Lake and reading¬† The Other Side of the Bridge didn’t disappoint. Set again in a small town in the Canadian Shield, the two novels share some themes. Youthful desire for something bigger, sibling tensions, a story told over years. The book alternates between Arthur’s youth (farm boy molded by the Second World War) and Ian’s (1950s, doctor’s son who wants most of all to live in Toronto). I found both stories equally fascinating, something rare in many books.

My one gripe might be that there was so much death. Obviously, any book dealing with a world war is going to have a lot of death and I thought Lawson did a fine job of expressing the devastation that small towns so often experienced as they lost so many of their young men to war. My problem was that there seemed to be so many other deaths, not related to war and so, by the time we reached the final, climactic death, it didn’t feel as powerful to me. All in all though, an excellent read.

King – John Berger (Pantheon Books, 1999)

I think John Berger is one of those authors people either love or hate. I was first introduced to Berger in a university writing course when we were assigned to read To The Wedding. I adored it and remember telling a classmate so. His response was to hiss at me, using his fingers to make the sign of the cross. So no, Berger’s not for everyone.

King is a strange novel. It seems to be set in a slightly altered version of the real world. Our narrator is a dog. Or maybe a person who is treated like a dog. Or maybe a dog who can talk.¬† It’s a novel about homelessness, disenfranchisement, friendship, love, value. It’s mostly very sad.

Where the novel doesn’t work is in the number of characters. There are too many. The other option would be for the novel to be much longer (it’s quite short) so that more time could be devoted to helping us care about each one of these people. As it is, the climax centres around characters we hardly know. Though, considering the novel is about the homeless, maybe that’s Berger’s point.

The Book of Someday – Dianne Dixon (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2013)

This is a terrible book. I picked it up second hand because tucked in the front page was a note from one friend to another saying how enjoyable it was. My mistake for trusting that, I suppose.

The story alternates between three women – Livvi, Micah, and AnnaLee. Livvi and Micah’s stories are set in the modern day while AnnaLee’s is set in the 1980s. There is a mystery that connects these three women and any astute reader will be able to figure it out approximately halfway through. The idea of the novel is interesting enough that I did finish it all the way through (plus it’s not a hard read) but it’s just so poorly written. I almost feel bad saying that but I also feel bad about spending my time reading this terrible book.

The characters are poorly developed – there’s really very little that makes each woman unique, aside from the superficial (and even there they all happen to be stunningly beautiful with gorgeous hair). Livvi, who is the main character, is a spineless victim. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with her because she had a sad childhood (though this is not well fleshed out at all) but she’s such a cardboard character who only responds to what’s being done to her. Part of her “character development” (that term feels generous for this novel) is her love for a little girl but the way she gloms onto someone else’s kid after meeting her only once seemed really inappropriate.

The real issue though is simply poor writing. Dixon tries for drama with awkward sentences. Sentence breaks. They can create pause. And drama. They make the reader stop. And think. But when you do it? All the time? It loses its power. And it’s annoying.

Dialogue is rough too. Real people don’t just murmur profound thoughts all the time. Doesn’t happen.

Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach (Algonquin Books, 2012)

This was a quirky, fairly fun read. A bit of a mystery, a strange sort of romance. It has Ponzi schemes, contract killings, rock stars and ballet. Mix in some cooking and football and you have an eclectic story. It was an easy read and kept me interested until the end. The characters were so over the top as to seem more like caricatures or cartoons than people you might meet in real life but the book doesn’t take itself too seriously and instead seems to be telling a story from some sort of alternate reality.

The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque (Fawcett Columbine, 1958)

translated from German by A.W. Wheen

But for peace? Are we suitable? Are we fit now for anything but soldiering?

I initially intended to read The Road Back after a re-read of All Quiet on the Western Front. This book is a sequel to that more famous one and follows Ernst and his troop as they return to Germany after the end of World War One. Turns out I don’t actually own All Quiet and, in the end, I didn’t need to re-read it to follow along. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, this is a hard read. It’s bleak and heavy and brutally honest. (Remarque was drafted into the German army during the First World War so it’s easy to believe he speaks from his own harsh experience.) And like its precursor, this book doesn’t shy away from showing the brutalities of war and the horrific ways it affects people. Ernst and his friends were young men, taken out of school so that they could fight someone else’s war. They are still young men when they return to a beaten and demoralized (and largely impoverished) Germany but they have been made old in a way that no one around them understands.

There’s a particularly poignant scene (in a book full of powerful scenes) where Ernst, who has only just returned home and seen his family again, leaves the house in search for the other men in his troop. Although these men are vastly different (and these differences only become stronger when they are taken away from their wartime setting), they are the only people that Ernst can talk to or spend time with now.

Like All Quiet on the Western Front, this is a sad but important book. Given how a major theme of the story is the impossibility of others being able to understand these young soldiers, the novel feels like Remarque’s attempt at shouting into a void, hoping someone might hear him. The least we can do is listen.

The Brooklyn Follies – Paul Auster (Picador, 2009)

I’ve read one Auster book previously and reading this one made it clear that I started with the wrong novel. I read Travels in the Scriptorium about two years ago and by the time I finished it, I realized it was a book meant for Auster’s fans, filled with references to his other works. The Brooklyn Follies was much more accessible to a first-time reader. There isn’t much plot – it’s more like a collection of stories of events that happen and are all related. But as you learn about our narrator’s own writings and goals this makes sense and fits in as something Nathan Glass would have written. The stories are interesting and the book is easy to read. I did find the ending unsatisfying – Auster concludes the story well but then feels the need to tack on something unrelated and, frankly, rather emotionally manipulative. If the book had ended a chapter or two earlier, I think it would have been much better.

The Effects of Light – Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (Warner Books, 2005)

While not an amazingly well-written book, this novel wasn’t terrible and it was a fairly engaging read. I’ll admit that I skimmed over many of the book’s multiple paragraphs that read like lectures on art and philosophy, masquerading as character dialogue. They made the characters seem a little too impressed with themselves (we’re told over and over again how smart everyone is). It read like the author had a lot of thoughts on these subjects and wanted to expound upon them when she would have been better putting them in a separate essay or thesis paper.

My main problem with this novel is a moral one. The central issue of the story involves two sisters and a family friend who takes their photograph. Starting when the girls are toddlers and continuing into their teen years, this photographer becomes famous capturing images of our main character, Myla, and her younger sister. The issue? The girls are naked in many of these photos, which are then displayed in galleries and sold.

The novel and its main characters really want to convince you that this is art and that preventing these photos from being seen would be censorship. Myla – who is an adult when we meet her – is so adamant that the photos are beautiful that she becomes insanely angry at anyone who might suggest otherwise. It seems highly unrealistic to me that, as an adult, her opinion of these childhood experiences wouldn’t be slightly more complex.

I actually felt very bothered reading this book and when I got to the end and realized I was supposed to feel glad that the pictures existed, I was upset. I can agree that photos of naked children are not necessarily child pornography. (The book stresses that there is nothing sexual about the photos or in the photographer’s desire to take them.) The characters talk continuously of how they capture the children’s innocence. This is the defense of their father, who has allowed these photos to be taken, displayed and sold. Yes, childhood nudity is innocent. Likely all of us have pictures of ourselves as babies and toddlers in the bathtub. I have them of my daughter. But here’s the thing – you will never see those photos on this blog. You will never see them displayed in a public space. And if you ever do, it will be because my daughter is an adult and has made that decision for herself. Childhood nudity is innocent but not all who look at it are innocent. That’s a horrible truth of our world.

The novel tells us over and over again that the girls like the photos, that it’s their choice to be in them and that the adults around them respect that choice. My problem here is that these are children. Children who don’t have the knowledge of the world to understand that there may be people looking at their pictures with sick minds and twisted motives. You don’t leave decisions like this up to children. Ultimately, one of the sisters is murdered. Because she appears in these photographs. And yet, the author still seems to want us to agree that these pictures are a good thing.

I may be getting too worked up about fiction (though really I think that’s a compliment to Beverley-Whittemore) but I think there are some real life issues at play here and I think it’s dangerous for a novel to present child exploitation as art and pretend that it’s okay.

Currently Reading:

Confessions of St. Augustine

“Up, Lord, and do; stir us up, and recall us; kindle and draw us; inflame, grow sweet unto us; let us now love, let us run.”

Ten Thousand Lovers –¬†Edeet Ravel

Check back tomorrow to see what Pearl and I have been reading!