What I Read – February 2018

2018 has obviously not been a great year for book reviews thus far but I am sneaking in lots of reading time. Here’s what I read in February and the quickest reviews I can manage at this moment:

The Hut Builder – Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Books, 2010

New Zealand novel. I likely would have abandoned this one partway through if it hadn’t been a gift. Quite frankly, I found this one boring and the characters uninteresting.

Night Film – Marisha Pesl (Random House, 2014)

Definitely creative. Fairly creepy. Character development and voice, etc are fairly limited but the mystery at the heart of the novel will keep you reading.

Rest, Play, Grow – Deborah MacNamara (Aona Books, 2016)

I hope to find the time to write a more detailed review of this parenting book because it’s been hugely helpful to me. I highly recommend this to parents of toddlers.

What every young child would tell us if they could is to please hold on to them, to not take their actions personally, and to love them despite their immaturity.

  • Deborah MacNamara, Rest Play Grow

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – Day Sijie (Anchor Books, 2002) (translated from the French by Ina Rilke)

Easy read. Nothing terrible but nothing amazing here.

The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester (Harper Perennial, 1999)

Fascinating read if you’re interested in history and/or language and/or dictionaries.

The Weight of Glory – C.S. Lewis (Harper Collins, 2001)

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

  • C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?”

Collection of sermons by Lewis. I always enjoy Lewis’ work, whether fiction or non. His perspective and wisdom are endlessly valuable.

It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God.

  • C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

Moonglow – Michael Chabon (Harper Collins, 2016)

Pseudo-memoir of the author’s grandparents. Or is it? What’s fact and what’s fiction here? And does it matter when it’s well written and fun to read? 20th century history, World War II, space race, and a giant snake.

Indian Horse – Richard Wagamese (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012)

Why did it take me so long to read this book? Beautiful and heartbreaking. Every Canadian should read this book. And if you’re not Canadian you should read it too.

CURRENTLY READING:

The Silmarillion – j.R.R. Tolkien

…there were green things even among the pits and broken rocks before the doors of hell.

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

When I Was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson

 

My current reading habits mean I generally have three books on the go. The first is a classic that needs a decent amount of focus to be read. (Example: The Silmarillion) I read this in the evening after the girls are in bed. The second is something of a thoughtful nature, usually non-fiction, maybe something religious in nature. (Example: essays by Marilynne Robinson) The third is a more compulsive read. Almost always fiction, hopefully paperback. Something that I can read in the middle of the night while struggling to stay awake and feed a baby. (Just finished Indian Horse and will probably start The Night Circus tonight since I got it from the library today.)

What are your reading habits like? How many books do you typically have on the go? How do you decide what to read and when?

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Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan (Anchor Books, 2010)

A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan (Anchor Books, 2010)

A Visit from the Goon Squad is Jennifer Egan’s most celebrated novel (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) and so even though I hadn’t really enjoyed her previous novel, The Keep, that much I was looking forward to reading this one.

I didn’t love The Goon Squad but it was an engaging read. Although the blurbs on the back cover told me that this was a story about an aging music producer/former punk rocker named Bennie, and his assistant, Sash, it’s really not. Just as it’s more a series of linked short stories than a novel. In fact, I think it’s a better book if you approach it from that angle.

Each chapter, or story, focuses on a different character and time. The voices vary – and Egan does well in the variations here; the characters really feel unique to one another. And while the readers can easily make the connections to Bennie or Sasha, that connection isn’t always crucial.

Egan takes us through time, including a close but vastly changed future, generally sticking close to New York City. Music is central to the lives of these characters, as are the many secrets they carry. The hurts they’ve experienced and the pains they’ve inflicted.

Read as a novel, I’m left wondering what the book is trying to say. What is it about? And why? But if I look back at it as a thoughtful series of stories – vignettes of people’s lives and struggles and the ways in which we’re all connected (even in a massive city like New York) it becomes somehow more poignant. A statement, perhaps, that life matters and we each touch many other lives. Even when we don’t know it.

What I Read – May 2016

Paper TownsJohn Green (Penguin Books, 2008)

Before I Fall – Noah Hawley (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)

Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson (Harper Perennial, 2005)

A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan (Anchor Books, 2010)

Did Not Finish:

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien (Little, Brown and Company, 2016)

Currently Reading:

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

The urban lume makes the urban night only semidark, as in licoricey, a luminescence just under the skin of the dark, and swelling.

Six Walks in a Fictional Wood – Umberto Eco

Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv

[Nature] serves as a blank slate upon which a child draws and reinterprets the culture’s fantasies. Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses.

If you’d like, you can follow me on instagram @karissareadsbooks to see what I’m reading in real time! Doesn’t that sound exciting!

What I Read – February 2016

Music for Wartime – Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2015)

The Givenness of Things – Marilynne Robinson (HarperCollins, 2015)

(Truth be told, I only read half of this before I had to return it to the library. But I really enjoyed what I read and I hope to borrow it again.)

When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism – exactly the same grounds, in fact – that is, because we are human. We still have every potential for good we have ever had, and the same presumptive claim to respect, our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this earth. To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

  • Marilynne Robinson

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer – C.S. Lewis (Mariner Books, 2012)

If we were perfected, prayer would not be a duty, it would be a delight. Some day, please God, it will be.

– C.S. Lewis

The High Mountains of Portugal – Knopf Canada, 2016)

Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson (Flatiron Books, 2015)

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books, 2014)

A Tale of Three Kings – Gene Edwards (Tyndale House Publishers, 1992)

These were David’s darkest hours. We know them as his pre-king days, but he didn’t.

  • Gene Edwards

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy (Viking Canada, 1997)

Currently Reading:

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

(I swear, I’m so close to being finished. Really, you guys. I think March will be the month! I’m already planning how to celebrate.)

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

(I quickly discovered that Infinite Jest is too large a book for me to hold one-handed while up in the night for Pearl, so it’s semi on hold while I read smaller novels.)

And this time last year…

What I Read – February 2015

(Is it overly defensive to explain that February and March are combined from last year because I had a baby at the end of February? Well, I’m going to say it anyway.)

Book Review: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Should All Be Feminists - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books, 2014)

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books, 2014)

We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don’t teach boys to care about being likeable. We spend too much time telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or tough, which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons.

I first read this short book a year ago in a hospital room and it’s no coincidence that I decided to re-read it this time of year, just like it’s no coincidence that I’m publishing this review on my daughter’s first birthday.

There is so much I hope to teach my girl about life and there are so many contrary lessons that will be pushing up against her in the years to come. But one of the most important things I hope to teach her is that she is valuable and important and that she should never accept any one treating her as lesser because she is female.

This can manifest itself in many different ways. Sexual harassment, unfair treatment in the workplace. Wolf whistles when you’re just trying to cross the street. The fact that people will refer to a “working mom” (and have opinions on whether or not a mom should work) but people rarely talk about “working dads”. Strangers who tell you to smile.

I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femininity. And I want to be respected in all my femaleness.

Adichie covers a lot of ground in this little book and while some of it is more specific to her home country of Nigeria, there is much that bears reading (and re-reading) here and I believe this is an important conversation.

Adichie addresses the idea of “the angry feminist”, beginning with the tale of how she first called herself “a happy feminist”, of how she was told feminists are unhappy women who won’t find husbands. But she lets us follow along on the journey from placating others’ ideas of feminism to allowing herself to be angry about the state of gender today and this misconception of what it is to be a feminist.

Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.

Yet one of the things I love about Adichie is that she refuses to allow anyone to stereotype here. Yes, she’s angry, but she isn’t an angry feminist. Yes, she’s a feminist but that doesn’t make her less feminine. She chooses to embrace the things she loves – colourful clothing and make-up, high heels and history – unapologetically and with a beautiful insistence that it has nothing to do with her desire for equality between men and women. Because, quite frankly, it doesn’t and it’s ridiculous that in the 21st century people are still trying to argue that liking lipstick and wanting to get paid the same as a man are mutually exclusive things.

If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal.

This is Adichie’s challenge; it is up to us to change the world. How we live our lives, how we stand up for ourselves and others around us will change the world. How we raise our daughters and our sons will change the world.

What I Read – February and March 2015

Daddy Lenin and Other Stories – Guy Vanderhaeghe (McClelland & Stewart, 2015)

I’ve read one book by Guy Vanderhaeghe (The Englishman’s Boy) and, honestly, remember almost nothing about it. This short story collection focuses mostly on men, usually working class. They are well-crafted stories but I did find them repetitive.

The Thing Around Your Neck – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Vintage Canada, 2010)

My first by Adichie and I truly enjoyed it. The stories had great variation and interesting settings and characters. I was impressed by Adichie’s skill at moving between male and female narrators and between settings, all well- drawn. This collection had me looking up Nigerian history and politics, which I think is a good thing. I appreciated that she assumed her readers would know  this or would figure it put, rather than talking down to the reader or over-explaining. I’ll definitely read more of Adichie.

What I Want to Tell Goes Like This – Matt Rader (Nightwood Editions, 2014)

This short story collection centres around Vancouver Island (particularly the Comox Valley), both past and present – and sometimes blending the two. The historical stories are interesting and well-researched and it’s especially interesting to see how the stories connect, but I enjoyed the stories set in modern day better. While this may simply be a personal preference, I did feel that the characters in those stories were more fully developed.

The Woefield Poultry Collective – Susan Juby (Harper Collins, 2011)

Like me, you may be familiar with Susan Juby from her young adult books. The Woefield Poultry Collective is for adults but it isn’t necessarily that far off being a young adult book. It’s a fun, easy read and not much more. The story is told by the four main characters as they begin to work together (some more reluctantly than others) to work a long-neglected farm. My main problem was with the character of Prudence, the one who brings all the others together. Frankly, I found her overly perfect. Her “flaws” were of the type to be endearing rather than annoying. If the book has a main character it’s Prudence and so I kept waiting to learn something more about her, something that would make her a real person, but never got it.

The Flying Troutmans – Miriam Toews (Vintage Canada, 2008)

Toews is an excellent writer and The Flying Troutmans demonstrates that. She moves skillfully between comedy and drama, mixing the ridiculous with the tragic. The book shares some themes with Toews’ mostrecent novel, All My Puny Sorrows, but is a little lighter. I did find the character of Thebes, who is a child, was so quirky as to be unbelievable. Her older brother seemed much more realistic to me. With him, Toews really captured the fluctuations of a teenage boy – sweet and playful one moment, angry and distant the next, and he himself doesn’t quite know why.

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books, 2014)

Told you I liked her! This tiny book is an extended essay adapted from a lecture. Adichie explores the concepts and misconceptions of feminism and why we should all call ourselves feminists – without disclaimers or apologies. I especially liked the section where she discusses being feminist while also enjoying being feminine and wearing pretty clothes.

I had this book with me at the hospital. Thinking ahead to my daughter’s future can be scary when I wonder what that future world might be like. I just hope to raise a girl who knows how smart and valuable she is.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial, 2007)

I love Kingsolver’s novels and I probably would have found this interesting as a magazine article. Basically, it went on too long and it got pretty repetitive. Kingsolver has one major thesis and stretches it out over an entire book. By the time I was halfway through I kept thinking, “I get it. Eat local. Do you have anything further to add?” Some of her stories are funny and engaging and fascinating. Some are a little preachy. She has some solid advice and some that just doesn’t apply to the part of the world I live in. And I just don’t know that I’m ready to give up bananas.

Collected Stories – Peter Carey (Vintage Canada, 1999)

To be honest, I didn’t finish this book. I love Peter Carey’s novels but this story collection was grotesque. I felt gross reading it and so stopped about halfway through. Many of the stories have interesting and creative plots and scenarios and settings but each one had something that just made me feel terrible and I wasn’t sure what the point of much of it was. This was a disappointment.

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki (Penguin, 2013)

Loved this one. I’d been wanting to read it for a long time and had heard many rave reviews so when a friend brought it over (along with dinner!), I was excited. I even stayed up reading it one afternoon when I should have been napping. (Sleep when the baby sleeps quickly became read when the baby sleeps.)

Home – Marilynne Robinson (Harper Perennial, 2008)

Part two of Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. Robinson is a truly gifted writer. More than once I found myself marvelling at the fact that a book with very little action could be so enthralling. But she creates characters so vividly that I really felt like I was peeking into a real family’s life. You don’t need to have read Gilead first but it does offer a more thorough background on who these people are. I also found it interesting to read Home knowing Jack’s secret – something his family doesn’t.

What I Read – January 2015

Since weekly book reviews seem to be something I can’t accomplish right now, I thought I’d post mini-reviews of everything I read this past month. January’s been busy but I managed to squeeze in a fair amount of reading and finished 9 books.

The Birth House – Ami McKay (Vintage Canada, 2006)

I did write a more in-depth review of this one but short version: I liked it. A little heavy on the wonders of midwifery (in my hospital-birth-bound opinion) but also very well-written and enjoyable to read. And a good reminder to me that women have been doing this giving birth thing for eons and it mostly goes okay.

The Doc’s Side – Eric Paetkau (Harbour Publishing, 2011)

This is a very local history of a doctor here on the Sunshine Coast. Dr. Paetkau was one of the early medical professionals in our part of the world, back when the hospital was still up in Pender Harbour. He tells a lot of stories of treating the loggers and fishers and local people, as well as how the hospital came to be moved to Sechelt and the expanse of medical care on the Coast. There’s a fair bit of his personal story in there too. Probably a book that is most interesting to locals who will recognize the places (and maybe some of the people!)

 

Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn (Anchor Books, 2001)

This is a fun, semi-experimental novel. Ella Minnow Pea leaves in a fictional country where language is more important than ever and the man who wrote the sentence The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping dog is worshiped like an idol. That quickly begins to backfire as letters begin to fall from his monument and the council declares every fallen letter illegal to use. The novel is told in a series of letters, mostly between Ella and her cousin. As the story progresses, the forbidden letters are dropped from the text and the language becomes more complicated. Fortunately, the story ends around the time this becomes truly annoying to read. It’s a nice little fairy tale though, at times, the conceit overcomes the story.

A Million Little Pieces – James Frey (Anchor Books, 2003)

I know I’m about a decade behind on this one but I finally wanted to see what all the controversy was about. Knowing that parts of this memoir were fictional, it seemed to me to highlight the fact that the book is not that great. While it may be a great look at the depths of addiction (something I’m not very familiar with, so I can’t speak to its accuracy or honesty) I didn’t find the book very well-written. It’s quite repetitive and its lack of punctuation makes dialogue difficult to follow. To be completely honest, I read about the first third and then skipped to the last two chapters to see how it ended. I don’t think I missed much.

 

Great Expectations – edited by Dede Crane and Lisa Moore (House of Anansi Press, 2008)

First off, I hate the name of this story collection. Don’t take the title of a book more famous than yours.

I picked this one off the library shelf, thinking how cheesy collections of pregnancy and birth stories are, but then was impressed by its list of contributors. It includes Caroline Adderson, Joseph Boyden, Lynn Coady, and twenty-one others. Each writer tells of their own experience of becoming a parent. The stories are raw, honest, sometimes terrifying, and often beautiful. I really liked that they included the stories of fathers too. Bill Gaston and Dede Crane (married with four kids in real life) tell their tales back-to-back and I found the similarities and contrasts of their shared experience fascinating. Admittedly, I’m more interested in birth and pregnancy right now than I normally am so this might not be a book for everyone. But for an expectant mother or father who also enjoys some good writing, it’s pretty great.

The Mistress of Nothing – Kate Pullinger (McArthur & Company, 2009)

I was never particularly grabbed by this one but it was big a few years ago so I figured it was time I read it. And I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I thought I would. Based (sort of) on a true story – based on real people, at least – we follow a lady’s maid from England to Egypt and into a life she never imagined. The setting is wonderfully evoked and both Sally (the maid) and Lady Duff Gordon (her mistress) are fascinating women who are wonderful to read about. Both buck against society’s expectations in very different, very far-reaching ways.

Among the Ten Thousand Things – Julie Pierpont (Random House, 2015)

Honestly, I saw this title on my list and it took me a second to remember what book this was. This was an ARC I got through work; the book comes out this July. I was grabbed by the good reviews and an interesting synopsis and brought it home. The story is easily readable, if slightly predictable. The first chapter – a letter from a mistress to a wife – got my attention right away. As did the second chapter, where that letter is intercepted by the 11-year-old daughter of the wife and the unfaithful husband. Overall, I think the plot portrays a pretty honest fallout of infidelity and divorce. There’s a lot hinted at about the husband and father’s personality – he’s an artist and his most recent exhibition has exploded (literally) – but he isn’t fleshed out as much as he could be. I thought the most impressive part of the novel came in the middle when we get a brief but well-sketched glimpse of what the future could be.

The World Before Us – Aislinn Hunter (Doubleday Canada, 2014)

I’d been wanting to read this one for a while and it didn’t let me down. The story follows Jane, who is about to lose her job at a museum that is going out of business and is experiencing some sort of mental break (perhaps). Less because of her job loss and more because of an encounter with the father of a little girl who disappeared years before, while Jane was babysitting. The story intersects with the disappearance of an unnamed woman from an asylum in the same area years before. The narration is definitely the most unique aspect of this novel; it is told from the perspective of what you might call spirits who follow Jane around, hoping to discover who they are. Or were. While they start the novel as a fairly homogenous “we”, as the story progresses – and as we learn more about both of these disappearances – individual characters and histories begin to emerge. It’s a bold narrative experiment and Hunter does it well. While there are two mysteries at the centre of this story, it isn’t a mystery novel and there are no simple answers here. And that is to the novel’s benefit.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering – Timothy Keller (Dutton, 2013)

Timothy Keller is probably my favourite modern day theologian. This was the fourth book from him that I’ve read and I am consistently impressed by both his knowledge and his practicality. I read this book slowly over several months. Not because it’s a difficult read but because there was so much in it that I wanted to slowly absorb. Keller speaks about suffering and sorrow both from a more detached point of view and from a personal one. He examines what suffering means, how our society reacts to it, how the Bible talks about it, and how Christians can deal with it. There’s a lot of good stuff in here. If you’ve experienced suffering (and if you’re human, you probably have) then you could find a great deal of comfort and assurance here.

Amnesia – Peter Carey (Knopf, 2015)

I really like Peter Carey’s books. I’ve read several and he’s a talented writer. He’s won the Booker Prize twice, so I’m certainly not alone in this opinion. I was excited to learn he had a book coming out this year and eagerly took the ARC that came my way. That said, I didn’t love Amnesia. Perhaps it was the unlikeable main character of Felix Moore. Perhaps it was the overabundance of computer/hacker talk. (Admittedly, much of it was over my head since I’m certainly not a computer person, but a lot of it reminded me of hackers in movies in the early 90s when characters could basically do anything and the answer was “hacking”.) Another problem was that most of the action of the novel takes place in the place and Felix is learning about it. Yes, there is some present-time action around Felix but I found it confusing and not particularly tense. I was never worried about Felix’s safety or his ultimate success. I don’t know if that’s because Carey didn’t do enough to build that tension or if it was just because I didn’t care much what happened to Felix.

Currently reading:

Daddy Lenin – Guy Vanderhaeghe

The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Join me at the end of February* to read mini reviews of these and whatever else I manage to squeeze into the month.

*May not be precisely at the end of February because I’m due to give birth to a human child on or around March 1st.

Book Review – The Keep by Jennifer Egan

The Keep (Anchor Books, 2006) begins with a castle, an unnamed European country, and a spectacularly annoying character.

Danny has just arrived, with a one-way plane ticket to meet a cousin he hasn’t spoken to in years, at a dilapidated castle. He doesn’t know where he is or why his cousin has brought him there. Danny is a sort of “lost boy” type – older than he’d like to admit, staking his identity on ever-shifting trends and relationships. He isn’t particularly likeable and, even as he narrates the story, he doesn’t much endear himself to the reader.

His cousin Howie, in contrast, is friendly, smart, and all together likeable. Danny explains to us why Howie has reason to hate him and seems continuously shocked that his cousin does not harbour any ill will. This tension – Danny’s fear over their history together and Howie’s seeming forgiveness – pulls us through the novel. Is Howie’s good nature genuine? Has Danny made a mistake to come to this castle or will this be the place that saves him?

Alongside this relationship is the strange character of the Baroness, who remains in the castle’s keep, spiting Howie’s dream of turning the castle into a boutique hotel. She is beautiful, hideous, sympathetic, and frightful. Danny’s interactions with her are bizarre and mysterious. It’s hard to discern between reality and Danny’s own crazed mind. This is, mostly, a really good thing in the novel.

As we become more invested in Danny’s story, it is revealed that this is a tale being told. We are introduced to the writer, who has shown himself in a few confusing ways so far. Not Egan but Ray, a prisoner in a writing course. We become equally entangled in Ray’s story and his growing relationship with his writing teacher. Why Ray is in prison remains a mystery, as does how much truth lies in the story of Danny. The answers to these questions are revealed in a very good ending.

The problem is, that ending isn’t where the novel ends. It’s where the novel should have ended and yet, for some reason, Egan keeps going. We are given a Part III, about fifty more pages, all about Ray’s writing teacher. Frankly, I cared so little about her back story that I can’t even remember her name anymore. The relationship between Ray and the writing teacher, while interesting, is not at the core of the story. The core of the story is Danny and Howie, Danny and Ray and the conclusion of those relationships is where the conclusion of the novel should have lain.