Book Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison

I’ve read Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye previously and had a vague idea of what Beloved was about so I knew I was in for a heavy read. To be honest, I’d put off reading this novel for that very reason. Yet as I read Beloved, I was reminded that sometimes it’s important to look closely at hard things. Hard things like slavery, racism, abuse, death. These are realities of life and our world history and to look away from them is to deny the pain that has been caused, that real life people have suffered through, and continue to suffer through. While this is a fictional novel, it deals with many historical truths, particularly just how horrific slavery is.

The present tense of the novel takes place in Ohio, a few years after the end of the Civil War. Sethe and her daughter Denver live alone, haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s first daughter who died as a baby. Sethe was a slave who escaped while pregnant with Denver. She was reunited with her children, sent ahead, but has never seen or heard from her husband since.

Sethe’s history – and the story of those around her – slowly unspirals. The book is fairly non-linear with several sections in a sort of stream-of-consciousness. Stories are revealed in pieces, things so horrific the characters can hardly bear to speak of them or to let them dwell in their minds. Each has a terrible tale to tell – Paul D and his time in prison, Ella and her time with “the lowest yet”, Baby Suggs and the children that were taken from her – killed or sold – one by one so that she taught herself not to love them. And Sethe and the truth of what happened to her daughter.

One day Sethe and Denver return home from the carnival and a young woman is sitting in front of their house. She calls herself Beloved and seems to not know who she is or where she came from. She seems to know things about them and Sethe and Denver come to believe that she is the ghost of Sethe’s first daughter, returned to them. What her intentions are remain unclear. And how Sethe will react to the horrible history this spectre forces her to look at.

While slow to start as I tried to piece the plot together, I was soon absorbed in these characters and their stories. It was hard to read, especially as I look at my own two daughters, my mind reeling away from the idea of such things happening to them. My own privilege allows me the luxury of looking away away from this terrible history but I believe it’s important to listen to these stories, to remember that fiction can be full of truth.

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Book Review: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin (A Harvest Book)

Where to start talking about a book like Winter’s Tale? Almost more of a philosophical venture than a novel; it’s magic realism, fantasy, historical fiction, a little bit of cyber punk. There’s even time travel. Sort of.

Blurbs will tell you that Winter’s Tale is the story of Peter Lake, a thief who falls in love with a rich man’s daughter when breaking into their house in New York City. While this is definitely a key part of the book, it doesn’t really encompass the whole novel because Peter Lake isn’t even in other parts of the book and his love story with Beverly Penn really doesn’t take up much of the novel.

This is more a story about an idea. About winter, about a city that almost exists. Helprin delves into the lives of other characters, each of them connected, and into the tale of a magical, unbelievable winter, in a version of New York City that could almost be real. There’s a horse that can fly, a cloud wall that swallows people whole, and a village that you can’t get to except by accident.

The descriptions are rich and extensive. There are many, many descriptions of winter and snow and ice and they offer enough variance that they continue to feel fresh even as the novel progresses for seven hundred pages. The story also delves into the lives of several different characters, sometimes more than seems necessary considering some of them are pretty minor, but overall the stories are interesting and add to an overall depth of this fantastical world.

Much of the story is set in New York on the cusp of the millennium and it’s interesting to read a vision of what is now our past from the 1980s. New York is gritty and violent; not being personally familiar with the city I never quite got a handle on what was supposed to be lifelike and what was not and instead chose to see the portrayal as one of a mythical city. Personally, I felt like the story works better when you forget that it’s supposed to be set in New York. This clearly is not our world and the attempts to ground it in the familiar often felt jarring.

With a book this size, the question is often, “Was it worth it?” And I would say a tentative yes. There are enough truly beautiful sections of writing that made reading this novel worthwhile. The plot lacks a cohesiveness that perhaps a shorter novel could provide but Helprin is attempting to delve into ideas so large – justice and love being primary among them – that I couldn’t help but cut him some slack. Not every reader will feel the same way. If you enjoy some magic realism and extreme flights of fancy and don’t need a plot going from Point A to B to C then you might enjoy Winter’s Tale too.

Book Review – Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill

Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill

Having previously read Michael Redhill’s Consolation, and having found it a bit boring, I wasn’t all that excited for his latest novel. But it sounded interesting enough that when I had the chance of getting an advanced copy, I decided to take it. I’m happy to report that it’s definitely not boring.

Jean is a middle-aged woman who has been living in Toronto for two years, since her husband retired from the police force. She owns a used book shop and lives a pretty ordinary existence. Then one day a regular customer tells her he just saw her in Kensington Market and he’s strangely insistent about it. Turns out, Jean has a doppelganger.

Likely most of us have been told we look like someone a friend knows. A cousin or an acquaintance or the girl who works at the grocery store, it’s not rare to be told, “You look just like…!” But after more than one person insists that Jean is identical to a woman named Ingrid who is seen in the Market, Jean decides to stake out Bellevue Square so she can see for herself. She gets to know the diverse and eccentric characters (many of them homeless or struggling with mental illness) who hang out in the Square and she finds herself lying to her husband about where she’s actually spending her days.

I always question stories where characters become so obsessive as to spend eight hours a day doing something like hanging out in a park waiting to see someone they heard looks like them. After all, who has eight hours to spare like that? However, Redhill uses this to the plot’s advantage by showing us how Jean become increasingly unstable and unreliable, particularly as a narrator. As the novel progresses, there are a few twists, until we’re left wondering what is real and what’s delusion. Redhill does this very skillfully, delving into brain trauma and mental illness in a way that’s both fascinating and thrilling.

The ending feels over the top and leans toward the ridiculous, but it also kind of works within the context of “is any of this really happening?” Can we trust Jean? Which woman is real – Jean or Ingrid? Or is any of this real?

Bellevue Square was nominated for the Giller Prize this year and I believe it’s well deserved. Redhill shows his skill as a writer and brings Toronto – particularly the vibrant area of Kensington Market – to life in this latest novel, as well as creating strange yet realistic characters that I wanted to keep reading about.

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

She had watched other women with infants and eventually understood what she craved: boundless permission – no, the absolute necessity to hold and kiss and stroke this tiny person…Where else in life, Mabel wondered, could a woman love so openly and with such abandon?

Eowyn Ivey brings a powerful edge to this re-telling of a Russian fairy tale. This is a story of motherhood in its many forms, a story of longing. Ivey captures these feelings so well that it made for an often painful read. Yet, a good pain. A pain that says, Yes, you are not alone.

Jack and Mabel are entering the second winter on their Alaskan homestead and are not sure they will survive, either physically or mentally. Early on in the novel, Mabel ventures purposefully out onto the not quite frozen river, daring the ice to break beneath her feet. They are struggling against the land, against the long and dark winters, against the rift that has grown between them in the years since their baby died at birth.

One night, the first snow of the season, they make a girl out of snow. The next day the snow sculpture is gone but a strange little girl begins to appear in the woods nearby. Mabel and Jack start to wonder if she has been borne out of their own longing or a delusion of isolation. Or is there something more sinister at play?

Ivey does a brilliant job of unfolding the novel along the line between fact and fairytale. There are hints at the possibilities on both sides and the reader is left to make their own decisions. Faina – the little girl – is otherworldly. Magical and yet with that dark edge that comes in to so many fairytales.

The story seems to expand as it progresses; more is learned about Faina, more characters are introduced as the lives of Jack and Mabel expand. The story takes a surprising turn but the conclusion feels honest to both the characterization of Faina and to the fairy tale element.

The setting of Alaska in the 1920s works well. There is, of course, the similarity to Russia in the long, dark winters, as well as the isolation and difficulty of every day existence. Ivey demonstrates both the beauty and the terror of the place. The paradox of falling in love with a place that can kill you but, if you know how, can also keep you alive. Perhaps even a little girl, alone in the forest.

It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.

 

Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena - Anthony Marra (Vintage Canada, 2014)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Anthony Marra (Vintage Canada, 2014)

One of the great powers of fiction is to bring history alive. A good, well-written novel can teach the reader more than ten history books. And may access find readers who would never pick up a history book.

Like many in North America, I know very little about Chechnya. It’s history is long and complicated and even a slight knowledge of Soviet history in general comes in handy. The primary action of the novel takes place in 2004, spanning less than a week and beginning with the arrest of a fingerless man named Dokka. Dokka’s eight-year-old daughter, Havaa, is able to escape the Feds who hunt her and their neighbour, Akhmed, takes her to a nearby city, hoping that a doctor he once heard of will protect her. Sonja is a brilliant surgeon struggling to maintain the last hospital almost entirely alone, while constantly wondering what happened to her sister, Natasha, who also disappeared years earlier.

Between these days, the story dips into the near and far history of the characters and of Chechnya. These are stories of tyranny and torture, of bravery and loyalty; tales of deprivation and horror, spanning generations. Marra helpfully includes a timeline at the top of each chapter which works as a simple (if somewhat artless) way to keep track of where we are in the history of Chechnya.

The characters live in a world where friends and neighbours can disappear at any moment – whether as refugees over the mountains or into an ominous prison called The Landfill. There are few answers and questions are dangerous to ask. In less than four hundred pages, Marra covers a lot of ground, detailing lives of many characters. He even dips into the futures of characters we only see in passing and never again and these glimpses seem to offer some hope.

In the end, the characters are more intertwined than seems entirely plausible (though Chechnya is a small country) but this is the only weakness in an otherwise compelling novel. Well worth a read for both the excellent writing and for a look at some very recent history.

Book Review: By Gaslight by Steven Price

By Gaslight - Steven Price (McClelland & Stewart, 2016)

By Gaslight – Steven Price (McClelland & Stewart, 2016)

Steven Price was one of my favourite professors when I was in university. I took a few courses with him, including a grammar class that remains one of the most practical courses I’ve ever studied. All that to say, I was biased to like By Gaslight before I even started it. However, I didn’t particularly enjoy Price’s first novel, Into the Darkness, so hopefully I wasn’t too biased! The good news is that the two books are extremely dissimilar and By Gaslight is well-deserving of the good press it’s received this year.

The book travels through the 19th century, the American Civil War, and Victorian London, even making a stop in South Africa. The central storyline – the “present” – is set in 1885 in London, where two very different Americans have recently arrived.

William Pinkerton, of Pinkerton Detective Agency is in London chasing a shadow, a man named Edward Shade, who he knows almost nothing about except that his father (recently deceased) searched for this man for years. Pinkerton is further than ever from finding Shade when his best lead jumps into the Thames. Adam Foole is a gentleman thief with a fluid, changing background. He’s returned to London, called back by a letter from the woman he loves and hasn’t spoken to in years. And whose body just washed up out of the river. Pinkerton and Foole’s paths quickly cross, including in some very unexpected ways. (And places – there’s a terrifically eery scene set in the sewers below London.)

Prices takes us into each man’s history, particularly their experiences in the American Civil War, and the mystery of Edward Shade is slowly revealed.

Like any 700+ page book, there is content here that could have been left out without greatly harming the plot. The story is heavily detailed and very descriptive, though mostly avoids feeling repetitive. Price is also a poet and it’s evident in his very visceral descriptions. The setting of industrial London is particularly vivid, in all its soot and grit. Price’s prose flows beautifully and when I read parts aloud to Pearl the sentences felt good in my mouth.

While By Gaslight requires an investment of time, I think it proves itself very worthwhile.

Book Review: The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball

The Dirty Life - Kristin Kimball (Scribner, 2010)

The Dirty Life – Kristin Kimball (Scribner, 2010)

When a friend loaned me a copy of The Dirty Life I wasn’t that excited. I don’t read a lot of memoirs and it’s rare that they appeal to me. My friend also happens to be a little more of a hippy than I am and I wasn’t sure I was interested in reading a farming story. I was pleasantly surprised by Kristin Kimball’s tale of farm life however.

Kimball is a journalist in New York City when she interview Mark, an independent and charismatic farmer. She’s out of place on his farm and surprised to find herself drawn to both Mark and his way of life.

The Dirty Life follows roughly the first year of Kristin and Mark’s relationship, leading up to their wedding, and covering their first year of starting their own farm. Not just an organic farm but one using as traditional methods as possible, including horses rather than tractors and other machinery.

Kimball doesn’t glamourize farm life – it’s here in its grimy detail of early mornings and hard  physical labour – but her clear love for the farm (as unexpected as it may be) gives the story a more appealing edge. Kimball throws herself into both the farm and all it entails and into her relationship with Mark. She doesn’t glamourize that either and I appreciate her honesty about her fears and difficulties when it came to giving up her familiar lifestyle for something so different for a man she hardly knew. While the dynamic of their relationship didn’t appeal to me (and if Kimball were my best friend I probably would have joined in the chorus of people urging her to be cautious) but it seems to work as the couple is still together, ten years and two children later.

The farm has also become successful, reaching its goal of providing a whole diet for approximately a hundred people. The Kimballs provide everything from corn to milk to beef to maple syrup for their subscribers. And while I don’t have an urge to become a farmer, I do wish there was something similar offered in my area.

Book Review: Wenjack by Joseph Boyden

Wenjack - Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

Wenjack – Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

Joseph Boyden is easily one of the best Canadian writers currently being published and I’m a big fan. His latest offering is much shorter than his three previous works – I read Wenjack in two sittings over a couple of days – but brings forth all his familiar talent.

What sets this brief story apart from Boyden’s previous work is that it is based on a true story. The story of residential schools and the snatching of First Nations children from their homes is perhaps the sorriest and most horrifying of Canadian history. In recent years, many survivors have come forward to speak about the abuse suffered at these schools. The effects are tragic and far-reaching. Unfortunately, this is hardly even history. Chanie Wenjack died in 1966. The last residential school closed in 1996.

Boyden brings this true story to life, gently and beautifully, in less than a hundred pages. The book alternates perspectives between Chanie and the spirits of the forest who follow him on his journey. The narrative voices are excellent – clearly and simply defined – and, as always, Boyden excels at description.

Obviously in such a short book there is a lot left out – and there’s much we’ll probably never know about Chanie’s life and death. But Wenjack is a powerful glimpse and a place to start for some who may not know much about this aspect of Canadian history.

Book Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

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Commonwealth – Ann Patchett (Harper, 2016)

I make no secret of the fact that Ann Patchett is one of my favourite authors. So when I found out she had a new book coming out this fall, I immediately pre-ordered it. I’m happy to report that Commonwealth doesn’t disappoint.

Patchett’s latest novel begins in the 1960s at a christening party. Franny Keating is not quite a year when her parents throw her a huge party and Bert Cousins shows up uninvited. This chance meeting between Bert and …. sets into motion the dissolution of two marriages and the formation of a new kind of family. B’s two daughters and Bert’s four kids become step-siblings, a reluctant family carted back and forth across the country and between homes. Children growing up in a kind of emotional wilderness, with a plethora of adults in their lives and yet very little adult involvement.

The story moves back and forth through the years, from the 60s to modern day, covering a lot of territory in these six young people’s lives. I did find the first couple of time jumps confusing until I was able to figure out what was happening. For the length of the novel, Patchett covers a lot of territory and there are some gaps in the narrative of each siblings’ life. Some of this is intentional – an expression of how little they really know each other – and some of it left me wondering. The book is very character driven yet without a main character. (Franny probably comes closest since we spend the most time with her as an adult.) Somehow it works though. Probably because Patchett excels at characterization, creating people who feel real and flawed and likeable and horrifying and, above all, fascinating.

Patchett excels at elevating the everyday. There is a great scene at the beginning where some of the characters make orange juice. While that might not sound exciting, Patchett creates a vivid, memorable scene and the image of oranges and orange juice becomes a subtle but recurrent theme. The book is made up of small but vital moments like this. Just as real life is.

Book Review: Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

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Fans of Maria Semple’s previous novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, will not be disappointed by her new offering. Today Will Be Different has all the wackiness, sentimentality, family love, and Seattle adoration that Bernadette brought without feeling like Semple treads ground already covered. (Though readers may find some of it familiar.)

Eleanor is our eccentric and likeable and sometimes confusingly motivated narrator. She’s middle-aged, married to super surgeon Joe, and mom to Timby. And she’s tired. But today will be different. Eleanor is brilliant in her own right – the former superstar animator of a cult TV show called Looper Girls – but she’s drifted in recent years, overdue on the graphic novel she was supposed to write and sure she’s not doing her best by any of those around her.

The main plot of the novel follows Eleanor through the course of a single day. The day she swears will be different. And it is. Because Eleanor discovers that her husband hasn’t gone to work in a week and told his office (but not his wife) that he was on vacation. Here is where Eleanor varies from the average (reasonable) human being as she treks through Seattle – Timby in tow – trying to to figure out what her husband is up to.

In amidst Eleanor’s frantic day, we also get a third person narrator look back at her younger years. Her time at Looper Girls, her childhood, her relationship with her sister, and how all of this has brought her to where she is today. (And maybe Joe to where he is.) Semple strikes a good balance here between the past and the present and lets the reader’s sympathy for Eleanor grow, even while we might still think she’s crazy. A highlight is also the illustrated pages of Eleanor’s never-finished graphic novel based on her own childhood. I love when author’s include these types of visual aspects when they have a character who is so visual.

Today Will Be Different is released this October. It’s not a long read (I finished it in a couple of days) but it’ll make for a fun one.