What I Read – March 2018

Read:

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday Canada, 2011)

More style than substance though I enjoyed it while I was reading it. A month (or less) later, I can’t remember much but it entertained me at the time.

And No Birds Sang – Farley Mowat (McClelland & Stewart, 1979)

Mowat is a Canadian classic and I’ve read a few of his books now, all ranging broadly in subject. This is his memoir of his time serving during World War Two. It was recommended to me by a friend who has served in the Canadian armed forces. It’s an honest and brutal book.

(I reviewed a young adult novel by Mowat, The Curse of the Viking Grave, here.)

Nine Stories – J.D. Salinger (Bantam Books, 1986)

A re-read. Sometimes you just need some quick, interesting short stories, you know?

A Mariner’s Guide to Self-Sabotage – Bill Gaston (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017)

I wrote a review for this one! Read it here.

The Icarus Girl – Helen Oyeyemi (Nan A. Tales/Doubleday, 2005)

And another review! Read it here. Maybe I’ll actually start writing real reviews again.

Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller (Anansi, 2015)

Still hoping to write a real review for this book. Stay tuned…

Didn’t Finish:

The Gift of Rain – Tan Twang Eng

(After hearing multiple recommendations of this book I was really disappointed. I just could not get into it and found the beginning dragged on and on until I gave up. What clinched its abandonment for me was also the repeated negative portrayals of all things Chinese. As far as I could see, it wasn’t necessary and added nothing to the story other than making me dislike the narrator.)

Currently Reading:

The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien

When I was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson

Funny Once: Stories – Antonya Nelson

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains – Yasuko Thanh

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What I Read – October 2017

Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill (Doubleday Canada, 2017)

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles (Viking, 2016)

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

Ghost Warning – Kara Stanley (Caitlin Press, 2017)

Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin (A Harvest Book, 1983)

All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfect blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is. – Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale

A Boys’ Treasury of Sea Stories (Paul Hamlyn, 1968)

Currently Reading:

The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf

The Lifters – Dave Eggers

Book Review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday Canada, 2015)

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday Canada, 2015)

Life After Life was probably my favourite read of 2014 so I was excited and nervous to find that Kate Atkinson had written a sequel to the novel. Excited because Life After Life was so rich and unique and enjoyable. Nervous because I wondered if a sequel was necessary and if Atkinson could recapture the magic of Life After Life.

The good news is probably that she doesn’t exactly try. On its own, A God in Ruins is quite good. It’s not as good as Life After Life and since it’s hard not to compare them, it is, unfortunately, bound to disappoint.

A God in Ruins focuses on the life of Teddy Todd, brother to Ursula on whom Life After Life focuses. Teddy and Ursula are close and readers of Life After Life will remember the significance of their relationship. (You certainly could read and enjoy this book on its own rather than as a sequel though it might seem like a strange sort of story.)

The main focus of the novel is Teddy’s time as a pilot in the RAF during the Second World War. Stationed in Yorkshire, he completes more than one tour, consisting of dangerous bombing raids on German cities. These crews had horrifically high casualty rates and this is emphasized as we follow several of Teddy’s missions. The crews – young men barely out of their teens – are reckless, brave, and full of superstitions. Teddy is a likeable, steady leader who cares about the men on his aircraft and believes in what he’s doing. Most of the time.

The novel moves back and forth through Teddy’s life. From his boyhood – where he inspires a rather cheesy series of novels written by his aunt – to the last years of his life, put into a nursing home by his extremely selfish daughter, Viola. We watch the early years of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Nancy Shawcross. A life together that Teddy never thought would happen because he never thought he would survive the war, was never able to plan a life in the seemingly mythical “After”. We meet Teddy’s daughter, his grandchildren, and witness the collapse and slow rebuild of their lives. The stories of each of these characters are varied and fascinating and well-drawn.

Ursula, of course, is featured, though in more of a supporting role. Personally, I would have liked to see more of how Teddy fit into her life (and which timeline of hers we were in) but I don’t think that was Atkinson’s goal with this novel.

Probably my major complaint would be with the character of Viola. She’s almost irredeemably selfish (Though there is an attempt made at the end of the novel. Too little, too late, would be my opinion.) The relationship between her and her father is sad – perhaps the great tragedy of Teddy’s life – but since Viola is so unlikeable much of her character seems to be there only to set Teddy up as the hero. Which is something I don’t think Teddy needs.

The setting of the RAF flights and World War Two is well done and immensely interesting to read about. And, of course, there’s a bit of a twist at the end, which readers of Life After Life might well understand.

What I Read – January 2016

Daydreams of Angels – Heather O’Neill (Harper Collins, 2015)

Transatlantic – Colum McCann (Harper Perennial, 2013)

The Humans – Matt Haig (Harper Collins, 2013)

Fifteen Dogs – André Alexis (Coach House Books, 2015)

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday Canada, 2015)

Thirteen Ways of LookingColum McCann (Harper Collins, 2015)

The Company She Keeps – Mary McCarthy (Penguin Books, 1966)

Currently Reading:

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

(2016’s going to be the year I finish Don Quixote! I’m 99% sure!)

Honour is something that a poor man can have, but not a dissolute one; poverty can cast a cloud over nobility, but cannot hide it altogether; but if virtue gives out a glimmer of light, even if only through the chinks and straits of penury, it will be valued and therefor favoured by lofty and noble spirits.

Miguel de Cervantes

Letters to Malcolm – C.S. Lewis

The great work of art was made for the sake of all it does and is, down to the curve of every wave and the flight of every insect.

C.S. Lewis

The Givenness of Things – Marilynne Robinson

Music for Wartime – Rebecca Makkai

What I Read – September 2015

Here’s what I read this month. Reviews are up or coming.

1. Beijing Confidential – Jan Wong (Doubleday Canada, 2007)

My review is here.

2. The Curse of the Viking Grave – Farley Mowat (McClelland & Stewart, 1966)

Read my review here.

3. What’s So Amazing About Grace? – Philip Yancey (Zondervan Publishing House, 1997)

4. The Navigator of New York – Wayne Johnston (Vintage Canada, 2002)

5. Death Benefits – Sarah N. Harvey (Orca Book Publishers, 2010)

6. My Secret Sister – Helen Edwards & Jenny Lee Smith (Pan Books, 2013)

7. Roverandom – J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002)

8. The Lotus Eaters – Tatjana Soli (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011)

9. The Sorrow of War – Bao Ninh (Riverhead Books, 1993)

10. Going After CacciatoTim O’Brien (Broadway Books, 1999)

11. Crazy Love – Francis Chan (Gale Cengage Learning, 2007)

Currently Reading:

The Tenderness of WolvesStef Penney

Love Wins – Rob Bell

Didn’t Finish:

The Everlasting Man – G.K. Chesterton

I told myself I would keep reading it until the end of September and then let it go. I’m pretty close to the end but I’m leaving it be. As close as I am, I’m still not entirely sure what the books about and I don’t agree with much of it. I’d recommend reading Orthodoxy instead.

Book Review: Beijing Confidential – Jan Wong

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Beijing Confidential, Doubleday Canada, 2007

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been almost ten years since I last set foot in China. It’s been even longer since I’ve been to Beijing – all the way back to the summer of 2002. Since then, the city has hosted the Olympics and, no doubt, changed drastically.

Jan Wong details many of these changes and more in Beijing Confidential. In it she relates a trip with her family to Beijing gearing up to the 2008 Olympics. Her goal is to find a former classmate she once reported to Communist authorities.

The book offers a good, general overview of Beijing’s history as a city and as a capital. A Canadian of Chinese descent, Wong was a foreign student at Beijing University in the 1970s. Describing herself as a “True Believer”, Wong was fervent in her support of the Cultural Revolution and Marxist ideology. So when an acquaintance expressed a desire to Wong to leave China and visit North America, Wong reported this “counter-revolutionary” thought to her supervisor. Years later, and with a better perspective on China and its politics, Wong came to realize how she may have destroyed this young woman’s life. So with only a name, she returns to Beijing in hopes of finding this woman and apologizing.

As a former Marxist and a Canadian, Wong has a unique view of China and its 20th century history. (She was also the Globe and Mail’s Beijing correspondent in the late 80s and early 90s.) She writes of the city with love, confusion, impatience, and amusement. The book does a great job of showing how quickly Beijing and its people have changed and how many of those changes are only possible in a country like China. Much of this is shown through Wong’s reunions with former teachers and classmates, as well as scenes with the younger generation of Beijing.

The book is readable and fascinating, whether or not you’ve ever set foot in Beijing. My one beef with it is fairly minor – Wong translates all of the Chinese names into English and it just didn’t work for me. Her own Chinese name translates as “Bright Precious” and so, in the book, that’s what her friends call her. The name, which is probably fine and even lovely in Chinese, becomes ridiculous to an English reader. I’m not sure if she thought readers wouldn’t be able to keep track of the Chinese names but I wish she’d given us more credit. Aside from that, I found Wong to be a strong writer and am interested in reading more of her work.

Next Week’s Review: The Curse of the Viking Grave by Farley Mowat

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 – Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Asia is a continent of extremes. As countries like China and India grow in global power and importance, I think more people are realizing this. Asia holds extreme wealth and extreme poverty in the same hand. Rich Crazy Asians (Doubleday Canada, 2013) focuses on the extremely wealthy population.

This is a novel. Novels don’t necessarily have the responsibility to teach or to grow minds or to expand ideas. But they can and they can do so beautifully. So when that opportunity is present and an author doesn’t take it, it can be disappointing. Kwan wanted to focus on the wealthy population of Asia, particularly Singapore and China. Does he have a responsibility to also focus on the impoverished of these nations? No. But what if he had? What if he had compared the insanely rich with the insanely poor? What if he had discussed where some of that wealth comes from? Or on whose backs it’s made?

There’s a scene in Rich Crazy Asians where some of the wealthy wives go to the city of Shenzen in China and visit what is essentially a mall full of illegal knock-offs. They can afford the real thing but they buy the fakes. I’ve been to Shenzen. It’s a Chinese city on the border of Hong Kong. For many years, before Hong Kong returned to being part of China, it was where peasants and workers gathered, hoping to make it across to Hong Kong, hoping for a better life in a wealthier land. Today it’s filled with factories where those same people and their children work long hours, for low pay, in conditions that just don’t exist in North America. Rich Crazy Asians treats it like a spa town, a playground for the wealthy. There’s no addressing where those knock-offs come from or who makes them.

Knowing what I know about Shenzen made me hate these women and their lifestyle. It told me something entirely different about who they were and what they held to be important. So why doesn’t Kwan illuminate that aspect for us? Does he expect his readers to already know the truth about the city? No, he’s clearly writing for an audience unfamiliar with Asia. My overwhelming feeling while reading Rich Crazy Asians was that Kwan wanted to show a North America audience that Asians can be wealthy too. That WASPs don’t hold a monopoly on privilege. And this is absolutely true. North Americans can be guilty of believing a lot of stereotypes about Asia and one I hear a lot is that it’s a poor place.

That’s only one side of Asia and Kwan casts a light on the other side, one that many North Aemricans are unfamiliar with. He wants us to see that wealth and power and posh society exist there and he demonstrates that pretty well in this novel.

Let’s be honest – if Rich Crazy Asians were set in the upper echelons of North American society, I probably wouldn’t think that the author owes it to the reader to also focus on the lower classes and the poverty-stricken. Like I said, Kwan doesn’t owe it to anybody to teach his readers the history and economics of Asia. Yet, I’m disappointed that he took the easy route and seemed to pretend that these fabulous lifestyles are normal and that they don’t come at the cost of the majority of the population. Fiction has power and Kwan could have used that power.

Instead, Rich Crazy Asians is nothing but fluff. Granted, fluff set in another part of the world and so it has a newness that might appeal to some. If you’ve never been to Asia, it might seem exotic and that’s not a bad quality.

We follow Rachel Chan – mainland Chinese by birth but American through-and-through – as she travels with her boyfriend Nick to his home country of Singapore. Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick is heir to one of the wealthiest, most powerful families in the nation. He comes from the sort of upper class family with history and prestige that few of us will ever interact with. And he’s told her nothing about them.

It’s hard not to dislike Nick for being so ignorant of his own privilege and for doing so little throughout the novel to make Rachel comfortable in his very different world. We’re supposed to root for them as a couple (I think) but Nick is so thoughtless that I spent most of the book hoping Rachel would simply take off and backpack through Asia on her own.

Mostly, this novel felt like a way for Kwan to name drop his own prestigious upbringing. At one point, he includes a footnote with an anecdote from his own childhood, which tells us that he went to the fancy boys’ prep school he’s describing. The plot felt like it came second to his attempts to recreate this world and its characters and the book suffers for that.

Book Review – The Blondes by Emily Schultz

Since I first heard the premise of Emily Schultz’s novel, The Blondes (Doubleday Canada, 2012), I’ve been eager to read it. Set in a world much like ours, but one in which a virus has begun to spread. Its victims become disoriented, clumsy, and then savage, reacting violently to everything around them until they kill themselves or whoever they’re closest to.

The unique factor: all the victims of this virus are blonde women.

Our protagonist and narrator is Hazel Hayes, a twenty-something recent arrival to New York, working on her Master’s thesis. Her thesis topic is women, the way they look, and the way women think they look. Hazel has also just discovered that she is pregnant.

The story is told by Hazel, speaking to her unborn daughter, in the late stages of her pregnancy. At this point she is holed up in a cabin in Ontario with an unexpected partner. We go back and forth between New York and this cabin as Hazel fills the baby, and us, in on the details.

The idea of the virus is fascinating. I can’t at all speak to the scientific truth of anything offered in the novel but the fear and panic and irrationality that begins to afflict those around Hazel feels genuine. You have only to recall the anthrax scares of 2001 or the more recent H1N1 virus or the stories of SARS among hospital workers to feel like Schultz’ fiction could happen. There is much about the virus within the world of the novel that is left unanswered. It only affects blonde women but this includes women who have dyed their hair. Hazel, a natural redhead, remains unsure if she is susceptible. The virus may be spread by fleas or animals. It appears to be transmitted by blood, similar to rabies. What we aren’t told reflects the uncertainty that exists in the reality of the novel. No one really knows and that’s where much of the fear comes from.

Blonde women have held a certain type of power for the last hundred years. They are lauded, coveted, fetishized, and hated. The Blondes gives these women a completely different kind of power, something they fear and have no control over, but is changing the face of the world.

Along these lines the details that surround Hazel in this world of blonde fury are great. Advertisements, stories, and even her own thesis point out to us the power of the blonde, something that doesn’t diminish even when those same blondes are brutally killing people.

My main issue with the novel was Hazel herself. Hazel never does anything. Things happen to Hazel. Much of the action of the novel revolves around Hazel’s attempt to make it across the Canada/U.S. border and return to Toronto. She’s pregnant and doesn’t want to be and procurring an abortion during this blonde panic turns out to be harder than she thought. Hazel makes very few decisions, she simply reacts to those around her – whether that’s a blonde woman gone mad or the wife of her child’s father. She’s neither hugely likeable or unlikeable. That is, until close to the end when she performs one great act of betrayal that is never explained. While she expresses some regret, it seems disingenuous, as though she quickly has more important things to think about.

Even the ending of the novel comes about through no action of Hazel’s own. While she remains in the cabin, speaking to an unborn baby, her salvation appears. It felt like a classic deus ex machina and at that point, I didn’t much care what happened to her.

With a better, more engaged protagonist, I think The Blondes could have really had something to it. As it is, it’s more of a glorified zombie novel. And we have lots of those already.