What I Read – March 2017

I’ve fallen behind in reviewing books but am working to catch up and get some reviews posted next week. In the meantime, here’s what I read this month:

EileenOttessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press, 2015)

The Dark and Other Love Stories Deborah Willis (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

She was glad that was done. What a relief. But then again, if she could, she’d do it all over. Everything. Her whole life. She’d live it again, just for the small but real pleasures of a donut and coffee, of holding her daughter in her arms, of making money, of sleeping late, of waking up.

  • Deborah Willis, “The Nap”

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen – Joanna Faber & Julie King (Scribner, 2017)

The Break – Katherena Vermette (Anansi, 2016)

The Garden of Eden – Ernest Hemingway (Scribners, 1986)

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

…and he realizes that this is the way it is, the way it must be: you don’t visit the lost, you visit the people who search for the lost.

  • Hanya Yanagihara

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf Canada, 2017)

The Dinner Party and Other Stories – Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, 2017)

Didn’t Finish:

The Travelers – Chris Pavone

Book Review: The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis

The Dark and Other Love Stories – Deborah Willis (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

A quick disclaimer to say that I know Deborah Willis but only a little bit. We were in the same program at university but she was a couple of years ahead of me and we briefly worked at the same coffee shop and then we worked at rival bookstores. I read her first short story collection, Vanishing, when it first came out because I knew Deb but I was eager to read her new collection because I think she’s an excellent writer.

This new story collection revolves around the theme of love. That love takes a variety of forms. The powerful, platonic love of two best friends at summer camp in the title story. The love of a couple, spanning decades, a whole life time lived in the span of an afternoon nap, told in a trilogy of stories. The relationship between two marijuana dealers when one of them applies to move to Mars. The stories are painfully true to life, with all the small and large discomforts that love brings us, along with its unique pleasures. At least one made me have to close the book for a while because the ending was so unexpectedly sad.

Willis’ characters are believable, likeable, and discomfiting. She nails their human reactions and emotions with a sometimes uncomfortable accuracy. Even in the strangest of situations, the basic realness of these fictional characters remains.

Book Review: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

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What is not Yours is not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

I’d previous read one novel by Helen Oyeyemi (Boy, Snow, Bird) so I had some idea of what to expect from her writing. Oyeyemi’s stories exist in a slightly alternate universe of magic, discomfort, and romance. There is something delightfully disorienting about her world. It’s almost like ours but some of the details are just a little bit off.

This is a collection of linked short stories. I normally don’t love linked short stories because the link can end up feeling forced. And while there’s a tinge of that here, I thought the collection overall was very good. The initial link between the stories is that they all involve keys. There are locks and doors and rooms and places better left shut in each story. More interesting though is that as the stories progress we begin to see the connections between place and character. Some characters pop up again, years later. We get to see what happens to the little girl obsessed with an abusive pop star. We catch a glimpse of a teenage puppeteer’s future. The connections aren’t hammered home and Oyeyemi doesn’t go out of our way to draw attention to them – they’re more like glimpses of someone familiar on a bus going the opposite direction to ours – and they left me feeling delighted and clever  for spotting them.

The stories themselves are strange but compulsive. Each one had me eagerly reading to the end because I couldn’t imagine where Oyeyemi was going. Like Boy Snow Bird there is a strong element of fairy tale throughout. That blend of magic and darkness that you find when you read the original versions of stories like “The Little Mermaid” or “Cinderella”. While Oyeyemi’s style certainly isn’t for everyone, if you’re able to disengage from reality and accept a world of talking puppets and doors that open by themselves then you’ll find a lot of enjoy in this story collection.

Book Review: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am - Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am – Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am is 500+ pages and it took me about half of that to begin enjoying the novel. Having read Foer’s work before, I was sure my commitment would pay off. At the same time, my expectations of Foer’s work led to some initial disappointment with Here I Am.

Foer’s two previous novels, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated both featured strong, unique, and often hilarious narrators. Here I Am has a far more subdued narration, a more withdrawn, third person perspective. It was harder to feel engaged in the story, added to the fact that this isn’t exactly an action-filled novel.

The book focuses on four generations of the Bloch family in Washington, D.C. Isaac is a Holocaust survivor, about to move into a Jewish retirement home. Irving is a hard-nosed, controversial political commentator. Jacob – the primary focus of the novel – is mid-forties, nominally-religious, on the cusp of trying to make his marriage work or giving up entirely. Sam is thirteen, preparing for his bar mitzvah, which is in danger of being permanently cancelled. These four men bounce off each other, argue, are affectionate and hateful in equal measure. Then, tossed into the mix of regular life and conflict, a massive earthquake hits the Middle East and Israel is thrown into conflict as war and disease break out.

This is where the novel became more interesting to me. The diversion into alternate history is fascinating – how such an event might play out, particularly the international implications. When the earthquake hits, the Bloch’s Israeli cousins are visiting in Washington and Foer does a good job of portraying the two perspectives. The American Jewish family who care about Israel but don’t think of it as home, and the Israeli Jewish family. Showing this split within one extended family powerfully demonstrates the divisions and changes that have grown and developed among the Jewish people since the end of World War Two.

One of the interesting ideas that Foer brings forth as a result of this fictional upheaval in Israel is that the Israeli government calls for the Jewish people to return home. While this causes Jacob to make some big decisions in his life, it also mirrors the question of loyalty and commitment that is growing in his own household as his marriage with Julia founders.

In the end, there is a lot to admire in Here I Am. I certainly do feel that it could have been shorter, primarily because none of the characters really grabbed me in the way that Foer’s previous creations had. It was hard to sympathize with any of them, especially Jacob, as they worried over their privileged lives and had endless conversations that skirted around the real topics. (And I live a pretty privileged life myself.) The character who potentially interested me the most was Isaac but he didn’t get a lot of time on the page (which reflected how much time his family really spent with him). Foer continues to be a strong writer and I applaud him for reaching out into a different kind of story than his previous novels but I’ll be hoping for something a little more engaging next time.

What I Read – February 2017

The ConjoinedSookfong Jen Lee (ECW Press, 2016)

Here I Am – Jonathan Safran Foer (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

Jacob was a man who withheld comfort but stood at thresholds long after others would have walked away. He always stood at the open front door until the car pool drove off. Just as he stood at the window until the back wheel of Sam’s bike disappeared around the corner. Just as he watched himself disappear.

Barrelling Forward – Eva Crocker (Anansi, 2017)

The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2016)

What is Not Your is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

Currently Reading:

Simply Christian – N.T. Wright

The Travelers – Chris Pavone

What I Read – October 2016

The Autumn season is prime book-reading time. The rainy and cold weather means I want to stay inside and read and there seem to be so many books to read. The autumn is when many new books are released (leading up to Christmas) and many of the major literary prize winners (and shortlists) are announced. My To Be Read list is so long that I’ve been sorting books into piles and my bedside table is stacked high. A friend also loaned me the three memoirs in this month’s What I Read list.

Fortunately (maybe?) Pearl is going through a stage where she wants one of us to sit in her room while she falls asleep. When I stopped nursing, my reading time seemed to decrease drastically but it’s bounced back up this month. Most evenings I spend between 30 minutes to an hour in Pearl’s room, curled up in a chair, leaning as close to the nightlight as I can get. There are worse things.

Wenjack – Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

The Trees – Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury, 2016)

An Invisible ThreadLaura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski (Howard Books, 2011)

The Dirty Life – Kristin Kimball (Scribner, 2010)

Half Broke HorsesJeannette Walls (Scribner, 2009)

Waiting for the Cyclone – Leesa Dean (Brindle & Glass, 2016)

Re-read: Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut (Vintage, 2000)

“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamourous, war-loving dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

Currently Reading:

Prayer – Timothy Keller

By Gaslight – Steven Price

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

And a reminder that you can follow me on Instagram @karissareadsbooks and see up-to-the-minute photographic evidence of what I’m reading! Whether or not that sounds remotely appealing probably says a lot about you.

What I Read – April 2015

The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2008)

I once tried to read a novel by Ali Smith, lost interest part way in and returned it unfinished to the library. I did finish reading this short story collection but now, less than a month later, can’t remember much about it. I wanted to give Smith another try since her latest novel has gotten a lot of buzz but her writing just doesn’t grab me. This short story collection plays around a lot with narration and the art of storytelling but the stories didn’t stick with me or grab me in any meaningful way.

The Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji (Knopf, 2007)

It took me a long time to get into this novel. It was probably not until two-thirds into the novel that I felt really excited to know what would happen next. I can’t say if this is a fault of the writing or on my part since I was constantly getting interrupted while reading it. It was different than any other book about India that I’ve read and I did enjoy what it showed of Indian history and religion. The “big reveal” at the end of the novel was disappointing (and pretty obvious) and, I thought, added very little to the story. I liked the back and forth between the 13th century history and the 20th and thought Vassanji wove mythology and history together well.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

This was obviously a re-read for me. While Pearl has many board books and I do read them to her, at her young age, the thing she enjoys most is simply hearing my voice and being held. So I figured I’d read her something more enjoyable for me. At least until she’s a little older. So we’ve started in on The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Random House, 2010)

I greatly enjoyed this book. I’ve read three books by David Mitchell now and each one has been superbly written. The Thousand Autumns plays with format and timelines less than Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks. Mitchell does do well with alternating narrators though and through multiple characters tells a compelling story of a time and place in history that I was very unfamiliar with – Dutch trade in Japan during the late 18th century. While Japan was extremely closed off to the rest of the world during this time period, a few foreign traders were allowed onto a small island called Deshima. Mitchell uses this setting to explore ideas of foreignness, home, and imprisonment. I appreciated how he told the story from a Dutch and Japanese perspective, giving weight to both sides and demonstrating both how similar and different humans can be. The story does veer towards the unbearably creepy at one point with a hint of the fantastical that Mitchell uses in his other novels but this one’s definitely a historical novel rather than a fantasy one.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (Vintage Books Edition, 1989)

I’d read a few of these short stories before – it’s hard to get out of any sort of University literature-related degree without reading the title story from this collection. Carver is one of those writers that I appreciate but when I sit down and read a whole body of his work, I find him very bleak. (I have the same problem with Alice Munro, actually.) These are stories of dying love, relationships ended. Carver’s style is very spare, rather stark. I found myself reminded occasionally of Hemingway, though I think Hemingway does description much better.

Small Island by Andrea Levy (Review, 2004)

This book suffers from a front cover problem. By which I mean the front cover has never appealed to me, to the point of putting me off from reading the novel for years. (I know, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but, let’s face it, we all do.) Fortunately for me, I finally looked past the boring cover and read the book. The main action of the novel takes place in London, in 1948, amidst the changing norms and social constructs of a post-war nation. There are also substantial flashbacks – before the war in both England and Jamaica, and some scenes set during World War II, both in England and overseas. Levy does an excellent job of maintaining third person narration while moving between characters. Voice is also terrific as she captures the sounds of Jamaican English. (There’s a continuing theme of Jamaican characters not being understood by the English that heartbreakingly captures the struggle of immigrants.) This is a book about race but it’s also about longing, a search for something bigger, and about ignorance – both chosen and accidental.

Currently Reading:

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Book Review – Juliet Was a Surprise by Bill Gaston

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It’s hard to review a short story collection. You’re not discussing and evaluating one plot, one set of characters – you’re dealing with many. How do you approach that? Which do you focus on?

I recently got to hear Bill Gaston talk about and read from Juliet Was a Surprise (Hamish Hamilton, 2014). He expressed a similar problem when it comes to choosing what to read to an audience when you’ve written a short story collection. One story doesn’t necessarily tell you what the whole book will be like. So he did something rather unorthodox. Gaston read the first paragraph of each story. (Though for one he cheated and read the first two short paragraphs.) It was a terrific way to get a taste of each story and to leave his audience wanting more.

I don’t think I can review only the first paragraph of each of these stories though. But just reading the titles will likely intrigue you. “Geriatric Arena Grope” got the biggest reaction from the crowd that day but I’m partial to “Cake’s Chicken” myself. Maybe because, to me, the characters in that story are the most intriguing. And Gaston does intriguing well. He doesn’t necessarily create characters you want to hang out with, but you wouldn’t mind meeting them at a party and then telling your friends about them. Just like I found myself telling my husband about the protagonist of “House Clowns” – who may be suffering from paranoid delusions or may be in real danger of his life. And how the beauty of the story is that Gaston doesn’t offer an answer. His short stories offer snippets. Snippets of life, of a larger story, without comment or judgement.

If you’re familiar with Gaston’s previous story collections, you likely won’t be surprised here. He continues at what he’s good at. And I continue to enjoy it.

Book Review – The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

This tiny novel – only sixty-nine pages – is really more of a short story. Yet, by offering it to us in book form, Zadie Smith confers on The Embassy of Cambodia (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) a greater depth and weight. Fortunately, this story deserves it.

The Embassy of Cambodia focuses on Fatou, a domestic servant in London. Fatou likes to swim at the local club – taking guest passes from her employers while they’re out for her brief periods of leisure time. On her walk to the pool, Fatou passes the Cambodian embassy. An incongruity in an upper class, suburban neighbourhood, the embassy remains a mystery to those around it. Occasionally, tourists go in and out, seeking visas. Once, a Cambodian-looking woman exits. But constantly, a volley of badminton is seen to go back and forth. Serve and return, back and forth.

Fatou’s story is steadily revealed in a manner that makes these sixty-nine pages feel like a full-on novel. From the Ivory Coast to a maid in a hotel in Accra, to Rome, to her current role with the Derawal family where she wonders, idly to herself, whether or not she is a slave, whether they would return her passport to her if she asked. There are terse and telling interactions with the family and Smith demonstrates a mastery of the old show don’t tell adage.

Fatou and her friend Andrew – originally from Nigeria – discuss politics in a Tunisian cafe every Sunday. He tells her more about the history of Cambodia but always wants to re-focus on Nigeria’s history. He has his own story of suffering, just as Fatou has hers. As indeed, the story reminds us, each nation and person does.

In sixty-nine pages, Smith reminds us of this poignant fact and she does so with skill. I look forward to reading more pages from her.