What I Read – June 2017

This felt like kind of a strange reading month for me. I started off by reading Alexie’s memoir and Verghese’ back-to-back, while also working my way through Chesterton’s autobiography. While I enjoyed each one, it also felt like a lot of male experiences and I was itching for some feminine perspective to balance it out. Something that hasn’t really happened to me before. I was eager to read Allende, an author I’ve also heard highly of but haven’t read before. A ferry ride and a night away on my own was the perfect opportunity. Then some Agatha Christie and I was ready to finish tackling Chesterton (reviews to come).

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown and Company, 2017)

The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (Harper Collins, 1998)

The Japanese Lover – Isabel Allende (Atria Paperback, 2015)

Autobiography – G.K. Chesterton (Hamish Hamilton, 1986)

Re-Read:

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie (Cardinal Editions, 1960)

Didn’t Finish:

Gork, the Teenage Dragon – Gabe Hudson (Knopf, 2017)

Currently Reading:

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

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Book Review: The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese

The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (HarperCollins, 1998)

After a somewhat awkward incident of an acquaintance thinking I’d borrowed his copy of The Tennis Partner almost ten years ago and never returned it, I decided to take it as a sign and actually read the book. (I got it from the library, however.)

Having read Cutting for Stone last year, I already knew Verghese as a talented writer and a medical doctor in his daily life.The books are, of course, very different. While Cutting for Stone is a novel, The Tennis Partner is the true story of Verghese’s friendship with another doctor named David Smith.

In the mid-1990s, Verghese and his family move to El Paso, Texas where he works in internal medicine. I found the setting of El Paso, a city I’m entirely unfamiliar with, to be fascinating. A town bordering Mexico, Verghese manages to show us a city both beautiful and dangerous. Barren but with hidden corners of bounty. Verghese’s work introduces him to many victims of AIDS and drug abuse but he doesn’t immediately recognize his colleague as a drug user.

Smith and Verghese are drawn together by a love of tennis. Smith, an Australian, travelled on the pro circuit while Verghese has simply had a life long obsession with the sport. They find that they make good partners on the court and a friendship springs up. While Verghese navigates through a divorce from his wife, Smith gradually reveals his past addiction and how he has had to start over. While clean at the beginning of the book, it’s clear that there are unresolved issues for Smith, particularly in his relationships with women.

As close as the two men become, Verghese is always slightly removed from Smith’s inner life, often not knowing exactly what’s happening to his friend. At times he seems to have a sort of willful blindness, though it’s not hard to sympathize with someone who wants to see the best in a person he cares about. Verghese is extremely knowledgeable about the mechanics of addiction and drug use, as demonstrated by his work with his patients, and yet baffled by the mental struggle behind addiction. In fact, he comes across rather callously in one section, after Smith has returned from rehab. At times, it seems that Verghese’s concern is more with losing his tennis partner than with what’s best for his friend.

Overall though, the book is a moving and intimate portrayal of medical work and friendship. As with Cutting for Stone, I found that sometimes the medical descriptions delved too deep and, while interesting, left me feeling nauseous. Perhaps readers with stronger stomachs will do better. In a similar manner, there is a lot of detail about tennis in the book. As someone who has never held a tennis racquet in my life, I just didn’t care and found myself skipping over many of these sections, which didn’t detract from the story itself.

What I Read – January 2017

Read:

The Sellout – Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis (A Harvest Book, 1958)

A vocation is a terrible thing. To be called out of nature into the supernatural life is at first (or perhaps not quite at first – the wrench of the parting may be felt later) a costly honour. Even to be called from one natural level to another is loss as well as gain. Man has difficulties and sorrows which the other primates escape.

  • C.S. Lewis

I Carried You Home – Alan Gibney (Patrick Crean Editions, 2016)

Beauty Plus Pity – Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011)

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

In the light of day, her dreams were drained of their nightmarish quality, and they seemed whimsical and strange, but the taste of loss remained in her mouth.

  • Eowyn Ivey

When She Was ElectricAndrea MacPherson (Polestar, 2003)

Perfect Little World – Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

Let one person tell her she couldn’t have it and she would claw them into submission. Let one more person tell her what she could and could not have, and she would smile, nod, and, without apology, do whatever the hell she wanted.

  • Kevin Wilson

Such is My Beloved – Morley Callaghan (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)

Even a dream of social betterment usually is a bitter disappointment. We’ve got to accept the disappointment and go on. All of us must be terribly disappointing to God. By any standard of justice God might have abandoned us all long ago and left us to shift for ourselves as those girls are shifting now wherever they are, whatever they are doing.

  • Morley Callaghan

Fates & Furies – Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Currently Reading:

Simply Christian – N.T. Wright

Birdie – Tracey Lindberg

Book Review: Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

Perfect Little World - Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

Perfect Little World – Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

Izzy has just graduated from high school when she finds herself pregnant, the result of an ongoing affair with her art teacher. Without support or finances to raise her child, she opts to join an experimental unit run by the young genius Dr. Grind. For ten years, ten families will live together as one family, raising their children together, without the children knowing who their true parents are. Dr Grind stresses that this is for science, not a cult, and the Infinite Family Project (as it’s called) is a regimented organism.

The idea is that these ten children will have an unprecedented amount of support and access to opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. Rather than a traditional family unit, a larger family simply means more love, right?

The concept is so obviously flawed that the reader can’t help wondering how Dr. Grind found ten couples so hopelessly naive as to join. While Izzy’s reasons are fairly well-established, she’s also the only single parent in the group. The others are adults in their twenties and thirties who are in committed relationships. So why on earth are they willing to completely give up control over how they live their lives or raise their child? The idea of my child viewing me as only one of many parents, or of not being able to go to her when she cries in the night because it’s not my turn on the roster is really upsetting and feels fundamentally wrong. I spent a lot of the book feeling profoundly uncomfortable.

Izzy is portrayed as a smart, capable young woman, perhaps unrealistically so. She seems to be good at anything she puts her mind to, be it slow-roasting a pig, joining a communal family, or making art out of wood scraps. Wilson doesn’t touch on the fact that she’s recently been in an abusive relationship or how this affects her decisions and so she feels a little too flawless. Her time in the Infinite Family Project – and the reader follows Izzy for the next ten years – is portrayed as mostly positive. Of course there are issues and the experiment has an unexpected conclusion but Izzy never truly questions her choice, something I didn’t find realistic.

Perfect Little World is an easy read with an interesting concept. It’s hard to tell if Wilson himself is in favour of the Infinite Family Project or not but he does come across as unaware of how unappealing such an idea might to many (most?) readers. More realistic internal conflict for these fictional parents would have made for a deeper and more moving novel. As it is, Perfect Little World works as a quick and easy distraction.

Book Review: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder - Emma Donoghue (Harper Collins, 2016)

The Wonder – Emma Donoghue (Harper Collins, 2016)

Having read Room a few years ago, this is my second read from Emma Donoghue. Although vastly different stories they share a powerful sense of tension and showcase how compelling a writer Donoghue is.

Lib Wright arives in a tiny, rural Irish town, hired from England as a private nurse for exactly two weeks. Trained by Florence Nightingale herself, Lib is fastidious and cynical, a stranger to this country so close and yet so different from her own. She learns that she has been hired to observe Anna, a young girl who allegedly has not eaten in four months and yet is perfectly healthy. Anna’s family claims a miracle and Anna is certainly devout enough but others, especially Lib, are skeptical. Lib, an atheist, is determined to discover the secret of Anna’s “miracle” but, in true Donoghue fashion, it is much darker and more complex than expected.

The Wonder is immensely readable and Donoghue does an excellent job of bringing place and characters to life. Lib has her secrets to hide and biases to bring to her task and these are slowly revealed as her connection to Anna becomes more and more complicated. Donoghue also finds that balance of mystery – what if Anna is telling the truth. What can a miracle look like? Is a miracle always for good? At the heart of the story is a deep and formidable Catholic faith and while I’m not Catholic, I felt that Donoghue was largely respectful of both her characters and her readers when dealing with the faith.

If you choose to read The Wonder just make sure you have enough time set aside; you’ll want to get through it as quickly as possible.

What I Read – December 2016

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

The BellmanHeidi Barnes (Vireo Rare Bird Books, 2016)

The Wonder – Emma Donoghue (Harper Collins, 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

Currently Reading:

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis

News of the World – Paulette Jiles

What I Read – September 2016

Missing, Presumed – Susie Steiner (Harper Collins, 2016)

Rumours of Another World – Philip Yancey (Zondervan, 2004)

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett (Harper, 2016)

Flight Behavior – Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial, 2012)

Currently Reading:

Prayer – Timothy Keller

The Trees – Ali Shaw

Book Review: Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Missing, Presumed - Susie Steiner (Harper Collins, 2016)

Missing, Presumed – Susie Steiner (Harper Collins, 2016)

If you’ve been reading reviews here for a while, you may have noticed I don’t read many mysteries. The truth is, I’m kind of a chicken. I have an overactive imagination and when I read horror or violence I have a hard time keeping my brain from focusing on those mental images. (And it doesn’t even have to be that horrific or violent – my brain is happy to fill in those gaps.) So instead, I choose to avoid things that seem too scary.

I was interested enough in Missing, Presumed however to make an exception and I’m happy to report that it’s not particularly violent or horrifying. While definitely a mystery, the descriptions are far from gratuitous and the conclusion didn’t leave my mind running horror movie scenarios late at night.

The novel switches between perspectives but our main character is Detective Manon Bradshaw. She’s thirty-nine and wants to find someone to share her life with. This doesn’t seem to be happening via her string of bad internet dates but Manon is also dedicated to her job with the Cambridgeshire Police and throws herself into the latest Missing Persons case.

Edith Hind is twenty-four, smart though a little flighty, and when her house is found empty and her phone, coat, and car have all been left behind, she is declared missing. As the case drags on (and I liked that it did realistically drag on), the worst is presumed. Edith’s father just so happens to be a very successful surgeon (surgeon to the Royal Family, no less) and so the case instantly gains a high profile in the media, along with all the pressures that brings.

Steiner does well at showing the day-to-day actions and work of the police. The balance of public investigation and the need to protect witnesses, the monotony of some of it and the heartbreak of other parts. Manon and her fellow detectives are generally well-balanced, interesting characters, though they do all seem pretty unsuccessful in their personal lives. I also enjoyed the very British-ness of the novel. It felt accurate and interesting without being forced or over-the-top.

For me, the weak parts of the novel came primarily with the conclusion. As I said, I appreciated that Steiner did portray how the case dragged on. How the public loses interest, how the police move on to other things no matter how much they might still personally care. She also delves into how this affects Edith’s family and their attempts to continue their lives without answers. So it was almost disappointing when the case was very neatly summed up and concluded. Even more so when all the random leads and guesses that the police had did turn out to be related. Being able to make connections between every single minor or large crime that happened in the book and every random interview the police made seemed very unrealistic to me.

While this book hasn’t turned me into a mystery reader, I was glad to branch out in my reading and try something different.