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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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

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!

Book Review: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson (Harper Perennial, 2005)

Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson (Harper Perennial, 2005)

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.

These first sentences of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping (aside from being some of the best opening sentences I’ve ever read) contain the whole plot of the story. From here, Robinson slowly unfolds the action and the characters – the lives of Ruth and Lucille as they are passed from caretaker to caretaker, all within the same house that their grandfather built in the town of Fingerbone.

Robinson has a distinct style and it’s in full effect here. The emphasis is on character development, description, natural setting, story unfurling over time. It doesn’t move quickly and there isn’t necessarily much plot. But the writing is beautiful and the reader is immersed in a world both familiar and strange.

We follow Ruth and Lucille through their childhood, to the moments where their lives dramatically diverge. This is a much darker tale than Gilead (read my review of the book here) – filled with ghosts, abandonment, death, and a bit of scandal. The sisters live in the shadow of a nearby lake – the final resting place of more than one family member. There is a continuing idea of visitors – ghostly and otherwise – gazing through windows. This is a story about outsiders. How one becomes an outsider, how one remains as such, and whether change is possible. Once you are outside, can you ever come in again?

As someone who greatly enjoys Robinson’s style, I liked this book a lot. I can imagine that some might find it frustrating and there certainly were sections I had to re-read in order to really visualize. It’s a slow and steady read, but if you take the time to move through it, it is well worthwhile.

 

Book Review: Two Books by Colum McCann

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Transatlantic, Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

Let the Great World Spin was the best book I read in 2013. The next book I read by Colum McCann (later that same summer) was Zoli, which I also enjoyed a lot. Thirteen Ways of Looking and Transatlantic are McCann’s most recent novels, from 2013 and 2015 respectively, and while they’re both solid, well-written novels, neither engaged me the way my first McCann reads did.

These are two different and unrelated stories but their problem seems similar to me. That is, a lack of tension. That feeling of wanting to rush through to find out what happens while also savouring every word. McCann writes beautifully and has the ability to really ponder and pause over a scene, letting the reader dwell in it to fully realize the world he’s created. He does this particularly well in the section of Transatlantic which focuses on George Mitchell – writing about George Mitchell’s daily life and relationships in manner both sumptuous and realistic. (And bold, considering George Mitchell is a real, still-living person.) But without the drive forward, the stories become meandering and the reader begins to wonder what the point is.

Transatlantic is mostly a historic story, a mix of real and fictional characters. I especially enjoyed the section featuring Frederick Douglass, as well as figuring out the ways the characters connected to each other and to Ireland. (When it comes to McCann, there’s always an Ireland connection.) But when dealing with historical fact, tension can be difficult to sustain because the reader knows how things end.

Thirteen Ways of Looking suffers from a similar problem, although the story and characters are fictional. Here we have J. Mendelssohn, a retired judge – I found myself reminded of George Mitchell but in a much less likeable way – nearing the end of his life, who is shockingly attacked while leaving a restaurant. We don’t know why or who his attacker is and while the story is structured around the investigation, it never felt like that was really what the book was about. It’s about a man at the end of his life, about the collapse of the physical body when it doesn’t match the mind. Perhaps the problem here is that the story felt unfinished to me. McCann does well in creating a lot of depth to the world and characters here but the story ends before much happens to them. Instead, the book moves on to other, unrelated short stories.

I really like McCann’s writing and so I hold him to a high standard. And there is so much potential in each of these books – so much that is well-written, well-drawn, so much possibility of depth – that its shortcomings seem to loom a little higher due to my expectations. I still think Transatlantic and Thirteen Ways of Looking are worth reading but I do hope that his next novel carries a bit more punch.

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 – November 2015

November has seen a vast improvement on Pearl’s night-time sleep. Which is awesome but has really cut into my reading time. So this month’s list is a little shorter but there have been some good reads.

1. The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James (Modern Library

2. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, & Company, 2013)

3. The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld (HarperCollins, 2014)

4. AbroadKatie Crouch (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014)

5. The People’s Act of Love – James Meek (Harper Perennial, 2005)

6. Immortality – Milan Kundera (Grove Weidenfeld, 1991)

(translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi)

7. Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler (Scribner, 1968)

(translated from the German by Daphne Hardy)

8. Fortune SmilesAdam Johnson (Random House, 2015)

9. The Pearl – John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 2000)

You could also look at November’s reading list like this:

  1. Young lady taken advantage of in Europe
  2. Death row prisoner in Iceland
  3. Death row prisoner in possibly magic prison
  4. Young lady murdered in Europe
  5. Escaped prisoner and extremist religious sect in Russia
  6. ???
  7. Political prisoner in Russia

Currently Reading:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan

(Yes, still. I am really enjoying it, as evidenced by how I keep telling Peter facts from what I’ve read. I’m just working away at it slowly. Very slowly.)

No Great Mischief Alistair MacLeod

 

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.

Book Review – Seven Good Reasons Not to be Good by John Gould

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I liked this book more than I expected to. And while that may not sound like the highest praise, it’s meant to be a compliment. I knew almost nothing about the title when I picked up a copy at the thrift store, except that I had taken a single semester with John Gould as professor  in my first year at university, more than a decade ago. In fact, I thought it was a short story collection until I started reading it and realized I’d confused it with Gould’s first book, Kilter.

Seven Good Reasons Not to be Good (Harper Perennial, 2010) follows approximately a week in the life of Matt McKay’s life, beginning as he makes his way from Vancouver to Toronto. Matt is on a mission. He’s returning to the city where he grew up to visit his dad – who is slowly slipping away into dementia – and to save his best friend, Zane.

We quickly learn that Matt is escaping a few things too. His marriage is likely over and he’s just been fired from his job. Most of this is Matt’s fault.

Matt spends his first couple of days avoiding Zane and his father, paying too much for a hotel room, and engaging in an affair with a woman named Kate. We learn further details on the demise of his marriage, the nature of his job, and how he lost it. We dig deeper into Zane and Matt’s shared history and their friendship, spanning decades.

The novel is divided by days – Matt’s week in Toronto. Each chapter begins with a “postcard”, a message from Matt to Zane, designed to explain to Zane how virtue isn’t what he thinks it is. See, Zane has AIDS and he’s decided to reject treatment and let himself die. His work as a documentary filmmaker has taken him into the depths of this illness and shown him how access to medicine saves lives. Or destroys them. So now he’s making the ultimate statement with his own life. And Matt wants to stop him.

Here we hit on my major fault with the novel. Zane seems to be intended to exist as a sort of ultimate good guy, a Jesus figure even. Willing to sacrifice everything, even his own life. But for what? It’s never clear what result Zane hopes for. And, personally, I was never convinced of Zane’s ultimate goodness. Am I supposed to be? Or is that only how Matt sees him? Matt definitely has an idealized idea of his best friend but it’s never entirely shared with the reader. In fact, all the characters around Matt feel fairly flat. His wife, Mariko, particularly feels like a stereotype of the hippy, peace-spouting, free-loving, unfaithful wife. This isn’t helped by the fact we never get to see her “on-screen” (so to speak) but only hear her voice through e-mails and Matt’s memories.

Matt’s dad seems to be such a side character he might as well not be in the novel. Matt’s memories of his sister, Erin, loom much larger than the still-living figure of his father and “the dadinator” could have been easily cut.

Kate, Matt’s one-night stand that might turn into something more, fares a little better. She’s an interesting and multi-faceted character who I believed had a life outside of the hotel where she meets Matt. My only gripe there was that it seemed obvious from the beginning that she wasn’t telling the truth about herself and the fact that Matt didn’t pick up on this at all made me wonder how bright he was.

That said, I thought Gould did a great job with his setting. He recreates the Toronto of Matt and Zane’s childhood, melding it in with Matt’s return to Toronto for the first time in years. There’s an excellent blend of nostalgia and repulsion, familiar to anyone when confronted with childhood memories. At the same time, Gould sets his story in a very particular week. A late summer week in August 2003. There were a few times when the 2003 setting felt positively retro. I’m not convinced that the story needed to be set when it was but it made for a nice, “Oh yeah, I remember that,” moment when I recalled where I was during that August week.

Book Review – We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

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I’m willing to bet that most people who were teenagers in 1999 remember where they were when they find out about the Columbine shooting. It was a sort of JFK assassination for our generation, a year and a half before the World Trade Centre towers fell. It wasn’t the first school shooting and it wasn’t the last but it changed things in schools.

I remember, just weeks later, sitting in the school gym, on lockdown for hours after a bomb threat was called in. My gym teacher told us there was a skunk loose in the school but we could hear the police and the dogs in the hallways. We had seen the footage. We knew the possibilities.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Harper Perennial, 2006) details the story of Eva Khatchadourian. Eva’s son is Kevin. Two years previously, Kevin went into his school and killed seven people. The story unfolds in letters from Eva to her estranged husband – and Kevin’s father – Franklin. In these letters Eva confesses the things she could never tell Franklin face-to-face. Her extreme reluctance to become a mother. Her early dislike and distance from Kevin. How Kevin really broke his arm as a kid.

It’s a chilling tale of a woman who became a later-in-life mother to please the man she loved and, seemingly, gave birth to a monster. According to Eva, from Kevin’s earliest days, he was manipulative and difficult, crying all day when alone with his mother but stopping immediately when Franklin returned home. Kevin continues this dual personality, offering up a Gee whiz, Dad, let’s throw the ball around personality to his father while Eva sees a darker side. A boy who delights in the pain of others, who refuses to show enjoyment of anything. A boy who may have deliberately blinded a little girl. These opposing views of their son drive a deeper and deeper wedge between Eva and Franklin.

There’s something of a horror story here. Nice, middle-aged, happily married couple decide to have a baby and give birth to a monster. The horror lies in the idea, This could happen to you. The idea that Eva is another of Kevin’s victims. The idea that a parent might do everything right and still, one day, their child will commit mass murder.

Is that true? Did Eva do everything right? Honestly, I don’t know. Of course, no one who has children or hopes to have children wants to believe it could be. And, within the novel, it’s not hard to find Eva’s failings as a mother. They are myriad. Then again, survive to the age of thirty or so and you’ll find your failings are myriad too.

Shriver definitely does a terrific job of drawing out the suspense. From the beginning of the book, from the beginning of Kevin’s life, we know that he is going to commit this atrocity. We know that it will take place on a Thursday. We know that something has happened to drive a wedge between Eva and Franklin so that she has to resort to writing him letters. Knowing all this does colour the story – it’s difficult to see any side of Kevin that isn’t a sociopath, and I’m not sure Shriver gives him one. But for a book where not much happens in the present tense, I sure wanted to keep reading.

The ending is horrifying and sad – both in the ways you expect and some you don’t. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect is how little Shriver had to stray from the real world. I appreciate the way she casts a light on these parents, who are also often victims but rarely included as such. The day after I finished reading this book Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree in California. Sadly, that says less about coincidental timing and more about how terribly common these incidents seem to be becoming.

It’s hard to cheer for this book, or for Eva, but it’s a solidly written work that is all too relevant to our world now.