What I Read – July 2017

Woefully lately but in the interests of keeping track (for myself because I’m sure no one has been waiting with baited breath), here is what I read in July:

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill (Harper Collins Publishers, 2017)

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (Knopf, 2017)

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero (Blumhouse Books, 2017)

Himself by Jess Kidd (Atria Books, 2017)

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (Hogarth, 2017)7

Book Review: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins Publishers, 2017)

I’ve read all of Heather O’Neill’s published work and reviewed two of them here. (Daydream of Angels  and Lullabies for Little Criminals) Obviously, I enjoy her work and thankfully her latest novel didn’t disappoint. If you like O’Neill’s previous work, then I think you’ll be pleased with The Lonely Hearts Hotel.

Using Montreal once again as her setting, this time O’Neill takes us to the early 20th century, beginning in the 1920s, post-World War I. I found the historic setting worked superbly for O’Neill’s style and characters. Her work always has a grubby yet fairy tale-like feel and the 1920s and 30s seems perfectly fitting for this.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is the story of two orphans, called Pierrot and Rose. Both abandoned as infants, they are raised by nuns in the same Montreal orphanage. Both endure abuse (though of a vastly different kind) at the hands of the nuns yet it turns out that both Pierrot and Rose are hugely talented performers. They begin to perform in the homes of the Montreal wealthy and they form a powerful bond of love and partnership. Eventually separated, neither forgets that first and powerful love, or the dream they formed together of their own show and spectacle. When they are reunited, they quickly fall in love and work to make their dream a reality.

This story is dingy and magical. There is heroin addiction and prostitution, tragic clowns, a jewelled apple, and a complex web of characters who you can’t help but fall in love with. Pierrot and Rose make for an interesting couple at the heart of the novel. Rose in particular has a fascinating character arc and O’Neill uses the time frame well to demonstrate how a woman of Rose’s ambition suffered in a time when so little was allowed for women. Rose steadily develops into a woman of ruthless conquest, letting very little come in the way of her goals, and yet she manages to be sympathetic. I wanted to cheer for her simply because she had to work so hard to do even very little and to overcome the setbacks of her gender in that era. I think this is some of O’Neill’s best work yet and I hope she delves into the past more in her future work.

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

3 Day Quote Challenge: Day #1

IMG_6662When I read a book and I come across a line, a phrase, or a paragraph I like, I copy out the quotation in my journal. (And, I confess, if the book belongs to me I fold down the page and/or underline the part I like.) Sometimes I share these quotations when I write my book reviews here. Sometimes I don’t, because they’re too long or they don’t really fit in with what I’m trying to say about the book.

I was recently tagged in a 3-Day Quote Challenge by Judith over at her blog. So I’m taking the opportunity to share some of the quotes I’ve copied down so far this year but haven’t shared here. Interspersed with some recent photos because it’s nice to have something to look at, right?

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My quote for Day #1 comes from Heather O’Neill’s short story collection Daydreams of Angels. This particular story is titled “The Conference of Birds”.

Are you who you are when you are a tiny fetus? There are some people who will say that you aren’t properly you yet. But of course you are.

You are you even long before that. You are you when your parents begin to get dressed in fancy clothes one Saturday night. You are you when your mother, who is barely twenty-one years old, puts on a pair of yellow lace underwear. When she plucks her eyebrows in the mirror and when she puts on a red dress that is cut really low and burgundy lipstick: that’s all about you,baby.

You are you when your father, who is also twenty-one years old, pops a pimple on his forehead. When he puts on his fancy shiny shirt that was made by children in a sweatshop in Indonesia. When he isn’t sure that he actually looks good – but he has been lucky twice before when wearing it.

They are both riding the subway in opposite directions to meet each other and you have already begun. That is your beginning. You have as much right to be as anybody.

Heather O’Neill just gets it so right in the details. She nails the nerves, the excitement, the small moments of preparing for a first date. And I love this idea of how our lives – our very existence – is set into motion long before we ever exist. When you think back over the moments that had to occur just so your life could happen, it’s kind of amazing. Think of the moments your grandparents met. The choice your great-grandfather made that led down the line to your life. That the fact I’m typing this out today all began more than forty years ago when my parents went roller skating.

Our beginnings are complicated and important and good to be reminded of and O’Neill does a beautiful job here.

What are your favourite quotes? Something you’ve read recently or loved for years? Share it on your own blog or in the comments!

Book Review: Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill

Daydreams of Angels (HarperCollins, 2015)

Daydreams of Angels (HarperCollins, 2015)

In the womb, you hear people talking and their voices sound like someone you’re in love with talking in their sleep.

from “Heaven”

Heather O’Neill excels at creating metaphors that are both etirely unique and powerfully, strangely accurate. This skill – seen in her novels (Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night) – seems even more evident in the tight, condensed form of the short story.

In addition to their reserved disposition, the twins were known for their beauty…People who manufactured cracker boxes were always trying to get them to pose for them.

from “Messages in Bottles”

There are twenty stories in this collection, some a little longer, but most are delicious morsels. Many feature the Montreal neighbourhoods familiar to readers of O’Neill’s novels. Several are set during World War Two. They are fairy tales, love stories, family legends. Like O’Neill’s novels, these tales are peopled with extremem character; once again she describes the delightful eccentricities of their clothing, their speech. Many of the characters blaance between charm and terror. Many love their current lives and many long for something more. Sometimes at the same time.

A number of the stories are narratives told by grandparents to “me and my brothers”. Not necessarily the same “me” or the same brothers but it gives a thematic weight to the collection. A common thread of passion on family stories. The absurd tales we tell children and the delight in hearing a story that you’re not sure you should believe.

She had this incredible story. It was the most incredible thing about her. Actually, it was so incredible that it was probably the most incredible thing about us too.

from “The Story of a Rose Bush”

Those who’ve enjoyed O’Neill’s novels will love this continuation of her world. If you haven’t read O’Neill before this collection offers a great introduction.

They don’t know. It’s not their fault. What are they supposed to do when they’ve been told their whole lives not to believe in fairy tales?

from “The Gypsy and the Bear”

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 – December 2015

No Great Mischief – Alistair MacLeod (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan (Penguin Books, 2006)

…however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

Ru – Kim Thúy (Vintage Canada, 2015)

The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud (Vintage Books, 2007)

Emberton – Peter Norman (Douglas & McIntyre, 2014)

Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson (Grosset & Dunlap, 1965)

Dreamtigers – Jorge Luis Borges (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970) (translated from the Spanish by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland)

White Teeth – Zadie Smith (Penguin Books, 2001)

Samad watches it all and finds himself, to his surprise, unwilling to silence her. Partly because he is tired. Partly because he is old. But mostly because he would do the same, though in a different name. He knows what it is to seek. He knows the dryness. He has felt the thirst you get in a strange land – horrible, persistent – the thirst that lasts your whole life.

The Quick – Lauren Owen (McClelland & Stewart, 2014)

Currently Reading:

Don Quixote – Cervantes

Daydreams of Angels – Heather O’Neill

Transatlantic – Colum McCann

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

There is a fragility and a terror that surrounds all childhood. Yet, at the same time, there is a security in the naivety of children. When you’re a child, the only life you know is the one you live and so it can take years to realize the dangers you’ve been through. As trite as it may sound, in her first novel, Heather O’Neill captures the innocence of childhood. Not a stylized, whitewashed version but the real, dirty details that can make up a child’s life. Lullabies for Little Criminals (Harper Perennial, 2006) doesn’t shy away from the grit of real life – the grit that too often accompanies children but O’Neill does beautifully capture the magic of childhood, the magic of everyday objects and the significance they can carry for children.

Our narrator and main character is Baby (her real name). Baby and her dad, Jules, live in a rough part of inner-city Montreal. Of course, Baby never describes it this way. Montreal is her city and this is her neighbourhood, the only home she knows. She loves it. She knows the people on the street and the way things work. She knows her father does heroin and she knows Jules isn’t quite like other dads, mostly because he’s only fifteen years older than her, but they adore each other and Baby seems to love her life.

We follow her through most of her twelfth year and as she turns thirteen. When Jules goes into the hospital with a form of TB, Baby goes into foster care and the bond between them begins to weaken. In many ways, the book is equally about Jules’ childhood- one lost when he became a father and Baby’s mother died. It’s obvious to the reader that Jules is woefully unequipped to be a father. Of course, Baby neither knows that or cares. He is her father. This is her life and she is not unhappy.

The descriptions of the novel are absolutely spot-on. Baby describes the world she sees around her and, while a more cynical reader knows she’s describing skid row, O’Neill also enables us to see the beauty that Baby sees. We’re reminded how a rock or a doll can become so hugely important to a young girl. We’re reminded of the delightful weirdness of children and the random judgements they make.

Baby skates on that line between childhood and womanhood. In so many ways she is still a little girl, carrying her dolls in a suitcase, oblivious to the effect of her changing body on the men around her. She is tempted by adulthood too though. The chance of something else, of greater affection as Jules begins to pull away from her and she searches for attention from the neighbourhood pimp. By the time she realises that childhood, once gone, is gone forever, it might be too late.

This is much of the tension that drives the novel. The danger the reader can see all around Baby and that she may recognize but still insists on ignoring. She knows who the neighbourhood pimp is and yet she can’t seem to shake free of him. She desires a normal relationship with the boy she likes at school but she knows how different her family is from his. She struggles with wondering what she deserves out of life, already having learnt the harsh lesson that not all are created equal.

You can’t help but worry about Baby but you don’t pity her. She’s tough and she’s strong and she’s smart and, in the end, she has always known what she really wanted. The saddest part though is that real life is full of children like her, many with much sadder endings.