What I Read – September 2017

(My dad felt that my summer reading level had dropped off so I have done my best to boost my numbers this September. However, please keep your expectations low for October.)

The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina – Kara LaReau (Amulet Books, 2017)

The Good People – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, 2017)

The Wind is not a River – Brian Payton (Ecco, 2014)

How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer (Vintage, 2003)

All We Leave Behind – Carol Off (Random House Canada, 2017)

Lost in September – Kathleen Winter (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2017)

Didn’t Finish:

The Wonderling Mira Bartok (Candlewick Press, 2017)

Currently Reading:

The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf

Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill

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Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

The Good People – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown & Company, 2017)

With her second novel, Hannah Kent confirms that she is a master of historical fiction. As with Burial Rites (read my review here), Kent uses a true historical story to build her novel around. This time the setting is early 19th century Ireland and the tale revolves around “the good people” – the fairies and the belief in them that is slowly being pushed out by modern thought and religion.

The story focuses on three women. The first is Nora, who we meet on the day that she is left widowed by the sudden death of her husband, Martin. This follows less than a year after their daughter’s death and leaves Nóra as the sole guardian of her grandson, Micheál. Four years old, Micheál has come to Nóra without the ability to walk or talk, though she remembers him as a healthy, thriving toddler. Nóra becomes convinced that the child is a changeling and enlists the help of Nance, an outsider in their small community who understands the good people and their ways and promises to restore Nóra’s grandson to her. Mary, a young girl hired to help Nóra care for Micheál is caught between loyalty to her mistress and concern for the child.

As with Burial Rites, Kent’s descriptions of place and character are strong. Rural Ireland in the 1820s is dirt-filled, smoky, and crowded. Starvation is always close by. People live in close quarters, with each other and their animals. Kent’s descriptions of the daily rituals that survival requires – the building of fires, the milking of cows, the collecting of rushes for the dirt floor are fascinating and add well to the atmosphere without become overwhelming or boring. The story is dark both in place and content. We see the superstition that guides every step of these peoples’ lives. These rituals are very interesting to read from a modern perspective and the novel does well at drawing at the growing tension between these traditional beliefs and the modern world.

While the story is based around the facts of a true historical event, I think it was best to know nothing of the facts before reading the story. Without knowing how it ends, the events are even more compelling (and shocking) as Kent reveals them. Either way though, this is an excellent novel and shows Kent’s growing talent.

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

Book Review: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

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

If you’ve read Sherman Alexie’s work before, particularly The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which I reviewed here) then you likely know a bit of Alexie’s story already. His writing is infused with his own life experiences, particularly growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me gets even more intimate as he delves into his childhood, his family, and his relationship with his mother, who died in 2015. It’s complicated, loving, and often sad. Near the beginning of the book Alexie details the story of the night his mother stopped drinking and credits that decision with saving his and his siblings’ lives. His mother paid the bills, kept them fed, and protected them within the volatile environment of the reservation and a loving but alcoholic family. At the same time, she could also be cruel, vindictive, and an awful lawyer. Alike in many ways, Alexie and his mother were often at odds and went years without speaking to each other.

This is also the story of the Spokane people. Of Indigenous people in America. Of a salmon people who have lost their salmon. Of men and women who have grown up amidst loss and violence and poverty. It is Alexie’s story but not his alone. Like Junior in The Absolutely True Diary, Alexie chose to attend high school outside of the reservation, surrounded by white kids. He tells a compelling story of attending a funeral for one of his classmates and realizing how differently death was dealt with on the reservation and off. Most strikingly, Alexie realizes that while he has already been to dozens of funerals, for most of his classmates this is their first up-close experience with death.

The book is an unusual mix of poetry and prose, with short chapters that dip into moments in his life or the history of the Spokane people and then move on to something completely different. The book has a looping, loping feel, often returning to the same topics or moments, clearly the ones that linger in Alexie’s memories.

His honesty is what makes the book. At times it feels like reading someone’s private diaries. Like Alexie’s fiction, it provides a fantastic viewpoint into a life and history that many of us in North America are not as familiar with as we should be. I recommend it for both its quality writing and the important topic of life for many Indigenous people in America today.

Book Review: The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, 2017)

This book will be available for sale in May 2017. I read an Advanced Readers Copy, provided by the publisher.

I believe I’ve mentioned that at the start of 2017 I decided I wanted to make sure I read more short stories this year than I did in 2016. Since I enjoyed Ferris’ previous novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, I was happy to have an opportunity to read his upcoming short story collection.

Ferris combines charm and discomfort masterfully, taking his characters into awkward, sometimes surreal situations. In my opinion, the best short stories have a sort of open-endedness to them rather than trying to tie up all the loose threads like you might expect in a novel. Ferris excels at this here and readers will probably either love it or hate it but I quite loved it.

In the title story, a couple prepare to have friends over for a dinner party. The wife cooks and preps exhaustively while the husband (and narrator) gripes about how he doesn’t even like these people. When their friends don’t show up, he goes to their apartment and finds something entirely unexpected. And while the situation he ends up in isn’t the most realistic, it’s an unrealistic portrayal of a very real situation and emotions.

Probably my favourite story was about a young woman named Sarah who, excited by the spring breeze, calls her boyfriend home early from work to enjoy the day together. The story twists and turns through differing scenarios, exploring the tiny moments and choices that can change a day or a life. Ferris’ understanding of human complexity is spot on and leaves the most unrealistic moments feeling completely honest.

What I Read – August 2016

The Nest – Cynthia D’Aprix-Sweeney (Harper Avenue, 2016)

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt (Back Bay Books, 2013)

Today Will Be Different – Maria Semple (Little Brown, 2016)

Currently Reading:

Rumours of Another World – Philip Yancey

The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah

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!

Not a Book Review: The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

The Little Red Chairs - Edna O'Brien (Little, Brown and Company, 2016)

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien (Little, Brown and Company, 2016)

This isn’t a book review for the simple fact that I didn’t finish reading this book. About halfway through, the main character is the victim of an act of horrific violence and I just couldn’t continue. I’ve never read Edna O’Brien before so I have no idea if this, her first novel in years, is typical of her writing. Up until that point the book was okay, though not without its frustrations, and I was hoping it would redeem itself as it continued. I can’t imagine it gets much more upsetting after this plot turn but I found I couldn’t continue and keep reading more mentions of it.

So here’s what I can comment on.

The initial premise of the novel is an intriguing one. Set in a small Irish town, a mysterious and enigmatic man calling himself a healer arrives and sets up shop. Although the townspeople are somewhat suspicious, they are fascinated by him and many find themselves drawn to him. One of these is Fidelma, a young (I think? Her age was never quite clear to me), married woman who longs to have a child. For no discernible reason, she falls in love with him. O’Brien seems to want us to see Vlad, the healer, as a charismatic man who others are curious about and who Fidelma would fall in love with (even though he really isn’t kind or affectionate to her at all). Honestly, I found him creepy. There was nothing about him that made me understand why anyone would want to be around him. This feeling certainly wasn’t helped by the early reveal that he is a mass murderer, and a war criminal – on the run from international law due to his role in the siege of Sarajevo. The townspeople find this out soon after, along with Fidelma.

The setting of the novel feels like it’s in the early half of the 20th century and it was hard to get a handle on how modern the village was but based on when the siege took place and how much time is supposed to have past, I have to guess it’s supposed to be a modern day setting. If it weren’t for those historical clues though, I don’t think I would have figured that out at all.

Over and over, Fidelma makes terrible, naive decisions that are frustrating to follow along with and when one (or many, depending on how you look at it) of those choices results in something horrible happening to her, it was just too much for me. Reading a few reviews around the internet, it seemed that the second half wouldn’t redeem the first for me and so I gave it up.

Edna O’Brien is, of course, very famous and there are some excellent passages in the parts of the novel I did read. I would simply say that if you do read this one, proceed with caution.

Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

IMG_6117Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be sentenced to death for a crime in Iceland. She died by beheading in 1830. In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent offers a fictional idea of what Agnes’ last months might have been like, as well as what the truth may have been surrounding the murder for which Agnes was convicted. The basic outline of the plot and the characters are true but the details have been filled in by Kent and she has done a fine job.

The story begins after Agnes has been sentenced to beheading and is moved from imprisonment to stay with a family. The death sentence looms over her but a date has not been set so she doesn’t know how long she has left. The family – Jon and Margret and their two daughters – don’t want a murderess in their home but are given no choice. Agnes is put to work just as their other servants are and, gradually, the family becomes used to her presence. Along with this is the priest responsible for helping Agnes prepare for death. This is a young assistant reverend called Toti, who Agnes has requested particularly. He is unsure and unprepared on how to help Agnes but she slowly begins to reveal her past to him.

The story alternates between a third person narrator, usually getting in closest to Toti, and a first person narration from Agnes herself. This way the reader becomes privy to some of the details of the story that only Agnes knows and that she doesn’t share with anyone else, even as she becomes more comfortable with both the family and Toti. It’s a somewhat awkward construct but an effective way for us to learn things that only Agnes knows. Agnes quickly becomes a sympathetic figure as she tells us of her rough and lonely childhood and then the relationships that brought her to death row.

One of the most interesting parts of this novel was simply the setting of 19th century Iceland. While I’ve read lots of books set in 19th century Europe, I’ve only read novels of modern day Iceland and this was vastly different from both. The details about life on the farm – how the family prepares for winter, how their house is constructed – were fascinating and obviously well-researched and Kent does a great job of bringing them into the story. They never feel tacked on but become important aspects of the plot. For example, the practise of everyone – servants, accused murderers, and daughters of the family, male and female – sleeping in one room together. This is hugely different from the norms of 19th century England and obviously changes how the characters interact and how certain information is discovered. Or smaller details like the extravagance of coffee or how a hostess will help a guest take off his shoes and coat. Kent weaves this details into the plot with great skill.

Even more impressive, Kent maintains a great deal of tension right to the end of the novel, even though, this being historically based, we know how the story ends. The slow reveal of truth and the developing relationships between the characters aid in this a lot. I look forward to reading more from Hannah Kent.

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