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

 

What I Read – August 2015

August was a good reading month. Two things helped. 1) Having no internet for the first twenty days and 2) Long periods of wakefulness with a baby for the first half of the month. (The way I get through nighttime feedings is with a soft light and a good book.) Here’s what I read:

Half of a Yellow Sun –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Vintage Canada, 2007)

I really like Adichie’s writing.This is the first novel of hers that I’ve read and it did not disappoint. The rest of her writing is on my List.

I knew very little of the Biafran/Nigerian civil war going into this and I think Adichie does a great job of telling the reader this history through the story. Both of my parents had childhood memories of hearing about Biafra and I was surprised that this was where our idea of “starving Africans” comes from. This is a sad, hard story to read but a wonderful example of the power of storytelling and how important it can be.

The Mysterious Benedict Society – Trenton Lee Stewart (Little, Brown & Company, 2008)

This book series has been a popular one among pre-teen readers for the past few years so I was eager to read it. Reynie Muldoon responds to an ad in the newspaper, takes a few strange tests, and is swept into a secretive world full of mystery and a little bit of espionage. This is a fun book and easy to read (even for its target audience, I think). The characters are likeable and interesting. The illustrations by Carson Ellis add nicely to the story.

Where the book struggles is in background information. Is this story set in our world? Our future? An alternate version of our world? We are told that there is an “Emergency” but we’re never told what this really entails. As a result, stopping the Emergency doesn’t feel that high stakes. You might want the characters to succeed but it doesn’t much feel like it matters.

The Joys of Love – Madeleine L’Engle (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2008)

It is my opinion that most books published posthumously were not published by the author for good reasons. Unfortunately, as much as I like so much of L’Engle’s work, this is true of The Joys of Love. (Also, a terrible title.) It’s a book about theatre and young adulthood and first love, set in the late 1940s. It’s a harmless story but it doesn’t make much of a case for its own value.

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001)

The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.

Somehow I made it through high school and university without reading this one (is it a short story? a novella?) It had been on my list for a long time; surely, I thought, a story so famous was worthy of reading. I was hugely disappointed and, honestly, disgusted by this one. While I can understand much of its racism has to do with the time in which it was written, that certainly doesn’t excuse its popularity in the 20th century (let alone the 21st). Frankly, I found it hard to read the descriptions of Africa and the African people.

Almost as bad is the fact that the story is mostly narrative and very little action. I never felt like we were given much example of Kurtz’s behaviour but simply told that we should be shocked. There was potential in parts but the long-winded explanations and the heavy-handed racism make this a poor read.

A Very Long Engagement – Sébastien Japrisot (Plume, 1994)

translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

While I might wonder why some books are so famous, I also wonder why others are not more famous. A Very Long Engagement is one of those books. I was hugely impressed with this one. It’s sad and funny and endearing. Beautifully detailed and a story wonderfully told.

Set primarily in the aftermath of World War I in France, Mathilde is searching for the truth of what happened to her fiancé. Official reports say that he was killed in action but as Mathilde traces the last days of his life and meets the men who were there, it turns out that there is much more to the story, and that there are those who don’t want the truth told. The reader is told the truth early on but Japrisot does a magnificent job of unfolding the events as various characters tell their versions and as Mathilde learns the truth.

Japrisot’s characters are really where the book shines. Each one, no matter how minor, is given depth and reality. Some we only meet through letters, some show up steadily throughout the story and Mathilde’s life, but each one feels like a real person.

Rapture Practice – Aaron Hartzler (Little, Brown and Company, 2013)

This is a memoir of a young man’s journey from unquestioning faith in a particularly conservative brand of Christianity to what I think turns out to be agnosticism.

I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian home and I went to Christian school for six years of my childhood education. I’m familiar with much of what Hartzler describes and I’m pretty sure I read the same Dr. Dobson book on adolescence and puberty that he does. Overall though, my upbringing was far less conservative and more forgiving than his was. The Christianity he describes is a rule-based one, with very little grace, and it makes me sad when people view that as what Christianity is.

So while I think it’s healthy when young people question the faith (whatever faith that may be) that they grow up in and decide whether or not they want to claim it for their own, it also makes me sad when people think this is what Christianity is.

Honestly, the book stops just as it gets interesting. We don’t get to learn about where Hartzler’s faith is at now or how his adult relationship with his family is. (Mostly, he portrays his parents in a pretty forgiving light. His father is the closest thing the book has to an antagonist but I got the sense that Hartzler stopped short in his re-telling because his parents are alive to read this memoir.)

The book mostly focuses on Hartzler’s teen years and there was a lot of teen boy stuff that I just couldn’t relate to or find all that interesting. Overall, I think this one falls short of what it could have been

Dancer – Colum McCann (Phoenix, 2003)

They built roads through drifts with horses, pitching them forward into the snow until the horses died, and then they ate the horsemeat with great sadness.

I love Colum McCann’s writing (check out that opening line!). He does historical fiction well. In Dancer, he tackles the subject of Rudolf Nureyev, a Russian ballet dancer who defected from the Soviet Union in the 1960s (and someone I was unfamiliar with prior to reading this novel).

McCann tells the story through other people’s experiences with Nureyev – his parents, his sister, his teacher, his classmates, his servant. Only briefly and as a child do we get into Nureyev’s own head. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story. In general, it’s not one that flatters Nureyev. We read a portrait of a man who is flamboyant, headstrong, stubborn, immensely talented, and rather heartless. Here and there are glimpses of someone softer, someone more sympathetic but we are meeting a man whose fame and childhood hardship stand continously in contrast and keep the rest of the world at bay. It’s a sad story about art, about a country of suffering, about human relationships and how hard they are. It’s beautifully told.

“And I will tell you this, since it is all I want to say: Anna, the sound of your name still opens the windows of this room.”

The Cougar Lady – Rosella Leslie (Caitlin Press, 2014)

This is a very Sechelt book. A memoir of a uniquely Sechelt character, written by a Sechelt author and published by a publishing house based here on the Sunshine Coast. I’d heard of Bergie and her sister Minnie before I ever moved here since my husband remembers seeing them in town occasionally when he was a child. Most locals who were around while the sisters were alive have a story or two.

Bergie lived in a remote area of the Sechelt Inlet, hunting and fishing and mostly following her own rules. Reading about her life and story, I got the impression that she was a person who outlived her time. The Sunshine Coast was a remote, forested village for a long time but Bergie was still alive as it became a town. One with hunting licenses and fishing regulations. It’s hard to say if Bergie would have chosen the life she lived had any other options ever been presented to her. Rosella Leslie offers up the facts of Bergie’s life but they mostly serve as a sad picture of a woman with a rough childhood and who subsequently had difficulty building relationships and adapting to the world as it changed around her.

A Northern Light – Jennifer Donnelly (Harcourt, 2003)

“Lots of things are true. Doesn’t mean you can go around saying them.”

This young adult novel is based on a true crime in the early 20th century (the same crime that An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser is based on). Donnelly creates a fictional young woman, Mattie Gokey, to parallel the real life victim of Grace Brown. It’s an interesting way to demonstrate the narrow options of a young girl in that era. The book is an easy read though it doesn’t always explain itself as well as it could. My biggest question was with Mattie’s relationship with Royal. It’s hard to see why she would ever agree to marry him (and their engagement is an important plot factor) and the story would have had a lot more tension if it ever seemed at all likely that she might actually go through with the marriage.

The Sword in the Stone – T.H. White (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1939)

I remember reading this story in elementary school but as I began to re-read it, I found I didn’t remember it at all. This isn’t a historically accurate or factual telling of the Arthur legend (if such a thing can even exist). It’s full of anachronisms and it’s set in entirely the wrong time. White offers up the reasoning of Merlin living backwards through time but he isn’t trying to defend his inaccuracies really. The point is the story and the idea of what Arthur’s (or The Wart as he is known here) childhood might have been like before he pulled that sword out of the stone. I remembered really enjoying this book years ago, which is good because I didn’t much enjoy the re-read. It went on rather long and I kept waiting for more action and adventure. Much of the story reads more like a biology or philosophy lesson.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies – Raziel Reid (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014)

(If you can read that title without getting Iris by the Googoo Dolls stuck in your head, you are a stronger person than I am.)

This short young adult novel won the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award in its category. Shortly thereafter, a petition was started to get the award rescinded and to keep this book out of schools.

Loosely based on the real life and murder of Larry Fobes King, this is the story of Jude. Jude lives in a small, cold, unnamed Canadian town. He is flamboyantly, unashamedly gay and he enjoys wearing make-up and dressing up in his mother’s – who works as a stripper – clothes and shoes. He longs equally to leave his small town and to be famous. He narrates his own life as if he’s the star of his own reality TV show, referring to his classmates as fans or paparazzi. He’s infatuated with Luke, a popular classmate, whose friends bully Jude mercilessly.

Jude is the star of his own show and it’s a sad, sad show to watch. His father makes only sporadic appearances, his mother clearly loves him but is caught up in her own tragedies, his stepfather is abusive and hateful. Jude’s best friend betrays him and the one person willing to be physically intimate with Jude won’t admit it even to himself. Jude relies heavily on drugs to deal with his own life. He’s strong, cocky, often funny; in subtle ways Reid shows us that this is a character who might have been someone if every circumstance in his life was entirely different.

Jude certainly isn’t a character to be admired or to draw inspiration from. He’s a fictional portrayal of the ways real life kids fall through the cracks. And this is a story of learning to deal with emotions, with love, with pain. It’s a sad story.

I’m anti-censorship so I’m glad to see schools and libraries keep this on their shelves. I think it’s important for teenagers to read all kinds of books and I think it’s equally important for the adults in their lives to talk with them about those books. This is definitely a book that should be accompanied by a lot of conversation. Jude isn’t someone I’d want my teenager to be but, sadly, he’s a realistic portrayal of the life many teens live.

Jesus Among Other Gods – Ravi Zacharias (Thomas Nelson, 2000)

…truth cannot be sacrificed at the altar of a pretended tolerance.

This is a controversial statement in our world today. Zacharias, one of my favourite Christian theologians, doesn’t shy away from controversy in this book where he explores what makes Christianity unique among other religions. Raised in India – a land of many gods – Zacharias delves into the other major religions of the world and addresses some of the big issues and questions that people have when comparing Christianity to other belief systems.

I would describe Zacharias’ writing as fairly academic. I don’t find him as readable as someone like Philip Yancey, but his insights are equally valuable and compared to some of his other books, Jesus Among Other Gods is not a difficult read. For anyone interested in comparative religion and Christianity in particular, I think this is a great place to start.

Those who smirk at His walking on water have forgotten the miracle He has already performed in the very composition of water.

The Giver – Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993)

Like so many other people my age, I read this years ago but I don’t remember much. While up late with Pearl one night, I finished the book I was reading and pulled this off our shelf. We meet Jonas who seems to live in some sort of future utopian society. At least, utopian if you consider a society where no one has strong emotions and every aspect of your life – from where you work to who your children are – is dictated by the authorities to be a utopia. Jonas is nearly twelve, the age when his future career will be decided upon by the Elders. He’s nervous and excited but he has no idea what’s in store for him when he is assigned the unique job of Receiver.

On the off chance there are people out there who haven’t read this one, I won’t say anything further because I think the book is better left as a surprise. It’s a great young adult book; it’s full of concepts that raise questions and conversation. If I were judging it from an adult perspective, I think it does fall short in really establishing its own world and how this society can actually work. Some more backstory would probably aid it but it’s an easy and fascinating read just the way it is.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

Previous to this novel I’d only read Smith’s novella, The Embassy of Cambodia. I enjoyed that one though so was eager to read On Beauty. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a story of race, of class, of education. The characters are (mostly) well-fleshed out and interesting, though only a few of them are very likeable. It’s the story of two feuding families – the Belseys and the Kipps – and it starts off with the son from one family falling in love with the daughter from the other family. It’s not a Romeo and Juliet story at all though; it’s much more complicated than that.

Set mostly in a university town outside of Boston, the novel focuses heavily on the power and effects of education. The patriarchs of each family are professors and rivals (unfortunately the character of Monty Kipps is never much more than a caricature) and their children’s lives become more and more entwined as time progresses. There are lots of unexpected turns in the plot and Smith handles them well, with realistic characters reacting in ways that feel honest and true.

Currently Reading:

The Everlasting Man – G.K. Chesterton

Art is the signature of man.

Beijing Confidential –  Jan Wong

What’s So Amazing About Grace? – Philip Yancey