What I Read – March 2017

I’ve fallen behind in reviewing books but am working to catch up and get some reviews posted next week. In the meantime, here’s what I read this month:

EileenOttessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press, 2015)

The Dark and Other Love Stories Deborah Willis (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

She was glad that was done. What a relief. But then again, if she could, she’d do it all over. Everything. Her whole life. She’d live it again, just for the small but real pleasures of a donut and coffee, of holding her daughter in her arms, of making money, of sleeping late, of waking up.

  • Deborah Willis, “The Nap”

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen – Joanna Faber & Julie King (Scribner, 2017)

The Break – Katherena Vermette (Anansi, 2016)

The Garden of Eden – Ernest Hemingway (Scribners, 1986)

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

…and he realizes that this is the way it is, the way it must be: you don’t visit the lost, you visit the people who search for the lost.

  • Hanya Yanagihara

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf Canada, 2017)

The Dinner Party and Other Stories – Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, 2017)

Didn’t Finish:

The Travelers – Chris Pavone

Book Review – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

A couple of chapters in and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Little, Brown & Co, 2014) began to make me feel like I need to book a dentist appointment. Though probably not with Paul O’Rourke, the main character, narrator, and dentist of the novel.

Paul is outwardly successful – he owns his dental practice, which seems busy enough, in New York City, and he has a certain passion toward his work and regarding oral health, and he seems proud to live in NYC. But it’s clear almost immediately how deeply unhappy Paul is. He’s an insomniac who knows he isn’t taking advantage of New York’s benefits, he finds his work frustrating because people just won’t floss, and his girlfriend who recently dumped him is still his office manager, Connie.

At its heart though, this is a book of faith and religion and I thought those subjects were handled by Ferris both creatively and thoughtfully.

Paul is an ardent atheist. Although, as he explains his past relationships, we see the ways he’s changed himself after falling in love. (And how that inevitably backfires for him.) We see his cringe-worthy behaviour with Connie’s Jewish family – his intense desire to be loved by them is painful and hilarious. Probably because many of us can relate. We see the ways Paul’s past and his own family have shaped him and grown in him this intense need to be accepted. We may not want to identify with Paul in most aspects but in this one, you really can’t help it.

The plot thickens when Paul finds a website set up for his dental practice – something he’s always refused to have. While the site is completely accurate and seems innocuous, it’s a mystery who set it up and why. Strangest of all are the quotes found on his bio page. Although they sound as if they come from the Bible, they have a strange focus on the Amalekites and every Biblical scholar Paul shows them to doesn’t recognize them. Paul finds more evidence of this alter ego on-line, posting in forums, tweeting, Always with reference to these mysterious verses, a slaughter of the Amalekites, a lone survivor, a people sworn to doubting God. As Paul tries to investigate, he becomes more intrigued and more caught up.

Not wanting to reveal too much, I’ll leave it there but I will say the plot gets very interesting and opens up some of the biggest questions in life. What is faith? Can doubt ever be an act of faith? Can it be holy? What do we look for when we join faith communities. What do we want, really want, from our lives?

Paul’s search for answers takes him into a secret history and possibly his own past. Whether or not he can ever find happiness there, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Ferris, thankfully, never talks down to his readers.

The book is very well-written and a worthy entry as one of two of the first American inclusions for the Man Booker Prize. Ferris stirs up these big questions with a light hand, rarely hinting at what his own opinion might be. Best of all, he succeeds with Paul as a narrator, a character who’s awkward and difficult and not particularly likeable and yet you still find yourself hoping for his best.

Book Review – Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Little Brown & Co, 2012) is a fun book. But don’t let that fool you. There’s a lot to this novel. Maria Semple, who has been a writer for some TV shows that you’ve probably heard of *cough Arrested Development cough*, proves that she can delve into deep topics. Family, infidelity, mental illness, Seattle traffic, private schools.

Bernadette, as soon in the title of the book, is a former genius architect, now semi-crazy mother to Bee. She spends her days communicating with her Internet assistant in India, and not helping out at Bee’s private school, Galer Street. She’s anti-social to a hilarious extreme. Bernadette erects a giant sign facing her neighbour (and archenemy)’s house. And yet her insane antics are balanced by the close and loving relationship she clearly has with her daughter. The reader loves Bernadette because Bee loves Bernadette.

It is Bee who tells us her mother’s story. Interrupted by her narration, we read a collection of e-mails, hospital bills, and court documents, and come to realize that we are following Bee as she pieces her mother’s life together following Bernadette’s disappearance. Searching for Bernadette takes other characters to South America and Antarctica and forces Bee and her father, Elgin, to reexamine their lives and relationships.

Where the mother-daughter relationship between Bee and Bernadette is fairly straightforward, it’s the marriage of Elgin and Bernadette that creates the greatest tension and unease in the novel. We are told a story of what happens in a marriage as people change. What happens when a couple moves across country, when dreams fade, and suddenly they find themselves different people than they were when they started out. Do you give up and start over or do you track your wife to Antarctica and demand an explanation?

To complement Bernadette’s own brand of peculiarity, we have Audrey, the aforesaid neighbour who is also a parent at Galer Street and seems to be Bernadette’s opposite in every way. Audrey starts out as a fairly one-dimensional character – the classic over-achieving mom who hosts events and desires to control everyone around her. She’s so easy to dislike that we’re all the more willing to love Bernadette’s ridiculous eccentricities. Yet Audrey has a lovely transformation (if perhaps somewhat unexplained) partway through the novel that ends up being crucial to Bee’s family.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? would be a great weekend or beach read. You won’t struggle to get through it but it will still give you pause to think.

Book Review – Reality Boy by A.S. King

Reality Boy is not a book I would have read if I hadn’t been given a copy. This is a young adult novel about a teenage boy. I’m not exactly the target audience. However, I thought the premise of Reality Boy was fascinating.

Gerald is almost 17. When he was five, his family was featured on a reality show called Network Nanny. Gerald was portrayed as the problem child, violent and reactive. Twelve years later, that reputation haunts him and his family.

We live in a world where children are growing up not just with reality TV, but on reality TV. What does it do to a child to be observed and criticized publicly? To be turned into entertainment for thousands to watch?

Unfortunately, Reality Boy doesn’t go very deep. Within the first few pages, I found myself thinking, “Show, don’t tell,” as Gerald explains his life to us. But that doesn’t change and the novel mostly tells us why Gerald’s life sucks without giving us much evidence to back that up.An example of this is Gerald’s sister, Tasha. Gerald refers to her as his number one trigger and the conclusion of the novel revolves around the revelation that Tasha is a sociopath. Except that we haven’t been convincingly shown that Tasha is a sociopath. Yes, she’s violent but so is Gerald. We see Gerald over and over again barely able to hold himself back from hitting people. He confesses to the reader that he once bit a hole in a classmate’s cheek because he didn’t like being called a certain name. Tasha’s behaviour isn’t excusable but neither is Gerald’s and neither seems worse than the other.

We only hear the story – past and present – from Gerald’s perspective and Gerald is pretty clearly unstable. Maybe he’s meant to be an unreliable narrator but I honestly don’t feel that this novel is that sophisticated.

As Gerald deals with his admittedly messed-up family, he falls in love with his co-worker and they begin a relationship. Maybe the unhealthiest relationship I’ve read about since Romeo and Juliet. Hannah has a screwed-up family too although we don’t ever get to see them. The reveal she offers near the end of the novel – her family secret, if you will – still didn’t explain the interactions with her parents we are privy too. I honestly thought her secret was that her parents are learning disabled but instead it turns out her brother is. Which explains almost nothing about Hannah’s life.

Gerald and Hannah are emotionally and verbally abusive toward each other. When Hannah expresses fear that Gerald could be violent toward – an entirely justifiable fear based on his past behaviour – Gerald gets angry and Hannah is painted as the one out of line. I don’t generally route for couples to fail but I couldn’t envision a happy ending with these two still together.

And yet that’s what King tries to give us. Really, the conclusion is far too simple to actually solve Gerald’s myriad of problems. Here we have a young man who is very seriously damaged and the novel wants us to think getting a girlfriend and living apart from his sister will solve those issues. Instead, what I was left with was the impression that the author did not realise what a flawed and unlikeable character they had created.

There are lots of well-written young adult novels dealing with big issues out there. Reality Boy isn’t one of them.