What I Read – January 2018

For although a man is judged by his actions, by what he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done – a judgment that is necessarily hampered, not only by scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever-changing measure of his doubt and self-esteem.

– The Luminaries

One of my goals for 2017 was to read more classics. As such, I re-read The Power and the Glory, an amazing classic that I read several years ago but so many things in it felt like I was reading it for the first time. I’ve also (finally) begun to tackle The Silmarillion. I think my dad will be proud of me.

And, as always, I want to read more from my own library (Meaning read some of the stacks of books that I already own but have not yet read.) 84, Charing Cross Road, Rules of Civility, The Luminaries, Purple Hibiscus, and The Painted Girls all fit into that category.

I managed a couple of book reviews (titles are linked) but hope to do better in February. Feel free to share your favourite reads of the month in the comments!

Read:

  1. 84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1970)
  2. The War that Saved my Life – Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Penguin Books, 2015)
  3. Rules of Civility – Amor Towles (Penguin Books, 2011)
  4. Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist – Martina Scholtens (Brindle & Glass, 2017)
  5. The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (McClelland & Stewart, 2013)
  6. The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1979)
  7. Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012)
  8. The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan (Harper Collins, 2012

There was silence all round him. This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven; but he realized that after all it was possible to find peace there, when you knew for certain that the time was short.

– The Power and the Glory

Currently Reading:

  1. Rest, Play, Grow – Deborah MacNamara
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. The Hut Builder – Laurence Fearnley

But Ilúvatar knew that Men, being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world, would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony; and he said: “These too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.”

– The Silmarillion

*Friendly reminder that you can follow me on Instagram @karissareadsbooks if you’re into that sort of thing. Mostly pictures of what I’m reading as I’m reading and my kids.

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Book Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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Rules of Civility – Amor Towles (Penguin Books, 2011)

First things first, I liked Rules of Civility better than A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles’ first book and I think I’m in the minority in this opinion so I’ll explain why. Both novels are well written and Towles clearly excels at bringing historical time periods to life, whether that’s New York in the 1930s, as seen in Rules of Civility or Moscow in the 1920s, as in A Gentleman in Moscow. My main issue with Gentleman was that Count Rostov was too good at everything. He lacked any real flaws and thus never felt like a real person to me.

Rules of Civility is the story of a year in the life of Katey Kontent, a young working woman in New York in the late 1930s. Katey tells us the story herself, looking back from a vantage point of middle age. She is young, beautiful, a little poor but independent and hopeful. On New Year’s Eve, she and a friend meet a rich and handsome stranger and their three lives become intertwined in some unexpected (and some expected) ways.

This is a very American story. It is a story of how people can re-make themselves, how they can become something different from the generations before them. It’s also a story about what that might cost a person and whether or not the something new and different is better than what came before. There are obvious influences of The Great Gatsby here and Katey is a bit of a Nick Carraway figure as she tells the story of Tinker Grey. However, she is much more intimately involved in the tale than Nick was with Gatsby and this allows Towles to expand the world of the story and introduce other characters, some of whom act as counterpoints to Grey and the other upperclass types that Katey begins to mingle with as the novel and the year progresses. Katey also has her own history that informs the story and how she views those around her.

As in A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles seems to idealize a less than ideal time in history. There’s very little reference to the Depression or how that might affect characters (several of whom are bankers). The rich seem as rich as ever and the poor seem ever on the cusp of changing their lives, if they only want it enough. The story is interesting though and the characters compelling so I didn’t find myself questioning it much as I read. I felt that there was more depth here than in Towles’ second novel and it made me far more sympathetic to and interested in the characters.

Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

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84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1970)

Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy books centred around bookstores. I find they tend to romanticize an experience I’ve known very well in the real, practical world. So I didn’t begin 84, Charing Cross Road with high hopes, despite the fact that it was recommended to me by a bookseller. In the end, it surprised me. This slim book compiles 20 years of letters between Hanff in NYC and Marks & Cohen Books in London. What begins as a search for books evolves into a friendship with friends that never meet.

This is less a book about books or even bookstores and more a book about people and how they can be drawn together despite physical distance and cultural divide. Helene is brash, sometimes funny, occasionally rude, and often big-hearted while her English penpals tend to be much more restrained. As the letters continue and the relationship grows though the individual personalities of the bookstore employees (and their families) come out in charmingly cheeky ways.

The book also offers a peek into life in London following World War Two. Helene begins to send packages to the bookstore for Christmas, giving her long-distance friends treats like tinned ham and fresh eggs, things that are not available in post-war England. The letters she receives in thanks are quite lovely, demonstrating the deep appreciation for her gifts and the beauty of generosity among strangers.

 

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: Eileen – Otessa Moshfegh

 

Eileen – Otessa Moshfegh (Penguin, 2015)

I finished this book in about two days, which gives you a pretty good idea of how compelling a read it is. Yet now, days later, I find myself struggling over what to say about Eileen and even whether or not to say that I liked it.

It’s a compulsive read. While the action itself is pretty limited, Moshfegh does excel at creating tension and build-up and so, even though I had no idea where the story was going, I was eager to get there. When you do reach the major climax twist, it was a very unexpected turn of events.

Eileen Dunlop is in her early twenties, lives with her alcoholic father, and works at the local prison for teenage boys. She has a halfhearted plan to escape the small town she calls X-ville but the reader gets the feeling that Eileen herself will never instigate this plan. She’s an unpleasant person, something she freely admits to and, as our narrator, seems to relish describing her own disgusting habits. We get a lot more information about her bowel movements than is typical for most novels, for example. A lot of her so-called gross habits seemed either not that shocking to me or clearly the result of an emotionally abusive and neglectful childhood. Since Eileen is our narrator, it seems likely to me that in her efforts to shock the reader with her story, she doesn’t realize that she’s actual revealing how damaged she is.

The blurb on the book gave me the impression that this was going to be more along the lines of a thriller or horror story but it really isn’t. It struck me as quite a sad story about a sad, lonely woman who is trapped in a variety of ways. She longs for relationship with others but has no idea how to achieve this and so is alternately manipulative, creepy, or awful with everyone around her. She knows she’s not normal, but she’s also not as deranged as she thinks she is.

What ends up changing Eileen’s life is a friendship (of sorts) with a beautiful young woman named Rebecca. Eileen meets Rebecca through her job at the prison (all kinds of horrible stuff through that) and quickly becomes obsessed with her. In a matter of days, they strike up a friendship and this leads to the ultimate climax and what finally causes Eileen to leave X-ville and change her life.

There’s a lot of detail of Eileen’s daily life – what she eats, what she drinks, what she wears, how she goes to the bathroom – throughout the book and I’m not convinced it’s all necessary, though it does paint a vivid portrait. And, perhaps, that’s really the point of the story. The action is brief. Shocking, but a flash compared to everything else, and the novel is, after all, called Eileen and so exists as a portrayal of an unusual young woman. A woman who you can’t help but wish could have realized that she wasn’t so unusual after all.

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: Paper Towns by John Green

Paper Towns - John Green (Penguin Books, 2015)

Paper Towns – John Green (Penguin Books, 2015)

I’ve read three books by John Green before this one (see my reviews of The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska) so it’s safe to say that I enjoy his writing. Green captures teens well, finding that balance between realism and fiction to keep the story interesting.

Our main character here is Quentin, known as Q, living in Florida, weeks away from graduating high school. Q lives next door to and has been in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman (who he, rather annoyingly, mostly refers to by her complete name) for the majority of his life. They run in very different social circles and so Q’s love burns from afar, flames fanned by the epic tales of Margo’s adventures that circulate the school. And then, one night, Margo shows up at his window and invites Q into an adventure.

Q thinks this is the moment that will change their relationship and his life but, instead, the next morning Margo has vanished. Following a series of clues, Q becomes obsessed with finding Margo and draws his friends – and some of Margo’s – into his search.

This is really a story about how well you can know another person, how much you can expect from another person, and what might happen when you build a regular human being up into something superhuman. It’s about what forms us as people (or at least as teenagers) and how much we can form ourselves.

A long line of cars trailed behind me, and I felt anxious about holding them up; I marvelled at how I could still have room to worry about such petty, ridiculous crap as whether the guy in the SUV behind me thought I was an excessively cautious driver. I wanted Margo’s disappearance to change me; but it hadn’t, not really.

It’s all an interesting idea and the book is an easy, relatively quick read. It’s not as strong as Green’s other novels, however, and some of the sections drag on too long. For a while, Q believes that Margo is hiding somewhere in an unfinished Florida subdivision and for what feels like a large part of the book, he wanders through these “pseudovisions”. While this is initially interesting and makes for a great, visual setting, it’s not something that gets more interesting upon repetition and Green keeps it going for too long. In the same vein, Q and some of his friends take a road trip toward the end of the novel that probably doesn’t need to be tracked hour by hour and yet it is.

The final conclusion to Margo’s mystery is rather clever, with an interesting tidbit of information. It’s an odd combination of tidy wrap-up and unhappy ending that mostly works.

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book that’s more because John Green has other and better novels than because Paper Towns is a bad book. For a Green fan, it’s an interesting read in combination with Looking for Alaska (see: Manic Pixie Dream Girls and their repercussions) but if you’re reading Green for the first time or only want to read one book by him, stick with The Fault in Our Stars.

Book Review: But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

But You Did Not Come Back - Marceline Loridan-Ivens (Penguin Books, 2016)

But You Did Not Come Back – Marceline Loridan-Ivens (Penguin Books, 2016)

How much devastation can you pack into 100 pages? A lot. Even more when every word is true.

In the vein of Night by Elie Wiesel or Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, Marceline Loridan-Ivens recounts her years as a slave (her word) in several prisons and concentrations camps. Loridan-Ivens was arrested with her father in France when the Nazis raided their family’s chateau. They were soon separated – him to Auschwitz, her to Birkenau. Although only a few kilometres apart, they saw each other only a handful of times, mostly from a distance. Loridan-Ivens survived; her father did not.

Written as a sort of letter, a plea, a confession to her beloved father, Loridan-Ivens tells him what life was like for her during her imprisonment, a few of the horrors she saw, what it was like to live under the smoke and smell of burning bodies, how quickly hope does and how fragile it is when it begins, slowly, to return. She tells of her release, her return to her family and the years of waiting to know what happened to their husband and father. She details all the ways the concentration camps and his death tore her family apart, even years later.

But there would have been two of us who knew. Maybe we wouldn’t have talked about it often, but the stench, what we saw, the foul smells and the intensity of our emotions would have washed over us like waves, even in silence, and we could have divided our memories in two.

There aren’t really words for me to describe what Loridan-Ivens shares in this slim volume. It’s so outside of my scope of experience and it’s so beyond what any human being should have endured. So all I can say is this is an important and powerful book. Loridan-Ivens, still living in France, now in her eighties, is compelled to share her story in the face of continued and rising anti-Semitism. It may be a cliche but it’s painfully true: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

*This edition was translated from the French by Sandra Smith

What I Read – April 2016

*I’ve added a new page on the blog that lists all the book reviews. Currently, it is alphabetical by author’s last name. Let me know if you have thoughts on better/additional ways to organize that. Feel free to check out some of the older reviews, including some books I’d forgotten I’d ever reviewed! Did you know that I read and reviewed J. K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy? Or that I’ve reviewed two books by John Green? Can you find the only sci fi book reviews I’ve ever done?

And now, here’s what I read this month:

A Separate Peace – John Knowles (Bantam Books, 1998)

Pax – Sara Pennypacker (illustrated by Jon Klassen) (Balzer + Bray, 2016)

The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1981)

“Go on,” Helen said, “justify yourself.”

“It would take too long,” he said. “One would have to begin with the arguments for God.”

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist – Sunil Yapa (Lee Boudreau Books, 2016)

The Secret History – Donna Tartt (Vintage Contemporaries, 1992)

His Whole Life – Elizabeth Hay (Emblem Editions, 2015)

He didn’t know how to put it all together, death and life and things looming up. Your heart lies in pieces on the forest floor and the days and nights keep coming.

But You Did Not Come Back – Marceline Loridan-Ivens (Penguin, 2016) (translated by Sandra Smith)

Currently Reading:

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

…That a clean room feels better to be in than a dirty room. That the people to be most frightened of are the people who are the most frightened. That it takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak. That you don’t have to hit somebody even if you really really want to. That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.

Like You’d Understand, Anyway – John Shepard

 

Book Review: The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

The Heart of the Matter - Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1981) (Guess who took those tiny bites out of the cover of my book?)

The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1981)
(Guess who took those tiny bites out of the cover of my book?)

The convergence of literature and religion is something that has long interested me as a reader, a writer, and a Christian. It’s rare that I’m quite satisfied with the way Christianity and the Christian life and walk is portrayed in art (this was one of my primary complaints with such books as Good to a Fault and The Bishop’s Man) but Graham Greene* accomplishes this with skill and pathos. His portrayal of a man struggling with morality, damnation, faith, and trust is heartbreakingly real. This quote comes as the main character, Scobie, struggles in prayer over his final decisions:

No one can speak a monologue for long alone – another voice will always make itself heard; every monologue sooner or later becomes a discussion. So now [Scobie] couldn’t keep the other voice silent; it spoke from the cafe of his body: it was as if the sacrament which had lodged there for his damnation gave tongue. You say you love me, and yet you’ll do this to me – rob me of you for ever. I made you with love. I’ve wept your tears. I’ve saved you from more than you will ever know; I planted in you this longing for peace only so that one day I could satisfy your longing and watch your happiness. And now you push me away, you put me out of your reach. There are no capital letters to separate us when we talk together. I am not Thou but simply you, when you speak to me; I am humble as a any other beggar. Can’t you trust me as you’d trust a faithful dog? I have been faithful to you for two thousand years.

Scobie is a British police man in a West African colony during World War II. He’s been there for fifteen years. He’s scrupulously honest – refusing bribes and favours that many others take – and he does his job well. Yet he’s unpopular with the other officers and he’s passed over for the role of Commissioner in favour of a newer, younger man. His wife, Louise, unhappy with the colony and humiliated by this slight, pushes for Scobie to send her away. A break, they call it, a few months in another location before he joins her and they’ll be at peace again. Scobie doesn’t have the money for this but Louise’s persistence and his own desire both to make her happy and to be alone result in him borrowing the funds from a questionable source.

This is Scobie’s first misstep and from there the novel traces his steady, slippery fall into a murky region of immorality. Greene’s foreshadowing is stupendous, some of the best I’ve ever seen. Nothing heavy-handed but events unfold with a sort of inevitability that kept me reading and made me more sympathetic for Scobie than I might have been otherwise.

After Louise departs, Scobie is called to help deal with the survivors of a passenger ship attacked and sunk by enemy boats. (The war has this sort of peripheral but crucial role in the story.) Here he meets Helen Rolt, a very young woman widowed in the attack, and the course of his life is altered.

What they had both thought was safety proved to have been the camouflage of an enemy who works in terms of friendship, trust and pity

Graham Greene proves himself as both a skilled writer and a man who understands the struggle, the tragedy, and the delight of religious faith. This is the second novel by Graham Greene I’ve read (I read The Power and the Glory years ago) and I will definitely be reading more.

 

* Irrelevant personal fact: When I was a kid there was a Canadian actor named Graham Greene who was on TV and I thought that he and the author Graham Greene were the same person for longer than I probably should have.