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.

What I Read – March 2016

There was a time when Spring Break and holiday and travel meant I had time to read more than usual. Not this year, my friends, not this year. Here’s what I did read:

The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday Canada, 2015)

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003) (translated by John Rutherford)

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour – Anne Michaels, illustrated by Emma Block (Tundra Books, 2015)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Vintage International, 2015)

…courage, survival, love – all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in all of them or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.

  • Richard Flanagan

The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks (Viking, 2015)

If David was a man after this god’s own heart, as my inner voice had told me often and again, what kind of black-hearted deity held me in his grip?

  • Geraldine Brooks

Currently Reading:

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (I’ll admit to being a bit stalled on this one though what I’ve read so far is terrific. The other night, Peter and I happened to watch a movie about David Foster Wallace called The End of the Tour that I would recommend to anyone interested in him/his writing.)

Pax – Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A Separate Peace – John Knowles

Book Review: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote - Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003)

Don Quixote – Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003)

Well, I finished it. I took my sweet time but I finished reading Don Quixote. I made my first attempt at Don Quixote in 2008, on the recommendation of someone whose book taste I usually agree with. I think I read most of the Part I before I sheepishly returned his copy and promptly left the country.

Yet since it is such a classic – and tops a few lists as the BEST BOOK EVER! – it’s remained on my To Read list ever since. My secret this time? I read most of the book aloud to Pearl. And I ended up enjoying it much more. Do I think it’s the best book ever. No, I do not. But I do see now why so many people love it and why it has remained so popular, even more than 400 years later.

Don Quixote is a hidalgo (a Spanish nobleman) who loses his mind after reading too many books of chivalry. Convinced that knights errant exist and that he is the greatest knight of all, he sets off on a series of adventures, accompanied by his foolish and chatty squire, Sancho Panza. Some of those adventures – the windmills, for example – are famous and others were unknown for me. Don Quixote is a comic figure and Sancho, who isn’t mad yet goes along with his master’s thoughts and schemes, is an excellent foil for him.

Don Quixote’s friends and family are horrified and frustrated by Don Quixote’s insistence on being a knight and a good portion of Part I involves their attempts to force him to stay or return home. (There’s a long and boring section where they go through Don Quixote’s books and decide which to keep and which to burn and I couldn’t help but think I’d be better off organizing my own house than reading about someone else’s organization.)

Part I also features a lot of other stories and digressions – going into great details of the histories of people that Don Quixote meets along his adventures. A large chunk involves a lot of them at an inn (that Don Quixote, in his madness, is convinced is a castle) and more people keep arriving and finding connections to each other as they share their tales. Some of the stories are interesting but a lot of it reads as Cervantes simply wanting to tell an otherwise unrelated story. It gets tiresome reading about yet another beautiful but tragic maiden and as every young woman Don Quixote meets is apparently unbelievably beautiful, the descriptor starts to lose all meaning. (As an aside, it likely comes as no surprise that the depictions of women here are super sexist and problematic.)

I enjoyed Part II quite a bit more than Part I. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza set off on their latest adventure. They’ve become rather famous now, due to a book being published on their exploits in Part I. They’re known as comic figures and yet remain as oblivious as ever. This allows several people they meet to play tricks and elaborate hoaxes on them – pretendi(ng to hail Don Quixote as a great knight errant and playing along with his belief that he is constantly pursued by enchanters. I found this section to be funnier and more engaging than Part I.

The book is long (almost a thousand pages) but, in the end, I do think it’s worth it. Four hundred years later, it’s still amusing and engaging and a goofy story about a loveable insane man and his loveable and foolish squire.

(The version I read was translated from Spanish by John Rutherford.)

Book Review: The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

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The Company She Keeps – Mary McCarthy (Penguin Books, 1966)

A few years back, during the cold and snowy Chilliwack winter that Peter and I first subscribed to Netflix, I watched the first two seasons of Mad Men. Everyone seemed to be telling us that we had to watch this show. How clever it was, how realistic, how engaging. In the end, I don’t think we made it all the way through the second season. The show made my skin crawl, left me feeling depressed that there wasn’t one single character I could cheer for.

The Company She Keeps left me feeling a similar way. I skimmed through the last chapter but had given up any hope of redemption. I struggled to finish it because it just made me feel sad. Not sad in a way that inspires change or new thought, as some excellent books do.

More a collection of vignettes than a novel, The Company She Keeps tells stories of one woman’s life in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Probably best known for The Group, this was McCarthy’s first novel. Our main character is Margaret and we meet her as her first marriage is ending in divorce. She’s had an affair and is realizing that she doesn’t want to marry the man she’s been unfaithful with. From there we witness other snippets of Margaret’s life. Her time working in a shady art gallery. Her trip to Reno to finalize her divorce and the man she meets on the train. Her work at a Marxist newspaper. Each section is primarily a story of Margaret’s relationship with a different man, often told primarily from that man’s perspective. And this is what made me sad. Who Margaret is – and she seems like an interesting person – is lost in the men around her. Who she is seems to change drastically in each section and I’m not sure if this is poor writing from McCarthy or an attempt to show how Margaret doesn’t know how to exist except in relation to a man. I didn’t get the feeling I felt that I didn’t know anything real about her.