Tag Archives: Books Read in 2012

21: This I Know

This I Know: Notes on Unraveling the HeartThis I Know: Notes on Unraveling the Heart by Susannah Conway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I picked this up at Chapters on Robson while I was birthday present shopping. It was the last copy. It was that kind of day.

I read about this earlier this year when she was doing a blog book tour (I posted the quote that caught my attention here) and I started following her blog. The book interested me because it’s about navigating grief through a creative process.

[W]hen something bad happens that’s big enough to make you question your entire life, all the other hurts that are hanging around, all the wounds you’ve collected in your lifetime, will come out of the shadows and ask to be healed  too.

This I Know (xiii)

In 2005, Susannah Conway’s boyfriend of two years died suddenly/unexpectedly from a heart attack.  But there’s a parallel story of loss: when she was a child, her father left his family (Susannah, her sister and her mom) and moved to Australia. He wasn’t dead, but he was gone.

As I read This I Know, and the ways she worked through her grief, I couldn’t help thinking about what a difference how you lose someone makes in the grieving process. There’s a purity in grieving someone who has died vs. someone who has left. When someone dies, you get to keep your memories. You can reread the letters. You can look at the photographs. You can remember all the things you did together. These things are yours and no one can take them away.

When someone leaves, you not only lose them, you lose your memories—or rather, your memories are taken from you.  All the mementos you thought were the most important inanimate things in your life (the stuff you’d rescue if your house were burning down) are now just reminders that what you once thought was true, you now know was false.

There’s also a difference in how people react to different kinds of grief. You’re not likely to hear someone say “you’re better off without him/her” to someone grieving a death (there are exceptions, I know). Everyone sympathizes/empathizes with the death of a loved one. But when a loved one leaves voluntarily, people just see someone who hurt their friend/family member. But for the person grieving it’s more complicated than that.

I don’t know if this book will resonate with everyone. I think those who share similar characteristics (read: introverted interdisciplinary creatives) will find it inspiring. For example, she writes of the exhaustion of needing to be ‘on’ all the time and writes of the luxury of solitude, the gift of time to herself. For her, being alone was a necessary part of healing. This is something I understand implicitly. (Though I’m not sure others do.)

When I have to my work—myself—out there, I do it with as little fanfare as possible.

This I Know (72)

Which is not to say I agree completely with everything. She does a lot of talking through her grief, whereas that’s something I hesitate to do. A long time ago, I read something about not talking too much about the things you want to write about because if you do, your need to write about them will dissipate and I think that’s true (at least for me). But she is, I think, a photographer first and a writer second. So maybe putting things into words doesn’t carry the same weight as it does for someone who’s primarily a writer. (Further to this point, I will be reading Emily Rapp’s forthcoming memoir The Still Point of the Turning World in 2013. She’s been writing through her grief at Little Seal.)

Susannah channels her grief into a journey of self-discovery that leads her to create her own perfect job for herself (she runs online photography-focused classes). This of course ties in perfectly with my theory that hitting bottom frees you to take risks that you otherwise never would have. This I Know is set up kind of like a workbook. At the end of each chapter there’s a ‘reflection’ with a suggested activity (writing + photography) related to the chapter topic.

One final quote I have to share (because of this and also this):

I once met [an artist] at a party whose words have always stuck with me: “Boyfriends come and go, ” she said, refilling my wine glass, “but my work is always there for me. It’s this rock I have in my life I can always rely on.”

This I Know (156)

20: Life Class

Life Class: A NovelLife Class: A Novel by Pat Barker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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From The Book Shop in Penticton, Summer 2010:

Books from The Book Shop

And… Pat Barker reminds me why she is the best.

Previously on The Remainder Table, I read Liza’s England and wrote about Double Vision. Have I really not read a Pat Barker book since 2006? Yikes. That’s crazypants. *Checks Wikipedia* Ok, so not entirely my fault. Looks like she didn’t publish anything between Life Class and Toby’s Room, which came out this year, and I’ve read everything else except her first two novels (Union Street & Blow Your House Down). Her husband died in 2009; I expect that has something to do with the longer-than-usual gap between books.

With Life Class, Barker returns to World War I. This time the main characters are art students studying at the Slade. The Slade is real, as is Henry Tonks, one of the professors who appears in the story. If Madeleine L’Engle’s trademark is her crossover characters, Pat Barker’s is her use of real people as characters in her fiction.

When the story starts, it’s the summer of 1914. The main characters are Paul, Elinor, and Neville. Elinor’s already an accomplished artist, winning prizes for her work, but her family doesn’t take her painting seriously because she’s a woman. To them, painting is a nice hobby for a woman to have; it’s not work. Neville’s also producing good work, but he’s a bit avant-garde for pre-war tastes. Paul is struggling. He’s starting to think he’s wasting his money taking classes because he doesn’t seem to be making any progress. He goes to Tonks to talk about quitting. Tonks tells him he should stick out the semester and that he is improving technically. Then he says:

“Most people who come here are bursting with something they want to say, and the trouble I have with some of them is that they can’t be bothered to learn the language to say it in. Whereas with you it’s almost the opposite.”

Paul would have like to defend himself but didn’t know how. This wasn’t the criticism he’s been expecting.

“I do have a problem with life drawing. I know that. But I thought my landscapes were … Well. A bit better.”

“There’s no feeling.”

“Perhaps I’m not managing to express it, but—”

“I don’t get any feeling that they’re yours. You seem to have nothing to say.”

“I see. No, yes, I do see.”

“Well, then.” Tonks spread both hands on his desk, preparatory to rising. “I wish I could tell you what to do about it, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to thrash this one out on your own.”

“I don’t now what to do.”

“Why don’t you start by asking yourself: Do I want to paint? Or do I want ‘to be an artist’? Because they’re two very different things. And try to be honest with yourself. It’s not any easy question.”

Life Class (36-37)

Any of this hitting home, writers?

Do I want to write? Or do I want ‘to be a writer’?

So the question then becomes ‘will Paul find something to say?’

When war is declared, all the men in the story plan to participate, but their motivations vary. Neville sees the war as a painting opportunity, and signs up with the Red Cross (partly because he’d never pass the army physical and partly because this will get him to the front lines faster). Toby, Elinor’s brother, seems to think it’s something he has to do (for duty/honor/country), even though everyone seems to agree with their father that he’d be of more use if he completed his medical studies first. Paul also doesn’t question enlisting, but the army rejects him. Like Neville, he signs up to work with the Red Cross. He starts out in a field “hospital” in Belgium.

There’s a lot of conflict/contradiction within Paul. He clearly doesn’t buy into any of the romantic notions of war. He’s tortured by what he sees. And yet… he’s compelled to be there. He can’t not be there.

Meanwhile, Elinor is being pressured to go into nursing (a “real” job) but she keeps resisting, even though she is made to feel that she is being frivolous by continuing to paint. For Elinor, her real work is painting.

I read some reviews that called Elinor unsympathetic. Reactions like that are exactly why the Elinor character is important. Essentially—

reader reaction : Elinor-the-character :: community reaction : Elinor in the story

It takes strength not to cave to that kind of pressure. In some ways, Elinor is stronger than any of the male characters. None of them were able to resist societal pressure to go along with the war in some respect, even though none of them were enthusiastic (ok, maybe Neville, who saw his opportunity for fame and fortune). Even Lewis, a Quaker, ends up at the same field hospital as Paul. Of course, you could argue Elinor has her head in the sand. But, then again, if everyone refused to participate, it wouldn’t make for much of a war, would it?

Along with the themes of war/love/class, which Barker keeps returning to, there are interesting questions explored here about the nature of work and what subjects are acceptable as art. What is the place of artwork that makes the viewer avert their eyes, turn away?

We might ask the same questions of writing.

19: The Joys of Love

The Joys of LoveThe Joys of Love by Madeleine L’Engle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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From the Spring 2011 library book sale:

VPL Spring Book Sale

Well, this was a surprise. A new Madeleine L’Engle book? Now there’s dedication. Not even death could stop her writing!

It turns out The Joys of Love was one of the first novels she wrote, back in the 1940s, but it was never published. She shared it with her granddaughters when they were young and they arranged for it to be published posthumously.

The story is based on MLE’s experiences working in the theater as a young woman. The protagonist is Elizabeth “Liz” Jerrold, who is 20 years old and has just graduated from college. Although this was published by Farrar Straus Giroux books for young readers and is probably classified as young adult, it occurred to me that it fits right into the “New Adult” category some publishers are currently trying to make happen. She always was ahead of her time 🙂

It’s August 1946. The setting is a summer theater somewhere on the east coast, near New York City.

Liz’s first love is acting, but her Aunt Harriet (her guardian after her father died) disapproved. Harriet promised that if Liz majored in chemistry (chemistry! I wish more had been done with this) and graduated with honors, she could work at a summer theater. Liz graduates cum laude.

She finagles a scholarship to work as an apprentice* actor, but she still must pay $20/week** room-and-board. Because she doesn’t have any money of her own, Liz is dependent on her Aunt Harriet to pay her room-and-board.

*This position is kind of like an internship, but most apprentices pay for the privilege. So in some ways it’s more like a summer class/workshop that takes place in the real world. At any rate, it’s full-time and doesn’t leave any time for Liz to get a second (paying) job.

**Sidenote: this is not cheap! I did a conversion and apparently this is equivalent to $236.12 in today’s dollars, which is pretty spendy for a bed in a room shared with 3 other people and meals that leave them perpetually hungry.

Liz is infatuated with Kurt, the director, and bffs with Ben, another scholarship apprentice. Kurt, naturally, is a player who’s more interested in one night stands in his dressing room than having a girlfriend. Ben, naturally, would prefer Liz was his girlfriend rather than his bff. Liz is oblivious to Kurt’s fickleness and Ben’s true feelings. Everyone else is not.

The scholarship apprentices are portrayed as serious about acting; the paying apprentices less so.

The inciting incident is Aunt Harriet changing her mind about letting Liz spend the summer doing theater and ordering her to come home. Of course, Liz is an adult and she doesn’t have to do what Harriet says, but she also doesn’t have the $20/week she needs to pay her room-and-board.

It’s not the most original story ever, and modern readers might find Liz a little innocent/naive for a college graduate, but the setting and atmosphere are well done.

I couldn’t help comparing The Joys of Love to Ilsa, the second novel MLE published, which was written around the same time. Ilsa took place over many years and meandered all over the place with a huge cast of characters and various soapy plot developments. In contrast, TJoL is fairly tightly written. The focus is on a small core group of characters and the entire story takes place over a weekend. (In keeping with the theater theme, the chapters are designated as acts: Act I Friday; Act II Saturday; Act III Sunday; Act IV Monday.) I think The Joys of Love is the better story.

Speaking of Ilsa, perhaps the biggest surprise reading TJoL was that  Ilsa herself appears in it. It’s in flashback, when Liz recalls going to her mother’s funeral. Her mother, Anna, spent her final months living at Ilsa’s boarding house. Her propensity for crossover characters has always been one of my favorite things about MLE’s writing, so that was awesome.

18: Black Water Rising

Black Water RisingBlack Water Rising by Attica Locke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Really 3.5)

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From the October 2012 library book sale:

VPL Fall Book Sale

This was an exciting find because I’ve read so much about it in the litblogosphere. Attica Locke is a screenwriter and this was her first novel. Her second came out this year.

Black Water Rising is set in Houston in 1981. Locke does a great job capturing the mood/atmosphere of the city, the tensions (race/class/money/power) between various groups. The descriptions of the setting were very sensory. It’s August and it’s hot and I could practically feel the sweat dripping. I felt like was there.

Jay Porter is a lawyer who’s barely scraping by, hoping for a case that will bring in enough money to keep his law practice afloat. Jay is weary, old beyond his years. (He’s 30.)

He left home when he was 15 to get away from his stepfather, dropping out of school in the process, but later qualified to enter the University of Houston by writing an entrance exam. While he was an undergrad, he got involved with the civil rights movement. He ends up being arrested. His case goes to trial, but he’s found not guilty. After that he went to law school. Now he’s married to Bernie, who’s pregnant. She’s 24, but she’s a young 24, so it feels like there’s more of an age gap between them than there actually is.

At the opening of the story, Jay’s taken Bernie on a night “cruise” (on a old, rickety boat) for her birthday present. They hear screams and then they see someone in the water. Jay jumps in and pulls the person, who turns out to be a white woman, into the boat. They drop her off at the police station, but don’t ask any questions. Jay hopes that’s the end of it. But that would make for a short novel, so of course it’s not.

There are a lot of subplots (a complaint I’ve read in some reviews), but everything ties together in the end, and I think the backstory is integral to Jay’s character and hence the plot. I don’t know if she has any intention of writing a sequel, but I’d read more about these characters.

17: I’m Bored

I'm BoredI’m Bored by Michael Ian Black

illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Purchased at Chapters on Robson. I didn’t see it on the shelf at first, but I checked the computer and it said there was one (one? eep!) left. I headed back to the shelf and a-ha! The reason I’d missed it was because the spine is yellow. I’d been looking for blue. I grabbed it and vamoosed before anyone else could lay claim 😉

Ok, so I didn’t buy this for me. I got it for my younger niece for her birthday. I read it before I wrapped it up. And now you know my picture book secret.

Anyhow, she’s turning six and she learned to read this year, so I’m glad this came out this year as I couldn’t get away with a picture book next year (which makes me sad! no more picture books 😦 maybe I’ll have to buy them for myself ;)). She’ll breeze through the text, but I got it for the illustrations.

Full disclosure: I’ve been following Debbie’s various blogs since forever and she’s good friends with Erin.

The truth is, I buy most picture books based on the illustrations. I love picture book art. And it’s the illustrations that make I’m Bored special. There’s one image in the mid-story montage of a sofa-ship that totally reminded me of the couch forts my brother and I used to make. The bored little girl is perfect for the story and the potato is so expressive. How did she do that? It’s a blob and a couple lines!

That said, the story seems simple, but it’s got some great elements. I love the flamingo twist (how could I not?) and I think the book really gets that “I’m so bored” tone/mood just right.

I wonder how many people remember that feeling. It’s hard to be truly bored as an adult. (Nearly impossible if you’re a writer because everything’s material. Maybe if you were stuck in a cave or something. It’s still material, but after a while, enough already.) Sure people will say they’re bored, but as an adult, you’re in control, you can always do something.

As a kid, you’re limited in your options. If you’ve run out of books to read, you can’t just head out to buy/borrow more books—you have to get permission, wait for your parents to have time in their schedules, etc. So you have to work within your constraints. You could re-read something or you could use your imagination and make up your own story…!

I waffled a bit over whether to give this four or five stars (I reserve five stars for books that changed my life). I think if I’d just picked it up off the shelf, I would’ve given it four. But because I can’t detach it from the backstory and all I’ve learned watching I’m Bored go from story to finished product, not to mention all the extras associated with it, I couldn’t not give it five. Debbie has gone above and beyond in creating bonus material. I mean, seriously, just go and look. Plus, she’ll write back to kids who write to her. She is awesome.

16: Evidence of Murder

Evidence of MurderEvidence of Murder by Lisa Black

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Purchased at the library book sale in October 2012.

VPL Fall Book Sale

I was thrilled with this find because Lisa Black (then writing as Elizabeth Becka Lansky) placed second in TC’s first annual Dead of Winter writing contest and ever since I discovered she’s now writing mystery novels, I’ve been wanting to check them out.

My review appears in the December 2012 issue of Toasted Cheese.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the winner of that first DoW contest, Janet Mullany, has also gone on to publish several novels. A subject for future review!

15: The Long Fall

The Long FallThe Long Fall by Walter Mosley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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From the library book sale, Spring 2012:

VPL Spring Book Sale

This is the first book of a new series set in present-day New York City.  It’s narrated by the main character, private investigator Leonid Trotter (LT) McGill:

“Leonid? What kind of name is that for a black man?”

“My father was a Communist. He tried to cut me from the same red cloth. He believed in living with everybody but his family. McGill is my slave name. That’s why I got to do business with fools like you.”

The Long Fall (13)

Because it’s a new series, there’s a lot of establishing of background and setting and character going on. I liked Leonid as a narrator. He’s intriguingly flawed (he has a criminal past, which he’s trying to leave behind) and has an interesting dynamic going on with the secondary characters, especially his dysfunctional family and Aura, the woman with whom he has complicated relationship. However, there were a lot of minor characters that were less developed who were hard to keep track of. So many names! As characters reappear in subsequent books and become more familiar, this should be less of an issue, but it was a problem here.

The Long Fall has a very classic, hardboiled detective feel even though it’s contemporary and Leonid doesn’t shy away from current technology. His personal assistant, Zephyra, calls herself a ‘telephonic and computer personal assistant’ — she works from home making reservations, answering calls & the like for 10-12 clients who she charges $1500/month. Erm, that’s a pretty good job if it’s real. Is it? For 180-216k a year I’ll make your reservations for you. Damn. Life. I’m doing it wrong.

Anyway, the story is that Leonid has been hired to find four men. His client, ostensibly another detective, only knows their teenage street names. He finds the first three easily—one dead, one in prison, one awaiting trial (this is on page 4; it’s not a spoiler)—but has more difficulty with the fourth. The story starts just when he thinks he’s found him and as he’s starting to have suspicions about the motivations and legitimacy of the person who hired him.

I like Mosley’s writing style. You can see the potential for the series in this book. This was a good story, but I think subsequent ones, as Leonid and the other characters develop, will be even better.