So long 2013 bookshelf, it’s been nice knowing you. Welcome 2014, with all your emptiness and possibility 🙂
Tag Archives: Books Read in 2013
Favorite Books of 2013
None of which were actually published in 2013. Of course 🙂
Disclaimer: This is a subjective list of the books I enjoyed reading the most this year.
The Singer’s Gun (Unbridled Books, 2010)
by Emily St. John Mandel
I’ve been reading Emily St. John Mandel’s essays at The Millions for a while now. I think this BC-to-Brooklyn transplant is ‘one to watch’ as they say. Her first novel was published in 2009 and she’s already on #4. We should all be so prolific. The Singer’s Gun is a fresh mix of literary and mystery/suspense.
Mean Boy (Doubleday Canada, 2006)
by Lynn Coady
I’ve been reading Lynn Coady since her first book, Strange Heaven. I liked her books. I did not love them. I stuck with her because reasons. This year, I was rewarded. I loved Mean Boy. I’m now eager to read The Antagonist, which is already on my to-read shelf, and Hellgoing, which won this year’s Giller Prize.
The Flying Troutmans (Knopf Canada, 2008)
by Miriam Toews
This was the first of Miriam Toews’s books I’ve read, and now I can’t wait to read through her backlist. I’m not sure what I expected when I opened The Flying Troutmans, but this road trip with a quirky cast of characters was an unexpectedly delightful find.
The Sky is Falling (Thomas Allen & Son, 2010)
by Caroline Adderson
I’m not sure if I’d even heard of Caroline Adderson before I started working on my dissertation, so if nothing else good comes out of it, at least I have that. The Sky is Falling, which reminded me of those years in the early ’80s when we were all sure nuclear war was imminent, was pretty close to being my favorite book for the year.
Certainty (McClelland & Stewart, 2006)
by Madeleine Thien
Topping my list of favorites is Certainty. All the things I loved about it—its themes of migration and grief and love, the questions it raises but doesn’t fully answer, its construction as a puzzle that the reader has to fit together—were the things readers who didn’t like it hated, but that just makes me love it more. It was a beautiful book both story- and writing-wise and I look forward to reading all of Madeleine Thien’s past and future work.
You’ll probably notice that all of the books on my list are Canadian. I just realized something else, though. Two were born in BC (Mandel and Thien), one used to live in BC (Coady), and one currently lives in BC (Adderson). Only Toews has no west-coast connection (that I know of, anyway). And #1 (partly) and #2 were actually set in BC. Hmm. Unintentional, but interesting!
30: Knitting Yarns
Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting by Ann Hood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars*
Purchased new at Chapters on Robson
Read in December 2013
*So, the first thing I want to say is that while I gave the anthology as a whole 3 stars (like!), I loved some of the essays in this collection. Other pieces I was less excited about. That’s the trouble with anthologies, right? But overall, this was an enjoyable book and a nice way to close out the year. Recommended to writers who like to make things.
I heard about Knitting Yarns when I ran across Ann Hood’s essay “Ten Things I Learned From Knitting” on my Tumblr dashboard. This essay, about knitting through grief, resonated so much with me, I was prompted to write my own. It also spurred me to try again to figure out how to knit (success).
Prior to purchasing the book, I also came across Bernadette Murphy’s essay “Failing Better,” about learning resilience through making mistakes. That was the clincher, really. If the rest of the book was as good as these two essays, I wanted to read it.
The book was shelved in the knitting section at Chapters, despite being clearly labeled ‘memoir’ on the jacket. Well, it turns out it does include patterns, so I guess the shelving wasn’t completely off the mark. There are five or six essays, then a pattern, and so on. Each essay is introduced with a brief abstract.
The essays are arranged in alphabetical order (by author’s last name). I think I’d have arranged it by theme, as there are clear themes that recur throughout, and juxtaposing the essays thematically would strengthen them individually and collectively.
One popular theme is the knitting version of “I can’t boil water,” which as you know I’m not that into as I’ve never really understood the attraction of the “I’m a smart person who can’t do a simple thing” trope. Anyway, apparently a lot of writers like to knit even though they are terrible at it.
Another popular theme is that of family, and the passing down of knitting as a skill (or not). I related to the tales of families of crafters and makers, as that’s the kind of family I came from. More than one writer mentioned they grew up with a rule that you could only watch TV if you were making something at the same time, which I found interesting. We never had a rule about it; it wasn’t necessary. You always did something else while watching TV! Maybe this is why I don’t have the TV-angst that so many people seem to have. For me, watching TV has always been synonymous with making things.
And there’s the aforementioned theme of grief. Many of the essays were in whole or part about knitting getting them through a a difficult time in their lives, a death or other loss. Again and again, writers spoke of the zone, the flow, the trance that knitting puts them into, a space that calms anxiety and a chattering mind.
In addition to Ann Hood’s essay, I especially loved: Andre Dubus III’s “Blood, Root, Knit, Purl” (this reads like a story), Kaylie Jones’s “Judite” (ditto), and Joyce Maynard’s “Straw Into Gold” (her mother sounds like she was amazing).
A few quotes:
But you couldn’t crochet or knit and read at the same time, and reading was all I wanted to do. (Marianne Leone, 161)
Yep, that pretty much sums up why my younger self didn’t take to knitting and the like. Reading! *Homer Simpson drool*
In nineteenth century literature it seems sometimes to be true that good women knit and bad women crochet or do fancy work. (Alison Lurie, 179)
I’ll have to keep that in mind 😉
No one pushes back from her desk to knit a few rows and contemplate the sentence on the page… (Ann Patchett, 207)
Oh, no…? >cough< Pretty sure I’ve done something along those lines. >cough<
29: The Killing Circle
The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
From the VPL Fall 2013 Book Sale.
Read in December 2013.
I picked this up at the book sale because I’d been hearing Andrew Pyper’s name a lot—not for this book, but for his most recent one. So I had no idea what this was about, but I had some vague idea that he wrote mystery/thriller-type books, which seemed promising.
The Killing Circle opens with a prologue. The protagonist’s son vanishes at a drive-in movie. Then the story flashes back in time four years to explain the events leading up to the son’s disappearance.
Journalist Patrick Rush has always wanted to write a novel, but can’t think of anything to write about. Though he works for a newspaper (the “National Star”) and writes for a living, he considers himself a failure as a writer because he hasn’t written a novel. That said, he’s not actually that interested in writing (i.e. being a writer); he wants to have written (i.e. to be an author). His best quality is his self-awareness regarding this distinction.
He hates his job. He used to write about books, but now the paper has him writing about TV (under the byline “The Couch Potato”), which he considers beneath him. Pop culture, blech! Writing about pop culture, double blech! Whatever, dude. I’ll take your job. Pop culture, yay! Writing about pop culture, double yay!
Patrick is a single father, his wife having died shortly after his son’s birth. In the beginning, he doesn’t explain how she died, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. His son is four in the flashback, eight in the present time period of the story.
He sees a classified ad for a writing circle and calls the number. The man who answers mysteriously gives him an address and not much other info. He waffles about attending, but of course ends up going and finds himself in a room with a motley assortment of characters, each one weirder than the next. They introduce themselves. The next week they are to bring a piece of writing. Patrick, naturally, can’t think of anything to write about. He dashes off a crappy paragraph at the last minute. The others read their stories, all weakly-disguised memoir, and none particularly intriguing to Patrick except one. One story he’s transfixed by. He has a tape recorder in his pocket and presses record while the woman reads.
I wanted to like this book more than I did. It has all these elements that seem like things that would coalesce into a book I’d love, and yet…
Partly it’s that I spent the majority of the book thinking “this isn’t going to turn into an undead thing is it?” Eventually it became clear that it wasn’t, at which point I was immensely relieved, but it was too late, I think. I’d spent far too long wondering if ghosts or zombies were going to appear the next time I turned the page. I expect I’d have had a different experience if this hadn’t been my first book by this author, but as first-time reader, it read like he wanted readers to believe there was going to be a supernatural element.
And then there’s Patrick, who is a whiny malcontent. Yes, his wife died, but everything else about his character is so grating it cancels out any sympathy that may have generated. He’s just a miserable person. Which would be fine, if the story made me care about what happened to him regardless of his unpleasantness (it didn’t) or he was interesting enough that his unpleasantness didn’t matter (he wasn’t). The writing, on the other hand, was fine. And here I must invoke the Dan Brown thread: story/character will always win over writing.
I will say the ending was satisfying in that cheesy-TV-movie kind of way where you end up rooting for the villain because the protagonist is so unintentionally annoying.
Hmm. It occurs to me I may have found this a more compelling story with a different point-of-view character. Maybe told from the villain’s perspective. I had way more empathy for the antagonist (whose actions were evil, but underlying motivations had gray areas that could have been explored). Or maybe omniscient, get into everyone’s heads. Perhaps it was not the best choice to have the character who keeps saying he has no story to tell—who bores himself—tell the story.
28: Running with the Mind of Meditation
Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind by Sakyong Mipham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Bought at Chapters on Robson.
Read in November 2013.
I can’t remember where I saw this mentioned, but I’m on the lookout for interesting books about running (which seem to be few and far between as discussed in my post about What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). The problem is most runners aren’t writers so most writing-about-running is a snore. If you’ve ever perused a running forum or blog, most posts about running are race reports that go something like this: “I got up at 3am, put on my clothes that I laid out the night before (detailed list of chosen clothing), ate (something icky), used the bathroom (tmi), left the hotel at 5am, blah blah blah transport to the start, congregated in a sea of humanity, last-minute portapotty break (tmi), mile by mile or km by km reports of condition of feet/legs/stomach, what types of fake food were ingested at what times, how many pitstops were made (tmi) and on and on and on. Finally (you’re asleep, aren’t you?) concluding with time splits for each mile or km, depending on preference, and chip time (woo if PB, sadface if not). The End.”
So yeah. That’s not what I’m looking for. But this book sounded like it might be, so I decided to check it out.
I didn’t know anything about the author, but the cover identifies him as a Tibetan lama. So, when I started reading, I was thrown by the author’s voice. At first I wondered if it was ghostwritten because the voice is so generic North American. My curiosity eventually got the better of me and I hit up Wikipedia (where else?) for a bio. Turns out he lived in the US for the majority of his childhood/young adulthood. Ah. On his YouTube channel, I found a video about the topic of this book:
I thought it was going to be more about running as a form of meditation, but he dispels that idea almost immediately:
People sometimes say, ‘Running is my meditation.’ Even though I know what they mean, in reality, running is running and meditation is meditation. (19)
Basically, his take is that running is for the body; meditation is for the mind. The premise of this book is that running complements meditation (or vice versa), that running is not incompatible with meditation (which I guess some people think). The book is organized in four phases or stages of running proficiency represented by the tiger, lion, garuda, and dragon.
In the Shambala tradition of warriorship, these creatures are called the “four dignities.” They represent the inner development of a courageous individual. The idea is to develop balance and integrity. The result is strong windhorse, lungta—the ability to bring about long life, good health, success, and happiness. (57)
Each phase has a different focus of contemplation:
- tiger = motivation;
- lion = good fortune;
- garuda = love and kindness;
- dragon = compassion and selflessness;
- windhorse = basic goodness.
The writing is serviceable, if a bit choppy. The chapters are blog-post short and there’s quite a bit of repetition. All of this made me wonder if it was a blog-to-book. It reads like that, anyway. While each chapter was fine on its own, as a book, it never really feels like it gets into a flow.
He always refers to people by their full names (and often job description) no matter how many times he’s mentioned them previously. Writing Tip: this is very annoying for readers. As a writer, you must make your characters (even if your characters are real people) memorable enough that you don’t have to re-introduce them every time they reappear.
One of his refrains is friendliness/gentleness, as in being kind to yourself / not beating yourself up for not running or not meditating, but at the same time not letting yourself slack off completely either. As a moderator, I appreciated this:
The wise are balanced, and the foolish are extreme. (82)
Yeah! Have to remember that one the next time someone goes on a “I quit TV/the internet/social media/blogging/vice-du-jour” jag. Foolishness! 😉
On gentleness vs. aggression:
Aggression is a short-term solution for a long-term problem. Gentleness is persistent. Gentleness is therefore a sign of strength, while aggression is often a sign of weakness. Aggression is often a last resort. Where do you go from there? If you become more aggressive, you seem insane, whereas if you have gentleness, you are like a great ocean holding a lot of power. (85)
He touches briefly (very briefly) on walking and yoga. “We should all enjoy a good walk, incorporating the qualities of mindfulness and gentleness.” (90) I love walking (may have mentioned that once or twice), so yes to this. And he says “practicing yoga has provided an excellent balance to running.” (91) Which of course I already know. Running + yoga = the best. But there’s not much more to this chapter than that, unfortunately.
One could say that life is at least 50 percent pain. If we do not relate to pain, we are not relating to half our life. Everything is fine when we are happy, but when we are in pain, we become petrified. The inability to relate to pain narrows our playing field. When we are able to work with pain and understand it, life becomes twice as interesting. Relating to pain makes us more fearless and happy. (113)
So what makes this interesting is that while I was reading the book, I ran across this quote about creativity and pain:
Studies on the nature of creativity have shown that people who consistently come up with more inventive and creative ideas are not necessarily innately gifted, nor are they necessarily more intelligent than other people. They are however capable of tolerating a certain level of mental discomfort.
It works something like this:
When our brains are presented with a problem- any problem- we feel slightly anxious. When we solve a problem, our brains release endorphins that make us feel good. So, we have a problem to solve, we often run with the first answer we come up with because it feels good (literally) to find a solution!
But people who are willing to see that first solution, and then set it aside- delaying that endorphin high- while they continue to search for another answer, and another, and another… until they have compared all possible solutions and then chose the best option- and run with it- consistently come up with much more interesting, creative solutions.
in an interview at Inkygirl
Takeaway: embrace your pain!
[H]appiness is not a goal, but a by-product of mentally and physically healthy activities. If we engage in these, happiness of mind and body will ensue.
Letting yourself become genuinely connected with happiness allows you to also deal with sadness. If your mind is obsessed with happiness, you might react to sadness by getting depressed and angry. I’ve learned that the best way to be happy is not to have happiness as your objective. If you crave personal happiness, it only becomes more elusive. (123-4)
On boredom (which relates to pain, and reminds me of what I wrote about boredom in my post on Eating Dirt):
In relating to pain, it is not so much the pain that is difficult—it is the inability of the mind to handle the pain. In meditation, people are often unable to handle the pain of the posture, disturbing thoughts, or boredom. It is not the boredom itself that is painful but the mind’s inability to handle it. Often, what exasperates the mind is the mind itself becoming hysterical: we are unable to handle both the pain and a hysterical mind. So when pain arises in either meditation or running, we need to feel the difference between the pain itself and the mind’s inability to handle the pain—or, in the case of a trained mind—our ability to handle it. (141)
This was maybe the most valuable section in the book for me. When I wrote about boredom in my Eating Dirt post, I knew perhaps I sounded like I was being melodramatic. I don’t think I was though. Younger-me was terrified of boredom, and I think my ability to cope with boredom (or, really, to not even go there) is a major difference between grownup-me and younger-me. (It’s all a matter of perspective. For me, everything changed when I declared to myself, “I am a writer.” Not the “I want to be” moment but the “I am” moment, which came later. Because if I am a writer, how can anything be boring? Everything is material.)
Anyway, there are some interesting ideas in this book but they’re not explored in a lot of depth. It might be more revelatory to people who’ve never considered running/meditation together before. Or running or meditation at all? I was a little puzzled as to the intended audience for the book. It was shelved in the sports section of the bookstore so I assumed going in it was aimed at runners with the idea of adding meditation to their running practice. But much of the time it seems like he’s explaining the running as much as or more than the meditation, which wouldn’t be necessary if runners were the intended audience. And he does say his impetus for writing it was that some people thought it was odd that he was a runner. So it’s for non-runners and non-meditators? How likely is it that someone who’s not into either thing picks up this book? Not very. So I’m not sure.
In the end, still on quest for the perfect book about running 🙂
27: The Melting Season
The Melting Season by Jami Attenberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
From the Fall 2012 VPL Book Sale.
Read in October/November 2013.
Another book sale find. I picked this one up because I recognized Jami Attenberg’s name from the lit blogosphere. Her third novel, The Middlesteins, was released last year. The Melting Season (2010) was her second.
The premise: Catherine “Moonie” Madison leaves her husband, Thomas, takes a bunch of money from their joint account, and drives to Vegas. The question, of course, is why.
Catherine and Thomas were high school sweethearts and married right after graduation. Moonie was the nickname he gave her when they first started dating. She was his moon and he was her stars. 😛 Now everyone calls Catherine “Moonie” but apparently no one calls Thomas “Starrie.” Too bad!
Catherine lives in Nebraska and has never left her hometown aside from her honeymoon which was cut short (they didn’t even make it 24 hours) due to Thomas’s ego. The honeymoon trip was a gift; if it had been up to her, they would have honeymooned at home. Exciting.
(I actually knew people like this in the town where I went to high school. Well, most of them had been to the slightly bigger town about a half-hour away but nowhere other than that. It blew my mind when I found this out. Sometimes I wonder if they’re still there, still having gone nowhere.)
After Catherine and Thomas get married, they first live in an apartment over the diner run by her friend Timber. Then Thomas’s dad dies, leaving him everything. So, newly rich, they move out to the family farm. Thomas hires people to work the farm, and sets about building a new house. But he’s not happy because he has an… issue. Think late-night infomercials.
Catherine’s a bit obsessed with an actress called Rio DiCarlo who’s had a lot of plastic surgery. Rio is the spokesperson for a surgical center, and after seeing the ad on TV, Thomas decides elective surgery will solve his problem. Catherine doesn’t want him to do it, but he goes ahead. Afterward, their marriage implodes—their problems due as much to Catherine’s internal issues as Thomas’s external one—and Catherine moves back into the apartment over the diner. She sinks into a depression, but then receives some news that spurs her to take the money and run.
She doesn’t have a plan, but ends up in Vegas. As you do. The only room available when she goes to check in is a spendy suite but, well, she has a suitcase full of cash, so she takes it. In the casino, she meets Valka, and they hit it off. Valka’s in her thirties, recovering from cancer and her boyfriend dumping her. Like Thomas and Rio DiCarlo, Valka’s had plastic surgery.
Catherine (who’s about 24, according to my calculations) views Valka as practically elderly. This is consistent with her character, but lol. I kept waiting for Valka (or someone else invited up to the suite—there was a party) to run off with the Suitcase of Cash, but no. The money is a MacGuffin.
The bulk of the book consists of long flashbacks as Catherine tells Valka her story: all about Thomas, her parents, her little sister Jenny (who’s pregnant), and Timber from the diner.
Catherine’s dialogue is weird. She doesn’t use contractions. The other characters do, sometimes, so it seems like this is a deliberate choice for her character, but does anyone really talk like that? Maybe it was supposed to illustrate her depression/unfeelingness? She speaks like a robot because she feels like a robot (i.e. not at all)?
The story promises a big reveal, and there is one, but it feels a bit anti-climactic. Not that the thing revealed isn’t a thing, but there was maybe too much build-up, so you’re expecting something more—or something else. I can’t help thinking the way the story is structured fights against its impact.
In The Melting Season, the characters are all obsessed with physical appearances, with changing or maintaining their external characteristics. Their real problems are, of course, things you can’t see.
26: Friend of My Youth
Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
From the Book Shop in Penticton.
Read in October 2013.
I picked this as my next read after Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize. I had several Munros on my to-read shelf so it seemed like the right time to take one off the pile.
Most of the stories are about women of Munro’s generation, women who, like her, married young and (often) later divorced. I wonder if somewhere in her oeuvre there’s a story about a woman who gets stuck using her first husband’s name for the rest of her life because that’s the name she first published under? We could have known her as Alice Laidlaw.
In Munro’s bio, it’s stated that she left university after two years because her scholarship only covered two years. But I’ve often wondered about that, the official reason, and reading the stories in this collection makes me wonder more. Canadian tuition is nothing like American tuition, even now. Back in the day anyone working full-time in the summer/part-time during the school year would have made enough to cover expenses for the year, assuming they lived frugally. In Munro’s writing, there’s always the official story, the one we tell—to others, to ourselves—and then there’s what lies beneath. Like many of her characters, Munro married immediately after leaving university. Unlike some of her characters, she didn’t return to school later. Which she could have—UVic opened in 1963, when her older daughters were school-age and her youngest daughter hadn’t yet been born. But I’m guessing by that point she didn’t think she needed any more school. She was already a writer.
Speaking of UVic, it’s always a surprise when one of her stories is set in Victoria or Vancouver. In this collection, there are two. “Five Points” (in part) and “Differently.” People always talk about her being from Southern Ontario and her stories being set there, but she actually lived for twenty years in BC (from the early 1950s to early 1970s; her 20s and 30s) and all her children were born here. Presumably, the older ones at least consider BC home, not Ontario.
Anyway, onto the collection.
In “Friend of My Youth” a woman recalls the stories her mother told her about the two years she spent as a teacher before being married when she lived with a family of “Cameronians.” The narrator is a writer so she imagines the ending, the part of the story she doesn’t know.
I had my own ideas about Flora’s story. I didn’t think that I could have written a novel but that I would write one. I would take a different tack. I saw through my mother’s story and put in what she left out. My Flora would be as black as hers was white. Rejoicing in the bad turns done to her and in her own forgiveness, spying on the shambles of her sister’s life. A Presbyterian witch, reading out of her poisonous book. (20-21)
In “Five Points” Brenda is a having an affair with Neil. Brenda is only a few years older but feels like the age gap is more because she married and never left town and Neil is from Victoria and has moved around. There’s a story-within-a-story of a convenience store (Five Points) from Neil’s childhood and the daughter of the family who owned it. Brenda and Neil’s relationship has lost its initial sheen, is starting to sour.
What Brenda has seen of Victoria, in pictures, is flowers and horses. Flowers spilling out of baskets hanging from old-fashioned lampposts, filling grottoes and decorating parks; horses carrying wagonloads of people to look at the sights.
“That’s all just tourist shit,” Neil says. “About half the place is nothing but tourist shit. That’s not what I’m talking about.” (27)
(That made me lol. Encapsulates the whole people-who-have-actually-lived-in-Victoria vs. people-who-haven’t dichotomy.)
In “Meneseteung,” a first-person narrator tells the story of the “poetess” Almeda Joynt Roth. I’ve read this one before, in the English course I took a few years ago. Meda is a spinster, but for a time the town thinks she may marry widower Jarvis Poulter. Then one summer morning she thinks she’s found a dead woman at her back gate and runs to Jarvis for help.
She puts a wrapper over her nightdress and goes downstairs. The front rooms are still shadowy, the blinds down in the kitchen. Something goes plop, plup, in a leisurely, censorious way, reminding her of the conversation of the crow. It’s just the grape juice, straining overnight. She pulls the bolt and goes out the back door. Spiders have draped their webs over the doorway in the night, and the hollyhocks are drooping, heavy with dew. By the fence, she parts the sticky hollyhocks and looks down and she can see.
A woman’s body heaped up there, turned on her side with her face squashed down into the earth. (65)
In “Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass” middle-aged biology teacher Hazel goes to Scotland after her husband, Jack, dies to see the places where he spent time during the war. They had planned to go together, of course. Hazel expects the people he always talked about will have left or died, but it turns out they’re all still there. No one remembers her husband, though. Or at least they say they don’t.
She doesn’t mind letting people know that when she was in her thirties she had what used to be called a nervous breakdown. For nearly two months she was unable to leave the house. She stayed in bed much of the time. She crayoned the pictures in children’s coloring books. That was all she could do to control her fear and unfocussed grief. Then she took hold. She sent for college catalogues. What got her going again? She doesn’t know. She has to say she doesn’t know. Maybe she just got bored, she has to say. Maybe she just got bored, having her breakdown.
She knew that when she had got out of bed (this is what she doesn’t say), she was leaving some part of herself behind. She suspected this was a part that had to do with Jack. (83)
In “Oranges and Apples” Murray marries Barbara, a clerk in his father’s store. After his father dies, he runs the family business into the ground. Now Murray and Barbara run a small camping resort. The story shifts between past and present, filling in their backstory. Barbara is a bit of an enigma.
And it turns out that she doesn’t want to be a teacher, or a scholar, or a librarian, or an editor, or to make television documentaries, or review books, or write articles. The list of things that Barbara doesn’t want to do is as long as your arm. Apparently she wants to do what she does—read, and go for walks, eat and drink with pleasure, tolerate some company. And unless people can value this about her—her withdrawals, her severe indolence (she has an air of indolence even when she’s cooking an excellent dinner for thirty people)—they don’t remain among the company she tolerates. (111)
In “Pictures of the Ice” retired minister and recent widower Austin tells everyone he’s moving to Hawaii to marry a widow, but it turns out he’s really going to middle-of-nowhere Ontario to work himself to death.
She thinks now that he knew. Right at the last he knew that she’d caught on to him, she understood what he was up to. No matter how alone you are, and how tricky and determined, don’t you need one person to know? She could be the one for him. Each of them knew what the other was up to, and didn’t let on, and that was a link beyond the usual. Every time she thinks of it, she feels approved of—a most unexpected thing. (155)
In “Goodness and Mercy” Averill and her mother Bugs (aka June) are on a passenger-carrying freighter, crossing the Atlantic. Bugs is dying but they have kept this a secret from the other passengers. Averill is coming to terms with her mother’s impending death.
The captain did not seem to her a needy man. He did not need to disturb you, or flatter, or provoke, or waylay you. None of that look at me, listen to me, admire me, give me. None of that. He had other things on his mind. The ship, the sea, the weather, the cargo, his crew, his commitments. The passengers must be an old story to him. Cargo of another sort, requiring another sort of attention. Idle or ailing, lustful or grieving, curious, impatient, mischievous, remote—he would have seen them all before. He would know things about them right away, but never more than he needed to know. (167)
In “Oh, What Avails” Joan and Morris grow up with their widowed mother in small-town Ontario. Joan leaves town; Morris doesn’t. Joan marries, lives with her family in Ottawa. Later she divorces, moves to Toronto, manages a bookstore.
She doesn’t understand yet that she doesn’t want to take anything back to Ottawa because she herself won’t be staying in the house there for much longer. The time of accumulation, of acquiring and arranging, of padding up the corners of her life, has come to an end. (It will return years later, and she will wish she had saved at least the wineglasses.) In Ottawa, in September, her husband will ask her if she still wants to buy wicker furniture for the sunroom, and if she would like to go the wicker store, where they’re having a sale on summer stock. A thrill of distaste will go through her then—at the very thought of looking for chairs and tables, paying for them, arranging them in the room—and she will finally know what is the matter. (202)
In “Differently” Georgia visits her dead ex-friend Maya’s widower in Victoria and remembers how everything—their friendship, her marriage—fell apart.
The people who came into the store liked the look of a girl—a woman—like Georgia. They liked to talk to her. Most of them came in alone. They were not exactly lonely people, but they were lonely for someone to talk to about books. Georgia plugged in the kettle behind the desk and made mugs of raspberry tea. Some favored customers brought in their own mugs. (229)
In “Wigtime” Anita runs into her childhood bff Margot while she is caring for her dying mother. Margot married the school bus driver (presumably after he divorced his wife) and had five kids. Anita became a nurse (Margot’s pre-hooking up with the bus driver ambition), moved to the Yukon, married a doctor, divorced, got a PhD in anthropology.
People who approved of the course Anita had taken in life usually told her so. Often an older woman would say, “Good for you!” or, “I wish I’d had the nerve to do that, when I was still young enough for it to make any difference.” Approval came sometimes from unlikely quarters. It was not to be found everywhere, of course. Anita’s mother did not feel it, and that was why, for many years, Anita had not come home. Even in her present sunken, hallucinatory state, her mother had recognized her, and gathered her strength to mutter, “Down the drain.” (255-256)
I think that’s a good place to end 😉
My rating: 4 of 5 stars (4.5)
From the Fall 2010 VPL Book Sale.
Read in September/October 2013
This was my favorite book so far this year. I contemplated giving it a 5. Let’s call it 4.5 stars.
Ansel’s significant other Gail died suddenly six months earlier. She was a freelance radio producer. He’s a doctor, works at a TB clinic. He’s still close with her parents, Matthew and Clara. They all live in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest residential neighborhood.
Matthew is originally from Sandakan (in North Borneo prior to WWII; now part of Malaysia), which was occupied by the Japanese during WWII, when he was a child. After the war, he and his mother leave Sandakan, and later he goes to Australia to study at the University of Melbourne. There he meets Clara, who grew up in Hong Kong. Together they move to Vancouver, because at the time Canada was accepting Asian immigrants and Australia was not.
Clara has an English degree but ends up starting her own business as a seamstress when she can’t find work as a teacher. Matthew has a history degree but ends up working in a restaurant, becoming a cook.
The summer before Gail died, Ansel had an affair when Gail was away. He eventually broke it off and told Gail about it. She is not sure why he confessed, how he wants her to react to this information. Now, he finds it hard to believe the affair actually happened.
When Matthew was 18, just before he moved to Melbourne, he returned to Sandakan for a visit, reunited briefly with his childhood friend Ani. While Matthew moves first to Australia and later to Canada, Ani moves to first to Indonesia and later to Holland. Once, Gail sees a letter from Holland in her parents’ home. She doesn’t understand its significance but when she’s in Holland doing research for a story she’s producing, she contacts Ani’s husband Sipke and meets up with him.
Certainty is a non-linear story of family and love and migration. The story moves back and forth through time, slowly revealing information. Relationships are always uneven; one person always loves more. There’s a lot of restraint in the writing. Everything is not spelled out; you need to read between the lines.
Thien’s dialogue—the way that the characters talk about things, real things, not the weather—reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s.
24: Leaving Atlanta
Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Purchased from Amazon.
Read in September 2013.
Leaving Atlanta is Tayari Jones’s debut novel. Previously, I read The Untelling (her second novel) and Silver Sparrow (her third). Now I’m officially out of Tayari Jones books and shall have to wait for her to finish writing her next one.
Leaving Atlanta is, obviously, set in Atlanta. It’s the late seventies/early eighties. Early in the book, it’s mentioned that the (1976) Olympics was two years past, so I initially thought the story began in the fall of 1978, but later I decided it was actually 1979. This fits with the events that the story is based on, the Atlanta child murders of 1979-81.
The story focuses on one fifth grade class and how the murders affect them. There are three parts, each with one of the classmates as the point-of-view character. Jones chooses to focus on three of the least popular children in the class (loved this). “Tayari Jones” is a minor character in the story—she’s one of the other classmates and gets mentioned now and then by the three protagonists. (This makes me want to read some Somerset Maugham ;))
Tasha is the main character in Part 1. Her part is told in third person. Tasha is unpopular but not the least popular. She’s caught in between her more popular frenemies and the really unpopular kids. Tasha’s parents separate at the beginning of the story but her dad comes back because of the murders. Both Tasha’s parents work and, at the beginning of the school year, Tasha was just starting to be allowed some freedom / responsibility (getting her own key to let herself and her little sister in after school). However, as the murders escalate, her parents decide they need to go a neighbor’s house after school instead of being home alone. All the other kids in her neighborhood do the same.
In the second part, Rodney is the protagonist. His part is told in second person. Rodney also lives with his parents and little sister, but his mom doesn’t work, which leads the other characters to think the family is well-off. In reality, his mom’s a bit nutty. She does her kids’ homework (including glitter art projects!) for them. Rodney unwittingly bolsters the image of the family being well-off by shoplifting candy; the other kids don’t know he steals it and think he must have lots of spending money. Rodney is very smart, but an underachiever. When his dad is angry with him, he beats him. Rodney’s even more unpopular than Tasha.
Octavia, who everyone in her outside-of-school life calls Sweet Pea, is the main character in Part 3. Her part is told in first person. Octavia lives with her mom, who works nights. Her dad lives with his wife and baby daughter in South Carolina. Octavia is the least popular in the class. Her classmates’ view of her and her family’s and neighbors’ view of her is completely different. Octavia seeks out Mrs. Grier, the second grade teacher, when she needs comfort. Mrs. Grier is the teacher with school supplies and snacks in her desk, the one that all the kids gravitate to even when they’re not in her class.
The child’s point-of-view throughout the book—what they know/understand and what they don’t—is so good. For example, as a reader, it’s clear Octavia’s dad is a university professor, but she doesn’t grasp this (she thinks he’s a teacher) or its significance. She wonders why people call him ‘Dr. Ray’. Because of the child’s pov, the story lacks the sentimentality (and judgment) that might be present if it was told from an adult’s point-of-view (e.g. by one of the parents or teachers or one of the children as an adult looking back). In a kid’s world, things just are. This leaves the reader to do the work of interpreting the events. Refreshing.
The choice to write the first part in third-person, the second in second-person, and the third in first-person might seem a bit gimmicky but it didn’t feel that way reading it. What it felt like was each part drew you in closer to the characters.
I think I’ve said this with all her books, but I don’t know if there’s anyone who’s quite as good at depicting the Gen-X child/teen/YA era—at least as I remember it—as Jones. All the little details are so perfect.
23: The Singer’s Gun
The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Bought at The Book Warehouse.
Read in September 2013.
I discovered Emily St. John Mandel via The Millions, where she’s a staff writer. Like me, she grew up in BC with an American parent. Unlike me, she was eligible for American citizenship via that parent and now lives in Brooklyn. The Singer’s Gun is her second novel. Her background—she originally thought she was immigrating illegally to the US—informs the story.
The main character of The Singer’s Gun is Anton Waker. Anton’s parents sell stolen goods (such as architectural bits pilfered from buildings being renovated or torn down) for a living. Anton’s cousin Aria, who is six months older, moves in with them after her mother gets deported and her father goes after her. After high school Aria and Anton start selling fake social security cards and passports. Aria is the leader; Anton is the follower.
Eventually, Anton decides he wants out. After seeing an Anton Waker who just graduated from Harvard quoted in a newspaper, he requests a copy of “his” diploma, and with it begins living his dream life as an office drone. That’s not sarcasm—it actually was his dream to work in an office—he just didn’t want to bother taking the normal steps it would take to get there.
He becomes engaged to Sophie, a cellist who has no idea about his past. She does, however, seem to have cold feet about their wedding. For his part, Anton seems to care more about his one-eyed rescue cat than he does Sophie. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that ;)) If the wedding ever takes place, Anton and Sophie are scheduled to go to Ischia, Italy on their honeymoon. Meanwhile, Aria hasn’t gotten over the fact that Anton abandoned their business and Anton’s employer has obtained a big contract that requires it to do background checks on all its employees. Uh-oh.
Anton’s the center of the book, but there’s a secondary protagonist, Anton’s secretary, Elena James. Elena grew up in Inuvik (a place so far north it makes Oslo look sunny and toasty by comparison), and came to New York after high school on a full scholarship to Columbia University. Unfortunately, she dropped out after one semester, putting her in an awkward position immigration-wise. She doesn’t want to return to Canada, especially not to Inuvik. At one point, she tries to explain why to another character:
“There’s nothing up there.”
“You’re talking about a lack of employment?”
“No, I’m talking about a lack of everything. A loss of potential. It’s hard to explain. There’s just… it’s a narrowing of possibilities,” she said. “Even the smartest people end up doing nothing much with their lives, because there’s nothing to do. It’s not just Inuvik, it’s everywhere in the world that’s small and remote. Fewer things are possible in places like that.” (230)
That may be the best explanation I’ve come across of the feeling I had growing up in very small towns, why I couldn’t wait to escape, why I always raise my eyebrows at stories where the protagonist realizes the life they’ve built in The City is empty! and the only place where their life will be complete! is the Quirky Hometown they never should have left. 🙄 I was in a simmering panic for years, first worrying that I wouldn’t get out, and then when I did, worrying that it wouldn’t last, that eventually I’d end up forced back to some small, narrow place. Which maybe seems crazy, but I guess it’s a bit like leaving a cult. You have to reprogram yourself to believe that it’s ok to do things like (gasp) live in a city.
Of course, there’s a bit of irony to Elena’s remark in that some of the key characters do end up in a smallish, remote-ish place. Not nearly as small and remote as Inuvik, though.
With its themes of identity, (im)migration, and dislocation, this was one of my favorites so far this year. I’ll definitely be reading Mandel’s other novels.