Tag Archives: Books Read in 2014

13: Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist: EssaysBad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bought at Chapters on Robson.

Read August – November 2014.

View all my reviews



When feminism falls short of our expectations we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement. (“Introduction,” x)

Ok, so it looks like I took forever to read this, but it was mostly off-and-on during Sept/Oct. I’d read most of these essays before, so even though the book was new, it was almost like a re-read and I didn’t feel the need to race through.

She is grieving, after all, and in grief, there is a certain amount of indulgence for bad behavior. Sorrow allows us a freedom happiness does not. (“Reaching for Catharsis,” 114)

I don’t typically read books when they’re newly released, and reading Bad Feminist (and An Untamed State earlier this year) at the same time as everyone else and their dog reminded me why I prefer reading random backlist over new releases. The cacophony of opinions on new releases is… overwhelming. I mean, yes, I can ignore it, and I do try for the most part, but it still feels like everything there is to be said has been said many times over (whether that’s true or not) and makes me less interested in writing about the book myself. This is probably weird. Whatever. Here’s Roxane’s Bad Feminist page! Go read what other people had to say. 😉

Or just read it. It’s on basically every best nonfiction book list of 2014.

The solutions are obvious. Stop making excuses. Stop saying women run publishing. Stop justifying the lack of parity in prominent publications that have the resources to address gender inequity. Stop parroting the weak notion that you’re simply publishing the best writing, regardless. There is ample evidence of the excellence of women writers. Publish more women writers. If women aren’t submitting to your publication or press, ask yourself why, deal with the answers even if those answers make you uncomfortable, and then reach out to women writers. If women don’t respond to your solicitations, go find other women. Keep doing that, issue after issue after issue. Read more widely. Create more inclusive measures of excellence. Ensure that books by men and women are being reviewed in equal numbers. Nominate more deserving women for the important awards. Deal with your resentment. Deal with your biases. Vigorously resist the urge to dismiss the gender problem. Make the effort and make the effort and make the effort until you no longer need to, until we don’t need to keep having this conversation. (“Beyond the Measure of Men,” 171-172)

Best of? I think “What We Hunger For” (fingers crossed her next book—titled Hunger—is connected to this essay). I also esp. like: “Not Here to Make Friends” (on unlikable female characters) and “The Politics of Respectability”:

We must stop pointing to the exceptions—these bright shining stars who transcend circumstance. We must look to how we can best support the least among us, not spend all our time blindly revering and trying to mimic the greatest without demanding systemic change. (“The Politics of Respectability,” 260)


11: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Reg Keeland, translator)

3 out of 5 stars

From the Fall 2013 VPL Book Sale.

Read in June/July 2014.

View all my reviews

This was a lot better than I expected. The writing was clunky in places but it was definitely not a Dan Brown situation. Stieg Larsson was a bit too fond of brand names and describing “cutting-edge” technology. Tip: if you don’t want your writing to sound dated immediately, avoid detailed descriptions of tech. A whole 5GB on Blomkvist’s hard drive, lol. OTOH, he skipped details of sex and sexual violence. So that scene (you know the one) is not quite as intense in the book as in the film.

Blomkvist is a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu, if you prefer). Every woman with a pulse wants to have sex with him—and who is he to say no? (cough) Larsson tries to be aVPL Fall Book Salell PC—Blomkvist reads crime novels, but only ones written by women!—but at the same time, Salander is worried about the size of her boobs (*eyeroll*). Also the characters keep talking about Salander looking “anorexic,” which no. Because of Larsson’s police-blotter descriptions, we know she is 4’11” and 90lbs, so she’s mini, not anorexic. There’s a difference.

The translation was in UK English—I kept tripping over the word ‘gaol,’ which my brain insists on pronouncing “gay-ole,” even though I know it’s just a weird spelling of jail—but all the measurements were in Fahrenheit, feet, miles, etc. which just seemed weird for Swedish characters, who for sure would be using metric. It made me wonder who this translation was supposed to be for.

The book was pretty similar to the movie except Blomkvist goes to jail, or rather gaol, for a few months (IIRC, that wasn’t in the film) and the Harriet ending was a bit different, but otherwise, I think everything was there, which is interesting because it’s a long book and movie versions of much shorter books usually leave stuff out. So I think my sense that the book was wordy and could have used another round of edits is correct. However, in this case, it’s forgivable since, aykb, Larsson unfortunately died before any of his books were published.

12: Summer Sisters

Summer SistersSummer Sisters by Judy Blume

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the Fall 2013 VPL Book Sale.

Read in June 2014.

View all my reviews

Victoria (Vix) is a lower middle class / working class kid in Santa Fe. Caitlin is the popular new kid in school. At the end of the year (6th grade), Caitlin asks Vix to spend the summer with her at her father’s summer home. Eventually, Vix’s parents agree to let her go.

Vix is the oldest of 4 kids. Her youngest brother has muscular dystrophy. Caitlin has a brother, Sharkey, who doesn’t talk much and hums. Also a dog. They live with her father, Lamb, year-round. (Lamb is short for Lambert. Sharkey is also Lambert. He was going to be called “Bert” but his toddler enthusiasm for sharks saved him froBook Sale (part 2)m that fate.)

Lamb’s summer home is on Martha’s Vineyard. At first, Vix thinks Lamb is struggling with money because the house is rundown and filled with shabby furniture and it smells. But obvs. he’s a trust fund kid. (He’s Lambert III, Sharkey’s IV.) Lamb and his sister were raised by their imperious and racist grandmother after their parents were killed whilst drunk-driving at age 25. Good times.

Vix makes it through the summer, unlike Caitlin’s past guests, and keeps returning year after year. After the first summer, Caitlin tells Vix she’s going to private school. Lamb and his new wife, Abby, arrange a scholarship for Vix at Caitlin’s school.

Caitlin and Vix are bffs during the summers (“summer sisters”) but during the school year C ignores V. Of course. Vix does well at school. She gets into Harvard, though she suspects it is less her grades and more her connections. Caitlin gets accepted at Wellesley, but goes traveling instead.

There are boys. Natch. Sharkey turns out well (my favorite bit!). V’s family falls apart. C is an asshat. Not sure why, really. That was my main quibble. I guess some people just are. No reason.

9: The Thing Around Your Neck

The Thing Around Your NeckThe Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

4 out of 5 stars.

Bought at the Book Shop in Penticton.

Read in June 2014.

View all my reviews

The stories…

  • “Cell One” — Nnamabia, the teenage brother who’s getting into trouble, ends up in jail.
  • “Imitation” — Nkem, the wife who lives in “America”* with her children, while her husband, a Big Man, lives in Nigeria.
  • “A Private Experience” — Chika, who is Igbo and Christian, is helped by a woman who is Hausa and Muslim when they are caught in a riot.
  • “Ghosts” — retired professor at university to check on his pension that never comes, runs into colleague he thought was dead for past 30 years.
  • “On Monday of Last Week” — helicopter parent dad, artist mom, babysitter who gets her hopes up.Books from The Book Shop
  • “Jumping Monkey Hill” — writers retreat in S. Africa, organized by lecherous old man. Story within the story (i.e. workshopped story) is based on real life, but ‘not plausible’ to old man, of course.
  • “The Thing Around Your Neck” — winning the American visa lottery, give and take, and the American bf who thinks he understands it all.
  • “The American Embassy” — the journalist’s wife applying for asylum after her husband flees and her son is accidentally shot/killed by the government agents looking for him.
  • “The Shivering” — the grad student at Princeton who’s visited by a neighbor who she assumes is a student, too. They become friends and she discovers he’s not.
  • “The Arrangers of Marriage” — the new wife whose husband is trying too hard to assimilate and, oops, has failed to mention he’s already married.
  • “Tomorrow is Too Far” — the woman absorbed with guilt over the death of her brother when she was 10.
  • “The Headstrong Historian” — family history from grandmother Nwamgba to granddaughter Grace/Afamenfuna, who becomes a historian, reclaiming the stories that had been suppressed by colonial rule.

I especially liked “Jumping Monkey Hill” and “The Headstrong Historian,” but these stories are all so good. They read so effortlessly, which means the crafting of them was quite the opposite.

(*language tangent: Canadians don’t say “America”; we say “the States” or “the US” b/c Canada is also part of America-the-continent. “American” as a demonym for citizens of US is weird, when you think about it. People from all countries in the Americas are Americans. I’ve seen people on Twitter use “USian”—maybe that will catch on?)

10: V is for Vengeance

V is for VengeanceV is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the Fall 2013 VPL Book Sale.

Read in June 2014.

View all my reviews

So like all the notes I jotted down while reading V is for Vengeance were names of characters and their relationships to other characters. I don’t know. I guess I was having trouble keeping track.

Anyway, I guess the mc who is not Kinsey is Nora. In the prologue (1986, because aykb, Kinsey is stuck in the ’80s), Nora’s son is murdered because gambling debts. In the present, which is 1988, hVPL Fall Book Saleer husband is having an affair with his secretary, and Nora starts up an affair with the crime boss (Dante) whose minions killed her son. Awkward.

Dante runs a shoplifting ring. Kinsey is buying underwear when she witnesses one of his minions shoplifting, and then is almost run over by another minion (there are a lot of minions). Then one of the minions turns up dead. Meanwhile… Kinsey’s landlord Henry has to go to Detroit because his 99yo sister broke her leg tripping over a cat, and his brother William convinces Kinsey to attend the “visitation” for the dead minion. Not that he knows the minion, he’s just obsessed with death or something.

Ok, I’m loling at this description, I mean, it’s all kind of ridiculous, but it was an entertaining kind of ridiculous.

8: Samantha’s Secret Room

Samantha's Secret RoomSamantha’s Secret Room by Lyn Cook

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Borrowed from the VPL (Central Branch).

Read in May/June 2014.

View all my reviews

After I posted about the children’s book that changed my life, I received a comment with a link to a review that confirmed Samantha’s Secret Room was in fact the book I remembered. I checked the VPL catalog and they had a copy (the 1991 reissue), so I took it out the next time I was downtown. I took copious notes, so WARNING, spoilerific recap to follow. If you don’t want to know the plot of this 50-year-old book, flee now!


Continue reading

7: An Untamed State

An Untamed StateAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Purchased at Chapters on Robson.

Read in May 2014.

View all my reviews

Disclaimer: I am such a Roxane-with-one-N fangirl. I read everything she writes. I’m not objective at all when it comes to her writing.

Back in 2012, I read Ayiti, her story collection. An Untamed State grew from the standout of that collection, “Things I Know About Fairy Tales.” When I was looking for that post, I came across this Roxane quote from 4 years ago:

My parents will not consider me a real writer in a way they can truly understand until they can go to Barnes & Noble and find something I’ve written, not in an anthology, but with my name alone on the spine. My writing career is the least relevant thing about me when it comes to my family and friends. It’s not that they don’t care but honestly, they do not care.

Welp. 😉

The opening of An Untamed State is intense. The story goes right into the action, without any build-up. (Aside: take note everyone who likes to begin stories with their MC sitting around thinking to themselves.) Mireille is kidnapped in front of her parents’ house in Haiti. Her husband Michael and son Christophe are in the car with her, but they are not taken. She’s held for ransom because her father is wealthy, but he refuses to pay. Her captors begin raping her repeatedly.

In between these very intense scenes, the backstory is filled in via Mireille’s memories. I liked how this was structured because a) it was realistic (what else would she do alone in a room with nothing to do but escape into her head) and b) it pulled back from the tension a bit so it wasn’t relentless. Although, in its own way the backstory was intense, especially Mireille and Michael’s “fairy tale” romance.

The novel starts where “happily ever after” leaves off, playing off both the sunny Disney versions of fairy tales we’re all familiar with and the dark, twisted original stories that didn’t hesitate to make readers uncomfortable.

There is empathy for all the characters, which I loved, because people are gray and it annoys me when protagonists are portrayed as angelic and antagonists as evil. It’s too simplistic. So characters like Mireille’s father and the various captors are given the opportunity to show their humanity, and Miri is allowed to be flawed. She’s been criticized for being an “unlikable” character but real people are flawed, unlikable, prickly and you still empathize with them. At least, I hope you do? Because you don’t have to be perfect to deserve to be treated decently and not have terrible things happen to you. Honestly, when I think about the fictional characters I like the most, it’s always the ones I empathize with because of (not in spite of) their flaws. I like “unlikable” characters.

The overarching milieu of the story is rich country vs. poor country, rich vs. poor within a country, etc. and the tension between meritocracy, diying yourself to success vs. how much you should help others who can’t/won’t do what you did. But there are so many layers…

The story is in two parts, and in the second part, the After, Miri deals with how she can’t go back to how it was before. Reading this right after Speak was unintentional, but an interesting juxtaposition. Both have main characters who don’t deal with trauma the way society wants them to.

One aspect of the After is karma, or just kindness circling back. Miri was kind to her mother-in-law, Lorraine, when she was sick, even though Lorraine didn’t want her there, and now Lorraine is there for Miri when she needs help, even though Miri doesn’t want the help either. It addresses how sometimes the people who are supposed to be the closest to you (in Miri’s case, Michael) can’t give you what you need. Sometimes it’s someone a step away who is better able to care for you. Maybe it’s more objectivity? That they can see the forest and not be blinded by the trees, everything fraught from the past.

6: Speak

SpeakSpeak by Laurie Halse Anderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the Fall 2013 VPL book sale.

Read in April/May 2014.

View all my reviews

I picked this up because it was one of those books I’d heard mentioned a lot, but I’d never read it. I wasn’t really sure what it was about—mostly what I’d heard was a lot of compliments without any specifics. So I wasn’t spoiled going in, but I quickly realized there was a Thing and what that Thing was. (I think it was supposed to be a dramatic reveal, but it seemed obvious to me. Perhaps because I am an Old.)

Melinda has just started ninth grade and she doesn’t speak. Well, she does, but as little as possible. No one speaks to her, except the new kid who doesn’t know any better. Melinda is Outcast.

I liked the opening and I have to admit being a bit disappointed when I realized Melinda was being shunned because of this thing she did and not just because. To be clear, the school isn’t shunning her because of the Thing (which no one knows about) but because of something she did in response to the Thing.

There were lots of things I liked about Speak. I liked the narrative voice, and the way the book was structured. The story is quite funny despite the dark subject matter. I totally bought Melinda’s closing down and not telling anyone what happened. Classic introvert response to trauma.

I also thought the characterization of the teachers was really good. Somehow it managed to capture both the kid’s-eye view of them (Melinda’s) and what they were really like at the same time. It made me think about how when you’re a kid you never really think of teachers as real people, having lives and problems of their own. (Teachers: magical robots who are switched on at 9 and shut down at 3. haha.)

VPL Fall Book SaleI’m surprised a bigger deal wasn’t made of what is apparently an abrupt and radical shift in Melinda’s personality. I guess it’s supposed to be somewhat lost/covered for by starting high school, her parents’ workaholism and marital issues, the incident that led to everyone hating her, etc. But still. You’d think at least one person would have questioned it (beyond “oh, she’s just being a teenager”).

My main criticism: I had a hard time buying that none of the other students knew what happened, that there were no rumors making the rounds. It did make for a more dramatic catharsis, but… this is high school. There is nothing, nothing that a high schooler loves more than drama. Even if no one witnessed what happened (questionable), I find it hard to believe IT wouldn’t have told a friend or two who told a friend or two and so on and so on. Because he’s THAT GUY. Or if not that, just that people didn’t notice the weirdness between them (he goes out of his way to provoke her) and start speculating why. Especially given his existing reputation that comes into play later in the book. Given that, how did no one put 2+2 together?

5: Brick Lane

Brick LaneBrick Lane by Monica Ali

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the Fall 2010 VPL Book Sale.

Read in April 2014.

View all my reviews

Nazneen is born in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1967. She’s barely alive when she’s born and her mother takes a “what will be will be” approach, leaving Nazneen’s fate to Fate. Nazneen follows this philosophy throughout her life.

When she’s 18, her father arranges a marriage for her with a fortyish man, Chanu, who emigrated to England ~20 years earlier. By this time her mother is dead, and her younger sister, Hasina, has eloped (“made a love marriage”).

Nazneen goes directly from her village to an apartment in London. She only speaks Bengali and when she suggests to Chanu she take English lessons he doesn’t know why she’d want to do that. Fortunately, there are neighbors who speak Bengali, so she does have people to talk to, but at the same time, this serves to further isolate her because these are the only people she interacts with.

Chanu’s neither mean nor kind; he’s more oblivious/narcissistic, simultaneously ridiculous/delusional and fragile—a very discomforting type of character/person to be around. You know, the kind of person who makes you so mad/frustrated you’re constantly on the verge of tearing a strip off them, but you never do because you know if you did, they’d collapse into a blubbering puddle sobbing about how their feelings are so hurt and they can’t understand why you’re being so mean to them.

So Nazneen doesn’t. She keeps all her feelings to herself, pushes them down, buries them. Chanu and Nazneen have a son, who dies when he’s a few months old. After this, there is a chapter of letters from Hasina, chronicling her increasing misfortunes (in spite of which she remains cheerful), that are used to fast-forward the story to 2001.

The cadence of the letters was a bit strange. They’re written like someone writing in English-as-a-second-language but wouldn’t Hasina be writing to Nazneen in Bengali?

More 55-cent BooksAnyway, by 2001, Nazneen and Chanu have two daughters. Over the years, Nazneen has picked up English from TV and listening to her daughters. Her daughters are her tie to the outside world and a visible reminder that time is passing. But otherwise not much has changed. Chanu is still making plans that will never come to fruition. The neighborhood gossips are still gossiping and the neighborhood loan shark is still loan-sharking.

But then something does change. Chanu borrows money from the loan shark to buy a sewing machine (and a computer). Nazneen learns to sew, and starts taking on sewing jobs. And she begins an affair with the young man, Karim, who brings her sewing work.

Most of this book is sad. Not maudlin Nicholas-Sparks-sad, but bleak. Let’s be honest: I think I would have hated this book if I read it when I was younger. I would have been so frustrated by Nazneen. But now…

Near the end of Brick Lane, Nazneen thinks of Karim:

She had seen what she wanted to see. She had looked at him and seen only his possibilities. Now she looked again and saw that the disappointment of his life, which would shape him, had yet to happen. (355)

That reminds me of how a while ago during a class discussion on gaming, I said something like games are fun because you get to win, which doesn’t happen that often in real life—and my students just stared at me. And I was like, oh yeah, oops! They’re 18, 19. High school graduation and university acceptances are still fresh. (Winning!) Everything is still possible.

Which is to say, I think you’ll appreciate this book more if you’ve experienced some of life’s disappointments first.

Anyway, as I approached the end, I wondered how Ali was going to wrap it up — horribly sad? implausibly happy? — but it was neither. The ending was… hopeful. Loved it. I actually think it makes the book—and considering my usual feeling toward endings is “meh” that’s saying a lot.

4: Annabel

AnnabelAnnabel by Kathleen Winter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the Fall 2013 VPL Book Sale.

Read in March 2014.

View all my reviews

I decided to read this after I listened to Canada Reads 2014 because a) it sounded like a compelling story and b) it was already on my shelf thanks to the library book sale. Here’s the trailer:

I was pulled into the story right from the beginning, and thought the first part of the book (about up the point where Wayne starts school and Thomasina leaves town) was very good. And then, gradually it lost its hold on me. In retrospect, thinking about it, it had the feel of a book where the first chapters had been polished and reworked for a long time, so that every detail was perfect, while the rest had been finished much more quickly and not given the same level of attention. Writers, you know what I mean. Which is not to say that the latter half of the book wasn’t good, it just wasn’t quite as compelling as the beginning.

In 1968 Labrador, Jacinta and Treadway have an intersex baby (in this case, the baby has both male and female parts: one testicle and one ovary, a penis and a vagina). Treadway decides they will raise the baby as a boy, and name him Wayne. (Note: I’m using male pronouns because that’s what the book uses.)

Their neighbor, Thomasina, who helped deliver baby Wayne at home, is the only other person (at first; later there are doctors/nurses) who knows their secret. Shortly after Wayne’s birth, Thomasina’s husband and daughter (Annabel) drown in a canoeing accident. Thomasina starts calling the baby Annabel. Wayne likes the secret nickname but doesn’t understand it until much later.

As Wayne grows up, steps are taken (surgery, hormones) to ensure his masculine characteristics develop and his feminine ones are suppressed. But the Annabel side of Wayne refuses to disappear. She likes synchronized swimming and sparkly stereotypically-girly stuff. Which, sigh. Just once I’d like to see someone write about gender without mentioning clothing/activity preferences. Those are social norms, not biological imperatives. Anyway. Jacinta supports Wayne’s “feminine” interests but hides them from Treadway, who wants Wayne to grow up to be a manly man.

VPL Fall Book SaleAfter a promising beginning, the story drifts. Thomasina leaves Labrador to go traveling. Treadway goes out on his trapline. Jacinta retreats into herself. I got interested in these characters and then their development just stopped. Which leaves us with Wayne. And here I run into the same problem as the last book I read. There’s not enough thinking—insight into Wayne’s mind. There is some—it’s definitely not the extreme blankness of Mary in The Outlander—but Wayne’s mind (especially after the dramatic incident spoiled in the Canada Reads debates) should have been buzzing and we just didn’t see enough of that.

Also, there are strange gaps. For example, Jacinta is originally from St. John’s and it’s made clear that she misses it very much. However, she never goes back there for a visit and there’s no insight into why. This needs an explanation! It’s not like she’s on the other side of the world. It’s a ferry trip.  (According to their website, it’s 1 hour, 45 min. So it would be like living on Vancouver Island and never going to visit your family in Vancouver.)

At times it felt like Winter was aiming for magical realism but didn’t quite get there. The improbable injury that robs Wayne’s friend Wally of her singing voice, the impossible [SPOILER ALERT] self-pregnancy. The thing is, neither of these things were necessary. Wally’s voice could have been lost in some other more plausible fashion. Wayne’s pregnancy didn’t lead to anything plot-wise, so was it even necessary? Especially since there was an incident later in the book that could have led to a plausible pregnancy, with plenty of dramatic fallout. (I think that would have been a much better choice story-wise. Terrible for Wayne, obviously, but good for the story.)

The pop culture references—music, TV—felt off to me, like they were maybe 5-10 years older than they should be. And at first I thought, well, maybe it’s supposed to be indicative of the fact they live in the boonies and didn’t have access to new music, but then I remembered that the radio station I liked best at the end of high school, because it played the newest music, was from St. John’s (we got some radio stations along with our cable service)—and surely they can pick up St. John’s radio stations in Labrador. So.

I was really thrown off by the fact Wayne was born 1968, but his class graduates in 1985. There’s no mention of his entire class skipping a grade. Does Labrador not have grade 12? I actually went and looked this up. And I found that in fact Newfoundland/Labrador didn’t have grade 12… until 1983. Kathleen Winter was born in 1960 so she would have graduated after grade 11, which is probably why she wrote it like that. But still, it doesn’t fit with the timeline of the story—Wayne’s class would have graduated in 1986—and an editor should have caught it. (I don’t blame the author—honest mistake—but how did everyone who read the manuscript before it was published miss it? Well, at least I learned something new 😉 )