Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Fragility of Family: Chigozie Obioma's The Fisherman

In the year some have dubbed the year of the debut novel, The Fishermen has been getting quite a bit of buzz as one of the most significant first novels of the year. I first heard of it on the weekly Book Riot podcast, then an interview he did for the Lit Up podcast, and the universal praise it was receiving quickly raised it to the top of my to read titles for the summer, even gifting a copy of it to my mother's partner based on all the noise the novel was receiving.

Then came the Man Booker Prize  naming The Fishermen to its long list and many more eyes have perked up to pay attention to this really remarkable book.

Obiome's novel is the tale of four brothers (Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin) growing up in the political turmoil of 1990s Nigeria. After their father is sent by his employer to another city, the four brothers take to spending their days fishing in a local and cursed body of water.

Their leisurely exploration of fishing is soon interrupted by a mother horrified that her children have been galavanting in the afflicted waters but even more significantly by a local madman and occasional prophet (Abula) who tells the brothers that the oldest of them (Ikenna) is destined to die at the hand of a fisherman. This prophesy lingers in the mind of Ikenna, who quickly drifts from his once-close sibblings, convinced that Abula has seen his future.

From there Obiome takes us through the lasting impact of the horrible divination and how the once loving and strong bonds that held the siblings together quickly unravel under the weight of the fate Abula has predicted.

There is a lot to say about this book. Firstly, the writing is tremendous. It is both lyrical and beautiful, but also forceful and sharp, not wasting any words as Obiome describes in intense detail the mundane world with crisp and vivid language. It is also one of those books that slowly embraces the reader, who skeptically starts and is quickly taken in as the plot advances, eager to find out what happens, devastated when all is revealed. I always feel that a book is elevated to greatness in its final words, and Obiome's concluding chapter ties everything so well that we as readers are just left in awe.

This book also made me think about how the use of adolescents as characters gives an author a really intriguing plot device. Much of The Fishermen's key moments are forks in the road, where the protagonists must decide how to navigate confusing forces beyond their full understanding. Their immaturity fogs their decision-making and the rough road the brothers must travel are largely caused by perspectives skewed by age. I found this absolutely fascinating. While it is frustrating as a reader to have children often take paths we know are fraught with peril, we still understand why they would make such a choice, even if taking such a course is chosen for the most naive of reasons.

Anyways, this was an absolutely brilliant novel, certainly one of the best of the year and hopefully the Man Booker committee will agree and shortlist The Fishermen next month.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Catching Up With Summer Reading

It has been a while since my last review and there has been a lot of books read since then. Instead of doing individual reviews, below is a quick blitz of some of the really remarkable releases this summer.

Sara Taylor's The Shore ranks up there with A Little Life for one of the most ambitious and fascinated novels of 2015. Taking place on a series of islands on the Virginian coast, Taylor's novel intertwines the lives of several different characters over several hundred years who struggle through colonial assimilation, economic depravity, sexual violence, and population wiping apocalypse. The Shore has drawn some comparison to A Visit from the Goon Squad, in its effort to use experimental structure to combine desperate stories into a cohesive novel and I would say that it actually does a more effective job than Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer winning book (although that sentiment may not be shared by most). Nonetheless, for someone to pull off this feat, or even be compared to Goon Squad, in her first novel, is quite remarkable.

Matthew Thomas received a huge advance for his first book We Are Not Ourselves and its release was highly anticipated in 2014 as a likely literary award winner. However, when the numerous Top Ten lists began coming out at the end of the year, Thomas' epic novel was glaringly missing. Award season offered no solace either. So when I picked up the audiobook to listen, I figured that there would be something disappointing about the novel that had turned off the literary establishment. Thomas' tale of the Leary family's struggle through the malaise of family life and illness at the end of the Twentieth Century is a slow and at times too detailed story. There were moments where I felt Thomas needed a stronger editor who could cull some of the unnecessary description. That said, there was a deep and tranquil beauty to the story. There is a sadness that permeates throughout the novel, as each of the main characters is pulled in different directions in their effort to achieve the American Dream and almost always misjudge what should be done. We are left with a family filled with regret and it is that mood that drives this story. Thomas may not have produced the Great American Novel, but he has certainly offered a story that will linger with the reader's soul.

The book of the summer without question is Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. Written as a letter to his son, Coates delivers a powerful account of the fear and concern he has for his son's safety in an American society that has long treated 'black bodies' as entities to be subjugated, to be beaten, to be brutalized, to be murdered. Written in the aftermath of the Ferguson police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, that the release of Coates' book a year later has also surrounded itself with numerous police killings of African American men and women speaks to the need for a deep conversation (and agitation) among Americans (and Canadians) about why black bodies are so easily disposed of by those expected to secure safety in society. There is a reason this is the "It" book of the year and one that should be picked up by anyone who wants to tear down the racism that permeates our society.

T.C. Boyle's The Harder They Come has also received significant buzz. Taking place in Northern California, Boyle offers a multi-perspective novel of a family torn apart by mental illness and anti-authoritarian feelings. Driving the story in many ways are the anti-government sentiments of several of the characters who in one way or another espouse a "free man on the land" ideology that questions the legitimate authority of the state. Similar themes were explored in last year's critically acclaimed Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson. I have to say that after reading Coates' book, I found little sympathy or affinity to a story of a young white man and woman whose experience of state oppression pales in comparison to those experienced by millions of African Americans. Although Boyle certainly is a powerful writer, I kept on thinking to myself why these stories of white mountain men deserved so much attention, and asking myself what it says about white privilege that they receive so much attention. A work of literature does not have answer the big questions of the day, but when they try to ask them and offer perspective, I think it is fair to also ask why certain people are raised to the forefront of antagonist and why certain are missing.

After these quite heavy books, my last plug is going to be for an absolutely amazing YA novel by Daniel José Older, Shadowshaper. Our protagonist is a teenage Puerto Rican young woman, Sierra, who discovers a powerful magic that her family possesses, being able to use murals and paintings to harness the powers of spirits. Adding to the shock of this discovery is the fact that many of her family friends who share this power have been disappearing or being killed up. Sierra is forced to learn how to harness this power and find out why someone is targeting the Shadowshapers. This book was so much fun and filled with subtle subversive and anti-racist sentiments. If you have a teenager in your life or enjoy YA, pick up Older's book, cuz it's awesome.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What's in the Tarot Cards: Erika Swyler's The Book of Speculation

Inspired to pick up this book by the folks at Book Riot, I got myself a copy from the library and started reading. Pitched as something similar to Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, I had high hopes of being carried away into the magical world of night performers. Although it took a while for the story to pick up, by the end I was left more than satisfied by this excellent debut novel.

Erika Swyler's The Book of Speculation takes place in two time periods, switching back and forth as the author slowly reveals the secret that has cursed protagonist's Simon Watson's family for generations.

In our current time period, we have Simon Watson, a recently fired librarian living in the dilapidated ruins of his childhood home. Simon wallows in his own failure, and the haunting memory of his mother who drowned herself when Simon and his sister Enola were still children. Simon mysteriously receives an ancient book, sent by an overly friendly book collector, that has references to his grandmother and appears to reveal an alarming trend of the family's women drowning themselves.

Swyler then takes us back tot he mid 19th century, to the world of carnivals and travelling circuses, where "wild children" and "mermaids" entertain locals easily captivated by the slight of hand or inexplicable mysteries. We are introduced to a young mute, Amos, who has fallen into favour of the circus' ringleader and who falls in love with the local faux-mermaid, who he can only communicate through the symbolism contained in the Tarot cards of his guardian.

Slowly the story moves forward as Simon tries to figure out what is wrong with his family as he fears his Tarot reading carnival working sister may follow the family destiny. Simultaneously, Amos' tale brings us closer to revealing the source of a curse that powerfully stays with his family for generations.

While Speculation doesn't necessarily quite create the dark and mysterious aura of The Night Circus, the plot is better paced and the ending more satisfying than Morgenstern's big hit. I found myself captured toward the end, desperate to find out why such poor fates have doomed Simon's clan. This book takes a while to get into but by the end you'll be happy to have gotten through the slower moments.

I read this on my e-reader but I will also say that it may be worth checking out the hard cover. It is beautifully put together with beautiful fonts and such that really are not captured that well by the epub version.

So go off and get it and enjoy!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

In the Unlikely Event...Judy Blume Wrote a Bad Book

It feels sacrilegious disparaging this book. Judy Blume is an icon and has been a very influential author, especially for young women readers. I didn't read her as a teen (gendered reading habits back then sadly) but I get that she broke ground, talking about taboo issues of female sexuality in ways that many young adult literature tended to avoid.

So when it was announced that Blume was releasing an adult novel this year and after Anne Kingman from Books on the Nightstand gave it a pretty glowing review I eagerly picked it up and looked forward to catching the Blume fever so many seem to have.

Sadly, this just isn't a very good book.

The premise is admittedly fascinating. The story takes place in early 1950s Elizabeth, a suburb of Newark, New Jersey. In the span of three months, three planes crashed into the largely residential town, killing passengers and residents alike. Blume recounts the events through the fictionalized eyes of the towns residents, who grapple with fear and confusion as the sky appears to be falling around them.

The most prominent narrator is Miri Ammerman, a 15 year old daughter of a single mother who deals witnesses the first tragedy and whose life is personally shaken by all three crashes. Blume also jumps to different perspectives, using more than a dozen townspeople's accounts to advance the plot. In addition to the back drop of the accidents, the story follows the intense dramas of various families as their pleasant and quiet suburban lives are pushed in unexpected directions as the fallout of the tragedies force people to make difficult decisions about what they want their lives to look like.

So much potential! And with a pro like Blume I really expected more. Instead I got a muddled story, filled with weak writing and tacked on adult situations to appeal to a mature audience.

Where to start:

1. This isn't an adult book. The writing style and themes are those traditionally falling under YA: young love, teen angst and friendships, awakening sexuality. While adult voices are featured, it is Miri who centres this novel and her story that is our focus. While Blume has probably included racier and more explicit sex than in her more traditional teen writing, this is now common parlance in the YA world. I have no issues with's a category filled with so many good books and I am jealous that there wasn't the breadth of reading choices available to me when I was a teen, BUT this book was pitched as an adult book, so I was expecting a bit more sophistication in plot and themes. Instead I got simple writing with the occasional sex scene.

2. The story is tedious. I found myself wanting the book to end and still had half of it left. The characters, aside from Miri, are pretty shallow and boring. Their desires so pedestrian. The last chapter, recounting a thirty year reunion after the crashes, comes up with so many cliche ways to tie up the loose ends.

In the end, Blume may just be a writer whose time has passed. What was edgy and groundbreaking thirty years ago feels banal and trite today. I am sure those who grew up devouring Blume's work will feel the nostalgia and enjoy this more than I, but as someone coming to her writing carte blanche I came away feeling disappointed and wondering what the big hype was about.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Queen of the Bowery: Jami Attenberg's Saint Mazie

Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins was a big hit a couple of years ago and like many others I powered through this family screwball comedy about life, food, love and whatever other crazy joke Attenberg used to make us fall for the dysfunctional family feeling the pull of economic and social displacement in modern America. So when it was announced that she was coming out with a new book this year I was excited and tried many times to win myself a copy on Goodreads giveaways. Sadly, my efforts were for naught.

Nonetheless, I got my hands on the audiobook version of Saint Mazie and took the plunge and what I got was something completely different! Inspired by a 1940s profile of Mazie Phillips Gordon from The New Yorker, Attenberg takes us through Mazie's life from the turn of the century until the beginning of the Second World War.

Mazie is the middle sister of a Jewish New England family. She and her younger sister, Genie, are rescued from an abusive household by their elder sister Rosie and her husband Lewis and taken to live in Manhattan. Mazie is a bit rebellious and sexually liberated, eager to live New York. Soon though she is forced to work at Lewis's movie theatre in the ticket booth, quickly becoming an icon to those filling up the theatre every day. Over the next three decades, Mazie tries to hold her family together through ups and downs, successes and tragedies, while also getting drawn into the cultural and historical events that Manhattan live through. Through all of this Mazie goes through an immense personal transformation, going from a flighty but ambitious young woman to stateswoman of the Bowery district who refused to close her theatre during the Great Depression and instead focused all her energies to provide financial and emotional solace to the homeless devestated by the economic collapse during the 1930s.

Structurally the story is told through Mazie's fictionalized diary entries, documentary style interviews of those who had known Mazie, and expert accounts from historians who were experts of the time period. Even though there are multiple story tellers, it is Mazie's voice that looms over this story. Her diary entries are filled with wit and attitude and when tragedy hits the emotion conveyed by her voice is intense and devastating.

I didn't "enjoy" Saint Mazie as much as The Middlesteins, the latter being much lighter and laugh-outloud material. While Attenberg's writing is still fresh with a tinge of humour, Mazie is a more serious and poignant story. Partly this may be Attenberg being more sensitive about writing about a real historical person, but it means that a reader has a very different experience than they did with her last book.

Nonetheless, Attenberg has given us an important work, one that touches on important themes and issues about women fighting through the ever changing urban experience in the first forty years of the 20th Century. It is also a novel that recognizes a figure that the historical record has largely ignored. It has also provide a visceral description of New York city life that potentially could let this book fit well into the pantheon of great New York novels.

All that said, this was an excellent book and I look forward to continuing to read the many books Attenberg certainly has left in her.

Here are some good interviews with Attenberg about Saint Mazie, including a hilarious conversation with Judy Blume.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Mist and the Memory: Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant

I first discovered Kazuo Ishiguro not from his writing but from watching Remains of the Day, which was Anthony Hopkins first film post Silence of the Lambs. After watching his tour de force as Hannibal Lecter, it was shocking to see Hopkins put on such a different and muted performance as a butler struggling to keep his place in a rigidly hierarchal social order.  Both Hopkins and Emma Thompson were amazing in this tragic and painful film and I carried the memory of the film for many years after.

A few years ago, as I started to get into my reading groove, I picked up the book and discovered the hauntingly quiet style of Ishiguro's prose. Shortly after I dived into what has now become the universally adored Never Let Me Go. On the one hand these two works are incomparable. The former a period piece following the lives of the servants working on the estate of an English lord. The latter a  story that delves into the world of science fiction and clones who have been harvested as organ donators. Despite these contrasting settings, both novels grapple with themes of companionship and love that cannot overcome predetermined fates.

While I enjoyed Remains, it was Never Let Me Go that overwhelmed me. Although Ishiguro's style is  calm and gentle, the emotional punch that he delivered is what made me excited to hear about his newest book, The Buried Giant. Even more interesting was Ishiguro's decision to situate this story deep in the realm of fantasy, in a Medieval England filled with ogres, ferries, and dragons. His choice of setting and some comments he made about it drew some unjust ire from legendary SFF author Ursula K. Le Guin and has provoked some valuable discussions about genre and the unnecessary walls it sometimes imposes. With all the chatter surrounding this book, I definitely had high expectations.

The story itself follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who live in a time where everyone's memories are clouded by mist that hangs over the land. They decide that with time running out in their lives it was time to venture out to visit their son who lives in a nearby village. As they embark on their journey they encounter wise monks and talisman, a saxon warrior, a knight who had served under King Arthur, and a young Saxon boy who has become possessed with special powers. Each player is in some way connected to the mist  and  all in some way are trying to preserve or rid the land of the mist's fogging of the past. As Axl and Beatrice follow along with the others, fragments of their pasts slowly seep back into their minds and they must decide whether it is for the best that the mist continues to pervade rather than have painful and angering memories storm back and permanently disturb the quiet tranquillity of the land.

In many ways the themes Ishiguro has touched upon are fascinating. Is it better that hateful feelings that emerged from war be washed away and masked to preserve peace? How do a people, both perpetrators and victims of brutal crimes, overcome the guilt and anger that is felt after a conflict? How precious and powerful is the love of two loyal companions when confronted with their own back story, which may be unpleasant and put into question the strength of their feelings for one another? Does the value of possessing ones memories displace all other things?

Despite the intriguing issues raised,, I found much of the book slow going. The plot and mystery was not as captivating as Never Let Me Go and it took much longer to get into this book, which took away from some of the enjoyability it had. Ishiguro is not a writer who you turn to for fast paced action, but there was a sharpness and tragic empathy that carried the narrators voice in Never Let Me Go that just wasn't replicated in The Buried Giant.

I'd say it is worth picking up but it won't be one of those novels you go around shouting about after completion.  Instead a reader will be left to quietly mull over the ideas and issues Ishiguro has sought to explore, which isn't necessarily such a bad thing.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Catching Up with Miriam Toews

So it has been a while since my last post so lots to catch up with. As mentioned in my last post, we had our first book club meeting, with some really smart and wonderful folks. The first book we chose was by Canadian author Miriam Toews, specifically her newest fictionalized account of her sister's suicide All My Puny Sorrows. This was my first Toews book and it was as lovely and tragically funny as the many accolades the novel received when it was released in 2014.

The story is told through the eyes of Yoli, a semi successful Toronto author and single mother, who is trying desperately to convince her sister Elf not to take her life as she struggles through severe depression. Yoli struggles to offer Elf solace yet try to persuade her to keep living, while also comforting her own mother and trying to manage a personal life that is filled with failure and disappointment.

Toews intertwines so many thematic elements in her story telling, from depression and suicide, to growing up in an intensely religious Mennonite community that looks down at a family's eccentricities, and to how a family copes with such profound loss. Toews writing is witty and funny, which provided a levity to an otherwise gloomy story. There are laugh out loud moments (one in particular where a defiant teen piano prodigy Elf infuriatingly plays away her piano to drive out the Mennonite elders who had visited to chastise her father) and other parts filled with endless tragedy that leave the reader grasping for air.

Despite this, I felt wanting more from this book. There was so much to be told that was left unsaid. I wanted to hear more about the sisters' upbringing and what happened between those early years and the concluding moments of Elf's life. That said, some of my book club members seemed to prefer the silence on these subjects, left room for our imaginations to fill in the gaps and construct our own ideas about how Elf and Yoli ended up here.

Nonetheless, Toews has written a very powerful yet intimate novel. You could feel the personal catharsis that Toews must have felt writing about such a difficult moment in her life. The reader is left feeling a sense of connection with her and you definitely don't get that in most works of fiction.

I look forward to exploring Toews' backlist and maybe getting deeper insight into those themes Toews teased us with in All My Puny Sorrows.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Clubs: Adding structure to my obsession

So although I thoroughly enjoy discussing books, it is hard to get opportunities to really explore what you are reading or have read. Most of our conversations happen at the water cooler, in FB chat, or wherever. Up until this point, I haven't been able to join any book clubs to get deeper into books.

Thankfully this is soon to end. I have gathered a small group of bookish friends and set one up and I have to say I am super excited. Firstly, it is going to be a great experience chatting about books with friends (obviously). Secondly, I hope it will push me to read new books that I wouldn't have considered on my own. Although I have chosen the first book for the group, we'll be making future readings more democratically.

We've chosen to read Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows, which I have just finished. I won't get into too much details about the novel here (i'll save my review for after the club meeting) but it was great and tackled a subject matter (depression) that I found personally moving. There are so many themes and issues that are broached by Toews that I am confident we'll have plenty to chat about.

Anyways, I will be doing a little bit of research about how to introduce a book at one of these things. I have already listened to the Dear Book Nerd podcast on the subject of book clubs, so that was a good start, but if anyone has any ideas or things that worked for them please do share.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Those Weird and Quirky Swedes: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Björn is an inconsequential cog in the bureaucratic machine of The Authority. That hasn't stopped him from overestimating his abilities nor stopped him from prognosticating quick advancement through the company, leaving behind his inferior co-workers and their measly intellects. Of course this isn't how his colleagues see things, with most feeling Björn to be a weird and mentally unstable individual who threatens to disturb the the delicate equilibrium of their little department.

But how have we gotten here...look no further than the mysterious room that Björn spotted when he first began working for The Authority. He decides to see what is inside and discovers an ordinary office, with a desk and office supplies...but also a space where his mind calms and he is able to relax and think clearly.  He goes back again...and again...and again...he takes co-workers there to have conversations there...he brings a woman there for a romantic escapade. 

But something is not right. His colleagues give him weird looks, begin to avoid him, whisper behind his back. It isn't until one of his office mates asks him directly what he is doing that Björn begins to understand. While Björn tries to explain the room, he is met with consternation from the questioner who insists that there is no room and all that others have seen is Björn putting his head against the wall and shut down in silent calmness. 

This is the premise of Jonas Karlsson's weird psychological examination of bureaucracy The Room. Told solely through Björn's perspective, the reader is given the brutal details of government administration and the mental instability that comes with it. Whether its the vicious backstabbing or hideously boring work, it is little surprise that our protagonist has sought refuge in a mysterious room that may or may not exist.

For the most part this short novel was very enjoyable. While Björn is not a likeable character, we still are sympathetic to his quest, especially when his colleagues reveal their sharp talons when confronted with Björn's belief in the room. Especially enthralling, is how Björn meets the viciousness with determination and success (to the horror of his co-workers). While we are kept in the dark about the truth about the room, whether it's a fabrication of Björn's mind or something more, in the end it serves as a interesting metaphor about alienation and work. 

I did find the writing somewhat cold and clinical at times, something I have noticed before in Swedish authors, but for the most part the story moves quickly enough to get over the style. Karlsson is a playwright by trade, and if anything I can imagine this becoming a pretty amazing theatre production. 

So if you are in the mood for a odd, quirky psychological thriller...pick up this quick read and enjoy. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Memory and Loss: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing was released last year, but got a lot more fanfare and buzz in the UK than in North America, winning the Costa first novel prize and long listed for the Bailey Prize. It got some rave reviews but didn't seem to be as hot off the shelves in bookstores on this end of the pond. That said, the amazing success of The Girl on the Train, with its slowly revealed story from the perspective of the unreliable narrator, may give readers here another reason to take a look.

I highly recommend it, since this book is equal in merit and intricate story telling. Healey, only 30 years old, has produced a riveting multi level mystery that had me turning pages and rushing to it whenever I had a chance to read.

Our protagonist is Maud, an octogenarian pensioner, whose memory is quickly failing her. Her daughter, Helen, is growing frustrated by Maud's repeated questions and poor decisions that regularly put her danger.  Yet Maud does not realize the stress she causes others, her thoughts are barely coherent, a thought she has quickly vanishes before she understands its significance. Yet with all the fuzziness clouding her mind, Maud is sure of one thing...Elizabeth is missing. Maud's closest friend cannot be found. Her house is empty, her things have been removed and no one seems to take her concerns seriously, dismissing her as an absent minded senior who cannot remember where she lives, let alone the location of Elizabeth.

Flash back to Maud's late teenage years in post-WWII England, where she still lives with her family and where her beloved sister Sukey has disappeared from her husband's home. Sukey is suspected dead, but uncertainty pushes Maud to try to track her down and figure out where she could have disappeared to. With her family blaming Sukey's husband, who appears to desperately miss his missing wife, Maud does not know what to believe as she tries to comfort him with memories of Sukey's initial excitement when first meeting her future beau.

This is the parallel story that Emma Healey has brilliantly told in her first novel. Cleverly told with little crumbs of clues, the reader is taken on a thrilling journey as Maud tries to discover what has happened to Elizabeth and Sukey. Healy uses crisp language that slowly provides clarity to what has happened but also conveys the messy confusion of an elderly Maud as she tries to put together her thoughts and solve these two great mysteries that bookend her adult life.

Although I have no particular criticism, I also think Healey had room to explore things more. The relationship between Maud and her daughter is fascinating. You can feel the seething frustration that Helen has about her mother, and Maud mentions in passing that she may have failed in some respect as a mother. But the back story around this is never explored. I really would have liked Healey to have gone there and it would have provided a depth to the book and make it more than just a thriller but also a family drama.

Nonetheless this was a great read and I'd recommend it as a not to heavy read for folks looking for a good vacation or summer read.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Some Thoughts About Book Blogging and Book Podcasts

So being new to talking about books in a more formal setting and actually writing my thoughts down, I figure it will take a while to sound very intelligent so I am trying to write regularly on the blog but at the same time trying to take a bit more time to write my reviews. I just finished reading Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healy, which was brilliant and a must read for those who were drawn into the mystery of this year's hit The Girl on the Train. I'll get a full review up by the end of the week to give everyone a better flavour.

In the mean time I want to talk about Podcasts! I often get asked where I hear about books and I have many answers. I check out a few bloggers and listen to the occasional radio show (CBC's The Next Chapter is great!) but in the last four months I have taken to listening to book podcasts (which is when I think I crossed into the realm of obsessive), which are great places to hear intelligent discussions about books and also to hear the buzz about things coming out. So for those who are interested, I wanted to give my take on the Podcasts I have been listening to.

My favourite, and probably the one that has been around the longest and most influential, is Books on the Nightstand,  which is hosted by Anne Kingman and Michael Kindness, both of whom work for Random House but do this podcast as a personal project. This podcast is great for many reasons. One is the likability of the hosts, who come off not as bookish snobs but just people who love reading and managed to get the best jobs possible to satisfy this love. Another great thing about it is that they have very different tastes. Kingman is more into deep, emotional literary journeys, while Kindness has a greater interest in science fiction, graphic novels and quirky fiction. You get a nice range of book recommendations because of their distinct tastes. Anyways, each week they talk in depth about a particular reading issue, be it "why we read dark" or "fiction books within works of fiction", and while the structure is very loose and sometimes rambling, they manage to keep it quite engaging. 

The next podcast I started listening to was The Readers, which I frankly found difficult to get into at first. It is much less structured. While Books on the Nightstand follows a format of introduction - audiobook of the week - weekly topic - book recommendations, The Readers is just an hour long conversation between the two hosts. What was a draw is that the two hosts, Thomas Otto and Simon Savidge, are not book professionals per se (although Savidge has scored more book oriented gigs recently) but just pure book lovers who go through very smart, intense, sometimes testy discussions about novels they have loved, hated, or had neither here nor there feelings about. They also bring quite different perspectives to the show (with the American Otto being more adverse to newer stuff) and the British Savidge being up to date with the newest thing. Each show has a new theme (this week's was "how many chances do you give an author before giving up on them") and they are just a joy to listen to. You also get some more negative feelings expressed by the hosts than Books on the Nightstand, and although I don't always agree with their take it is nice to hear some bluntness about their feelings.

Another one that took me a while to get into was the weekly Book Riot. The Book Riot website has been around for several years and the hosts all seem to be professionally employed by it. And before talking about the podcast I have to say that the website is amazing. There are daily links to fun book stories, ebook deals of the day, and regular reviews about up coming novels. The show is definitely more than just reading though, with hosts that are much more attuned and interested in happenings in the publishing industry and this is a large part of the show's discussion. The hosts are all amazing book lovers and they offer strong recommendations, but it definitely has a different tone. One politically nice thing about the show is that they are very conscious of how publishing is so male dominated and they go out of their way to promote women and writers of colour. This has definitely made me think more about my own reading habits, and I have tried to increase my consumption of female writers in recent months as a result of some of the discussions on the show. One thing I find annoying is that peppered throughout the show are the sponsorship segments, where one host reads off the blurb about sponsor X or sponsor Y. I am less bothered by the sponsorship (because in the world of podcasting it's hard to support your shows otherwise) but Books on the Nightstand does it a bit better by only using the opening moments of the show to do their bit.

Lastly (but not last really) is one I more recently discovered called So Many Damn Books, hosted by two young reading enthusiasts who again just love reading. they have a particular fascination with the Tournament of Books, which is great. They get a regular stream of authors and critics to appear on the show and the discussion is a little less insider and a little more fandom but that is a nice break from the other shows. They also have some great theme shows (like one on Stephen King) which was great.

Anyways, there are a few others worth mentioning that I won't go into detail like The Bookrageous Podcast and Adventures with Words. I'd go check them out and see which you like best but hopefully I have given you some direction. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

So this is a difficult review to put together. I feel like wanting people to read this novel and at the same time will be very cautious recommending it to people. This is a book that will make many top 10 lists and will likely contend for many awards, but it will also turn people off because at the end of the day it is a bleak tale that will leave readers emotionally drained.

As a warning, a major theme of this book is sexual abuse and it is a challenge for a reader to get through the torment that a history of sexual violation has done to the main protagonist. The pain Jude feels throughout his life and what it does to him, even while overcoming the pain to accomplish pretty eventful things, is hard to ingest. 

Despite the difficult subject matter, Yanagihara has really written in beautiful prose. It is a book I found difficult to put down at times and the depth and compassion she writes about the characters is really enthralling. You feel the pain and insecurities and struggles that they go through, despite being surrounded by each other's love. But you are also taken in by the inner beauty they all possess, that they try to show each other, even though they usually fail to properly do so. There is a sense of constant drowning but the light that also shines on this group of friends is so bright that it helps you get through the darker moments of this book.

This isn't a perfect novel though. There are believability issue in the plot and there are times the story loses steam, and unfortunately I found this most the case when Jude tells the horrible story that has made him who he is. That said, it emotional scope of the novel comes in waves and the concluding quarter is an devastating rush of emotion for the reader, and leaves us admiring the genius of this literary accomplishment but also with a sense of hush about talking about what we have just experienced. 

Yanagihara's style is clearly influenced by Donna Tart and in the first 100 pages you can draw parallel's to The Secret History. But while Tart aims to take readers on a journey that is joyous to read, Yanagihara has delved into much darker subject matters that leaves the reader feeling much more down about what they have just taken in.

One criticism I have heard in regards to this book is that the pain described is too outrageous and that the level of success Jude manages to have professionally is unbelievable. While I agree that some elements of unbelievability are present in A Little Life,  Yanagihara has responded, stating the following:

"Everything in this book is a little exaggerated: the horror, of course, but also the love. I wanted it to reach a level of truth by playing with the conventions of a fairy tale, and then veering those conventions off path. I wanted the experience of reading it to feel immersive by being slightly otherworldly, to not give the reader many contextual tethers to steady them."

So while some have identified this as a flaw, I don't necessarily see it as such and in many ways helps accomplish what Yanagihara intends. 

This is one of these books that will stick with me, whose characters I will think about for many years to come. It will stir at the pit of my belly for many months I can tell and hopefully when I think back I will mostly think about Jude and Willem looking deeply at each other and being happy, even if the happiness is fleeting.

An Introduction

So I am a person who goes through life phases, where I get super obsessed with things and try to learn and do as much related to my obsessions as possible. Whether this has been politics, music or reading, when something catches my eye I latch on.

Although I have always been a reader, but in recent years I have embraced the act of consuming literature and have varaciously read book after book. I also have been keen to recommend books to friends and families that are particularly special, started listening to as many book related podcasts as I can find time to, regularly peruse various book related websites, and most recently started a book club. Hence...obsession.

Anyways, I have decided to start this blog where I will review books and give recommendations to anyone who may be interested in hearing my thoughts about what to read. Not sure who will pay attention to my humble opinion but hopefully a few you of will like what I have to say, and maybe even pick something up I suggest.

All the best and hope you enjoy my readings.