Thursday, January 29, 2015

Four Star Fiction and Non-Fiction 2014

Photo by roujo

All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. Goodreads synopsis: A novel of exceptional heart and imagination about the ties that bind us to each other, broken and whole, from one of the most exciting voices in Canadian fiction. 
     September, 1983. Fourteen-year-old Bo, a boat person from Vietnam, lives in a small house in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto with his mother, Thao, and his four-year-old sister, who was born severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange. Named Orange, she is the family secret; Thao keeps her hidden away, and when Bo's not at school or getting into fights on the street, he cares for her.
     One day a carnival worker and bear trainer, Gerry, sees Bo in a streetfight, and recruits him for the bear wrestling circuit, eventually giving him his own cub to train. This opens up a new world for Bo--but then Gerry's boss, Max, begins pursuing Thao with an eye on Orange for his travelling freak show. When Bo wakes up one night to find the house empty, he knows he and his cub, Bear, are truly alone. Together they set off on an extraordinary journey through the streets of Toronto and High Park. Awake at night, boy and bear form a unique and powerful bond. When Bo emerges from the park to search for his sister, he discovers a new way of seeing Orange, himself and the world around them.
   All the Broken Things is a spellbinding novel, at once melancholy and hopeful, about the peculiarities that divide us and bring us together, and the human capacity for love and acceptance.

Beautifully written, strange and moving. 

Ru by Kim Thuy. Goodreads synopsis: A runaway bestseller in Quebec, with foreign rights sold to 15 countries around the world, Kim Thúy's Governor General's Literary Award-winning Ru is a lullaby for Vietnam and a love letter to a new homeland.
Ru. In Vietnamese it means lullaby; in French it is a small stream, but also signifies a flow - of tears, blood, money. Kim Thúy's Ru is literature at its most crystalline: the flow of a life on the tides of unrest and on to more peaceful waters. In vignettes of exquisite clarity, sharp observation and sly wit, we are carried along on an unforgettable journey from a palatial residence in Saigon to a crowded and muddy Malaysian refugee camp, and onward to a new life in Quebec. There, the young girl feels the embrace of a new community, and revels in the chance to be part of the American Dream. As an adult, the waters become rough again: now a mother of two sons, she must learn to shape her love around the younger boy's autism. Moving seamlessly from past to present, from history to memory and back again, Ru is a book that celebrates life in all its wonder: its moments of beauty and sensuality, brutality and sorrow, comfort and comedy. 

Spare, but lovely. Unfortunately, the poetic nature of the writing seems to make it even more difficult than usual to remember details of the story. 

The Eliot Girls by Krista Bridge. Goodreads synopsis: For years, Audrey Brindle has dreamed of attending George Eliot Academy, the school where her mother, Ruth, has taught for a decade. But when she is finally admitted, she discovers a place of sly bullying, ferocious intolerance, and bewildering social standards. Ruth, meanwhile, finds her world upended by her attraction to a new teacher, and the ambitions and desires of both mother and daughter find themselves on a collision course. An acutely observed exploration of betrayal, cruelty, and fallen idols, The Eliot Girls deftly explores the intimacies and injustices of privileged female adolescence and the relationship of a mother and daughter for whom life will never be the same. 

Picked this up at random while at the library - something I do increasingly rarely. At first I found it a bit overwritten and self-consciously first novel-ish, and I still find that Ruth's character was sort of half-drawn, with some dimensions very finely shaded and others completely missing. I also wonder, in works like this, if there isn't a way to put in some characters that are normal, for lack of a better term. Everyone is always either the protagonist or a kind of caricature - all the other teachers are overly dramatic, or have dietary tics, or are too wrapped up in perfect motherhood. But on the whole I really enjoyed it - or admired it, is probably more accurate. It was a clear-eyed rendering of the savage arena of adolescent girlhood and of an incident of adultery, that made both things familiar and yet just different enough to be interesting. And the language was often quite striking.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. Goodreads synopsis: Miriam Toews is beloved for her irresistible voice, for mingling laughter and heartwrenching poignancy like no other writer. In her most passionate novel yet, she brings us the riveting story of two sisters, and a love that illuminates life. 
You won’t forget Elf and Yoli, two smart and loving sisters. Elfrieda, a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, happily married: she wants to die. Yolandi, divorced, broke, sleeping with the wrong men as she tries to find true love: she desperately wants to keep her older sister alive. Yoli is a beguiling mess, wickedly funny even as she stumbles through life struggling to keep her teenage kids and mother happy, her exes from hating her, her sister from killing herself and her own heart from breaking. 
But Elf’s latest suicide attempt is a shock: she is three weeks away from the opening of her highly anticipated international tour. Her long-time agent has been calling and neither Yoli nor Elf’s loving husband knows what to tell him. Can she be nursed back to “health” in time? Does it matter? As the situation becomes ever more complicated, Yoli faces the most terrifying decision of her life.
 All My Puny Sorrows, at once tender and unquiet, offers a profound reflection on the limits of love, and the sometimes unimaginable challenges we experience when childhood becomes a new country of adult commitments and responsibilities. In her beautifully rendered new novel, Miriam Toews gives us a startling demonstration of how to carry on with hope and love and the business of living even when grief loads the heart.

I found this similar to A Complicated Kindness, by which I mean not that it was derivative, but that Toews has a remarkable gift for making the most unbearably sad situations hysterically funny without taking away any of the sadness. I love her. 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Goodreads synopsis: An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity. 
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur's chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them. 
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten's arm is a line from Star Trek: "Because survival is insufficient." But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave. 
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleventells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it. 

Reviewed on blog

There but for the by Ali Smith. Goodreads synopsis: Imagine you have a dinner party and a friend of a friend brings a stranger to your house as his guest. He seems pleasant enough. Imagine that this stranger goes upstairs halfway through the dinner party and locks himself in one of your bedrooms and won't come out. Imagine you can't move him for days, weeks, months. If ever.

Read for book club. It was unconventional but interesting - the story of the people connected to the main character are almost more moving and engaging than the story of the character himself. 

Requiem by Frances Itani. Goodreads synopsis: Bin Okuma, a celebrated visual artist, has recently and quite suddenly lost his wife, Lena. He and his son, Greg, are left to deal with the shock. But Greg has returned to his studies on the East Coast, and Bin finds himself alone and pulled into memories he has avoided for much of his life. In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, his Japanese Canadian family was displaced from the West Coast. Now, he sets out to drive across the country: to complete the last works needed for an upcoming exhibition; to revisit the places that have shaped him; to find his biological father, who has been lost to him. It has been years since his father made a fateful decision that almost destroyed the family. Now, Bin must ask himself whether he really wants to find him. With the persuasive voice of his wife in his head, and the echo of their great love in his heart, he embarks on an unforgettable journey that encompasses art and music, love and hope.
A story of great loss, a story of redemption, a story of abiding love, Requiem is a beautifully written and evocative novel about a family torn apart by the past and a man’s present search for solace.

The synopsis captures it pretty well for this one. This is a sad and affecting story, one of those that we need to help us put a human face on an ugly situation that can be hard to conceptualize in the abstract. 

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. Goodreads synopsis: Saul Indian Horse has hit bottom. His last binge almost killed him, and now he’s a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he’s sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he’ll find it only through telling his story. With him, readers embark on a journey back through the life he’s led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows.
With compassion and insight, author Richard Wagamese traces through his fictional characters the decline of a culture and a cultural way. For Saul, taken forcibly from the land and his family when he’s sent to residential school, salvation comes for a while through his incredible gifts as a hockey player. But in the harsh realities of 1960s Canada, he battles obdurate racism and the spirit-destroying effects of cultural alienation and displacement.
Indian Horse unfolds against the bleak loveliness of northern Ontario, all rock, marsh, bog and cedar. Wagamese writes with a spare beauty, penetrating the heart of a remarkable Ojibway man. Drawing on his great-grandfather’s mystical gift of vision, Saul Indian Horse comes to recognize the influence of everyday magic on his own life. In this wise and moving novel, Richard Wagamese shares that gift of magic with readers as well.

The star system is kind of meaningless for a book like this. "I really liked it"? Well, no, I didn't, it made me feel like throwing up and committing acts of mayhem every few pages. Is it brilliantly done and viscerally enragingly disturbing? Yes, it is. Is there maybe a little too much exhaustive detail about hockey in it for me? Perhaps, but obviously that's understandable. Goddamn, why do people suck so energetically hard so much of the time?

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam. Goodreads synopsis: From Giller Prize winner, internationally acclaimed, and bestselling author Vincent Lam comes a superbly crafted, highly suspenseful, and deeply affecting novel set against the turmoil of the Vietnam War. 
Percival Chen is the headmaster of the most respected English school in Saigon. He is also a bon vivant, a compulsive gambler and an incorrigible womanizer. He is well accustomed to bribing a forever-changing list of government officials in order to maintain the elite status of the Chen Academy. He is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, and quick to spot the business opportunities rife in a divided country. He devotedly ignores all news of the fighting that swirls around him, choosing instead to read the faces of his opponents at high-stakes mahjong tables. But when his only son gets in trouble with the Vietnamese authorities, Percival faces the limits of his connections and wealth and is forced to send him away. In the loneliness that follows, Percival finds solace in Jacqueline, a beautiful woman of mixed French and Vietnamese heritage, and Laing Jai, a son born to them on the eve of the Tet offensive. Percival's new-found happiness is precarious, and as the complexities of war encroach further and further into his world, he must confront the tragedy of all he has refused to see. 
Blessed with intriguingly flawed characters moving through a richly drawn historical and physical landscape, The Headmaster's Wager is a riveting story of love, betrayal and sacrifice.

The plot description really didn't pull me in on this one - I can't even remember why I finally picked it up, but I liked it much more than I expected to. It's not a setting I'm familiar with, so I enjoyed the strangeness of the sense of place, and the story - and Percival Chen as a character - were exceptionally well done. 

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Goodreads synopsis: From bestselling author Meg Wolitzer a dazzling, panoramic novel about what becomes of early talent, and the roles that art, money, and even envy can play in close friendships.
The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.
The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful—true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.
Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters who come together and apart in a changing New York City, The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life.

Reviewed on blog.

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates. Goodreads synopsis: One game. Six students. Five survivors.
It was only ever meant to be a game.
A game of consequences, of silly forfeits, childish dares. A game to be played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University. But then the game changed: the stakes grew higher and the dares more personal, more humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results.
Now, fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round.

I'm kind of a sucker for these "they were the best of friends...deep dark secret....blah blah blah" books, with a healthy dose of skepticism, because when done badly they can be unforgivably melodramatic. This one is done really well. The addition of a layer of British classism adds depth, as well as the shady manipulations of Game Soc. The heady mix of intellectual ferment and young adult freedom (and hubris) is captured perfectly, and the description of the personalities makes it easy to overcome the "but why wouldn't they just stop?" reaction. Above all, this book really brings home the truth that there's nothing an enemy can do to you that can compare with the devastation that can be wrought by a friend. 

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty. Goodreads synopsis: At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that’s not meant to be read
My darling Cecilia, if you’re reading this, then I’ve died...
Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .
Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.
Acclaimed author Liane Moriarty has written a gripping, thought-provoking novel about how well it is really possible to know our spouses—and, ultimately, ourselves.

I was expecting this to be more mystery than 'women's fiction', but I ended up really enjoying it. I agree a lot of it was contrived and implausible (although my friend Zarah would like you to know that the incredibly unrealistic part about the one woman's husband and his lover expecting her to feel bad for them because they were so sorry that they fell in love does actually happen), but it was internally consistent enough that I could get over that, and I did enjoy the various crossing paths and the thoughts about wifedom and motherhood. And if you're thinking that you already read about this one in a previous post, you did - I accidentally included it in the three-star books. Oops. 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Goodreads synopsis: It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.
As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.
The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher's calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

We read her previous book, The Secret History, in my book club years ago and I really didn't like it, and I was surprised at all the positive buzz about this one. I got it out of the library for my mother and she finished it so quickly that there was time before it had to go back, so I cracked it open. I ended up happily eating my words (or hers, as it turns out). This was as wide and deep and moving as The Secret History was shallow and flat and annoying (for me, anyway). I couldn't put it down.


Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. Goodreads synopsis: Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice. 
Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond.  Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.

I started this out feeling ever-so-slightly cranky about it, like Strayed was just using people's letters as a flimsy framework to hang her own flighty musings and memoirings on. As I read on, I started to think, well, after all, these people wrote to her in full knowledge that she's not a licensed therapist or psychiatrist, and she did it for free. In addition, there's some pretty goddamned good writing AND some fairly decent life advice on offer. So, yeah: Dear Self: Get over yourself.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened by Allie Brosh. Goodreads synopsis: This is a book I wrote. Because I wrote it, I had to figure out what to put on the back cover to explain what it is. I tried to write a long, third-person summary that would imply how great the book is and also sound vaguely authoritative--like maybe someone who isn’t me wrote it--but I soon discovered that I’m not sneaky enough to pull it off convincingly. So I decided to just make a list of things that are in the book:
Stories about things that happened to me
Stories about things that happened to other people because of me
Eight billion dollars*
Stories about dogs
The secret to eternal happiness*
*These are lies. Perhaps I have underestimated my sneakiness!

I always think a big part of the secret to eternal happiness is laughter - even about sad, horrible things like death and crippling depression - so I don't think she's really lying. She is gifted and hysterically funny, though. I gave this to Matt's uncle and his wife (who are not that much older than us), and their seven-year-old got hold of it, read a few pages and said "this book has every swear ever invented in it". He doesn't actually know all the swear words ever invented (I know - I quizzed him), but maybe exercise some parental discretion if that kind of thing bothers you. 


Steph Lovelady said...

When I got to Station Eleven I thought, oh here's one for a book I've read and then I realized, no, I haven't read that book, I just read the review on Allison's blog. Make of that what you will.

Lynn said...

A mixed bag for me here. Ru is one of the Canada Reads books this year, but it just didn't interest me - actually, I'm not sure any of them do this year. Do you make a habit of reading them or paying attention to them?

Of these, some I really do NOT want to read - All My Puny Sorrows, for one, because A Complicated Kindness stands as one of my least favourite books ever. Weird, I know - it's not that it wasn't beautiful, or interesting, it's that the whole time I read it I felt like I was supposed to be "getting" something, some sort of larger meaning or mystery that I just never did. The ending in particular was totally mysterious to me, I just DID NOT get it, and then I felt stupid. So she's blacklisted. Same for The Interestings, which I commented at length on when you blogged about it.

Of these, I'm definitely in for Station Eleven - I actually just ordered it in hardcover EVEN THOUGH I have a hundred books on my bedside table and about a hundred more in my Kindle. I am WEAK. Also - the Headmaster's Wager sounds intriguing, going on the list.

Nicole said...

I really, really disliked A Complicated Kindness too! I'm bookmarking this post for later reference!