Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My Kids Being Funny

I'm in sort of a weird place. I spent a few years raising kids and not worrying about getting a job. Then I spent a few years raising kids and working at a slow and meandering pace towards a diploma that would help me get a job. Then I spent a few months looking for a job. Now I have a job, but I'm not working much. So, like, when I'm not working, what's my job? You know?

It's fine. I've been on a very satisfying decluttering and purging tear, hung out with the kids a little during exams, and I'm keeping an eye out for steadier work. I've made it to the gym three weeks in a row, which all on its own is ample evidence that I'm doing better than I usually am in January. It's just all a little weird.

Eve Being Funny About Biscuits:

I was baking biscuits when Eve got home from school the other day, which made her very happy. She perched on the arm of the couch watching me cut out biscuits and place them on a cookie sheet saying "I'm so excited for biscuits!" and then I opened the oven and took out a sheet and she yelled "OMG, there were some in the oven already? WHAT A PLEASANT SURPRISE!"

Angus Being Funny About Bedrooms:

A few years ago we had the kids switch bedrooms because Angus's was twice the size and Eve spent more time in hers. Angus's small room had a queen loft bed, a single bed and a dresser underneath that, a book case and a little table that he mostly just piled shit on. It was close and cramped, but he really just slept and got dressed there. After a couple of years, he started sleeping in the spare bed downstairs so it was just a closet room. I'd been bugging Matt to get the loft bed out, but you know, life happens, things get put off, we are nothing if not champion procrastinators. Then a couple of weeks ago I found a friend who not only wanted the bed, but her husband wanted to come and take it apart so he would know better how to put it back together. Hello, Awesome! And the room looks SO much better now - we all keep going in and spinning around in circles on the empty floor, and there's so much more light, and Angus can actually stand all the way up and extend his arms while getting dressed.

So then Angus says "the only problem with you cleaning that room up is now I'm spending more time there." And I say "how is that a problem?" And he says "well, I'd committed to the basement before. Now I'm a citizen torn between two countries."

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Books 2017: Five Stars

So here's the thing. I don't typically write a lot about books I give five stars to (which denotes amazingness), because I'm busy being, you know, amazed. Also, I am heartily sick of my own reviewing voice at the moment. See everyone next year?

The Convulsion Factory by Brian Hodge. Synopsis from GoodreadsThematic collection of 12 stories based around the theme of urban decay.

In all honesty, I had another look at this last night and almost decided to leave it off this post. I actually did find it quite amazing, but there's a lot of taboo and fetish-y sex stuff, and I'm not sure exactly who I would wholeheartedly recommend it to. All of the stories are extremely dark, in a way that serves the theme rather than just for shock value; I also found a strong compassion, though, for the disenfranchised and anyone who feels lost, including sympathetic portrayals of the transgender community. There was a tender recognition of the yearning for human connection. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Synopsis from Goodreads: 100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens. 
How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come? 
In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come? 
Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power ... and our future.

"I do not love mankind". That was the first line of a book I loved - The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken. Yuval Noah Harari also does not love mankind, which added a really interesting flavour to the history here. Anyone with a high-level knowledge of human history might find this too glib, but for me it was a fascinating survey with some intriguing curve balls. It's fair to assume that this was so amazing to me because it's so far from anything I could ever write. 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Synopsis from Goodreads: In a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, Coates confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black bodies and lives. Thoughtfully exploring personal and historical events, from his time at Howard University to the Civil War, the author poignantly asks and attempts to answer difficult questions that plague modern society. In this short memoir, the "Atlantic" writer explains that the tragic examples of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and those killed in South Carolina are the results of a systematically constructed and maintained assault to black people--a structure that includes slavery, mass incarceration, and police brutality as part of its foundation. From his passionate and deliberate breakdown of the concept of race itself to the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, Coates powerfully sums up the terrible history of the subjugation of black people in the United States. A timely work, this title will resonate with all teens--those who have experienced racism as well as those who have followed the recent news coverage on violence against people of color.

Not a comfortable read for a privileged person. Should probably be required reading for all of us, though.

This is the poem from which the title is taken:

Between the World and Me 
Richard Wright

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
    suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
    oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
    themselves between the world and me....
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
    upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
    finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
    a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
    and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
    butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
    drained gin-flask, and a whore's lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
    lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
    surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull....
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
    for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
    icy walls of fear--
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
    grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
    poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
    darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
    into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
    my flesh.
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
    cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
    upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
    my life be burned....
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
    into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
    black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
    they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
    me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
    my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
    baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
    sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
    yellow surprise at the sun.... 

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. Synopsis from Goodreads: Unburdened by the material necessities of the more fortunate, the denizens of Cannery Row discover rewards unknown in more traditional society. Henry the painter sorts through junk lots for pieces of wood to incorporate into the boat he is building, while the girls from Dora Flood’s bordello venture out now and then to enjoy a bit of sunshine. Lee Chong stocks his grocery with almost anything a man could want, and Doc, a young marine biologist who ministers to sick puppies and unhappy souls, unexpectedly finds true love.
Cannery Row is just a few blocks long, but the story it harbors is suffused with warmth, understanding, and a great fund of human values.
First published in 1945, Cannery Row focuses on the acceptance of life as it is—both the exuberance of community and the loneliness of the individual. John Steinbeck draws on his memories of the real inhabitants of Monterey, California, and interweaves their stories in this world where only the fittest survive—creating what is at once one of his most humorous and poignant works. In Cannery Row, John Steinbeck returns to the setting of Tortilla Flat to create another evocative portrait of life as it is lived by those who unabashedly put the highest value on the intangibles—human warmth, camaraderie, and love.

Here is another thing. It's pretty rare for me to be poleaxed and ecstatic about a book that is termed a classic. I read them. I often admire them. But I don't worship them and adore them and reach for them in a crisis the way I do with books I really truly love, which are most often genre fiction. I don't know if that's a lack of sophistication on my part (as Eleanor Shellstrop says in The Good Place, "goodbye modern architecture that I was too trashy to appreciate") but whenever I read one of those pieces where a public figure names their ten favourite books, I always sneakily wonder if they padded it to make themselves sound smarter. There are exceptions, of course - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn springs immediately to mind. I'm pretty comfortable with my possibly low-brow literary appreciation at this point, but I keep reading the classics because even if they don't set my mind on fire, it's worth seeing what other people find worthy. Anyway. I read Cannery Row and was completely, almost shockingly, smitten. What a vivid and visceral sense of place and character. If I had one slight quibble, it might be the sense that poverty and squalor were perhaps ever-so-slightly romanticized, but what the hell do I know? I felt like I was walking down the street, feeling the sun and smelling the smells and hearing the voices of the people. I was helpless with laughter over the frog hunt. The earnestness of the flophouse philosophers planning the party for Doc was heartbreaking. I felt like this completely captured that place in that time. It was wonderful.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. Synopsis from Goodreads: Blending literature and memoir, Ann Patchett, author of State of  Wonder, Run, and Bel Canto, examines her deepest commitments—to writing, family, friends, dogs, books, and her husband—creating a resonant portrait of a life in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
As she shares stories of the people, places, ideals, and art to which she has remained indelibly committed, Ann Patchett brings into focus the large experiences and small moments that have shaped her as a daughter, wife, and writer. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage takes us into the very real world of Ann Patchett’s life. Stretching from her childhood to the present day, from a disastrous early marriage to a later happy one, it covers a multitude of topics, including relationships with family and friends, and charts the hard work and joy of writing, and the unexpected thrill of opening a bookstore

I saw this as an ebook from the library so grabbed it because I generally read everything by Ann Patchett that I can get my hands on, and was stupidly halfway through the introduction before I realized that it WAS, in fact, a book of essays. ("Why is she banging on about non-fiction so much? Oh. Wait"). I actually read her non-fiction book Truth and Beauty about her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy before I read her fiction, and I liked the non-fiction book but not nearly as much as I adore her fiction, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I never am with her - often I read the plot synopsis and it doesn't sound particularly captivating at all. Because with Ann Patchett, it's never what she's writing, but how she writes about it. It's dreamy without being imprecise. It's exuberant without being saccharine. It's romantic and yet clear-eyed. I loved this book - her wry, intelligent, compassionate voice comes through so clearly in everything. It's wide-ranging in subject and I read it over a few days, finishing it at 3:30 a.m. one insomnia-ridden night. I was sad when it was over. It's important to note, I think, that it contains the phrase "little old nun toes". You're welcome. 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. Synopsis from Goodreads: Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts. 
In his long-awaited return, John Green, the acclaimed, award-winning author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity in this brilliant novel of love, resilience, and the power of lifelong friendship.

It's almost boring at this point, how predictably, ludicrously wonderful every goddamned John Green book is. Oh, another teenager with an issue, rendered in wholly realistic, compassionate, convincing detail. More heartwarming relationships and a search/quest and coming of age stuff and superlatively witty banter that many people say is unrealistic because 'teenagers don't really talk like that'. Look, haters, I hang out with four fourteen-year-old girls on the regular. They talk like that. 

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Synopsis from Goodreads: In this graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father.
Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the Fun Home. It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve.

I never thought I'd be five-starring a graphic novel, but oh, I don't even know how to articulate how much I loved this. I often feel like graphic novels cheat the reader on really fantastic writing - a picture, a few words, some in bold or a bigger font - but that is so emphatically not the case here. This is so funny, twisted, sad, sensitive, insightful, kind, bittersweet, gracious and wonderful. The way she finds resonance between her life and her father's, between literature and her family's circumstances, the way themes and phrases echo and reverberate is completely masterful, and then there's incredibly detailed and wonderful art that echoes it all. I laughed out loud. I cried real tears. I am now going to search out every single thing she has done and devour it. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Books 2017: Four-Star Non-Fiction and Fiction


Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming. Synopsis from Goodreads: Dark, painful memories can be put away to be forgotten. Until one day they all flood back in horrible detail.
When television producers approached Alan Cumming to appear on a popular celebrity genealogy show, he hoped to solve the mystery of his maternal grandfather's disappearance that had long cast a shadow over his family. But this was not the only mystery laid before Alan.
Alan grew up in the grip of a man who held his family hostage, someone who meted out violence with a frightening ease, who waged a silent war with himself that sometimes spilled over onto everyone around him. That man was Alex Cumming, Alan's father, whom Alan had not seen or spoken to for more than a decade when he reconnected just before filming for Who Do You Think You Are? began. He had a secret he had to share, one that would shock his son to his very core and set into motion a journey that would change Alan's life forever.
With ribald humor, wit, and incredible insight, Alan seamlessly moves back and forth in time, integrating stories from his childhood in Scotland and his experiences today as the celebrated actor of film, television, and stage. At times suspenseful, at times deeply moving, but always incredibly brave and honest, Not My Father's Son is a powerful story of embracing the best aspects of the past and triumphantly pushing the darkness aside.

Lovely and bittersweet. He sounds like a lovely man. I've loved him as an actor, which made me approach this with trepidation, because, you know, safer to never meet your heroes (or read autobiographical writing by them).  No worries - this was written with pathos, suspense and poignant, gracious humour.

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny. Synopsis from Goodreads: Shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize 2014
Smart, clear-eyed, and irreverent, Unspeakable Things is a fresh look at gender and power in the twenty-first century, which asks difficult questions about dissent and desire, money and masculinity, sexual violence, menial work, mental health, queer politics, and the Internet.
Celebrated journalist and activist Laurie Penny draws on a broad history of feminist thought and her own experience in radical subcultures in America and Britain to take on cultural phenomena from the Occupy movement to online dating, give her unique spin on economic justice and freedom of speech, and provide candid personal insight to rally the defensive against eating disorders, sexual assault, and internet trolls. Unspeakable Things is a book that is eye-opening not only in the critique it provides, but also in the revolutionary alternatives it imagines.

Mostly I liked this very much. When she wrote it she was much younger than I am and very angry. The angry I still relate to. There are areas where it feels like she's a bit too much in love with her own fiery rhetoric and piles up a bunch of vivid images and clever turns of phrase until I had kind of lost the point, but that's not the worst thing in the world. A lot of this stuff has already worked its way into the vocabulary of feminism, which is a good thing. Overall - I'm now satisfied that her non-fiction writing is as good as her fiction, which I have loved; reading this as an older feminist made me both admiring of her energy and very, very tired; and I have to do some reading on neoliberalism now.

The Three-Pound Enigma: The Human Brain and the Quest to Unlock Its Mysteries by Shannon Moffet. Synopsis from Goodreads: The average human brain weighs three pounds—80 percent of which is water—and yet it's capable of outstripping the computational and storage capacities of the most complex computer. But how the mind works remains one of humankind's greatest mysteries.
With boundless curiosity and enthusiasm, Shannon Moffett, a Stanford medical student, takes us down the halls of neuroscience to the front lines of cutting-edge research and medicine to meet some of today's most extraordinary scientists and thinkers, all grappling with provocative questions: Why do we dream? How does memory work? How do we see? What happens when we think?
Each chapter delves into a different aspect of the brain, following the experts as they chart new ground. Moffett takes us to a lab where fMRI scans reveal the multitude of stimuli that our brains unconsciously take in; inside an operating room where a neurosurgeon removes a bullet from a patient's skull; to the lab of Christof Koch, a neuroscientist tracking individual neurons in order to crack the code of consciousness; and to a research lab where scientists are investigating the relationship between dreams and waking life. She also takes us beyond the scientific world—to a Zen monk's zendo, where she explores the effects of meditation on the brain; inside the home of a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder; to a conference with the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who uses illusions, magic, tricks, and logic to challenge our assumptions about the mind; and to the home of the late Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer with James Watson of DNA's double-helix structure.
Filled with fascinating case studies and featuring a timeline that tracks the development of the brain from conception to death, The Three Pound Enigma is a remarkable exploration of what it means to be human.

I really liked this, and I felt like I learned a lot, but as with many things at this stage of my life, it's hard to get it to stick. It's such a deep, sprawling subject, and I felt like she did a good job carving out a path through it, and mixing hard science with character studies of people in the field and more easily digestible passages about more popular areas of neuroscience. I find this subject endlessly fascinating - how do you study the brain while using your brain, so you're inside the brain but outside the brain at the same time? I will probably reread this at least once. 

Fiction, But With Superheroes and Fairies and Flying People and Stuff

I'm not sure why I decided to put these here instead of with the other fantasy books. They just seemed a little more on the magical realism side than actual fantasy, although if I'd let myself brood on it more I probably could have moved more title back and forth. So I decided not to overthink it. This might actually be my very favourite kind of novel - realistic, but admitting that sometimes reality has some give to it.

All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman. Synopsis from GoodreadsAll Tom's friends really are superheroes.
There's the Ear, the Spooner, the Impossible Man. Tom even married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But at their wedding, the Perfectionist was hypnotized (by ex-boyfriend Hypno, of course) to believe that Tom is invisible. Nothing he does can make her see him. Six months later, she's sure that Tom has abandoned her.
So she's moving to Vancouver. She'll use her superpower to make Vancouver perfect and leave all the heartbreak in Toronto. With no idea Tom's beside her, she boards an airplane in Toronto. Tom has until the wheels touch the ground in Vancouver to convince her he's visible, or he loses her forever.

I had this on my Kindle forever until a guy at our regular bar night mentioned that he had read it - that seemed coincidental enough that it prompted me to read it. It's a very quiet, melancholy kind of superhero tale. The superheros involved have powers like knowing what the perfect song or bottle of wine for any occasion is, or wandering into people's houses in the middle of the night and cuddling them when they need it. Very sad and lovely. 

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe. Synopsis from Goodreads: No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, yet when the first Europeans arrived, they were already there. Dark-haired, enigmatic, and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be lost to history, there are clues in their music, hints of their true nature buried in the songs they have passed down for generations.
Private Bronwyn Hyatt returns from Iraq wounded in body and in spirit, only to face the very things that drove her away in the first place: her family, her obligations to the Tufa, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But more trouble lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless "haint" lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn's darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.
With death stalking her family, Bronwyn will need to summon the strength to take her place among the true Tufa and once again fly on the night winds…
The Hum and the Shiver is a Kirkus Reviews Best of 2011: Science Fiction & Fantasy title.

In the wrong hands, this could have easily been too Harlequin Romance for my liking, but it bends the tropes enough that it's just a readable story with a brush of the otherworldly. The Tufa lore is so convincing that I actually looked up whether it had any basis in fact. It slightly resembles the fiction of Charles de Lint, who I love. 

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. Synopsis from Goodreads: Louise is a single mom, a secretary, stuck in a modern-day rut. On a rare night out, she meets a man in a bar and sparks fly. Though he leaves after they kiss, she’s thrilled she finally connected with someone.
When Louise arrives at work on Monday, she meets her new boss, David. The man from the bar. The very married man from the bar…who says the kiss was a terrible mistake but who still can’t keep his eyes off Louise.
And then Louise bumps into Adele, who’s new to town and in need of a friend, but she also just happens to be married to David. David and Adele look like the picture-perfect husband and wife, but then why is David so controlling, and why is Adele so scared of him?

As Louise is drawn into David and Adele’s orbit, she uncovers more puzzling questions than answers. The only thing that is crystal clear is that something in this marriage is very, very wrong, but Louise can’t guess how wrong―and how far a person might go to protect their marriage’s secrets.

Sarah Pinborough is always interesting to read - you never know exactly what you're getting into. I wavered between three and four stars here, and I don't want to say too much because I think this is a better read if you go in with few expectations.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce. Synopsis from Goodreads: It is Christmas afternoon and Peter Martin gets an unexpected phone call from his parents, asking him to come round. It pulls him away from his wife and children and into a bewildering mystery.
He arrives at his parents house and discovers that they have a visitor. His sister Tara. Not so unusual you might think, this is Christmas after all, a time when families get together. But twenty years ago Tara took a walk into the woods and never came back and as the years have gone by with no word from her the family have, unspoken, assumed that she was dead. Now she's back, tired, dirty, disheveled, but happy and full of stories about twenty years spent traveling the world, an epic odyssey taken on a whim.
But her stories don't quite hang together and once she has cleaned herself up and got some sleep it becomes apparent that the intervening years have been very kind to Tara. She really does look no different from the young woman who walked out the door twenty years ago. Peter's parents are just delighted to have their little girl back, but Peter and his best friend Richie, Tara's one time boyfriend, are not so sure. Tara seems happy enough but there is something about her. A haunted, otherworldly quality. Some would say it's as if she's off with the fairies. And as the months go by Peter begins to suspect that the woods around their homes are not finished with Tara and his family.

Oh man, I loved this so much. Why did I not five-star it? I should have five-starred it. It has everything I need for a wholly gratifying reading experience. It's just a really great story with a bittersweet flavour of fairy tales. 

At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson. Synopsis from Goodreads: Tommy and Ozzie have been best friends since second grade, and boyfriends since eighth. They spent countless days dreaming of escaping their small town—and then Tommy vanished.
More accurately, he ceased to exist, erased from the minds and memories of everyone who knew him. Everyone except Ozzie.
Ozzie doesn’t know how to navigate life without Tommy, and soon suspects that something else is going on: that the universe is shrinking.
When Ozzie is paired up with new student Calvin on a physics project, he begins to wonder if Calvin could somehow be involved. But the more time they spend together, the harder it is for him to deny the feelings developing between them, even if he still loves Tommy.
But Ozzie knows there isn’t much time left to find Tommy–that once the door closes, it can’t be opened again. And he’s determined to keep it open as long as possible.

So grateful to this book, which busted me out of a reading rut. I liked the way this was fairly realistic fiction that played out within a framework of magical realism - and the magical device is a very apt metaphor for Ozzie's mental state. I also admired the frank addressing of adolescent sexuality and sexual diversity. Good writing, great story.


Pavilion of Women: A Novel of Life in the Women's Quarters by Pearl S. Buck. Synopsis from Goodreads: On her fortieth birthday, Madame Wu carries out a decision she has been planning for a long time: she tells her husband that after twenty-four years their physical life together is now over and she wishes him to take a second wife. The House of Wu, one of the oldest and most revered in China, is thrown into an uproar by her decision, but Madame Wu will not be dissuaded and arranges for a young country girl to come take her place in bed. Elegant and detached, Madame Wu orchestrates this change as she manages everything in the extended household of more than sixty relatives and servants. Alone in her own quarters, she relishes her freedom and reads books she has never been allowed to touch. When her son begins English lessons, she listens, and is soon learning from the foreigner, a free-thinking priest named Brother Andre, who will change her life. Few books raise so many questions about the nature and roles of men and women, about self-discipline and happiness.

This was my second attempt to read a book by Pearl S. Buck, after being somewhat underwhelmed by The Eternal Wonder. I wondered initially about cultural appropriation, but Buck's parents were missionaries and she spent most of the first half of her life in China, which doesn't erase those concerns, but mitigates them. This was a really interesting read, and the thinking illustrated by the character of Madame Wu is quite startlingly modern and progressive. The sense of place and the illustration of the quotidian customs and atmosphere is also vividly rendered. This one has stuck with me. 

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam. Synopsis from Goodreads: If Gabriel García Márquez had chosen to write about Pakistani immigrants in England, he might have produced a novel as beautiful and devastating as Maps for Lost Lovers. 
Jugnu and Chanda have disappeared. Like thousands of people all over England, they were lovers and living together out of wedlock. To Chanda’s family, however, the disgrace was unforgivable. Perhaps enough so as to warrant murder.As he explores the disappearance and its aftermath through the eyes of Jugnu’s worldly older brother, Shamas, and his devout wife, Kaukab, Nadeem Aslam creates a closely observed and affecting portrait of people whose traditions threaten to bury them alive. The result is a tour de force, intimate, affecting, tragic and suspenseful. 

These two titles had no connection in my head until just now, when I realize that the themes are intriguingly similar. I had to process this one for quite a while. I think I bought it as a bargain book years ago, so I'm grateful that the Book Bingo challenge spurred me to read it ("a book by a Muslim author"). A few reviews criticized it as flowery; when I started reading I thought they were exaggerating. A little ways in I realized that hoo boy, the imagery was thick with this one. I started counting similes and it was rare to find only one to a page - often there were four or five, and some were fairly tortured. By halfway through, either I or the author relaxed into the style and it didn't seem so intrusive.
Much of the novel seems like a fairly harsh indictment of Islam, and not just extremism. Kaukab, the wife of the main character, strives to be a virtuous Muslim and to instill the same values in her children, but this ends up hurting them and alienating them from her. Honour killings are a central theme, as well as the constant need for women to be on their guard lest they be considered unchaste, usually unfairly. 
Overall, it's a really sad story, told beautifully for the most part.

Darwin's Wink: A Novel of Nature and Love by Alison Anderson. Synopsis from Goodreads: Alison Anderson's Darwin's Wink is the story of an exquisite romance between two naturalists working to save a rare bird species on an island off the coast of Mauritius. Both are devastated by their pasts: Fran mourns the unexplained death of her Mauritian lover; Christian, a former Red Cross worker, has recently left war-torn Bosnia after the mysterious disappearance of his fiancée. As they slowly teach each other to trust again, the two must also contend with strange attacks on the island that place both their lives and livelihoods in grave danger.

I was noodling around looking for a book for the Bingo prompt 'a book whose author has the same name as you'. As soon as I saw this one, I remembered reading her book Hidden Latitudes, which was a fictional imagining of Amelia Earhart after she crashed her plane on a remote island. She was with a man - I can't remember if he was her engineer and on the plane with her or there for some other reason - and they fall in love. So after reading this book, I sort of feel like Anderson has a thing for unconventional romances that take place on islands, but I still really liked this - some beautiful writing about nature and evolution, trying to preserve fragile things against the onslaught of 'progress', and difficult relationships that would only ever take place in a very specific environment. 

Fault Lines by Nancy Huston. Synopsis from Goodreads: A best seller in France, with over 400,000 copies sold, and currently being translated into eighteen languages, Fault Lines is the new novel from internationally-acclaimed and best-selling author Nancy Huston. Huston's novel is a profound and poetic story that traces four generations of a single family from present-day California to WW II era Germany. Fault Lines begins with Sol, a gifted, terrifying child whose mother believes he is destined for greatness partly because he has a birthmark like his dad, his grandmother, and his great-grandmother. When Sol's family makes an unexpected trip to Germany, secrets begin to emerge about their history during World War II. It seems birthmarks are not all that's been passed down through the bloodlines. Closely observed, lyrically told, and epic in scope, Fault Lines is a touching, fearless, and unusual novel about four generations of children and their parents. The story moves from the West Coast of the United States to the East, from Haifa to Toronto to Munich, as secrets unwind back through time until a devastating truth about the family's origins is reached. Huston tells a riveting, vigorous tale in which love, music, and faith rage against the shape of evil.

I've always found Huston to be a really remarkable writer. Her style is striking and affecting while being completely devoid of sentimentality - she seems to see human motivations, flaws and frailties with merciless clarity. This story is told in four parts by four different six-year-olds, going backwards in time. The child's perspective is completely effective and convincing (terrifying, in some cases). I always find reading about children caught in bad circumstances beyond their control heartwrenching to read about, especially when it's done well. This one will be hard to forget.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Synopsis from Goodreads: On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness--and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own. 
In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, the stories in This Is How You Lose Her lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.”

I've been meaning to read Junot Diaz for a while, so I grabbed this from the library while picking up holds. I guess I can't say it kept me up all night because at the time I read it I was up all night most nights anyway, but it kept me company all night. What an amazing voice - I felt completely submerged in a culture and way of life that was previously completely unknown to me. And I felt sympathy for a character who was in many ways unsympathetic, which requires some really good writing.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. Synopsis from Goodreads: From one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, a stunningly insightful, emotionally powerful new novel about an outsider haunted by an inescapable past: a story of loneliness and survival, guilt and loss, and the power of forgiveness.
Jake Whyte is living on her own in an old farmhouse on a craggy British island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. Her disobedient collie, Dog, and a flock of sheep are her sole companions, which is how she wanted it to be. But every few nights something—or someone—picks off one of the sheep and sets off a new deep pulse of terror. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumors of an obscure, formidable beast. But there is also Jake's past—hidden thousands of miles away and years ago, held in the silences about her family and the scars that stripe her back—a past that threatens to break into the present. 
With exceptional artistry and empathy, All the Birds, Singingreveals an isolated life in all its struggles and stubborn hopes, unexpected beauty, and hard-won redemption.

Spare, unflinching and almost unbearably sad. The sense of place (sheep, wilderness, heat) and small details of setting were uncomfortably sharp. I found the present section moving forward and the past section moving backwards really effective once I got used to it. Jake is an unusual, nontraditional female protagonist which was refreshing. I'm not sure redemption was really in the cards here, and I appreciated that no punches were pulled.

Some Luck (Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga #1) by Jane Smiley. Synopsis from GoodreadsOn their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different yet equally remarkable children: Frank, the brilliant, stubborn first-born; Joe, whose love of animals makes him the natural heir to his family's land; Lillian, an angelic child who enters a fairy-tale marriage with a man only she will fully know; Henry, the bookworm who's not afraid to be different; and Claire, who earns the highest place in her father's heart. Moving from post-World War I America through the early 1950s, Some Luck gives us an intimate look at this family's triumphs and tragedies, zooming in on the realities of farm life, while casting-as the children grow up and scatter to New York, California, and everywhere in between-a panoramic eye on the monumental changes that marked the first half of the twentieth century. Rich with humor and wisdom, twists and surprises, Some Luck takes us through deeply emotional cycles of births and deaths, passions, and betrayals, displaying Smiley's dazzling virtuosity, compassion, and understanding of human nature and the nature of history, never discounting the role of fate and chance. This potent conjuring of many lives across generations is a stunning tour de force.

I had to read a book with "Some" in the title for a bingo book challenge and the search came up with this. It was the first "this happened, then this happened" book I've read for a while. It took me forever to read, more because of a suddenly-crazed life schedule than any lacking in the book - I always looked forward to resuming. I liked the differences in the personalities of the children and the description of farm life, and how certain personalities are more suited to farm life. I don't know if I'll continue the trilogy, since the ending seemed natural and right to me.

Congratulations on Everything by Nathan Whitlock. Synopsis from GoodreadsAmbition, failure, sex, and the service industry 
A dark and comic novel, Congratulations On Everything tracks the struggles, frailties, and cruelly pyrrhic victories of the middle-aged owner of a bar-restaurant and a 30ish lunch-shift waitress.
Jeremy has bought into the teachings of an empowerment and success guru, hook, line, and sinker. A Toronto service industry lifer, he’s risen through the ranks until he finally takes the keys to his destiny and opens his own place, The Ice Shack.
Everyone assumes Ice Shack daytime waitress Charlene is innocent and empathetic, but in reality she’s desperately unhappy and looking for a way out of her marriage to her high-school sweetheart. A drunken encounter sends Charlene and her boss careening. The Ice Shack stops being an oasis of sanity and, as Jeremy struggles to keep his business afloat, he’ll stop at nothing to maintain his successful, good guy self-image.
In an era when the gourmand rules and chefs become superstars, Congratulations On Everything is a hilarious and occasionally uncomfortable dose of anti-foodie reality that reveals what goes on when the customers and Instagrammers aren’t around — and even sometimes when they are.

Really enjoyed this, although finding it sort of difficult to articulate what it's about. Jeremy is a flawed but ultimately sympathetic character - Charlene I had a harder time getting a handle on. Very Canadian flavour. I laughed out loud a few times. Whitlock is a friend of a friend I hang out in a bar with every Tuesday evening and I've been promising him I'd read this for a while.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Books 2017: Four-Star Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror


Ink and Bone by Lisa Unger. Synopsis from Goodreads: In this explosive psychological thriller by New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger, a young woman’s mysterious gift forces her into the middle of a dangerous investigation of a little girl’s disappearance.
For as long as she can remember, twenty-year-old Finley Montgomery has been able to see into the future. She dreams about events before they occur and sees beyond the physical world, unconsciously using her power to make supernatural things happen.
But Finley can’t control these powers—and there’s only one person who can help. So Finley moves to The Hollows, a small town in upstate New York where her grandmother lives, a renowned seer who can finally teach Finley how to use her gift.
A gift that is proving to be both a blessing and a curse, as Finley lands in the middle of a dangerous investigation involving a young girl who has been missing for ten months and the police have all but given up hope.
With time running out there’s only so much Finley can do as The Hollows begins to reveal its true colors. As she digs deeper into the town and its endless layers, nothing is what it seems. But one thing is clear: The Hollows gets what it wants, no matter what.

I feel like there's a real talent in writing about supernatural stuff and psychic phenomena in a way that makes it seem matter-of-fact and not cheesy or melodramatic. Lisa Unger displays that talent here. There are horror novels that rely on gruesomeness and shock tactics to gloss over lack of characterization and tone-deaf dialogue. This is a good story with engaging characters and good propulsive energy, and it just happens to also include clairvoyance.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle. Synopsis from Goodreads: People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.
Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.
A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

First book that grabbed me after reading fifty pages of a bunch of stuff and feeling meh. Atmospheric and literate. Please read other reviews to see the wider context regarding H.P. Lovecraft (who was apparently a big ol' racist motherfucker), of which I was unaware, but which makes me like this work even more.

14 by Peter Clines. Synopsis from Goodreads: Padlocked doors. Strange light fixtures. Mutant cockroaches. 
There are some odd things about Nate’s new apartment.
Of course, he has other things on his mind. He hates his job. He has no money in the bank. No girlfriend. No plans for the future. So while his new home isn’t perfect, it’s livable. The rent is low, the property managers are friendly, and the odd little mysteries don’t nag at him too much.
At least, not until he meets Mandy, his neighbour across the hall, and notices something unusual about her apartment. And Xela’s apartment. And Tim’s. And Veek’s. Because every room in this old Los Angeles brownstone has a mystery or two. Mysteries that stretch back over a hundred years. Some of them are in plain sight. Some are behind locked doors. And all together these mysteries could mean the end of Nate and his friends. 
Or the end of everything..

I read this in a period when I kept realizing that I was unknowingly reading an author that I had already read. I was halfway through this when I realized that Clines had also written The Fold. It's kind of funny how closely he adheres to the same pattern in both books - fairly restrained, suspenseful action at the beginning, leading to an end section comprised of an insane welter of B-movie sci-fi creatures, death and destruction. I really enjoyed the interplay between characters in this one, though, more than the other, and the resolution was a little more satisfying. 

Vigil by Angela Slatter. Synopsis from Goodreads: Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds. The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength - and the ability to walk between us and the other - as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.
But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale - and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways - and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane.
And Verity must investigate - or risk ancient forces carving our world apart.

I read some incendiary short work by Slatter, and checked this out on that basis. It wasn't quite as mind-blowing as the short stories, but it was well-written and engaging, with some fresh takes on the genre.

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty. Synopsis from Goodreads: A space adventure set on a lone ship where the clones of a murdered crew must find their murderer -- before they kill again.
It was not common to awaken in a cloning vat streaked with drying blood.
At least, Maria Arena had never experienced it. She had no memory of how she died. That was also new; before, when she had awakened as a new clone, her first memory was of how she died.
Maria's vat was in the front of six vats, each one holding the clone of a crew member of the starship Dormire, each clone waiting for its previous incarnation to die so it could awaken. And Maria wasn't the only one to die recently..

I read this in Hawaii, so it could have sucked seven ways from Sunday and I probably still would have thought it was pretty good. Just kidding. Sort of. The prose was workmanlike, but the issues of cloning and its detractors are interesting and well borne out in the story. 

Witches of Lychford (Lychford #1) by Paul Cornell. Synopsis from GoodreadsTraveler, Cleric, Witch.
The villagers in the sleepy hamlet of Lychford are divided. A supermarket wants to build a major branch on their border. Some welcome the employment opportunities, while some object to the modernization of the local environment.
Judith Mawson (local crank) knows the truth -- that Lychford lies on the boundary between two worlds, and that the destruction of the border will open wide the gateways to malevolent beings beyond imagination.
But if she is to have her voice heard, she's going to need the assistance of some unlikely allies.

This was a delicious read for a rainy afternoon. Compact but dense, wonderful characters, marvelously tense plot, completely satisfying.

American Gods by Nail Gaiman. Synopsis from Goodreads: Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America.
Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.
Scary, gripping and deeply unsettling, American Gods takes a long, hard look into the soul of America. You’ll be surprised by what – and who – it finds there..

First read in 2009 (I think)

I wish I had reviewed it when I first read it, because my impression on reading it again is that I liked it more the first time, but I have no idea why. I didn't NOT like it this time, but I remembered very little other than the character and the ending. This time I found some of the interlude stories about individual gods a little tedious. I was a little confused for a while about why Shadow was so biddable by Wednesday also, but I think that was explained to my satisfaction. Still a really good story, just not up there with Neverwhere and The Ocean at the End of the Lane (which I'm a tiny bit afraid to reread now).

Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire. Synopsis from Goodreads: Rose Marshall died in 1952 in Buckley Township, Michigan, run off the road by a man named Bobby Cross—a man who had sold his soul to live forever, and intended to use her death to pay the price of his immortality. Trouble was, he didn’t ask Rose what she thought of the idea.
It’s been more than sixty years since that night, and she’s still sixteen, and she’s still running.
They have names for her all over the country: the Girl in the Diner. The Phantom Prom Date. The Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Mostly she just goes by “Rose,” a hitchhiking ghost girl with her thumb out and her eyes fixed on the horizon, trying to outrace a man who never sleeps, never stops, and never gives up on the idea of claiming what’s his. She’s the angel of the overpass, she’s the darling of the truck stops, and she’s going to figure out a way to win her freedom. After all, it’s not like it can kill her.
You can’t kill what’s already dead.

I love Seanan McGuire and I had missed this, so I requested it from the library as soon as I found out about it. Then I got it home and felt no desire whatsoever to pick it up. I'm not sure why, but I think maybe I'm against putting people on book covers - it just makes them look cheesy and unserious and Harlequin romance-y. The book itself was wonderful - it's kind of a mosaic novel, which made more sense when I found out it had originally been serialized, so a couple of times I was a bit confused about the timeline and why certain things seemed to be repeated, but it didn't really take away from the read. It's bittersweet and elegaic and romantic and imaginative. It borrows from traditional ghost narratives and archetypes and adds brilliant details that seem exactly right. I loved it.

Dusk Or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire. Synopsis from Goodreads: When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.
But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.

Didn't realize I had read two Seanan McGuire ghost books this year. This also kicked all kinds of ass. Some similarities to Sparrow Hill Road, but not derivative. Fantastic story.