Books 2017 - Three Star Non-Fiction and Fiction


Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel. Synopsis from Goodreads: From the best-selling author of Fun HomeTime magazine’s No. 1 Book of the Year, a brilliantly told graphic memoir of Alison Bechdel becoming the artist her mother wanted to be.
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was a pop culture and literary phenomenon. Now, a second thrilling tale of filial sleuthery, this time about her mother: voracious reader, music lover, passionate amateur actor. Also a woman, unhappily married to a closeted gay man, whose artistic aspirations simmered under the surface of Bechdel's childhood . . . and who stopped touching or kissing her daughter good night, forever, when she was seven. Poignantly, hilariously, Bechdel embarks on a quest for answers concerning the mother-daughter gulf. It's a richly layered search that leads readers from the fascinating life and work of the iconic twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, to one explosively illuminating Dr. Seuss illustration, to Bechdel’s own (serially monogamous) adult love life. And, finally, back to Mother—to a truce, fragile and real-time, that will move and astonish all adult children of gifted mothers.

I didn't adore this as much as Fun Home (for which, stay tuned for many rapturous superlatives), although I still liked it. I found the emphasis on therapy and the dwelling on Freudian terms kind of tedious - although I am really glad that it looks like she found a way to deal with her dysfunctional childhood and how it was affecting her. I did like her interactions with her mother, and I still love her artwork and how it informs her story.

Hunger by Roxane Gay. Synopsis from Goodreads: I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I was because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one that I barely recognized or understood, but at least I was safe.
In her phenomenally popular essays and long-running Tumblr blog, Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and body, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she explores her own past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers along on her journey to understand and ultimately save herself. 
With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.

It breaks my heart to say I didn't love this, because I absolutely both sympathize and empathize with her. I haven't read any of her other writing, and I intend to, but from what I'd heard I expected more from the writing. It's understandable, of course, that writing about something so terribly personal would take a toll on her style. It's also noted that this memoir was published in pieces, and it very much reads that way - like pieces instead of a sustained narrative. I don't fault her at all for this not being a perfect piece of writing, and I still think it's a really important subject. 

This is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison and Other Complications by Diane Schoemperlen. Synopsis from Goodreads: From the Governor General’s Award winning author of Forms of Devotion, Our Lady of the Lost and Found and By the Book
“Never once in my life had I dreamed of being in bed with a convicted killer.”
For almost six turbulent years, award-winning writer Diane Schoemperlen was involved with a prison inmate serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. The relationship surprised no one more than her. How do you fall in love with a man with a violent past? How do you date someone who is in prison? This Is Not My Life is the story of the romance between Diane and Shane—how they met and fell in love, how they navigated passes and parole and the obstacles facing a long-term prisoner attempting to return to society, and how, eventually, things fell apart. While no relationship takes place in a vacuum, this is never more true than when that relationship is with a federal inmate. In this candid, often wry, sometimes disturbing memoir, Schoemperlen takes us inside this complex and difficult relationship as she journeys through the prison system with Shane. Not only did this relationship enlarge her capacity for both empathy and compassion, but it also forced her to more deeply examine herself.

I've always been fascinated by the phenomenon of women falling in love with prisoners. This isn't one of the really baffling cases - where women claim to be in love with serial killers who they've only ever exchanged letters with. She knew the man from a work-release program and the relationship grows organically. Furthermore, when Schoemperlen describes her childhood and role models it's not all that surprising that she ends up in this kind of relationship. I found her mostly sympathetic, although at times I wanted to shake her (I feel the same way about myself periodically). I'm kind of impressed that she was willing to admit to and analyze the whole slightly sordid sort of self-imposed ordeal. Her assessment of the whole thing is fairly clear-eyed, although presumably it wasn't at the time, and the details about the Canadian criminal justice system and the Harper government were also illuminating. Engaging read.


Ill Will by Dan Chaon. Synopsis from Goodreads: Two sensational unsolved crimes—one in the past, another in the present—are linked by one man’s memory and self-deception in this chilling novel of literary suspense from National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon.
“We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves,” Dustin Tillman likes to say. It’s one of the little mantras he shares with his patients, and it’s meant to be reassuring. But what if that story is a lie?
A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his forties when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago, Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to symbolize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.
Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients gets him deeply engaged in a string of drowning deaths involving drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses talk of a serial killer as paranoid thinking, but as he gets wrapped up in their amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries—and putting his own family in harm’s way.
From one of today’s most renowned practitioners of literary suspense, Ill Will is an intimate thriller about the failures of memory and the perils of self-deception. In Dan Chaon’s nimble, chilling prose, the past looms over the present, turning each into a haunted place.

I don't know, man. I picked this up because I'd been reading a lot of YA and sci-fi and fantasy and I felt like I should put something realistic in the mix. Be careful what you wish for, I guess. There's a lot of - admirable? - stuff in here, about poverty and addiction and living with a dying person and parental/child relationships. Reading it kind of felt like being immersed in something heavy and greasy, something that kept pulling you lower and lower. I did really like the theme of apophenia - the human tendency to ascribe patterns or meaning to actually unrelated events or circumstances. But it felt somewhat like a sprawling, uncontained mess with elements of greatness rather than a great story. Quite possibly this is intentional, since many parts consist of three columns that run for pages, necessitating either flipping back and forth reading one at a time or sort of scanning across all three at once in a dizzying, non-linear reading experience. So that's fine, I guess, pushing the boundaries is good, innovation is good, but I felt like it kept this book to good rather than great for me.

13 Ways of Looking At a Fat Girl by Mona Awad. Synopsis from Goodreads: Growing up in the suburban hell of Misery Saga (a.k.a. Mississauga), Lizzie has never liked the way she looks—even though her best friend Mel says she’s the pretty one. She starts dating guys online, but she’s afraid to send pictures, even when her skinny friend China does her makeup: she knows no one would want her if they could really see her. So she starts to lose. With punishing drive, she counts almonds consumed, miles logged, pounds dropped. She fights her way into coveted dresses. She grows up and gets thin, navigating double-edged validation from her mother, her friends, her husband, her reflection in the mirror. But no matter how much she loses, will she ever see herself as anything other than a fat girl? 
In her brilliant, hilarious, and at times shocking debut, Mona Awad simultaneously skewers the body image-obsessed culture that tells women they have no value outside their physical appearance, and delivers a tender and moving depiction of a lovably difficult young woman whose life is hijacked by her struggle to conform. As caustically funny as it is heartbreaking, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl introduces a vital new voice in fiction.

I haven't been reading much straight fiction lately and I enjoyed this at the beginning. Then... I don't know. I'm a fat girl, I should pretty much be the target audience, but it did not sweep me away. The writing is perfectly good, and there were some affecting images. The theme of the character thinking she would act one way with a date or a friend and then just letting them do whatever they wanted might have been meaningful, but it started to feel too repetitive and dull to me - just because something happens in real life doesn't make it a good narrative. The chapters with the husband felt a little shallow - clearly she resented what she had to do to stay thin, and still had major baggage from being fat, which I completely understand, but all we saw was the same behaviour over and over without any insight or movement. Somewhat ironically, I just felt like the whole thing lacked a bit of heft. 


Nicole said…
Oooh that prisoner book - I'm fascinated with it as well! It's so foreign to me!

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