Books Read in 2020: Four-Star Non-Fiction and Fiction

I'm at a pretty low point currently, like a lot of people. January is traditionally a difficult month for me anyway, and actually this year up until this week it's been okay, considering the extra stresses happening. I had a colonoscopy yesterday (apologies for TMI) and I think the weird diet and the anxiety and the lack of solid food have thrown me into a bit of a pit. Right after I was dizzy with relief at it being over (plus actually literally dizzy from all the not eating and diarrhea). But today I hurt all over and have zero motivation to do anything. I'm falling into my not-so-great pattern of staying up way too late and sleeping a lot and this makes it so I'm not seeing a lot of daylight. Part of me is fine with doing this for a few weeks and only emerging when Covid numbers are down and the kids can go back to school and I don't have to be a librarian without a library anymore. Part of me always remembers when I was in elementary school and I was going on a camping trip with a girlfriend and her family and I was really excited and said I wished it was already time and my mother said "never wish your time away". Honestly, that was a little heavy-handed for the situation, but she's not wrong. Even the worst of times could always be our last times, so while I sometimes think "there will be a time after this", I'm not really comfortable just trying to make time pass. Although before I started spinning out I was doing okay walking and reading a lot, and that I was just feeling guilty about because of stupid ideas about what actually constitutes contributing to society. In summation, I have no summation, everything is stupid and I am just going to relax and talk about books for a while. 

 Four-Star Non-Fiction:

Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson by Mark Bourrie: Synopsis from Goodreads: Murderer. Salesman. Pirate. Adventurer. Cannibal. Co-founder of the Hudson's Bay Company.Known to some as the first European to explore the upper Mississippi, and widely as the namesake of ships and hotel chains, Pierre-Esprit Radisson is perhaps best described, writes Mark Bourrie, as “an eager hustler with no known scruples.” Kidnapped by Mohawk warriors at the age of fifteen, Radisson assimilated and was adopted by a powerful family, only to escape to New York City after less than a year. After being recaptured, he defected from a raiding party to the Dutch and crossed the Atlantic to Holland—thus beginning a lifetime of seized opportunities and frustrated ambitions.A guest among First Nations communities, French fur traders, and royal courts; witness to London’s Great Plague and Great Fire; and unwitting agent of the Jesuits’ corporate espionage, Radisson double-crossed the English, French, Dutch, and his adoptive Mohawk family alike, found himself marooned by pirates in Spain, and lived through shipwreck on the reefs of Venezuela. His most lasting venture as an Artic fur trader led to the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which operates today, 350 years later, as North America’s oldest corporation. 

Sourced from Radisson’s journals, which are the best first-hand accounts of 17th century Canada, Bush Runner tells the extraordinary true story of this protean 17th-century figure, a man more trading partner than colonizer, a peddler of goods and not worldview—and with it offers a fresh perspective on the world in which he lived.

I read this for book club. Well-written book about a really fascinating character. A French boy growing up in 17th-century Canada and, as one reviewer commented, sort of a Forrest Gump of his time. Kidnapped and adopted by the Mohawks twice, big in setting up the fur trade, something about pirates, spent some time in London - I mean Jesus, the dude was better-traveled than I am, and there were no planes! It's a little crowded, and about halfway through I started wishing for a writing style that was a little more spare, but hugely engaging. It also sets down how much the Indigenous Canadians were screwed over and treated incredibly badly from the minute the Europeans set foot on Canadian ground.

Educated by Tara Westover: Synopsis from Goodreads: Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her "head-for-the-hills bag". In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father's junkyard. Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara's older brothers became violent. Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she'd traveled too far, if there was still a way home. Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one's life through new eyes and the will to change it.

I have an ugly knee-jerk tendency to be kind of snotty and dismissive of this kind of memoir - like, congratulations, you had a tragic childhood and are able to write, so you get an automatic bestseller. I recognize it for what it is (it's not what my forebrain thinks, just a little part of my hindbrain), but it does lead to me taking longer to read the book sometimes. Once I picked this up I couldn't put it down. I did cry a little, less out of sadness than a towering, impotent rage every time Westover's father put another child (or the same one) in senseless danger yet again and no one did anything, even though it was obvious that no miraculous rescue was coming. This is a pretty good indictment of the worst aspects of Mormonism in particular, religion in general, and, I don't know, mothers bowing down to mentally ill fathers with delusions of grandeur. As frustrating it is to watch Westover keep going back and being treated horribly before finally breaking free, I recognize the immense strength it must have taken to leave at all. It is quite a story, very well told.

Misogynies by Joan Smith: Synopsis from Goodreads: 

In this collection of stinging essays Joan Smith explores the phenomenon of women-hating in politics, religion, history, literature, and popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic. A fascinating collection from the mind of a scholar, educator, and observer of our society, MISOGYNIES will make readers of both genders wonder more about the excuses for hatred of women we create as a society, why we accept them, and what it means to all of our lives.

I didn't take good notes on this, but I remember the thing that struck me most was how NOT dated it appeared, which in a way was profoundly depressing. When I thought about it a bit more, I did think that, although Smith's observations are still germane, the trends and behaviours she's describing are at least more examined and called out these days. Still. The fact that the police investigating the Yorkshire Ripper case were so misguided because of 'whorephobia' is sadly and enragingly reminiscent of so many more recent cases, including those involving Gary Ridgway, Robert Hansen and Robert Pickton. 

Smith also dissects the novel Sophie's Choice by William Styron, and the life and death of Marilyn Monroe, among other women who are exploited for their looks. The writing style is clear and accessible and she does a great job at accomplishing her objective, and honestly, it all made me really tired. I understand that naming and analyzing the problem are important steps that advance the cause, and that incremental progress is being made. The increments are just so very small and the process is so very slow. Excuse me while I go gaze adoringly at pictures of Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris from yesterday. 

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester: Synopsis from Goodreads: The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

I had the slightly bizarre experience of having this put on the book club list and then going home and finding I had already borrowed the library ebook a couple of days previous, and then completely forgotten I had done so. It's very interesting but a little odd in tone. The third or fourth time Winchester used the term "mad" or "crazy", I looked up the publishing date of the book, which is 1998, which seems a little late to be so enthusiastically using those terms. I understand that the in the time of the story, people were literally termed 'criminally insane', but Winchester throws around sentences like "the two men who met were both completely mad" a little gleefully for my taste. In addition to that, while describing James Murray's facial hair, Winchester says "ample buggers' grips" were included. Surely, I thought, that doesn't mean what it seems like it would mean. It does, though. Finally, near the end of the book Winchester opines, regarding MInor, that "one must feel a sense of strange gratitude, then, that his treatment was never good enough to divert him from his work. The agonies that he must have suffered in those terrible asylum nights have granted us all a benefit, for all time". Excuse me? Even if the dude had cured cancer I would have trouble feeling grateful that he had endured the torment of mental illness without reprieve. For a few thousand words in a fucking dictionary? Hey, I love words, but no. 

Other than that, this is a great story. The birth of the concept of a definitive English-language dictionary, the inner workings of the incredibly laborious process, the cameraderie between Murry and Minor, are worth being explored. There are lovely turns of phrase such as: "The menu was forthright and English - clear turtle soup, turbot with lobster sauce etc. But like the dictionary itself, it was also flavored generously, but not too generously, with Gallicisms". The listing of the time and volumes of paper involved in the dictionary - "Murray himself tried gallantly to complete work on thirty-three words every day -- and yet 'often a single word, like Approve takes 3/4 of a day itself'" -- really bring home the momentousness of the endeavour. I enjoyed the delving into the roots of words and the sourcing of quotations. I just had a bit of an impression that this was a cranky old British 'man's man' writing, reinforced by the fact that he criticizes some "carping" about a male-centric bias in the dictionary (like, duh). I know, I'm complaining a lot. I still really liked reading it. 

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow: Synopsis from Goodreads: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow presents a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation. In the first full-length biography of Alexander Hamilton in decades, Ron Chernow tells the riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America. According to historian Joseph Ellis, Alexander Hamilton is “a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all.” 

Few figures in American history have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography gives Hamilton his due and sets the record straight, deftly illustrating that the political and economic greatness of today’s America is the result of Hamilton’s countless sacrifices to champion ideas that were often wildly disputed during his time. “To repudiate his legacy,” Chernow writes, “is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Chernow here recounts Hamilton’s turbulent life: an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, he came out of nowhere to take America by storm, rising to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, coauthoring The Federalist Papers, founding the Bank of New York, leading the Federalist Party, and becoming the first Treasury Secretary of the United States.Historians have long told the story of America’s birth as the triumph of Jefferson’s democratic ideals over the aristocratic intentions of Hamilton. Chernow presents an entirely different man, whose legendary ambitions were motivated not merely by self-interest but by passionate patriotism and a stubborn will to build the foundations of American prosperity and power. His is a Hamilton far more human than we’ve encountered before—from his shame about his birth to his fiery aspirations, from his intimate relationships with childhood friends to his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr, and from his highly public affair with Maria Reynolds to his loving marriage to his loyal wife Eliza. And never before has there been a more vivid account of Hamilton’s famous and mysterious death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July of 1804. Chernow’s biography is not just a portrait of Hamilton, but the story of America’s birth seen through its most central figure. At a critical time to look back to our roots, Alexander Hamilton will remind readers of the purpose of our institutions and our heritage as Americans.

GodDAMN this was good. I was wondering if I would be able to sense what made Lin-Manuel Miranda craft such an amazing musical from this source material, and it was immediately apparent. I'm not a bit biography or autobiography reader, although I do find the whole subject fascinating - objective vs subjective truth, figuring out what angle to take, authorized, unauthorized, hagiography vs. warts-and-all. How do you take all the material that must be available related to a historical figure like this and boil it all down to a comprehensible narrative? Like this, I have to say. I have ordered Chernow's biography of Washington, and I will read any others he has written also, because this is how they should be done.

I don't know how to articulate how wonderful the tone is - it's not dry but it's not sensationalist. There is humour and drama and insight and the flow is irresistible. There were times when I was checking the facts in the book against what was in the musical, and there were times when I actually forgot that the musical had come first because the narrative flow was so engaging. 

Things I wanted to know that I found out: Was Burr really as cagey and publicly indecisive as the musical suggests? Apparently so: "Burr's principal quality as a politician: he was a chameleon who evaded clear-cut positions on most issues and was a genius at studied ambiguity"; was it really a toss-up on whether Hamilton would marry Angelica or Eliza? Nope. Angelica was already married when she met him, and her father did, in fact, have sons. But the letters between them were indeed VERY SPICY, and she did actually write to her sister "if you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while." (!!); Did Angelica and Hamilton really get married two weeks after they met? Nah; and did Martha Washington really name a feral tomcat after Hamilton? (I didn't really think this was true, I just ran out of things to say).

It was a bit eerie reading about the formation of the two U.S. government parties and the "period of John Adams's presidency declin(ing) into a time of political savagery with few parallels in American history, a season of paranoia in which the two parties surrendered all trust in each other", given what was happening in the U.S. while I was reading. Turns out that fake news and certain media owners being loyal to one faction or the other are not as new as some perhaps might have thought. And wow, Thomas Jefferson was even a bigger sonofabitch than I realized. I love that fact that Hamilton sometimes wrote "pseudonymous commentaries on his own pseudonymous essays". Who could not feel a certain sympathy for Captain William Deas, who lived on top of a cliff and "was frustrated that his ledge was constantly used for duels". 

The other day I was listening to the Hamilton soundtrack in the car and It's Quiet Uptown (the song right after Hamilton's son dies) came on as I was driving to Kettleman's to pick up bagels. Two lines in I thought "hey, this is the first time I haven't cried all the way through this song." Three lines later I was walking into Kettleman's a sobbing mess and feeling grateful that I was wearing a mask. Bonus: by the time I got to the pharmacy near home I was on the very last song in the musical so I got to walk into Shoppers a sobbing mess too! Reading about these events in the book was nearly as affecting as watching or listening to the play. Seriously, this is wonderful - if you're even considering reading it, go for it. 

Four-Star No-Man's Land

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar: Synopsis from Goodreads: A deeply personal work about hope and identity in a nation coming apart at the seams, Homeland Elegies blends fact and fiction to tell an epic story of belonging and dispossession in the world that 9/11 made. Part family drama, part social essay, part picaresque adventure -- at its heart, it is the story of a father, a son, and the country they both call home.Akhtar forges a new narrative voice to capture a country in which debt has ruined countless lives and our ideals have been sacrificed to the gods of finance, where a TV personality is president and immigrants live in fear, and where the nation's unhealed wounds of 9/11 wreak havoc around the world. Akhtar attempts to make sense of it all through the lens of a story about one family, from a heartland town in America to palatial suites in Central Europe to guerilla lookouts in the mountains of Afghanistan, and spares no one -- least of all himself -- in the process.


I was really confused about the whole "blends fact and fiction" thing when everything I fact-checked seemed to indicate that this is mostly, if not completely, true, and then I read that the author called it fiction so Donald Trump wouldn't sue, which seems likely, but I'm not sure whether to file it under fiction or non-fiction.

I haven't read or seen any of Akhtar's plays, but he writes really beautifully. It's impossible to know what it's like being a Muslim in America, but the way he writes about a harrowing traffic stop makes it a little easier to imagine. He makes us feel the complicated relationship between immigrant parents and a first-generation American son. I was a little embarrassed at how long it took me to realize that the "homeland" in the title was America rather than Pakistan. I will admit that I didn't love the way he talked about women or the sex scenes - there was something a little John Updike about them, considering this was written just last year. 

Four-Star Fiction:

Rockbound by Frank Parker Day: Synopsis from Goodreads: To the harsh domain of Rockbound -- governed by the sternly righteous and rapacious Uriah Jung --comes the youthful David Jung to claim his small share of the island. Filled with dreamy optimism and a love for the unspoken promises of the night sky, David tries to find his way in a narrow, unforgiving, and controlled world. His conflicts are both internal and external, locking him in an unceasing struggle for survival; sometimes the sea is his enemy, sometimes his own rude behavior, sometimes his best friend Gershom Born, sometimes his secret love for the island teacher Mary Dauphiny; but always, inevitably, his Jung relatives and their manifold ambitions for money and power. The balance of life on Rockbound is precarious and thus fiercely guarded by all who inhabit its lonely domain, but just as a sudden change in the direction of the wind can lead to certain peril at sea, so too can the sudden change in the direction of a man's heart lead to a danger altogether unknown. Enormously evocative of the power, terror, and dramatic beauty of the Atlantic sea, and unrelenting in its portrait of back-breaking labour, cunning bitterness, and family strife, Rockbound is a story of many passions-love, pride, greed, and yearning -- all formed and buffeted on a small island by an unyielding wind and the rocky landscape of the human spirit. Rockbound won Canada Reads in 2005. 


The very first pages of the book, when David rows barefoot over freezing water to the island of Rockbound to demand his birthright, instantly generate a gut-deep pull, and it's impossible to read on without feeling the rocking of the boat, smelling the stink of the fish, feeling the bone-deep fatigue and anxiety of constant work and never enough money, the rhythm and drag of a completely different kind of life. I don't always love dialogue written in dialect, but worked fine for me. Really good. Really Canadian. 

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler: Synopsis from Goodreads: A dazzling novel that captures all of the romance, glamour, and tragedy of the first flapper, Zelda Fitzgerald. When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen years old and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the "ungettable" Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn't wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, and keeps insisting, absurdly, that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame. Her father is deeply unimpressed. But after Scott sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to Scribner's, Zelda optimistically boards a train north, to marry him in the vestry of St. Patrick's Cathedral and take the rest as it comes. 


A fictionalized biography of Zelda Fitzgerald from the time she met Scott until just before her death. I used to be even less interested in fictionalized biography than in the straight kind - it seemed both lazy and dishonest. Then I read The Paris Wife and got kind of obsessed with reading fictional accounts of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and their love lives and literary brat pack, although much of it just makes me very angry because they were largely alcoholic self-obsessed dicks. I enjoyed this very much, however sad and angry it made me on Zelda's behalf. I enjoyed the depictions of her Southern girlhood and the gay champagne-swilling adventures with Scott, the turmoil and exhilaration of being on the edge of a dazzling but unpredictable literary career. In my first review of this I said I was going to track down an actual biography of Zelda next, and one of Dorothy Parker. I didn't do that yet - going to track them down and add them to my to-read list now. 

Normal People by Sally Rooney: Synopsis from Goodreads: At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school soccer team while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers - one they are determined to conceal. A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years in college, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. Then, as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other. 

Sally Rooney brings her brilliant psychological acuity and perfectly spare prose to a story that explores the subtleties of class, the electricity of first love, and the complex entanglements of family and friendship.

I felt like this was a good book - I could see it happening, and it made me feel things. I don't know how to say what I liked or didn't like, because I felt off-balance throughout - I kept wondering how I was supposed to be feeling about it. Marianne was clearly damaged. Was Connell? It's okay for a story to just be things that happened one after the other - is that what it was, or was I missing something? After years of being really happy I can choose my own books without having to read only what's assigned, sometimes I wish someone would teach a course on a book I've read. 

How a Woman Becomes a Lake by Marjorie Celona: Synopsis from Goodreads: From the Giller-nominated author of Y comes How a Woman Becomes a Lake, a taut, suspenseful novel about the dark corners of a small town, and the secrets that lurk within..It's New Year's Day and the residents of a small fishing town are ready to start their lives anew. Leo takes his two young sons out to the lake to write resolutions on paper boats. That same frigid morning, Vera sets out for a walk with her dog along the lake, leaving her husband in bed with a hangover. But she never returns. She places a call to the police saying she's found a boy in the woods, but the call is cut short by a muffled cry. Did one of Leo's sons see Vera? What are they hiding about that day? And why are they so scared of their own father? Told from shifting perspectives, How a Woman Becomes a Lake is a compelling, lyrical novel about family, new beginnings, and costly mistakes, and asks, what do you do when the people who are meant to love you the most, fail?

 

Recommended by Nicole (HI NICOLE). Really, really good. Really, really sad. Full of flawed, sympathetic characters and some you could cheerfully choke to death (or get your sister to do it, I guess). Filled me with a choking sense of rage at times, and a helpless sorrow. 

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst: Synopsis from Goodreads: In the summer of 1983, twenty-year-old Nick Guest moves into an attic room in the Notting Hill home of the Feddens: conservative Member of Parliament Gerald, his wealthy wife Rachel, and their two children, Toby-whom Nick had idolized at Oxford-and Catherine, highly critical of her family's assumptions and ambitions. As the boom years of the eighties unfold, Nick, an innocent in the world of politics and money, finds his life altered by the rising fortunes of this glamorous family. His two vividly contrasting love affairs, one with a young black clerk and one with a Lebanese millionaire, dramatize the dangers and rewards of his own private pursuit of beauty, a pursuit as compelling to Nick as the desire for power and riches among his friends. Richly textured, emotionally charged, disarmingly comic, this U.K. bestseller is a major work by one of our finest writers.


This had been on my radar for quite a while, so I was glad to be 'forced' to read it for book club. It's hard to say I really liked it or loved it, because it's a complicated story with a lot of things that are hard to read laid open mercilessly. But it is a clear-eyed, beautifully-written slice of a specific span of time in a specific place, and I admired it immensely for that. I was enchanted with Nick's early coming-of-age journey and coming to terms with his sexuality. It was a little hard watching him trying so hard to fit in with wealthy entitled people, but hard to fault him because he so clearly was in love with and longed for beauty. When the second part of the book started with the coke and the threesomes and the ever-increasing fact of the Fedden family's shallowness and distaste for anything that fell outside the family's privileged and narrow field of view, I felt less inclined to pick the book up for a while. Then I drove through to the end, less enchanted but still impressed. 

The Witch Elm by Tana French: Synopsis from Goodreads: Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed. 

A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are. 

This seems to be a little more polarizing than other French books. It was a bit of a departure for her, but still has her trademark depth of character, elegant prose and yearning, melancholy tone. It separates into two distinct halves, and I had no idea where the second part of it was going for a good part of it. It's a dense, dark family mystery, and a good exploration of a "lucky" (good-looking white male) character meeting with circumstances that force him to to come to a reckoning he otherwise would not have. As with Broken Harbour, it took me a good amount of time to shake off the sadness after reading, and I would have to recommend it with a caveat or two -- don't read it in a dark, depressing season or when you're already feeling down.

Outline by Rachel Cusk: Synopsis from Goodreads: A woman writer goes to Athens in the height of summer to teach a writing course. Though her own circumstances remain indistinct, she becomes the audience to a chain of narratives, as the people she meets tell her one after another the stories of their lives. Beginning with the neighbouring passenger on the flight out and his tales of fast boats and failed marriages, the storytellers talk of their loves and ambitions and pains, their anxieties, their perceptions and daily lives. In the stifling heat and noise of the city the sequence of voice begins to weave a complex human tapestry. The more they talk the more elliptical their listener becomes, as she shapes and directs their accounts until certain themes begin to emerge: the experience of loss, the nature of family life, the difficulty of intimacy and the mystery of creativity itself. Outline is a novel about writing and talking, about self-effacement and self-expression, about the desire to create and the human art of self-portraiture in which that desire finds its universal form. 

So I was wandering around the bookstore last year looking for a book to buy. I try to read big-name authors from the library and spend my book-buying dollars on lesser-known ones, but I don't really do my research, so occasionally I magnanimously buy a book by a well-established probably-rich author like a pompous asshole. Anyway, this book was very, very aesthetically pleasing, from the cover to the paper to the writing. It's described as a creative writing teacher's experience with her class (get it? Outline?) but almost the entire first third of the book is actually taken up with a man she meets on the plane to Athens, and then joins on his boat when they get to Greece. The writing is beautiful. The dialogue is extremely unrealistic. Every character is very much a 'character'. There are some funny moment and some striking images. I read this in May and I can't remember much of it, except a few images. I liked reading it, but it's not the kind of book I need to read many of, if you know what I mean. 


My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: Synopsis from Goodreads: When Korede's dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what's expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This'll be the third boyfriend Ayoola's dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede's long been in love with him, and isn't prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other...My Sister, the Serial Killer is a blackly comic novel about how blood is thicker - and more difficult to get out of the carpet - than water..

I didn't love reading this, because it pushed a lot of my buttons, but that was pretty much the point, so well done on that. It's always cool reading something where the place and culture is so different from mine. I should note, before I go on, that I am the oldest of two sisters and we were pretty much treated equally, although there were times when I felt like she got away with murder (NOT literally) because she was smaller and cuter. There's this old cassette tape of her 'reading' Cinderella that is SO freaking cute, and then I start reading something and I ask her to be quiet so I can read and then my parents say 'well maybe we're just all done then' and I start screaming and crying and the visceral sense of rage and injustice I get from hearing that second part of the tape is ridiculous. Maybe it's because of that remembered sense of injustice that I got SO angry when reading about how Korede is supposed to efface herself and support Ayoola. I always find myself thinking indignantly about how I would act differently in the character's place, and then realizing that if I was mired in the same centuries-old traditions and surrounded by family who reinforce them, I would likely be the same sullenly resentful and yet obedient daughter. The harmful, destructive patterns and the helplessness to change them - Braithwaite drew all of this brilliantly. If it isn't obvious, I really didn't get the humour in this. (My sister is a brilliant pharmacist and I love her and she's never killed anyone (that I know of) just to be clear). 


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: Synopsis from Goodreads: No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine. Meet Eleanor Oliphant: she struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy. But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen, the three rescue one another from the lives of isolation that they had been living. Ultimately, it is Raymond’s big heart that will help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one. If she does, she'll learn that she, too, is capable of finding friendship—and even love—after all. Smart, warm, uplifting, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes. . . the only way to survive is to open your heart.

This was much compared to The Rosie Project and Where'd You Go Bernadette, which I guess is accurate, although I found the undertone of this quite a bit darker. I guess Eleanor's thought patterns were similar to those of Don in The Rosie Project. This was excellent - sort of matter-of-fact even when skirting tragedy, darkly humorous, hopeful and moving. It's books like these that are helping me bust out of my subconscious snobby distaste for 'women's literature' - you kind of know what's going to happen, but the journey is highly enjoyable. 

Weather by Jenny Offill: Synopsis from Goodreads: From the author of the nationwide best seller Dept. of Speculation--one of the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of the Year--a shimmering tour de force about a family, and a nation, in crisis. 

Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She's become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you've seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience--but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she's learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in--funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad. 

This is my second read by this author. I read it, put it down for a bit, then thought "I can't even remember what this is about. The style is too choppy and it's not working. Maybe I won't finish". Then I picked it up to read a couple more pages and couldn't stop reading until the end. I think her style is deceptively simple -- at first I thought maybe it was easier to write a book this way, almost in aphorisms, without the need to come up with connective tissue. And then I realized that nearly every tiny section is, or concludes with, sheer brilliance. And I still think about moments and phrases from the Dept. of Speculation. I do find that sometimes the publisher's descriptions of her books put in information that can't actually be found in the narrative, which seems weird and a little sketchy, but that's not on her. I'm sorry I doubted you, Jenny, I was wrong. I think both books would reward rereading. 

Comments

HI!

I have been waiting for the four stars! I'm excited to see there are a bunch on there I've already read - sisters! - and also some that I haven't, so I can put on my list. I loved the Serial Killer book, Z, Eleanor Oliphant, How a Woman Becomes a Lake (obv). I did NOT like Educated AT ALL although I wholeheartedly agree with this: "As frustrating it is to watch Westover keep going back and being treated horribly before finally breaking free, I recognize the immense strength it must have taken to leave at all. It is quite a story, very well told." I just have an immense dislike of books like that - and The Glass Castle - although I can very much appreciate how strong the author is to survive all that and break free. Do you know what I mean?

Ohhhhh and I was WAITING for your review of the Hamilton book. Okay, putting it on my list and gearing up because it's a long one. You know, I think I'm just going to put the rest of these books on my list.
Also I have to say I didn't like Normal People, I read something else by that author and also didn't like it - I am in the minority on that one though.
StephLove said…
I've been curious about Educated. Heard good things about it.

Noah either has that Madman and the Professor book or it's on his wish list.
Suz said…
I've heard of Educated and wondered about it too. Alexander Hamilton sounds great though...I'm glad to know you enjoyed it; I'll add it to my list. Although my list keeps growing as I'm not in a reading spirit lately.
I DO hope you get out of your funk soon and that the library opens up and gives you more purpose. I don't like it when my friends are down. Be well
Ernie said…
This is my favorite genre. Yeah. I read 'Educated' and I liked it, but it was tough to swallow at times. Like, what on earth? I have not seen Hamilton - yep, I'm the one that missed it. The ONE. (sobs softly) But the book sounds amazing. I also think Normal People and Z sound good.

I'm so sorry that January has been tough for you. I hope your sleep patterns improve and that you get to go back to a library full of sweet, curious children soon. I do agree though that everything is stupid of late. I hope that talking about books helps.

OMG - the story of your sister reading in her cute voice and then you getting told that maybe we are done now. Ouch. You are lucky that you are so tight with your sister. My sisters aren't murderers, but they are killers-of-fun and only tight with each other. They deserve each other, so I'm better finding my own way. Damn it.

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