Books Read in 2020: Five-Star Fiction
I'm feeling slightly better. I spent a little less time online yesterday and today and argued with maybe 60% fewer assholes, and didn't swear at any of them (I usually know it's time to take a break from Twitter when the word 'fuck' overtakes a certain percentage of the other 280 characters. Either that or Twitter puts me in a time out for 'possible abusive behaviour' and instead of being incensed I think "yeah, that's probably fair". My hands and wrists are less throbby, although the rest of me still feels like it has a headache. It's Eve's birthday tomorrow and I'm sad she can't get together with her friends today, but last year Jody and I took them to the Van Gogh exhibit in Montreal and had a blast, so at least we have that, and next year she'll be 19, so we can have a giant party and she can... watch all her friends get drunk, probably, because she doesn't enjoy alcohol.
I'm reading a lot right now and enjoying it quite a lot, although I'm also aware of a kind of hectic urgency that indicates that I'm not really mentally well. There seem to be rules for what I should be reading, and there are things I want to reread but instead I'm feeling like I should try to keep reading down the pile (which is so dumb, because it's bottomless, there's no point). I think I have to make myself reread something, and then start something long and dense and force myself not to care what 'progress' I'm making.
So then, onward to the last book review post for 2020. Thanks for playing along. Reading is solitary but a reading community is not, and that is one thing the internet is spectacular for.
Five-Star Fiction:Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction. Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle's dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast's booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia's descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation. Generation after generation, Yaa Gyasi's magisterial first novel sets the fate of the individual against the obliterating movements of time, delivering unforgettable characters whose lives were shaped by historical forces beyond their control. Homegoing is a tremendous reading experience, not to be missed, by an astonishingly gifted young writer.
This was on my radar for quite a while before I read it, partly because I kept seeing it in the Ottawa Library ebook section and then hearing Gyasi Went Home by Bedouin Soundclash in my head. Felt like kind of ass for waiting so long when I finally read it. It's hard to believe this is a first novel. May be my favourite book of last year, which is a little weird to say about something that is largely about the legacy of horror wrought by white people (I also loved the movie Get Out - I am good with acknowledging that I am (probably) not personally evil but do benefit enormously from privilege in a system of white supremacy. I think art that highlights and criticizes this system is necessary and good). For a first novel I am in awe of the confidence and sophistication of the prose, and the mastery of a structure that could easily have beaten a less capable writer. The fact that she was able to distill each character or set of characters down to basically one chapter and still generate such an impact, and then illustrate the reverberations down through history in successive chapters - brilliant. The African and American settings both ring utterly true. It is heart-wrenchingly sad with luminous moments of grace and beauty. I read her second book early this year, and it is every bit as good.
The Unseen World by Liz Moore: Ada Sibelius is raised by David, her brilliant, eccentric, socially inept single father, who directs a computer science lab in 1980s-era Boston. Home-schooled, Ada accompanies David to work every day; by twelve, she is a painfully shy prodigy. The lab begins to gain acclaim at the same time that David’s mysterious history comes into question. When his mind begins to falter, leaving Ada virtually an orphan, she is taken in by one of David’s colleagues. Soon she embarks on a mission to uncover her father’s secrets: a process that carries her from childhood to adulthood. What Ada discovers on her journey into a virtual universe will keep the reader riveted until The Unseen World’s heart-stopping, fascinating conclusion.
There are actually two or three great stories in here. It's always interesting to read about children being raised by very non-mainstream standards, and the parallel of Ada's upbringing along with that of the baby AI is really fascinating. Having spent quite a bit of time in a university environment, I found the description of the lab group amusing and realistic. The tracing of David's dementia is predictably heartbreaking, and then the investigation into his life before having Ada yields a whole other affecting tale. I was never quite sure where it was going, but it was an entirely agreeable journey.
Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles: #1 National Bestseller Finalist, CBC Canada Reads Finalist, Scotiabank Giller Prize By turns savage, biting, funny, poetic, and heartbreaking, Megan Gail Coles’s debut novel rips into the inner lives of a wicked cast of characters, exposing class, gender, and racial tensions over the course of one Valentine’s Day in the dead of a winter storm. Valentine’s Day, the longest day of the year. A fierce blizzard is threatening to tear a strip off the city, while inside The Hazel restaurant a storm system of sex, betrayal, addiction, and hurt is breaking overhead. Iris, a young hostess, is forced to pull a double despite resolving to avoid the charming chef and his wealthy restaurateur wife. Just tables over, Damian, a hungover and self-loathing server, is trying to navigate a potential punch-up with a pair of lit customers who remain oblivious to the rising temperature in the dining room. Meanwhile Olive, a young woman far from her northern home, watches it all unfurl from the fast and frozen street. Through rolling blackouts, we glimpse the truth behind the shroud of scathing lies and unrelenting abuse, and discover that resilience proves most enduring in the dead of this winter’s tale.
Another Canada Reads book from last year. I admit that I read the first couple of chapters and thought "is anyone in Newfoundland happy EVER?" And then I got to a section that asked questions about the reasons for a lot of issues in Newfoundland and the answer to every one was "poverty", so, fair enough. It is guttingly, unremittingly bleak, but also brilliant in the way it traces destructive patterns of thought in the characters, both self-destructive and outwardly so. I stayed up way too late reading one night when I had to work early the next day, and I almost never do that with a book that isn't genre fiction. The ending seems almost too much, and also kind of perfect. Don't read it unless you're in the mood to go to a dark place.
Radicalized by Cory Doctorow: Here are four urgent stories from author and activist Cory Doctorow, four social, technological and economic visions of the world today and its near—all too near—future. 'Unauthorized Bread' is a tale of immigration, toxic economic stratification and a young woman's perilously illegal quest to fix a broken toaster. In 'Model Minority' a superhero finds himself way out his depth when he confronts the corruption of the police and justice system. 'Radicalized' is the story of a desperate husband, a darknet forum and the birth of a violent uprising against the US health care system. The final story, 'The Masque of the Red Death', tracks an uber-wealthy survivalist and his followers as they hole up and attempt to ride out the collapse of society.
And another Canada Reads book. I started this on a flight home from Thunder Bay to Toronto, continued it on the flight from Toronto to Ottawa, barely paused to put my coat down and finished it a couple of hours after we got home. It strikes that seldom-seen balance between being topical and incisive and uncomfortable and also insanely readable. There was a bit of a Baader-Meinhof effect in that I had just read about farmers that had purchased farm equipment with proprietary programming so they would be gouged for repairs that they should have been able to do themselves. In "Unauthorized Bread", it is kitchen appliances (and elevators) with restrictions that add to the marginalization of immigrants, and the toaster revolution prompted by this injustice. 'Model Minority' is a suffocatingly bleak illustration of the intractability of institutionalized racism, and shows that even a superhero comes up short against the ugly, deep roots of it. Doctorow is a speculative fiction writer, and that's what this is - really dark, really smart speculative fiction, but unfortunately the speculation isn't about whether things are bad, but about how far we might have to go to make them better.
Watching You Without Me by Lynn Coady: From the author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning story collection Hellgoing --an electrifying, brooding novel about the lengths we go to care for family, and what happens when a stranger places himself at the center of one household. " Watching You Without Me is like a Lorrie Moore book suffering a Patricia Highsmith fever dream. You slide right along on Coady's witty and endearing style, and meanwhile the trap has closed over you without your ever standing a chance." --Jonathan LethemAfter her mother's sudden death, Karen finds herself back in her childhood home in Nova Scotia for the first time in a decade, acting as full-time caregiver to her older sister, Kelli. Overwhelmed and consumed by the isolation of her new role, Karen finds a shoulder to cry on in Trevor--one of Kelli's caregivers. Karen gratefully accepts his friendship and comes to trust him all the more when she discovers how close Trevor was to her mother, Irene. But all is not as it appears to be. What begins with friendly advice and someone to talk to soon takes a dark and mysterious turn. Who is this person Karen has let into her home and into her family's life? How well does she know the stranger she has entrusted with her sister's well-being? As Trevor slowly weaves himself into Karen and Kelli's lives, Karen starts to grasp the unsettling truth about him and his relationship with her mother--and to experience for herself the true and dangerous nature of Trevor's "care."
I read the synopsis for this and thought "well that sounds lame", but it's Lynn Coady, so obviously I was going there anyway. It was amazing to me in the way that most of Lynn Coady's writing is amazing to me - I look at the synopsis and think 'meh' and then I start reading and wonder why I doubted, even for a second, that she would make it sadly amusing or amusingly sad, and relatable, and a little bit absurd, and so very, very human.
Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes: In a sleepy seaside town in Maine, recently widowed Eveleth “Evvie” Drake rarely leaves her large, painfully empty house nearly a year after her husband’s death in a car crash. Everyone in town, even her best friend, Andy, thinks grief keeps her locked inside, and Evvie doesn’t correct them. Meanwhile, in New York City, Dean Tenney, former Major League pitcher and Andy’s childhood best friend, is wrestling with what miserable athletes living out their worst nightmares call the “yips”: he can’t throw straight anymore, and, even worse, he can’t figure out why. As the media storm heats up, an invitation from Andy to stay in Maine seems like the perfect chance to hit the reset button on Dean’s future. When he moves into an apartment at the back of Evvie’s house, the two make a deal: Dean won’t ask about Evvie’s late husband, and Evvie won’t ask about Dean’s baseball career. Rules, though, have a funny way of being broken—and what starts as an unexpected friendship soon turns into something more. To move forward, Evvie and Dean will have to reckon with their pasts—the friendships they’ve damaged, the secrets they’ve kept—but in life, as in baseball, there’s always a chance—up until the last out.
Look at me, reading something that almost screams Chick Lit and loving it. I know, I know, a good book is a good book. And this was a really good book, although part of the reason I called it amazing is that I was amazed that I liked it so much. It's just smart, entertaining writing, with some good insight into what can torpedo a life and what can start to repair it. Smart, funny dialogue. Organically built relationships. Fun characters that you want to hang out with. And enough whimsy that it's not just real life.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor, Big Foot, turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Janina inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay her mind . . . A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?"I think it tallies with one of my Theories -- my belief that the human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth. To prevent us from catching sight of the mechanism. The psyche is our defense system -- it makes sure we'll never understand what's going on around us. Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering."
I took an entire university seminar on the poetry of William Blake. Back then it seemed like heady stuff to me. I've been thinking I should revisit some of it and see how I feel about it now. I definitely think it would be a tough task to translate it into Polish. I started reading this a couple of weeks into the first lockdown last March, when we were still dazed and reeling. I thought hard about whether I wanted to continue reading it at that time. I still can't quite decide if it was the absolute worst book to read right then, or the absolute best. I came down on the side of the latter, although it meant forcing myself to be willing to go to some very dark and uncomfortable places. There was a very desolate, noir, non-mainstream consciousness at work here that was odd, abrasive, compassionate, charming and then obscurely comforting.
"It is at Dusk that the most interesting things occur, for that is when simple differences fade away. I could live in everlasting Dusk."
Some of this was likely due to the setting being rural Poland, and the fact that I was reading in translation. I loved the little scenes of people taking comfort in community under such unkind circumstances. I loved that Janina, who hated her own name, gave the other villagers such epithets as Big Foot and Oddball and Good News. I loved that she was obsessed with astrology and yet admitted that she was quite bad at it. Near the end of the book I realized that I had been so beguiled by the tiny details of the book that I had missed a pretty obvious big-picture thing - almost literally like missing the forest for the trees - but it was okay. I also realized, after I had already bought the book and sent it to my brother-in-law and his wife for Christmas, that Olga Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018 and I had never heard of her, and that wasn't really okay, how am I this clueless? I couldn't decide if I felt like it looked snobby sending them a book that won a bunch of awards from a Nobel-winning author, or if I was happy that at least it seemed that many other people agreed with me that it was a wonderful book.
"The only coarse and primitive Tool gifted us for consolation is pain. The angels, if they really do exist, must be splitting their sides laughing at us. Fancy being given a body and not knowing anything about it. There's no instruction manual."
I then did some reading about Olga Tokarczuk and was delighted to find Janina termed "a kind of Eastern European Miss Marple", and the author described as "a woman who combines an extraordinary intellect with an anarchic sensibility". I stumbled across a movie the other day that seemed strangely familiar, and realized that it was, in fact, based on this book. I haven't watched it yet - frankly, the trailer didn't look or feel right to me - but I still might. I will definitely be reading more by this author.
"Gradually I felt flooded by a powerful sense of communion with the people passing by. Each man was my brother and each woman my sister. We were so very much alike. So fragile, impermanent and easily destroyed. We trustingly went to and fro beneath the sky, which had nothing good in store for us."