It really has been ages since I’ve done a book review on here so I’m back with more two sentence reviews for my fall reads. Thank goodness for WeBook which helps me at least keep track of what I’ve read or I’d have completely forgotten some of these!
<a href="The Man Game | Lee Henderson
Set during the days when Vancouver was still known as Hastings Mill Henderson conjures up an alternate history that centers around a logger’s sport called “the man game” which is performed in the nude and involves a series of complicated dance-like moves. His characters are colourful, though the Chinook jargon employed seems a bit off to me, not to mention their general English (cremains? I don’t think that word was invented in 1896). Overall I enjoyed this but I thought it could have used a much better edit (a frequent complaint I have about new Canadian literature) – there is an attempt to tie in a modern story that doesn’t really go anywhere, and many of the conversations in the historic plot-line don’t seem to advance anything much. I did want to like this a great deal but in the end I found it only somewhat amusing and the anachronisms distracting from the main story line.
The Glass Room | Simon Mawer
I’m trying to find a way to call this book lovely, tragic and simple without sounding mawkish or silly and it’s proving difficult. Set against the backdrop of Czechoslovakia’s 1920s heyday slipping into decline during fascist and then communist takeover – Mawer tells the story of Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew and gentile of prominence who build a modern architectural masterpiece of a home and then are exiled from it at the height of WW2. About love, betrayal, art, pride and the circumstances that bring people full circle – this is a historical novel that hits the mark all around. (Shortlisted for the 2009 Booker)
Thin is the New Happy | Valerie Frankel
A quick little self-help read about one woman’s search to get off the diet-anxiety train and learn how to enjoy life again. Not much new here, take it out of the library if you want to read it.
Last Night in Twisted River | John Irving
I really love John Irving but sometimes I feel like he goes for quantity rather than quality in his storytelling – and this book is in danger of being accused of that. A novel about life on the run for a man and his son (who accidentally kills his father’s lover at the age of eleven), Last Night in Twisted River has many great elements including sharp characters and an interesting plot trajectory – but at the same time it’s as though Irving wants to throw in everything including the kitchen sink and the book meanders quite a bit more than need be. Only a true Irving fan would read this all the way through, it’s not one I’d recommend (check out Until I Find You if you want a recent Irving novel that manages to meander and still come back to itself by the end).
Muybridge’s Horse | Rob Winger
This was one of the books Brian and I read aloud over the summer and absolutely loved it – a book length poem about Eadweard Muybridge, a groundbreaking photographer who proved in 1878 through with 50 precisely-timed still cameras that a horse’s four feet all come off the ground during mid-stride (his work was a precursor to the development of moving pictures. This book-length poem, or really a novel told in verse charts the life of Muybridge and his work – vividly and in language appropriate to the task of taking up the life of the enigmatic and impassioned man. If you like this sort of thing I would highly recommend.
Reading Like a Writer: A guide for people who love books and those who want to write them | Francine Prose
A worthwhile guide to close-reading and recognizing the strengths and weaknesses in the prose we read and write. I took this out of the library but now have it on my list of books to own – a handy reference of things to think about and watch out for in the quest to create great literature.
Dirt Music | Tim Winton
I wouldn’t have minded this book – the writing isn’t bad and the setting is quite vivid (roughneck fishing town in Australia) – and it was shortlisted for the Booker and all… but I absolutely detested the main character, a woman “trapped” in a relationship with a man she isn’t interested in. I just couldn’t help but see the entire story through his perspective, a man with a past he’s trying to overcome, meets a woman he thinks would be a good stepmom to his kids after his own wife dies of cancer and in exchange she becomes a total alcoholic and cheats on him, makes unfair accusations and ultimately engages him in a whole lot of drama he doesn’t need. Yuck. Apparently this is coming out as a film in 2010. (Shortlisted for the Booker in 2001)
Cheri and the Last of Cheri | Colette
Oldies but goodies – two novellas document the story of Cheri, a coddled boy raised by French courtesans, his ultimate marriage and later downfall as a boy who never quite becomes a man. Classics of literature for good reason, and a snapshot of Parisian society at the end of the Edwardian era which provides just enough intrigue and gossip without losing the modern reader in historical allusion.
<a href="The Collected Works of Billy the Kid | Michael Ondaatje
A GG winner in it’s day (1978), I’ve seen this book referred to as the best of 20th century Canadian poetry and I’ve got to agree. Brian brought this home one day and over a two-week period I read it aloud to him – gutwrenchingly violent in language at times, other moments catching love and camaraderie – I was stunned by Ondaatje’s ability to narrate a life so faithfully in verse. If you only read one book of Canadian poetry ever – this should be it.
<a href="A Good Man Is Hard to Find: And Other Stories“>A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories | Flannery O’Connor
Although Flannery O’Connor didn’t live very long (she died at 39), her short stories are some of the most masterfully crafted of the twentieth century. Set in the US South during the twenties to fifties, O’Connor’s tales revolve around the moral frailties and failures of her human subjects – seen through the eyes of an onlooker though without the judgement one might expect. Race, religion and rural hardship are central themes – the struggle to get along, to get one over on each other, told in the language of her time and place.
Drown & The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao | Junot Diaz
I’m lumping these together for the sake of brevity and also just to say that Junot Diaz is one of the most talented writers out of the US these days. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Diaz explores race, immigration, impoverished childhoods, domestic abuse and the brutal history of the DR in his imaginative, wistful and almost-funny stories. I can’t recommend another writer more than Diaz – The Brief and Wondrous Life a tragic and eye-opening novel, and Drown an impeccable collection of short stories. Read him!
The Seance – John Harwood
I love a good gothic ghost story and this book hits that mark with all the right elements: an orphaned teenager who believes she is a foundling, an inheritance of a crumbling home, paranormal investigators seeking to debunk Victorian spiritualism and a thwarted romance or two along the way. Spooky and yet not prone to fantasy – this is a good read.
The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters
But for gothic ghost story this year’s winner truly is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters which documents the decline of British manor society post-World War Two through the travails of one family beset upon by a poltergeist in their crumbling home. Described in the Guardian as “a perverse hymn to decay, to the corrosive power of class resentment as well as the damage wrought by war” – it’s a compelling read and I highly recommend it. (Shortlisted for the 2009 Booker)
Special Topics in Calamity Physics | Marisha Pressl
Okay, total escapism. I kept seeing this hard cover on remaindered piles and so I finally picked it up for $5 and really enjoyed it even though it was a tad trite and the ending might not be considered all that believable. Lots of historic, literary and political references here for the geeks – but an equal dose of teenage frippery and intrigue to balance it out. A fun read if not a realistic one.
Dark Places | Gillian Flynn
The ending made me hate this novel. I plodded through this murder-mystery of sorts (a woman’s family is murdered when she is a young girl – ostensibly by her brother) – not at all my type of book, hoping for an ending that redeemed it. Instead what I got was an ultraviolent and implausible scene involving one too many people for my liking. Not worth reading if you don’t like this sort of thing to begin with.