10

Little Fires Everywhere is a marvel

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

When I first read Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, I wasn’t sure that I liked it. But the more I thought about it, the more it affected me, the better I understood it.

When Little Fires Everywhere came out and it started to show up all over my social media feeds, I was feeling left out! So I was thrilled when a copy showed up at my door.

little fires everywhere

In Shaker Heights, a planned community, everything has always been just so. Homes are painted in certain colours to complement their styles, unsightly garbage is collected behind the homes so no one has to see it, and schools are laid out so that children can walk to them without crossing a single street.

Elena Richardson has lived in Shaker Heights for her entire life and embodies it’s spirit. She, her husband, and four children live in a large home, have a housekeeper, and attend the right kinds of functions. When Mia, a free spirited artist, and her daughter, Pearl, rent Elena’s property, no one has any idea how things will end. As Pearl becomes enmeshed in the Richardson family and as the youngest Richardson, Izzy, becomes closer with Mia, all of them are heading for a collision that will rock the foundation of their lives.

And when a Chinese American baby is adopted by the Richardson’s friends after being ‘abandoned’ by her overwhelmed birth mother, everyone picks a side.

You all know that I’ve been struggling with my reading lately. And initially, I didn’t get time for more than a few pages of Little Fires Everywhere. I wasn’t sure that I was going to love this book like everyone else. But then, miracle of miracles, I had an entire day to spend with it. And I finished the whole thing, greedily turning pages, simultaneously racing through them and wanting to slow down and make it last longer.

Celeste Ng is a marvel. How she manages to craft a novel that covers so much, that sees so much humanity in 336 pages, I will never know. It is a portrait of motherhood, of friendships, of the way secrets tug at the fabric of our lives. It is about mothers and daughters, about the way class systems shape our communities, about being an outsider in the kind of community that is held up as a beacon of progress.

Little things about this book bowled me over. The way Elena Richardson is always Mrs Richardson, never Elena. But Mia is always just Mia, despite the fact that they are likely contemporaries. Ng manages to create a sense of distance with just three little letters. The story moves between points of view seamlessly, so that you don’t even notice it’s happening. Each character is given such depth and history in a short amount of time – really, it’s incredible what Ng has managed to capture in this book.

Little Fires Everywhere touches on racism and classism but never in a way that feels heavy handed or over done. Written with the pace of a thriller, this book is a knock out for book club or your more literarily-inclined friends.

I loved this book. I wish I could read it again for the first time.

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22

In which I anxiety spiral

This year has been a slog. For a lot of different reasons, both international and domestic. I’ve had trouble all year with reading (among other things). And for someone who takes comfort in time spent reading, who takes solace in novels, this has been especially difficult.

Am I picking the wrong books? I read a thriller recommended by my husband last week and started out really enjoying it. It ended up taking me five days to get through, and by the end there were all these little nit-picky things about it that drove me insane. Like, why does the boy have to be the one saving the girl? The book is supposed to be about the girl! Why is abortion being used as a plot device like this? Why so much focus on breasts? Is it me or is this book actually problematic?

Should I stop pushing on? Is this just a reading rut that has nothing to do with anything else? I’m currently trying to make my way through the second book of a promised trilogy. I loved the first book. It restored my faith in the historical fiction genre, convinced me that they were still worth reading. But over 200 pages into this second book, I don’t care? There’s a romance, a girl ahead of her time, history that I don’t often read about, and the writing is decent. But I can’t seem to care and I think often about maybe just stopping but I just did that a couple of weeks ago, can I do it again?

Do I need to spend less time obsessing? Well obviously. And yet, I feel like I’m always thinking about the other books that I could be reading. About the time that I am not spending reading, about the time I’ve spent reading things that don’t matter to me. I’ve read articles about how it’s not that hard to read 200 books in a year and I struggle with the fact that I haven’t even cracked 100 yet. I think about the books that I have read but not reviewed. About the books that I’ve bought or had sent to me that I haven’t even cracked.

I think longingly of Non Fiction November and all the books I will be ‘free’ to read then. But I also think about all the fiction that I will ignore in the service of Non Fiction November. I think about the fact that I’ve been driving to work nearly every day and all the reading time I’m losing because of it. I think about the days that I get alone time that I spend watching trash TV instead of with my nose in a book.

Mostly I think about how this year has robbed me of quite a bit, including the simple pleasure of the enjoyment of a good book. And then the anxiety spiral starts again.

So, I’m still here. But, you know, in a different headspace.

anxiety

6

CanLit Win: Someone You Love Is Gone

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Heading into the long weekend, I was planning on reading something easy, a “guilty pleasure” style book. But by the time Monday rolled around, and I still hadn’t finished that particular book (or even really cared to read it at all) I decided that I’d maybe need to admit defeat and move on.

(Remember at the beginning of the year I said I’d be better about not finishing books?)

I looked around the apartment for my next book and settled pretty quickly on Someone You Love Is Gone by Gurjinder Basran. Basran is a local author whose debut novel, Everything Was Goodbye was the winner of the Search for the Great BC Novel contest in 2010 and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Award in 2011. It was also a Chatelaine Book Club pick in 2012.

basran

In Someone You Love Is Gone, Basran explores loss and grief and the coming to terms with a new reality. Simran’s mother has just passed away after a long illness. Simran doesn’t know how to cope with the void in her life; the past couple of years have been spent caring for her mother and suddenly her mother doesn’t exist anymore.

Except she kind of does. As she starts moving forward with her life, Simran’s mother haunts her, sits with her and talks about the past, about her siblings and the need for family in this world. They are just little glimpses of her but they offer Simran some comfort. Especially as she works through her family’s past, decisions that were made and the repercussions that rippled out through the generations.

When Simran was 10, her brother Diwa, always a special boy, believing himself to be reincarnated, is sent away to live with relatives. No explanation is ever given to Simran or Diwa; Diwa is gone and the siblings rarely see each other anymore. Soon a new sibling, Jyoti is born but the age difference means the sisters never become close.

There’s a lot going on in this book; three times are moving forward and while that often irritates me, removing me from one story when I’m just starting to settle into it, in Someone You Love Is Gone, it works. Basran has given each story the time that it needs, she hasn’t weighed it down with extraneous details or complications. Each story fits inside the others, like a series of Russian nesting dolls.

Simran is without a doubt the anchor of the story. Parts of the book are in first person from her perspective and again, normally this would drive me crazy, but here it felt natural and right. You can feel Simran’s sadness, the grief that she’s just coming to terms with, both over the loss of her mother and all the other losses she’s had to deal with over the course of a lifetime. All three of the siblings have grown up kind alone inside this family that just wants to function and get through the days, to not dwell on the bad things that have happened.

I thought it might be heavy novel, dealing with death as it does. I was worried that I’d become mired down in the darkness that I assumed would come with this book. But there is a real freedom in this book, a weightlessness that comes from Basran offering her characters redemption.

Basran has crafted a quiet, thoughtful novel. It is at once incredibly personal, the story of one family, and completely universal as I’m sure readers will be able to see themselves and their own families in it.

Another thumbs up on the CanLit front.

8

Not for me: A Stranger in the House

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

You’re making dinner for your husband when you get a phone call. You race out of the house and drive across town for a meeting you hoped would never happen.

After that, you don’t remember anything. Your husband is told you were in a car accident but you don’t remember anything, can’t even tell them why you were in that part of town.

So begins Shari Lapena’s A Stranger in the House.

stranger

This is another one of those books that becomes tricky to write about because if you want to read it, it’s pretty important that you don’t know too much about it. Such was the case with Lapena’s last book, The Couple Next Door.

Unfortunately, unlike The Couple Next Door, this book didn’t thrill me all the way to the end. And I promise it’s not because I was comparing it to that the whole time. There just wasn’t the pacing I need from a book like this.

I also had some issues with the characters. Secrets and lying between spouses, fine. That’s all part of the game. But for a book set in the present day there was a lot of talk about housewives. Karen, recovering from her accident, trying to figure out what happens, seems to exist for her husband Tom only to look after his needs. As she becomes more distracted (see: recovery from the accident), he begins to be annoyed that she’s not the same happy, stable wife that he’s always known. And then he starts to create other problems with another “housewife” across the street.

Listen, there is nothing wrong with a woman staying home to do whatever she wants to do. It was the way that the power dynamics played out that bothered me so much, the way that as long as everything was nice and tidy and easy, everything was fine between Karen and Tom. But as soon as life got a bit messy, accusations started flying.

Also, what 30-something is called Karen?

I’m normally completely down for this kind of mysterious thriller. Especially one that involves the dynamics between a couple who maybe haven’t been 100% completely honest with each other.

But between the lack of pacing or really any tension, the weird housewife focus and a woman my age called Karen, I just could not get on board with A Stranger in the House. 

12

When the hype is warranted

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Well I wasn’t super kind to the last book I posted about. To balance the scales, so to speak, today I’m going to talk about a book that I completely and totally loved: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne.

The first time I read a book by John Boyne, I felt a lot of things. A History of Loneliness made me angry and sad and I wanted to scream. I followed that up with The Boy at the Top of the Mountain which I also loved. Less screaming into the void, but no less moved.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies though. I was completely invested. For a nearly-600 page book, it too me no time to rip through it. And that’s without taking the bus to and from work!

furies

The book begins with the story of Cyril Avery’s mother; Catherine is 16 when she is shamed in front of her entire community in Ireland because she is pregnant. The person who got her pregnant isn’t shamed, and the priest doing the shaming has been up to far worse. But that’s Ireland in 1945. Her entire family looks away as she is thrown out of the parish. She takes the bus to Dublin where she has a plan for the rest of her life.

We meet Cyril when he is a fairly precocious 7 year old, adopted by a couple who insist he’s “not a real Avery” and leave him mostly to his own devices. The day he meets Julian, the son of the lawyer tasked with getting Cyril’s adoptive father off on some fraud related charges, is the day that he falls in love.

Over the course of the novel, we check in with Cyril every seven years. We are with him at boarding school when he and Julian are roommates and best friends, Julian intent on sleeping with girls, Cyril on being around Julian. We check in with Cyril as he begins work in the civil service, going out in the small hours of the morning to hook up with strange men in bathroom stalls and alleys. We see Cyril on his wedding day when he is desperate to have made different decisions and almost can’t stand to live another day; when he moves to Amsterdam, and then New York before being back in Ireland again. We are with him as he finds a different version of the family he knows he can never have, as he comes to terms with the truth about himself. We see Cyril as a child, a teenager, a young man, a middle aged one and even a very old one, haunted by those who have gone before. And at every stage, he has some kind of run-in with Catherine, the woman who gave him up at 16.

It feels like it’s been a while since I’ve been so invested in a book. Since I’ve found one that makes me ignore everything else going on to spend time wrapped up in its pages. I loved Cyril Avery, his unique way of seeing the world, the way that, even with so many people around him, he was essentially alone.

Reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies is like reading about the birth of a modern Ireland as well. Boyne’s latest novel is peppered with priests and traditional women and civil servants who would have Ireland stay as it is, where women have to quit their jobs as soon as they get married and homosexuality is very much illegal. In much the way A History of Loneliness focused on the church’s role in shaping Ireland, The Heart’s Invisible Furies doesn’t shy away from taking to task those institutions and people who would trap individuals in prisons not of their own making.

This book seemed like it came out of nowhere and suddenly it was everywhere. I personally believe that the hype is completely warranted.

I finished this book in a daze, momentarily confused about where I was, bewildered that my journey alongside Cyril was over. I’ve already loaned my copy out to a friend in the hopes that she will fall in love with this book as I did. If you get the chance to read it, I hope you do.

11

Review: The Address

As you know, I’m done apologizing for occasionally dropping the ball on this blogging lark. For a variety of reasons, this year has been challenging and some things have been neglected as a result.

However, I’ve been reading (albeit more slowly) and I’ll be posting some fresh content in the coming weeks.

First up: Fiona Davis’ The Address.

the address

When Sara Smythe, head housekeeper at a fancy hotel in London, saves the life of Theodore Camden’s youngest daughter, she finds herself the recipient of a job offer: to be the manager at the hotel apartment he’s building in New York City. In 1884, the chance to move to New York, the chance to be defined by her work instead of her station is massive. She takes the job. Sara soon becomes very close with Theodore, especially since his wife and three children have yet to move into The Dakota.

A hundred years later, Bailey Camden is at a loose end. Fresh out of rehab, after a humiliating night out on the town, Bailey doesn’t have a job or a place to live. When her cousin asks for her help redecorating her apartment at The Dakota, Bailey jumps at the chance to rebuild her interior decorating career. She’s also always loved the apartment and the history of the building. Unfortunately, since her grandfather was just the ward of Theodore Camden, Bailey doesn’t stand to inherit anything from the estate. But when she finds old suitcases in the basement, she may have stumbled onto some of the answers of who killed Theodore Camden in his apartment all those years ago.

So this book should have been right up my alley: a murder mystery, a woman doing a man’s job ahead of her time, some historical context, it wasn’t told in the first person.

But.

(You knew there was going to be a but)

Sara is framed as a modern woman, one who rose above the murky origin of her birth, who survived the advances of man who was in charge of her at a delicate age. But she throws all of that away to be with a man, who is married to someone else. Bailey is frustrated by everyone around her not giving her what she thinks she deserves, is jealous of her cousin’s wealth and will do just about anything to pretend she lives at the same level.

These are not the kinds of heroines that I enjoy spending time with.

There is a whole story arc about how easy it was to dispose of troublesome women, through asylums, making women seem crazy or hysterical and then locking them up. It felt like as soon as I was settling into this part of the story, I was taken back to 1985 and Bailey trying to figure out her life, and her family history.

I was frustrated by both Sara and Bailey as they each sacrifice things for the men in their lives. Bailey has just finished a stint in rehab and knows she needs to stay away from any relationships for a year and as soon as she’s out she finds herself attracted to the building manager at The Dakota. And Sara risks a lot more in 1884, even though she knows from her mother’s experience that this is not the smartest thing to do.

I think The Address could have benefited from more time – had the book been longer, there would have been more room to fully realize the characters and the settings. Instead, it felt rushed and incomplete. The murder mystery, while sometimes intriguing, wasn’t that skillfully drawn out. There was a complete lack of tension as Bailey tries to figure out what happened.

In the end, everything is tidied up a little too well but not in any way that gave this reader a modicum of satisfaction.

I didn’t reach my “throw the book across the room” level of frustration with The Address but there was a lot of muttering and sighing as I read.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book.

17

Literary Wives: On Beauty

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read On Beauty by Zadie Smith!

Ariel @  One Little Library
Kate @ Kate Rae Davis
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink
TJ @ My Book Strings

The Book

Howard Belsey is an Englishman living in the U.S., a professor at a prestigious university. He is married to Kiki, a Black American woman, who could not be more different from him. As they approach their 30th wedding anniversary, Howard complicates their life by having a short-lived affair with someone – when Kiki realizes he’s been unfaithful, he admits it but lies about the identity of the woman.

As Kiki and Howard try to decide what their future looks like, their three children are each beginning to live their own, very separate lives: Jerome, who escaped to England to live and work for Howard’s professional opposite, Monty Kipps, is discovering his faith and leaning into a more conservative belief system, and believes himself to fall in love with disastrous results; hot-headed Zora, agitating for a cause, brings a talented young man from the Boston streets into the college fold, ignoring everything except her own thoughts on the matter; and Levi, content to ignore his privileged background to hang out with his new friends on Boston’s streets, hustling for a living, slipping further and further from the heart of the family.

My Thoughts

So this is now the third book of Zadie Smith’s that I’ve read and this was probably the one that frustrated me the most. With White Teeth and Swing Time, I found enough in them to keep the reading momentum going and at no point did I want to throw the book across the room.

But On Beauty? There were moments that I wanted to scream. I’m not here to dispute the fact that Smith can write – she is clearly super talented. But there is something so cold, so distant about what she writes. I also felt kind of misled about how this book was all going to play out – the synopsis made it seem like Jerome made a bad decision and as the Belseys become more involved in the lives of the Kippses, all sorts of conflict came up. But that ‘conflict’ was ice cold and had less to do with the co-mingling of the families and everything to do with Howard Belsey going through a mid-life crisis and chasing pretty young things.

You know how there’s that idea that in order for a book to be considered serious literature it has to do with a white, middle aged man facing his mortality by cheating on his long-suffering wife? I think with On Beauty Zadie Smith herself might have bought into that idea.

I almost rage-quit reading this when Howard sleeps with the daughter of his enemy. The 18 year old daughter. I just cannot emphasize enough how much I don’t care about the cliche of a mid-life crisis.

I wanted more Kiki. I wanted to see more of her dealing with her husband’s total betrayal of the whole life they had built together. I wanted her to scream at him, kick him out of the house that was hers, see her grow close to Monty Kipps’ wife, Carlene. Instead, I got lame-ass Howard, feeling sorry for himself, outshone in every area of his life because he sucks.

There’s also something really confusing about the way Smith writes about race. It feels almost self-loathing and it always leaves me disappointed that she shied away from taking it on in any meaningful way. She seems to have the pieces there – interracial couple, biracial children, class differences exacerbated by race – and then she just leaves them there to…do what I’m not exactly sure. Just read this, to get a sense of what I mean.

What does the book say about being a wife? 

So, now that we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s get to the point of this exercise! I think, when On Beauty leaves enough room for Kiki, it asks this question of marriage: Is it a what or a whom that one lives for?

Kiki has spent the last thirty years moulding her life around that of her husband and children. She didn’t stay at home, but she had the kind of career that could be picked up and moved, she made time for the kinds of events her husband needed her at, ensured that the kids were where they needed to be. So when Howard cheats on her, essentially throws their life in her face, she doesn’t know what to do. What about her dreams? What is it that gives her life meaning now?

I think the question of how a wife lives is illustrated the best in a conversation that Kiki has with Carlene Kipps. Carlene and her family have moved to the area as Monty has accepted a position at the same school as Howard, but she is no longer the vibrant woman she was a year ago. Carlene is seriously ill with a mystery sickness (mystery as she doesn’t disclose it to anyone), and Kiki finds herself drawn to this woman.

She goes over one day and brings a pie as a kind of peace offering. They discuss their lives, their husbands and children, and to a degree, their philosophies on life and love. For Carlene, it’s been her life’s work to sacrifice everything in the service of her husband and his dreams. She understands that it frees her to allow Monty to chase and “possess” the young women he becomes obsessed with for short periods of time. She says that she used to fight it but came to realize that it took too much energy, that when she just allowed it to happen, it meant that her husband was able to do better work.

“I lived because I loved this person. I am very selfish, really. I lived for love. I never really interested myself in the world – my family, yes, but not the world. I can’t make a case for my life, but it is true.”

So does a woman live her life in the world, or does she give that up to live for a person she loves? In the end, Kiki makes a decision to live in the world, even temporarily, to see what her life looks like without the complication of Howard’s ‘love’ (can we call it that? Selfish ass).

I think it’s safe to say that my Zadie Smith experiment is over.