Category: Reviews

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson, Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector, and The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

I’ve had some wonderful cases of book serendipity this year. That is, when books you’re reading simultaneously, or consecutively, have a common thread, a coincidental similarity of theme, or detail, or maybe an uncommon word usage. Bookish Beck keeps track of these in Twitter threads. I kicked of this 20 Books of Summer challenge with just such a case of eerie paralells, between Jonathan Franzen’s How To Be Alone and Paul Auster’s Winter Journal.

This (another mini review cop out) is the opposite of that. Books 12, 13, and 14 of my list of 20 could not be more different. Objectively, they are of very different lengths, subjects, genres, and tones. Subjectively, they ranged from unexpectedly delightful to completely incomprehensible.

These books do serve to illustrate a point, though. In the Literary Fiction Book Tag, I defined “literary fiction” as fiction that leaves “plenty of room for interpretation.” I still believe this to be true, but in examining my reaction to these books, I find that what I need is a middle ground. Don’t spoon feed me, but don’t leave me completely on my own. Here’s how I fared with interpreting each of these books.

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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road had a profound effect on me. Not because of McCarthy’s writing style, this being my first encounter with it; or because of the audaciousness of his post-apocalyptic vision, the only one I’ve read without a shred of hope; or the biblical references, of which I am always slow on the uptake. I know all of these things are there but I can’t read The Road as anything other than an allegory for parenting, and here I could add, “in a time of crisis” or “in the modern world” or something but it’s not necessary, the world’s always in crisis and parenting exists outside of time, which is exactly the feeling this story gives me.

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The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

Goodreads is generally trash, but it is good for one thing: looking up reviews when you’re stuck on writing your own. Or, more to the point, you need to shore up your opinion about a book that seems to go against the grain. My first impression of The Fishermen was that it’s a good book that does several things quite well, but doesn’t really come together and feels a bit unfinished. I was uncertain: did I just not get it? Was it the cultural context?

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Refuse: CanLit in Ruins edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker

Writing this review was as difficult and exhausting as trying to follow the numerous CanLit controversies over the past couple of years, with which this book is concerned.

Okay, not quite as exhausting.

Reviewing any anthology is tough, though. I have a hard enough time with story and essay collections – when some entries are strong and some are weak, how to evaluate the whole, other than to deem it “uneven”? With an anthology, add the difficulty of evaluating multiple voices. Here, there are twenty four contributors and three editors, and we hear from the editors a lot.

Add another difficulty: the fact that I’m almost certainly not the intended audience. This is a book of writers and academics thinking about writing and the academy.

Indeed, I can’t help but agree with Russell Smith, who I normally find to be a bit of a crank (though a great short story writer) when he said that “CanLit now means the study of CanLit, with all its fraught panel discussions. In short, it means university departments.

In other words, readers don’t come into it. Back to that in a sec, though.

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The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo: DNF review

Rules for novels are more for writers than readers. If a novel is successful, I shouldn’t be thinking about whether or not the writer followed or subverted some set of rules. But one of those oft-repeated rules kept coming to mind while I attempted to read The Ghost Bride: show don’t tell.

While I’m sure there are many examples of successful novels that “tell” rather than “show”, this ain’t it.

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Little Reunions by Eileen Chang

Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City was one of my favourite books of last year and a new author discovery for me. Chang doesn’t have a huge body of work, but recent English translations like Half a Lifelong Romance (translated in 2016) and this one, Little Reunions (translated in 2018), seem to have revived interest her work and there’s a fair amount of buzz – among those who get buzzed about translated lit, anyway!

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl could have been a great book.

This is starting out very much like my review of The Fault in our Stars:

The Fault in Our Stars is a great book.

The most popular book review I’ve ever written, other than the one that was about sexy Sleeping Beauty

If they hadn’t been published in the same calendar year, I’d think that Me and Earl was a direct response to TFioS. Both Me and Earl and TFioS feature cancer, friendship, high school, inappropriate authority figures, sex, and, I think, oblique references to Infinite Jest? I covered the parallels between TFioS and IJ in my review of the former. In Me and Earl, parallels include the inclusion of a filmography, references to a brain fungus and, most directly, a film that “caused an actual death” so I don’t think I’m imagining this.

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The Watch That Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan

I mistakenly noted that I received this book “from the publisher” in my 20 Books of Summer list. Actually, I received it as part of a promotional push for Douglas Gibson’s 2011 memoir, Stories About Storytellers. The memoir is centered on his lengthy career in publishing, during which he oversaw and edited CanLit classics from luminaries like MacLennan, as well as Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, and Alastair MacLeod.

In 2013, Gibson set up “The Storytellers Book Club“, with lengthy discussion questions for a selection of books covered in Storytellers. Bloggers were invited to review those books for chance to win the whole selection. I submitted this review of Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love and won, then proceeded to neither read nor review the rest of the books, because I suck. I also just realized, nearly six years later, that Gibson responded to my blog post about the contest (see his comment here), and I never responded. Now I feel really bad!

So in the style of that Munro review, I’ll give you a few quick impressions, then attempt one or two of Gibson’s discussion questions. As I noted back in 2013, Gibson’s questions are a bit biased, but I’ll work with them.

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Winter Journal by Paul Auster

Before starting Winter Journal, the first of my 20 Books of Summer, I tried really hard to clear the decks and finish off all the physical and ebooks I was reading prior to June 3. But books are meant to be in e with each other, as the saying goes, and so I found myself in the middle of listening to How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen when it was time to start Winter Journal, and did they ever have a conversation.

I vaguely knew that Paul Auster and Jonathan Frazen had a few things in common. They both live in New York (at least part time), they are both married to writers, they are both Baby Boomers. They’re both critically acclaimed, commercially successful novelists, though they are on rather different ends of the spectrum when it comes to being controversial (“name” + “controversy” brings up no relevant results for Mr. Auster, Mr. Frazen’s results reference at least five separate incidents on the first page.)

Portraits of the artists as young men

Even so, I didn’t expect these books to be drawing from such similar circumstances and emotions. Both books are driven by grief, specifically, the loss of parents. In Auster’s case, death is quick and unexpected, while Franzen’s parents get sick and linger, but I was struck but how both men end up suffering extreme physical reactions – hives, panic attacks – when they can’t or won’t express their grief any other way. And how vulnerable they get in these books, challenging the traditional masculine response to grief.

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