Category: Reviews

When a comfort read is discomforting: Mary Green by Melanie Kerr

My latest review for Vue Weekly is up, and I need to write a different kind of disclaimer:

This review is not sponsored and I paid full retail for the book. The author did, however, make me sourdough waffles with homemade preserves. I swear it didn’t affect this review, even though they were the best damn waffles I’ve ever had.

With that in mind, here follows my director’s cut review. Or, click here for the shorter version that appears in Vue.

It’s worth noting the unintentionally hilarious typo in the print headline. Not sure whose fans are rejoicing; Stone Cold Steve Austin’s?

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Photo by Melanie Kerr

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2016 Year in Review #2: Best books, worst books, and my book of the year

Despite restricting myself to only 35 new-to-me books in 2016, I had trouble narrowing down a top and bottom five. I also set out to document my 35 books on Instagram but kind of failed… I managed to get a few decent pictures though!

Best books of 2016, in order of when they were read:

  • Birdie by Tracey Lindberg: Like nothing I’ve read before. A travesty that it didn’t win Canada Reads, Alberta Reader’s Choice Awards, and wasn’t nominated for many others. If there ever was a book that Canadians need now, and that has literary merit and does something new with the novel. this is it!
  • Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood: Yes, we’re all mad at her right now. And this book, about how horrible women and girls are to each other, is perhaps fitting. I went through the strangest emotions while reading this: a mixture of sadness and relief that I’ll never have a daughter.
  • After Claude by Iris Owens: So good I read it twice this year. So funny for the first two thirds that I forgot how devastating the last third is.
  • The Diviners by Margaret Laurence: There are a lot of reasons to love this book. I’ll choose the fact that we witness the heroine lose her virginity in a scene where she is in total control, and she doesn’t 1) instantly orgasm 2) marry the guy 3) pay for it for the rest of the book. Sex positive CanLit circa 1973.
  • Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys: Speaking of books that are ahead of their time! All these books are about strong women (but not “strong women”) and Sasha is the strongest and brittlest of them all.

Book #7 and future winner of Canada Reads. This book blew me away. #bookstagram #canadareads2016 #CanLit

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Spring. Also book 11 of 2016, THE DIVINERS by Margaret Laurence. #bookstagram #amreading #readingoutside

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#FridayReads and #FridayWaits to get my dang phone fixed (they're on 39, time for a few pages)

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Disappointing books of 2016, in order of when they were read. I don’t have pictures of all these, because, ugh.

  • The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson: Read more like an educational pamphlet than a graphic novel.
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: I love an unreliable narrator. In fiction. In memoir, not so much…
  • Bluets by Maggie Nelson: I just didn’t get it. Nelson is a writer I think I *should* like but just… don’t. And the fawning over her is just too much. I listened to her on a few podcasts this year and the hosts just grovel, Wayne’s World “we’re not worthy” style.
  • In-Between Days by Teva Harrison: I didn’t connect with the drawing style. When you look forward to the text-only pages in a graphic novel, that’s not good.
  • The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin: If Eat Pray Love was re-imagined as Eat Read Fuck. Which is funny since Crispin wrote a takedown of EPL (and even stranger, a defense of it six years ago.) This was my biggest disappointment. Crispin is an OG book blogger who’s gone on to be a respected literary critic. She is contrarian and sarcastic and smart. But this book swung between too show-offy and obscure and too juvenile (pretending not to know what the solution is to an affair with a married man that won’t leave his wife…) Won’t stop me from pre-ordering Why I Am Not A Feminist, though!

 

And now, the 2016 Reading in Bed Book of the Year:

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The Best Kind of CanLit

I guest hosted on CanLit podcast Write Reads earlier this month and we talked about Zoe Whittall’s Giller shortlisted The Best Kind Of People. We recorded on Giller Prize eve, and I said I didn’t think it should win, but I did think it would be a contender on Canada Reads.

I’ve felt bad about the podcast since, hence I haven’t shared it till now. I felt bad because it was a little snobby of me to say this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, doesn’t deserve a prize. I was a bit condescending. But I also felt bad for holding back on the discussion about rape culture. I walked into the recording thinking about Stephen Galloway, and brought him up as soon as we stopped recording. Now everyone’s talking about him and I have to wonder why I didn’t say something sooner. Continue reading

Novellas in November 2016: Are Nonfiction Novellas a thing?

So, uh, anyone reading novellas this November?

The past three years of this event took place during less eventful Novembers than this one. I assume that’s why I don’t see anyone novella-ing yet. Unless you were just waiting for me.

With Nonfiction November taking the (Booktube) world by storm, I thought I’d open with some nonfiction novellas.

Oh, you thought novellas can only be fiction?

Well, that’s probably true, but there is a little subgenre of nonfiction that’s more than an essay but less than a book. There’s a whole blog about it, Brevity, which I just discovered. In this post from 2009, Brevity considers calling these pieces “nonfiction novellas,” but settles on “monograph essays.” That sounds too stuffy for me. #NonFictionNovellasInNovember it is.

Here are a couple I’ve read recently.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson (95 pages)
Help me out, guys. Everyone I know loved this book. It’s the kind of book people push on you. Nelson is fawned over in all her interviews, the various podcasters not sure they’re qualified to be in her prescence, let alone speak to her. But Bluets did nothing for me. The numbered fragments amount to a long essay about a breakup, with major tangents about light, colour, collecting, compulsion, sex, and blue stuff. I read it over a weekend and put it aside, unmoved.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (48 pages)
Time to be a contrarian again: I do not get the hype. To be clear: I do think we should all be feminists. There is nothing in this book I disagree with. But I expected it to show me something new, or challenge my beliefs in some way. It was very “feminism 101.” So, good for someone just starting out, I guess. You can watch the original half-hour Ted Talk here.

Who Needs Books? by Lynn Coady (44 pages)
Technically I didn’t read this, but I was at the lecture in 2015. And I had so much fun writing about it. I do own the book now (thanks Jason!) and in rereading the introduction, was reminded that one of her Giller-winning short stories featured Jean Rhys – stay tuned for more on Rhys when we get to the traditional novellas. I thought this lecture was brilliant, bringing together Franzen and Grover to teach us all a lesson about reading and hedonism. You can  listen to her read it in just under 54 minutes right here.

Even This Page is White by Vivek Shraya (107 pages)
Okay, this is a book of poetry, so it maybe it doesn’t belong here. Or maybe it does. These poems are so grounded in place; there’s no mistaking that these are Canadian poems, Edmonton poems, Amiskwaciwâskahikan poems. Then there’s the form: some of the poems are interviews with people about race. One is made of fragments from the comments on a petition to ban Kanye West from playing the Pan Am games. Other poems are autobiographical. Sounds pretty nonfictiony to me. This was also my first experience at a poetry reading and it was life changing.

What about you? And what do you call these in-betweeny, nonfictiony books?

Why I want to be friends with Imbolo Mbue (and a review of her novel Behold the Dreamers)

I have no time for Booktubers who apologize for not knowing how to pronounce an author’s name – look that shit up! And so I did for Imbolo Mbue (Em-boo-wey), author of Behold the Dreamers,  and discovered that, in addition to having four letter names that are difficult to pronounce, we both worked in market research, and we both love Jonathan Franzen.

Today, I still work in market research, while Mbue is a famous novelist; and the closest I got to Franzen was being in the same room, while she shares an agent with him. But I’m not the jealous type. I totally think we could be friends.

I made friends with her novel and reviewed it here:

What author do you think you could be friends with?

Paper Teeth by Lauralyn Chow: Director’s Cut Review

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Publication date: September 1, 2016
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Read this if you like: Historical CanLit, Edmonton and Calgary settings, funny family stories, non-traditional structure
Check out Paper Teeth on Goodreads
Thanks to: NeWest Press for the review copy and Lauralyn Chow for answering my questions

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Paper Teeth by Lauralyn Chow for Vue Weekly.

I’ve written reviews here on Reading in Bed for many years. Writing for print publications is new to me, and there are many differences:

  • Getting paid
  • Actual deadline
  • No links or gifs
  • No writing about yourself and your feelings

You also have to limit the word count. That’s not something I do here on the blog. I love a long review. I had to keep my review of Paper Teeth under 800 words, and I had about 1,500 in my first draft.

So, if you didn’t get enough of my ramblings in Vue, here’s a longer version, along with the full text of my Q&A with Lauralyn Chow. I loved this book, and if you’re into historical CanLit, especially Edmonton and Calgary settings, you’ll want to check this out.

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My review of The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

thewake…and my very first professional book review! After five years of writing about books here at Reading in Bed, I’m so proud to review The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, my favourite book of 2015, in The Rusty Toque.

I’ve hinted about my super-duper, super-long review of The Wake for months. And it did take months to write. It also took some particular experiences, pieces of advice, and pep talks. I want to give a few shout outs, and a little preview, as it’s definitely in TL;DR territory. I’m proud, but also nervous. I wrote about The Wake, a novel about the Norman Invasion in 11th century England, in the context of Reconciliation in Canada.

It is controversial to suggest we need yet another account of colonization from the English point of view, but The Wake is an important novel in much the same way as Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. The Orenda is one of Canadian literature’s first balanced accounts of first contact between Indigenous peoples and Europeans, including French and Indigenous points of view, and importantly, multiple Indigenous points of view (it is quite common that Indigenous peoples and their perspectives are presented as a monolith, despite the plural “peoples.”) The Orenda won the 2014 Canada Reads competition, and has been recommended as required reading for all Canadians.

The Wake should also be required reading for Canadians, not for its balanced perspective, and only partially for the old “those who don’t know, doomed to repeat” reasons, but mostly because learning that the Norman invasion was itself a colonization and that English people are no more a monolith than Indigenous peoples are and that the way we label people “Anglo-Saxon” is almost as misguided as the way we used to label Indigenous peoples “Indians” is very much in the spirit of reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate states that “The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.” The Wake addresses the themes of common experience, colonization, violence, and even cultural genocide.

Thanks to the people who helped me write this:

  • Jennifer Quist for encouragement and suggesting I get in touch with The Rusty Toque
  • Jane and Miranda for organizing a “Read the TRC” group, which I wrote about here
  • Wab Kinew and Ray Saddleback Jr., who spoke at a City of Edmonton employee event last year, where I first heard the phrase “renegade tribe” which made me think of England’s “greenmen” and  inspired the direction this review took
  • Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses for her review, which informed mine
  • My sister Cait for proofreading and advice

If you make it through this monster review, please let me know what you think.

My First Franzen: Eff you and your flat female characters! (Freedom, 2010)

The second in a series in which I convince hapless readers to take on the Fran Man, today’s First Franzen is courtesy of my sister Caitlin Higgins. Caitlin is a sometime-vegan Canadian ex-pat living in St. Paul, Minnesota and previously shared a tour of Freedom’s notable settings. Check her out on Twitter or on her blog, The Angry Vegan, now defunct, but worth reading the archives.

So many feelings happened as I read this book, but surprisingly, when I finished I didn’t know how to share my opinion. I didn’t love Freedom; I didn’t hate it. There were points where I felt both of these feelings as I read, but I walked away thinking, “Really??? That’s it??”.

I started out selfishly thinking it was going to be a great book, because it was set in St. Paul, MN and I moved to St. Paul just a few months before. I love reading books set in places I have been. I really like recognizing streets and landmarks (I found out later that Barrier Street does not really exist… was it supposed to be symbolic?). There is something about walking in the same place a book is set that gives you an instant connection. freedom

There is so much flipping around in this book from one character’s story to the next, making it a tricky read. Most of my reading is done in 20 minute spurts at the gym with long breaks in between, and I was constantly forgetting where I was in the story. I can’t blame Franzen for that one though. Now that I have a hard copy, I can see, this is no gym read!

The story is told in a mix of Patty narrating her own life and marriage, and a variety of characters in Patty’s world narrating: husband- Walter, son- Joey, BFF/Lover- Richard, and a little bit from daughter Jessica. Franzen is great at giving these characters depth. I truly felt I understood the character under the spotlight and then as the story went on, I would change my opinion as I learned more and more. However, as I continued to read, it was clear he is only good at that for his male characters. I went through so many emotions about Walter. First, I liked him, and even compared him to my husband. Then, I hated him. He seems so spineless. (No longer comparing to the husband!). I was either shaking a fist at him or rooting for him to do the right thing.

Patty, on the other hand, seemed to be a victim, never having control, never truly making decisions, and never having her own true plot, even when she should have. Looking back, this happened with Jessica’s character as well, and Joey’s girlfriend. Really, there was not one female character in Freedom that had the depth of the male characters. It made me really dislike this book. Everything centralizes around Patty, so how could she not be more than some helpless lump!?! Shame on you, Franzen! Is that how he sees women? Maybe, maybe not, but I walk away thinking he is a sexist jerk.

10-Things-I-Hate-About-You-Less-Sexist-Take-Taming-Shrew

Putting my thoughts on Franzen and female characters aside, I really got into the book. I was forever rooting for someone to do something (anything!!). In the end, after everything that everyone had been through, Patty goes back to Walter and Walter takes her (Of course, after some passive aggressive punishment). Why would she go back!? WHY does he take her back?! I hated the ending so much I almost threw my Kindle across the gym. The end left me wondering why I had wasted the last few weeks reading this well-written, anger-inducing, yet somehow dull story. I wanted the book to get outside boring and normal life in some way. I wanted Patty to be OK, and all I was left with is Patty right back where she started. To me, Franzen took the easy way out.

So what do I think about Freedom? I guess it is OK (I am rolling my eyes as I type). It clearly evoked emotion, which in my case can be tough to do. I would rather spend a month reading a novel that allows me to escape from the dreary reality I live in (OK, not always dreary, but not all that exciting either). This did not do that. Despite the lack of female character depth, I did think that the book was so well written, that I’d give Franzen one more chance… even though I have a feeling I will be angry again if I do. Maybe I am a glutton for punishment.

cait reading freedom edit

Caitlin, seething with anger, reads Freedom

Alright, well, I’m zero for two. I need to convince someone to read The Corrections. Everyone loves The Corrections!

Novellas in November 2015: Wrap up

I’ve been posting daily videos for The Short Story Advent Calendar, and enjoying it so much that I made a video for Novellas in November. Check it out:

I read five novellas during the month. Here they are, in very particular order:

  1. The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrente
  2. Grandma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki
  3. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
  4. Blue Skies by Evelyn Lau
  5. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Check out some other bloggers doing Novellas in November, some of whom even posted updates during the month!
The Book a Week Project
Ebookclassics
746 Books
Poppy Peacocks

And please do subscribe and like and all that on YouTube, so my children stop making fun of my stats.

LitFest 2015 Mini-Reviews: Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis and Separation Anxiety by Miji Campbell

LitFest-2clr-cmyk-smallLitFest is Canada’s only non-fiction festival. One of these years, I’ll get a pass and go to everything, but this year The Femme Memoir Hour is my one and only. It’s tomorrow, Saturday October 24, at 1:00 p.m. at the downtown library, and tickets are still available.

The theme of this event is tenuous. Yeah, they’re all memoirs written by women, but so what? Is that enough to tie these books together? I’ve read two of the books (kindly provided by LitFest, many thanks) and while they share some themes of recovery, they really couldn’t be more different.

girlinthewoodsGirl in the Woods by Aspen Matis
Goodreads
3 out of 5 stars

Let me just get this out of my system: Girl in the Woods is Wild for millennials!!

That’s too simple and kind of condescending. It’s not Matis’ fault that Cheryl Strayed released Wild in 2012, presumably while she was writing Girl in the Woods. It’s not her fault that Strayed also had a traumatic past, that she also had a near-death experience on the trail, or that she also changed her name after her journey.

It also feels condescending to say I wish Matis, like Strayed, had waited longer and matured as a writer before writing a memoir, and yet. The book includes childhood pictures of Matis (…for some reason) labelled with dates in the late nineties, just in case you forget that she’s super young. The reminder is helpful though. Matis is maddeningly self-centered and dramatic, which is less annoying when you remember that she’s 18 years old when she begins her hike. And privileged. I mean, when the word “self-care” appeared I thought I was done. But I stuck around and remembered that duh, I was a privileged, dramatic, self-centered 18 year old myself, and Matis captures something true about that experience that’s hard to describe. And, she’s done something with all that privilege. Not the hike, the book. No one made her write a story about being raped. Imagine being known for the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Then again, imagine reaching so many people who need to hear your story.

If you can push away the comparisons, and quit wishing that a teenager was more mature, which is silly, you will probably enjoy Girl in the Woods. It *is* well-written, well, a little over-written, but there are flashes of greatness. I appreciate what Matis did with her story and I’m really interested to see what she does next.

separationanxietySeparation Anxiety by Miji Campbell
Goodreads
2 out of 5 stars

Again, let me just get this out of my system: Separation Anxiety is Eat Pray Love without the eating, praying, or loving!!

It’s not fair to compare a book to EPL just because it’s a memoir by a woman who goes through a divorce. Well, comparing and contrasting. Like Elizabeth Gilbert, Campbell’s life is privileged and suburban and normal. Traditional wifely and motherly roles aren’t enough for her. Neither teaching nor freelance writing lead to fulfillment.  This is where you expect Campbell to travel the world à la Gilbert or hike through the woods à la Matis. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t really do anything.

Well, she suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That’s not nothing. A weird, dysfunctional relationship with her mother is referenced as a factor but never really explained. She has debilitating insomnia as a young adult. She marries and has children. She divorces her husband for some reason which isn’t clear. She meets a new guy but we’re told nothing about the when or the how. Eventually, she is unable to work or leave the house, but the stakes don’t seem very high. It feels wrong to say that, because of course the stakes were high; this is her life. But it didn’t come through in my reading.

Traipsing around the globe and hiking across the continent can be inspirational (or aspirational,) but they’re not reasonable for most. Realism is good! But, it turns out, you do need something to hang your story on. The combination of Campbell’s short, clipped sentences, jumpy timeline, and lack of narrative almost made this a DNF. The last chapters, in which she gets her shit together, were good. There was some drive to the narrative and we got to hear from other people.

I will say the design of this book is wonderful. I’ve had several people admire the cover and ask me about it. You know what they say about books and covers, though.

The Femme Memoir Hour is part of LitFest. Meet the authors this Saturday, October 24, 1:00 p.m. at Stanley Milner Library.

Come for the authors, or come to meet moderator Liz Withey and her friend Laverne. Thanks to LitFest for the review copies. I haven’t read the third book, The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley, but it sounds fascinating.