Category: Reviews

Norma by Sofi Oksanen, The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley, and Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

Yes, it’s the dreaded mini-review round up. Things are not looking great for my #20BooksofSummer challenge. This post will bring me to 10/20 books reviewed, and I just started reading #13. Anyone else plan to just keep going after September 3?

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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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How weird is too weird? Commentary on random pages from Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue

I’ve read some weird stuff since getting into literature in translation last year. That’s part of the appeal, right? Translated lit is an easy way to find something different, something experimental, maybe something surreal and dreamlike. Last year, I discovered László Krasznahorkai and his intensely weird story collection The World Goes On. I didn’t really “get it,” but I liked it. I also discovered Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Man Booker International Prize with a novel that defies genre. She calls her writing style a “constellation” and I don’t know if we really have that in English. I just finished an odd little book called The Order of the Day, also a prize winner, that is classified as a récit or an “account” rather than straight up non-fiction.

I could go on: a novel told in Facebook-status-like headlines, a speculative fiction about a world where only the elderly are healthy, whatever the heck Comemadre is about.

But now, I think I’ve hit my limit. I’ve found a translated novel that is too difficult to classify, too unmoored, too opaque, just too weird: Love in the New Millennium.

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Blurbing the Blurb: A recommendation of Songs for the Cold of Heart by Éric Dupont

During my hiatus, I wrote a “recommend” for Canadian literary website 49th Shelf. Songs for the Cold of Heart has been on my mind lately, as various translated book award long and short lists are being announced. I was hoping to see it crop up – but alas, no Canadians at all are in the running for either the Man Booker International Prize or the Best Translated Book Award. Let’s take a moment and appreciate the book and the blurb, in both official languages. 

I am a blurb skeptic. Blurbs are, at best, the most biased form of literary criticism. Just check how often a blurber’s name appears on the acknowledgements page. At worst, blurbs are clichéd, or taken out of out of context, or of dubious veracity (did Gary Shteyngart really read all those books?).

The blurb on Songs for the Cold of Heart got all my skeptic senses tingling:

“If the Americans have John Irving and the Colombians Gabriel García Márquez, we have Eric Dupont. And he’s every bit as good as them.”—Voir

Like most Canadiens anglais, I didn’t hear of Éric Dupont until this English translation hit the Giller Prize longlist in 2018. I wondered if he was really as good as Irving and Márquez, two luminaries of world literature (and longtime personal favourites of mine). Or was this blurb just another bloated piece of hype?

Read the rest of my recommendation on 49th Shelf, as well as those of other luminaries, including Karen Hofmann, whose debut I reviewed five years ago and who since wrote another great novel with a very meta title: What is Going to Happen Next.

Thanks for indulging me with this mini-post while I try to get back in the swing of things! Let me know if you generally believe the blurb, or if you side-eye them as much as I do. Sadly, Shteyngart Blurbs is no longer updating, but I maintain that he must have been bullshitting at least some of the time.