I enjoyed writing a meta-review of Come Barbarians so much that I thought I’d do another. Sadly, I did not get to drink wine with Ms. Donoghue, but I read her two most recent books, Astray and Frog Music, with others, and with interesting results.
I’m trying to challenge myself a bit this year. Attending an IRL book club with people I don’t know was one of those challenges, and I did it with Astray. Recording a podcast thing wasn’t in the plans, but it worked well with Frog Music, forcing me to be spontaneous where I’m usually heavily edited.
My rating: 4 stars
The Book Club: Write Reads
First, listen to to my thoughts on Write Reads! I guest hosted the May “new release” podcast and chose Frog Music. I haven’t listed yet because I’m scared I’ll hate my voice. No offense to my sister since we have the exact same voice.
I was super nervous about recording the podcast. My review-writing process is usually days, sometimes weeks long, and often begins months after I’ve read a book. Now, I’m supposed to read a book and just… say what I thought about it? What if I say something dumb? Or think of something better to say later? Both those things happened but the unpredictability of the podcast format is what makes it awesome.
It helped that the hosts, Tania and Kirt, are themselves quite awesome. I know Tania from a former life in which I was a (recreational) belly dancer and met Kirt for the first time that same day, and I was afraid it would be awkward – given the book, I knew the conversation would get pretty racy – but it was so great. I want to guest host again just so I have an excuse to hang out with them. I almost wish our after-podcast conversation had been recorded too. There’s nothing like debating what exactly constitutes double penetration with and old friend and a guy you just met. Or discussing the layout for an imagined Boys of Book Blogging calendar. I fear I’ve said too much!
I liked the book more than either Kirt or Tania. The balance between love and revulsion is what Donoghue does best, and she gets it so right: mother and child, prostitute and customer, friend and lover. If the podcast had been longer, I would have talked more about:
- Arthur and Ernest. Former partners on the trapeze, they are definitely more than friends, and the dynamic is fascinating. Each has their own female partner, but when Arthur nearly dies of smallpox, Ernest cares for him. I wanted to know more about these two.
- “Nursing out.” This concept of sending children away, to a “farm” or to a peasant woman, for the first months or even years of life, seems to be a fairly normal concept in 19th century France. It flies in the face of attachment theory that guides much of parenting trends today, and left Blanche woefully unprepared for motherhood – having been nursed out herself, and in a new country away from any female relatives or friends, how was she to know how to take take of P’tit?
- Blanche as the anti-fallen woman. I read a lot of classics, and a lot of female characters are either put on a pedestal, perfect wives and mothers, or, are cast out as fallen women. Blanch is neither. It’s telling that she may be the most confident female character I’ve ever read, and she exists in the 19th century. I hate the cliche of a “strong female lead” but she is, despite being, at times, a terrible wife, mother, friend, and lover, she overcomes. She keeps going. She learns and gets better.
- The end. I found the ending too happy, despite the death and mayhem. It was very hopeful. Then, of course, I read the afterword about what really happened to the model for Blanche and it was too sad. I’m hard to please.
I’ve read four of Donoghue’s books so far, and rate them all a solid four stars. Frog Music is probably my least favourite of the four, but that’s not to say it’s bad. The murder mystery stuff didn’t work that well for me. I wanted more character, more backstory, and yep, more sex scenes. She does them so well. I mean, here, from the disputed DP scene:
Blanche is the conduit, the river, the rope, the electrical current…she’s going to drink down every drop they’ve got, their spill one unbroken seam of gold through the shattering rock.
I recommend this to lovers of historical fiction, “strong” female leads (even if that phrase makes you cringe,) visceral writing, and the earlier Donoghue novel, Slammerkin.
Further reading on Frog Music:
- A review at Editorial Eyes, which says a lot of what I wanted to say in the podcast, more coherently!
- Donoghue’s soundtrack. Essential. I wish I found it while I was reading so I could really immerse myself in the sounds.
My rating: 4 stars
The Book Club: CanLit Book Club at Jasper Place Library
This book club is what it is thanks to its leader, librarian Lindy Pratch. Once I figured out that Lindy is a book blogger, it all made sense! She reads widely and prolifically, with a focus on CanLit.
The CanLit book club was born a couple of years ago, to relieve the pressure on an over-subscribed general book club over at Woodcroft Library. Lindy chooses all the books, which must be CanLit, and must have enough library copies for the 20ish members. The reading list is so diverse, with YA, mystery, historical fiction, short story collections, graphic novels, and more. Check out the full list of titles here, which includes Reading in Bed favs like The Cat’s Table and really-wanna-read books like The Sisters Brothers and Galore.
I was afraid that the people who attend a library book club would either be super cliquey, or that maybe they’d all have similar opinions, or, even worse, that they wouldn’t talk about the book, as I keep hearing is the case at book clubs. None of these were true. What they lack in demographic diversity (almost exclusively white women age 60+) they make up for in life experience, reading experience, and curiosity. Each meeting is an hour long and there’s always so much more I want to talk about!
If you’re in Edmonton, check it out on the fourth Wednesday of the month. The next book is Karma by Cathy Ostlere, which is just great, and we meet on May 28th at 7:00 p.m.
I loved Astray. I’m reading more short story collections that I ever have, and this one is at once so different from the typical Canadian short story, but so obviously Canadian.
I found the book clubbers were divided into those who like short stories and those who don’t; and those who liked the premise of Astray, and those who found it frustrating. I didn’t realize that some people are just not open to short stories, like, at all. As for the premise – Donoghue takes snippets of old news stories and imagines the outcomes, revealing the source material at the end of each story – I found it made for a more compelling read than the usual short story collection, which you can dip and and out of. I was so curious about what was real and what was invented that I was racing to the end.
The best comment from a book clubber was “There sure were a lot of gay people. There were just so many,” which you have to imagine delivered completely deadpan, zero indication whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. It’s true, and I guess this reader was not familiar with Donoghue’s previous work! She runs the gamut from cross dressers to women in trouble to a man and his elephant. Not surprising to me, as I know she can write a novel set in present day, mostly in one room, as well as she can write about a cast of characters in 19th century San Francisco.
My only complaint about Astray is I couldn’t tell what makes a snippet of info short story worthy vs. novel worthy. Frog Music was built on a similar premise, and there were some stories that I wish had become novels. “Counting the Days” in particular, a crushingly sad and super honest portrait of a marriage. In the reveal, we find out that the wife, having lost her husband just before her arrival in Canada from Ireland, with a pack of young children and nowhere to go, remarries quickly and has seven more children. I want to know how she meets her new husband, if she is haunted by her first husband, how the children adapt to their new situation – just more.
I recommend Astray to just about anyone. It may not change your mind if you’re anti-short story, but if you’re open to it, you won’t do much better.
So, looks like I need some new bookish/blogging challenges. How are you getting out of your comfort zone?
Come Barbarians languished on my shelves for months, despite the fact that I attended the book launch and was immersed in a rather impressive media campaign that included digital billboards and bus shelters (for a book! For a LOCAL book!) I was afraid of a couple of things:
- That I wouldn’t like it and would have an Awkward Moment with Todd on Twitter (that sounds like a terrible new comedy series or something)
- That I wouldn’t “get it” because it was compared to Le Carre, and the one time I tried to read Le Carre, I was like that person in the theatre who’s whispering, “Who’s that? Why are they doing that? What is happening?!”
- That I wouldn’t be able to stand reading about the death of a child the same age as my own. It’s a terrible cliche, but it’s true: the older my kids get, the harder it is for me to read anything about a child being killed or hurt, real or fictional.
I got a kick in the butt from #yegbookclub, a monthly Twitter chat dedicated to an Edmonton-authored book. Come Barbarians was the first selection, and I started reading the next day.
Around this time, I listened to an interview with Todd on The Next Chapter wherein he reminded me of his BOOK CLUB PROMISE (his caps, not mine,) including “magical” hummus and “ninja vacuuming” and I knew what I had to do. I rounded up a few of the Edmonton book bloggers and created an impromtu book club. On to the reviews!
4 out of 5 stars
In addition to the reservations listed above, I had a feeling Come Barbarians wasn’t the right place to start with Babiak’s work. Come Barbarians is a departure, a genre book, a political thriller; whereas his earlier stuff is (I understand) funny, smart, and literary. I’ve had my hand on Toby: A Man several times (That’s What She Said) but never took the plunge. It doesn’t really matter, though. A good book is a good book. I’m glad I read this one first. It was surprising and dark, action-packed and violent, but also contained and cerebral.
I feel like this one could have been called Kruse: A Man (though I’m glad it wasn’t) because despite the action and intrigue, it’s a character study and a mediation on what makes a “good” man. Is it being good at something? What if the thing you’re good at is basically beating the crap out of people? Is it loving your family? What if your family doesn’t love you back? What if you lose them anyway? What’s left after that’s all gone?
And if these types of questions bore you, there’s plenty of other stuff to get interested in, from martial arts to French politics and organized crime.
I thought this book would be different from what I usually read, and it was, but I found myself comparing it to an old favourite: Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving. Maybe it’s the (North) Americans in Europe, or the sudden turns of tragedy and violence. Actually, I know what it was. It was this line, as Kruse laments the loss of his daughter and his wife:
He would swim to Europe with them on his back.
It put me in mind of the death of the mom and Egg over the Atlantic, and also that repeated line, “Sorrow floats.” It also made me at once wistful (how romantic!) and cynical (easy to say now, bub.) That’s a lot of stuff going on for ten-word sentence.
The only parts of the book that didn’t work for me were the more outrageous scenes. One involves a vegetable peeler used in creative and disturbing ways, and one involves the shaming of a child abuser. Neither were necessary to my experience of the book, and neither did much for me. I feel like I should have been a lot more grossed out about the vegetable peeler thing, but mostly I was wondering where I could purchase such an efficient utensil. For vegetables, calm down!
So, don’t be afraid. Whether you’re a Le Carre fanatic or and Irving lover or neither of these, if you like moody, thoughtful writing, you’ll like this.
Other reviews worth reading:
Fellow book-clubber Tania of Write Reads
The original Edmonton Book Blogger Kristilyn of Reading in Winter
Laurence Miall (who has a Babiak-blurbed book coming out soon, incidentally)
The Book Club
After a little awkwardness and jitters (none of us had done the author-visit thing before) talking to Todd about his book and a million other things was totally natural. We talked about marital arts, acts of kindness, vegetable peelers, and growing up in LA (that’s Leduc, Alberta.) I was most surprised by how autobiographical this book was. I was most nervous about how to talk about the book critically with the author right there but it was no problem at all. He even asked us questions about how authors and publicists should pitch to bloggers, which is always a ripe topic!
Part of Todd’s book club promise is to bring a wine from the region the book takes place in. He couldn’t find the exact one he wanted, but assured us the grapes were the same, whatever that means. It was so good that when I got home, I immediately emailed to find out the name of the wine. It was Bila Haut by Chapoutier. Todd sent me a detailed description of the region and the grapes, which didn’t mean much to me. Bottom line: The first glass tasted like a second glass. I picked it up for $16 at Liquor Select.
This pains me, but the hummus not only displayed limited magical qualities, but it needed more garlic. The texture was good but it wasn’t flavourful enough for me. Sorry Todd!
Watch for book two in the Christopher Kruse series sometime in 2015. Todd would not give us an exact date no matter how much we hounded him.
The next #yegbookclub selection is Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk and it sounds amazing.
I know those “what you think X is, what X actually is” memes are played out and dumb so forgive me:
What book clubs want you to think goes on at book club: Ladies, libations, and literary discussion. Basically this guy’s wet dream.
What you think actually goes on at book club: a bunch of 30-something ladies drink wine, eat snacks, and pretend to have read the book for a few minutes before moving on to more important subjects, like, I dunno, shoes or something.
What actually goes on at book club: I have no idea. I’ve never been to one.
I know traditional book clubs are still a thing. Several people I know (some in real life!) love them. But for those of you who are too lazy to clean your house and/or have trouble interacting with people IRL, there are SO MANY other options. In no particular order:
The idea for this post came courtesy of blogger Kristen Finlay, who came up with #YegBookClub. It’s very simple, which is why is works so well: each month, an Edmonton-authored book is chosen and a date and time for the chat is set. Read the book, use the hashtag during the chat, and connect with other readers. You can still drink wine and no one has to know that you’re wearing your stayin’-in leggings.
The inaugural #yegbookclub pick was Todd Babiak’s Come Barbarians. I found out about it too late and hadn’t read the book but had fun participating anyway. This will be a regular event for me from now on. I was inspired to start the book that same night (it’s fantastic so far.)
Oh, and the author participated, AND gave a hint about the next book in the series:
“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” Henry David Thoreau
(A bit of humility before I go into why I’m so good at reading and you’re not: I spent half an hour searching for the above quote. I could remember the jist, but not the actual words or the author. Then I noticed that it is literally the first thing I ever posted on this blog.)
I’m a book snob. I’ve been feeling extra snobby lately, and I blame Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s all I hear about on forums, Facebook, and Twitter. But wait – isn’t it a fan fiction of a young adult novel, not to mention very poorly written and edited? Okay, it’s racy, but so are lots of novels, from romance to erotica. That’s nothing new. So, what gives? And why does it bother me?
“Fifty Shades Fever” feels like the culmanation of a bigger trend towards adults reading “young adult” and/or just plain *bad* novels. And I do not mean “so bad it’s good.” I lurk in a few book challenge discussions online (people trying to read 25 or 50 books in one year), and lots of them are reading chick lit after chick lit book. Why bother? What’s the point of a challenge if it’s not challenging?
I realize that these feelings make me a snob of the worse kind. Why do I care what people read? Who am I to decide what’s worthy of a reader’s time? But… I can’t help myself! As the Thoreau quote suggests, there are SO MANY good books. More than anyone will ever read. I’ve been working at the 1,001 books list for FIVE YEARS and I’ve read 10% of it. And I started at around 5%. I get that people are looking for a fun read or escapism, but it’s unfathomable, and even offensive, that people spend so much time reading terrible books!
Of course, like most snobs, I think it’s okay to go slumming as long as it’s done ironically. Some work colleagues are running a fantastic bad book club. I was lucky enough to sit in on a discussion of “Flowers in the Attic”, that classic and horribly overwrought ode to family dysfunction (and incest.) But, most of us read it for the first time as children, not adults. (Which, upon reflection, is pretty messed up – due to all that incest!)
It will probably surprise no one that I’m also a music snob, and in a former (pre-kids) life a clothes and bag snob. What can I say? I appreciate quality. And I’m judging you. Sorry. But, if you must read bad books, at least William Faulkner’s got your back:
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read!”
What do you think? Do you consider yourself a book snob? Why are people freaking out about Fifty Shades and the like?