Recent Reads

A few books I’ve read since moving here two months ago:

1) Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden –

Oftentimes I will read a book and get really, really into the specific time period, culture or geographic location in which the book takes place. I’ll research the heck out of it, spend all my time thinking about it, talking to people about it, reading reviews, watching movies, etc. This happened with Memoirs – I suddenly became fascinated with pre-WWII Japan, the geisha culture, old Kyoto…this book really pulls you into that world. I realized I had a rather hazy notion of what a geisha was, so this very detailed look into the life of one particular geisha, named Sayuri, was both illuminating and compelling.

That’s what I loved about this book – the broader strokes it made on my consciousness, the way it has inspired me to learn more about a period of history I haven’t studied. The actual specific story though didn’t really hook me. I couldn’t understand Sayuri’s motivations for her actions. She fell in love with the Chairman as a child, yet her childish love for him never matured, was never questioned nor given room to develop. I never really got why she loved him. Other characters seemed more like screeching caricatures, like Hatsumomo and Mother. And lastly, the author’s writing style – which originally struck me as graceful with these beautiful nature similes and metaphors – became very, very grating. There is such a thing as TOO many nature similes. In other reviews of this book, Golden has been both criticized and lauded for “writing Japanese”, whatever that means. I found it came across as such an ardent attempt at sincerity and authenticity that it felt…insincere and inauthentic. Like I was being hit over the head with constant water! zen! kimono! rocks! nature! JAPAN!

2) American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld

LOVED this. A fictional account of a presidential First Lady who just so happens to share many similarities with Laura Bush. Instead of Texas, it’s set in Wisconsin and follows the life of Alice Lindgren from her childhood to a messy, tragic adolescence to finding her passion as a school librarian. It’s at a backyard BBQ where Alice meets an up-and-coming scion of a political family, Charlie Blackwell (aka George Bush). He’s charming, brash, boisterous, a little rascally, desperate to escape from his family name and make a mark on the world somehow…and I fell completely for him (who would have thought I’d ever say that about Dubya?). But it’s true – Sittenfeld does a terrific job of making you care about these characters and the path the lives of quiet, composed, steely Alice and rambunctious, boyish Charlie take on the way to the White House. Since it IS fiction, you wonder throughout the book, “did this really happen?” Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t, but it’s delightful to wonder. The role of the First Lady is a tenuous, ever-shifting one and this book prompts you to look back on historic first ladies and see how they’ve individually left their legacies on the U.S. presidency. It also raises the old “the personal IS political” catchphrase. When you’re married to the leader of the free world, so to speak, do your politics take a back seat to his? Do you just shut up and smile and vote for him, even if your values belongs to the other party? How much of an influence do you really have? What do you talk about in bed? Sittenfeld delves into these questions with enthusiasm and creativity and above all, a startling sense of realism.

3) The Orenda, Joseph Boyden

Chosen as one of the Canada Reads 2014 nominations, The Orenda is crowning “Best of” lists across the board in Canadian literature this year. I completely understand why. I couldn’t put down this gripping account of three people whose lives are inextricably linked together: a Huron warrior and statesman Bird; a young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, whom he adopts after killing her family; and Christophe, a charismatic, ascetic and devoted Jesuit missionary. The story takes place in the formative and brutal years of our nation when Europeans first arrived in the “New World” and the clashes between cultures began. Quite simply, this is a book every Canadian should read.

4) The Girl You Left Behind, Jo Jo Moyes

I had such high expectations for this book! I read the author’s “Me Before You” this summer, a book that left me absolutely destroyed (think: crumpled up on the ground doing an ugly cry – yes, seriously). I LOVED “Me Before You” for the very reason of the emotional response it drew from me. But The Girl You Left Behind was disappointing. Where I loved the characters in MBY and all their little quirks and idiosyncrasies, I didn’t love the characters here. They came off as flat, lifeless, selfish (but not for a justifiable reason like in MBY) and I just couldn’t root for them. There were a few jarring notes of unrealistic, erratic behaviour or language (for example, the male love interest is supposed to be an American expat but he spoke in flawless Brit-speak, dropping little bon-mots and British-cisms that I just couldn’t buy as authentic. Also, the female modern-day protagonist is supposed to be wrecked by her husband’s death, but she certainly jumps in and out of bed and love with the American faster than I deemed realistic for an allegedly distraught widow). Although the part of the story that is set in WWI France was the more interesting section of the novel (compared to present-day London), it read more like middling historical fiction (Philippa Gregory, maybe?) than say, Sandra Gulland. And I’m so tired of the “quirky best friend” trope in fiction and movies! You know, the wacky girl who exists just to underscore how normal the heroine is, and of course to offer some startling wise piece of advice right before the climax. Groan. I get the difficulty for authors in juggling too many characters – you just don’t have the time and space to give each character a back story, hobbies, a plot of their own. But it still feels stale. Moyes does do a fine job of taking an ethically ambiguous issue and revealing just how there really are no clear answers. She forces you to think about where you might stand on a topic, and then think again and maybe reconsider. It’s never black or white in either MBY (which looked at the ethics surrounding euthanasia) or The Girl You Left Behind (restoring stolen art to original owners…sounds like a snoozefest but it really is exciting and provocative!) and I appreciate Moyes’ challenge to readers.

Bottom line? I’d take this book to the beach if you want a slightly smarter “beach read” than the usual.

5) Big Brother, Lionel Shriver

I’m on a Lionel Shriver kick right now because I can’t get enough of this author’s caustic wit. Her characters are refreshing in their originality and honesty. You don’t ever truly LIKE a Shriver character, probably because she’s brutal in pulling back the curtain on the secret little nastiness every human harbours inside him or herself – the uncharitable thoughts, the compulsions, the selfishness. It can be uncomfortable, because if you’re being completely honest with yourself you can see some of your own thoughts and actions reflected in those characters. But there’s also a sense of, “ah. I’ve been seen. I’m understood” that I get when I’m reading Shriver, and I love that.

Big Brother is ostensibly about a woman, Pandora, whose big brother, her idol, comes to visit her – and she doesn’t recognize him. He’s morbidly obese, wheeled off the airplane to greet her after she overhears passengers complaining about the fat guy who took up extra space and still got to pay the same price for the ticket. Pandora is shocked, sickened, disgusted and dismayed. But does she have what it takes – and what DOES it take? – to help her brother regain his life?

This is not an uplifting “man loses weight and lives happily ever after” story. Instead, it’s a dark, twisted and compelling look at family relationships, responsibility, North American society’s obsession with two extremes (you’re either obese or starving) and the lies we tell ourselves and each other. It poses the biblical question that carried such weight with Cain and Abel: Am I my brother’s keeper?

And Shriver’s answer is not what you’d expect.

6) So Much For That, Lionel Shriver

Told you I was on a kick (I’m currently engrossed in The Post Birthday World, also by Shriver). Shep Knacker has spent his entire adult life dreaming of the moment when he’ll have enough money saved up for what he calls “The Afterlife” – when he can move to a country where the exchange rate with the US dollar means he’ll live in comfortable wealth for the rest of his life. Shep’s got his heart set on Pemba, off the east coast of Africa. He finally accrues enough money in his Merrill-Lynch account (nearly every chapter opens with his bank statement) and buys three one-way tickets to Pemba for himself, his acidic wife Glynis and their son Zach who acts like he had a lobotomy but is most likely just a very apathetic adolescent.

But then Glynis drops the bomb: “You can’t go to Pemba. You can’t quit your job, because I’m going to need your health insurance. I have cancer.”

So much for that.

This novel is a searing, critical, impassioned screed against the US healthcare system. It’s been compared to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a book written in 1906 that exposed the horrific practices of the US meatpacking industry and the lives of the immigrant workers chained to the industry. The Jungle has been called “The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery.” I think we can call So Much For That “The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of healthcare slavery.” Shriver is blistering in her attack yet equally ruthless when it comes to her characters. Glynis isn’t your stereotypical cancer patient, lying meekly in bed and smiling at visitors, calm, pacified, with a quiet determination. No. She’s furious. She takes pleasure in Hurricane Katrina because it means other people are suffering too, just like she is. Other characters in the novel also challenge our perceptions of “sick people”. Flicka is a teenager with familial dysautonomia, and she’s mouthy, occasionally bratty, whip-smart and highly critical and observant. Both her and Glynis refuse to go gently into that good night. No, they’re going to put up a fight, and they’re going to make other people’s lives hell while they rage against the unfairness of ill health, this lottery they never wanted to play but lost anyway.

Once again, it’s the characters that are unforgettable in this Shriver novel, and not just the protagonists but all the secondary and tertiary characters too who come to life on the page. There’s a subplot that I think could have garnered its own novel, and a revenge ending that’s just fabulous if slightly unrealistic (but of the type where we’d all say admiringly, “if only I could do that!”). Reading this book, I was truly terrified of cancer for the first time in my life. I’ve been so, so lucky to have a very removed notion of the horror that is cancer, but this book really drives it home for you. I admit that my previous “understanding” (if I can use that word, and I don’t really think I can) of cancer and chemotherapy was that it made you tired and gaunt, but in Shriver’s novel you truly see how devastating the disease – and it’s “treatment” of chemotherapy – really is. It just rips you apart.

As we watch the numbers in Shep’s bank account dwindle with startling speed, Shriver shows all the costs of cancer – the emotional ones and yes, as tacky and heartless as it seems (and her characters admit), the financial costs. What’s the worth of a human life, in dollars? If you know you’re going to die, do you keep fighting it? Do you keep funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into treatments that won’t work, throwing money away that means your family will have to declare bankruptcy after your inevitable death? What is the role and responsibility of the government in all this? Tough, tough questions.

7) Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), Mindy Kaling

I listened to the audio version of this book and liked it much more than I think I would have enjoyed reading it. Sure, it might make a decent beach/poolside read, but I don’t think it would have held my attention much longer than 10 minutes. As an audio book, though, it works. Maybe it’s because Mindy Kaling actually reads it herself, so the voice sounds authentic and real, or maybe it’s because the tone of the book itself is so chatty and convivial that it lends itself to an audio version.

Whatever the reason, I enjoyed listening to her prattle on (yes, she does prattle, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way…she’s like a talkative best friend who never shuts up but is somehow endearing and entertaining, if a little self-absorbed) about her childhood, her random observations, her early 20s in New York and then L.A., and some pop-culture opinions.

It’s about 4 hours long, so it made 2 hour-long drives pleasant. I also listened to it while cooking dinner and cleaning up, which was nice because this isn’t exactly War and Peace. You can listen to it with one ear while washing dishes or in your car while keeping your eyes on the road.

Occasionally, I laughed out loud. But I didn’t find the book uproariously funny. It’s more than a little self-indulgent and self-congratulatory. Kaling seems to have led a largely blessed life, and that’s great for her, but let’s be honest – being happy and successful for pretty much your whole life doesn’t make the most interesting narrative when it comes to a book or memoir. I would have liked to hear more about her writing, how she creates characters and sketches, what the collaboration process is like when working with other writers, and how she pushed for her character Kelly Kapoor to take on a bigger role in The Office. That, to me, would have been more interesting than the frequent chapters on her body, weight and exercise routine. It surprised me that she dwelt on that tedious topic of female bodies in Hollywood, being “chubby” and defining “chubster” and “fatso”, etc. etc. At the end of the book she says she doesn’t address the “can women be funny?” question because to even bring it up would be admitting it’s a valid issue to discuss. Well, I feel the same way about the topic of weight and the female body and expectations in Hollywood. But maybe that’s just me?

Any book recommendations? I’m excited to be starting a book club in January, but I’ll need something to tide me over between The Post Birthday World (almost done) and then. Help!

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5 thoughts on “Recent Reads

  1. In this season- or better yet after this season, but still in the throes of winter, it is a tasty morsel to sit one’s self in a comfy chair with hot chocolate and cookies and indulge in an old book…mysteriously out of time book…

    in that category, I would suggest the mysterious and romantic “The Portent” by George MacDonald, a Scottish writer of the late 19th century. By the time you finish your cookies, you’ll probably be hooked…

  2. I just picked up a copy of Memoirs of a Geisha not too long ago to read! In that same trip, I ALMOST bought a copy of American Wife on that same trip. How weird is that?! There’s another book in that mix that I’ll send to you when I’m done with it (if it’s any good), but I don’t want to ruin the surprise just yet 😉

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