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Randy's reads in 2018

75 Books Challenge for 2018

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Dec 31, 2017, 8:37am Top

Welcome. This is my seventh year in the 75 Books Challenge. I didn’t manage it last year, but I’ve got a good feeling about 2018.

I'm still living in Waterloo, Ontario but travelling whenever possible in Canada and Europe.

Above is a view of Providence Bay, Manitoulin Island, Ontario. A lovely place to visit, go for hike, or just sit and read.

As per usual, I will be offering a brief review of each of my reads this year. Feel free to comment on my reviews or let me know about a book that excites you.

Best of luck on your challenge in 2018.

Edited: Dec 2, 3:00pm Top

Books read in 2018

1. Doing Good Better by William MacAskill
2. Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York by Roz Chast
3. In The Fall They Come Back by Robert Bausch
4. The Power by Naomi Alderman
5. Santa's Last Muffin by Dani Baker
6. Late Essays: 2006-2017 by J.M. Coetzee
7. We All Love The Beautiful Girls by Joanne Proulx
8. The Third Person: stories by Emily Anglin
9. Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall by Suzette Mayr
10. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
11. Winter: a novel by Ali Smith
12. The Question of Bruno: stories by Aleksandar Hemon
13. I Am A Truck by Michelle Winters
14. The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys
15. Small Claims by Andrew Kaufman

16. What Can You Do by Cynthia Flood
17. The Noise of Time: a novel by Julian Barnes
18. Summerland: a novel by Michael Chabon
19. The Dead Husband Project by Sarah Meehan Sirk
20. Nine Lessons I Learned From My Father by Murray Howe
21. The Journey Prize Stories 29 selected by Kevin Hardcastle, Grace O'Connell, and Ayelet Tsabari
22. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: stories by Denis Johnson
23. Zero K by Don DeLillo

24. Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans
25. Daphne: a novel by Will Boast
26. The Complete Henry Bech by John Updike
27. Feel Free: essays by Zadie Smith
28. Kid by Simon Armitage
29. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

30. Manhattan Beach: a novel by Jennifer Egan
31. Magic for Beginners: stories by Kelly Link
32. Fates and Furies: a novel by Lauren Groff
33. The Collected Stories by John McGahern
34. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

35. The Only Story: a novel by Julian Barnes
36. Killing and Dying: stories by Adrian Tomine
37. Kudos by Rachel Cusk
38. The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

39. Circe by Madeline Miller
40. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
41. Less: a novel by Andrew Sean Greer
42. Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
43. Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes
44. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
45. The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg

46. Judgment Detox by Gabrielle Bernstein
47. Demonology: stories by Rick Moody
48. The Nix: a novel by Nathan Hill
49. The Troll Garden by Willa Cather
50. Cabot-Caboche by Daniel Pennac

51. The Enchanted - a novel by Rene Denfeld
52. Florida by Lauren Groff
53. The Book of Words by Jenny Erpenbeck
54. Fishbowl by Bradley Somer
55. Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay
56. Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky
57. The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller
58. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
59. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

60. Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto
61. The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang
62. The Monarchy of Fear by Martha C. Nussbaum
63. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
64. From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
65. The Unaccompanied by Simon Armitage
66. American Innovations: stories by Rivka Galchen
67. Warlight by Micahel Ondaatje
68. Roughneck by Jeff Lemire
69. French Exit by Patrick DeWitt
70. Something for Everyone by Lisa Moore

71. Washington Black: a novel by Esi Edugyan
72. A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
73. The Overstory: a novel by Richard Powers

74. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
75. A Manual For Cleaning Women: selected stories by Lucia Berlin
76. Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
77. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
78. Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli
79. Love, Dishonour, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: a novel by David Rakoff
80. Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li
81. The Journey Prize Stories 30 complied by Sharon Bala, Kerry Clare, and Zoey Leigh Peterson
82. Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
83. The Push Man and other stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

84. The Death of Truth: notes on faslehood in the age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani
85. The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson

Dec 31, 2017, 8:39am Top

Five best reads of 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Subtle, sympathetic, wistful, bawdy, wonderfully whimsical, and heart-wrenching. The remarkable feats of serial monologue that Saunders brings to his best short stories are here multiplied into intricate choral lattices. All without losing the close interiority that is a hallmark of Saunders’ empathetic characterization.

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano
Told obliquely by different characters, including Louki herself, this highly evocative tale captures a certain wistful bohemian existence which may not be accessible to us now. This is Modiano at his best, just beyond the edge of narrative.

Dubliners by James Joyce (a long overdue reread)
Quite apart from the perfection of “The Dead,” death permeates these stories, vignettes, character sketches and emotional revues. A death is announced in the first sentence of the first story, “Sisters.” When death gets title billing in that final story, it is hardly surprisingly to find Joyce reaching some kind of summative view on the matter with the snow now general across all of Ireland.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
A thirteen year old girl goes missing one night on the moors. Although her parents aren’t locals, the villagers all join in the search. They find nothing. Time passes. Birds migrate. Foxes breed. Villagers go to and fro. The seasons change. A year runs its course. And still no sign of Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. And so the next year starts on its way.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Full of sadness and, despite the sadness, hope.

Dec 31, 2017, 9:49am Top

Welcome back!

Dec 31, 2017, 12:38pm Top

Happy reading in 2018, Randy!

Dec 31, 2017, 12:48pm Top

Happy New Year! I wish you to read many good books in 2018.

Jan 1, 12:04am Top

Happy 2018 reading!

Jan 1, 4:13am Top

Happy New Year
Happy New Group here
This place is full of friends
I hope it never ends
It brew of erudition and good cheer.

Jan 1, 8:35am Top

Welcome and Happy New Year Jim, Anita, Rachel, Lori, and Paul. Here it is a beautiful sunny morning with clear skies, snow on the ground, and surprising cold, around -20c. Even colder walking home from a party last night after midnight! Hope your new year is starting out well.

Edited: Jan 1, 8:39am Top

1. Doing Good Better by William MacAskill

If you are a tycoon who has amassed billions through rapacious capitalist practices and are looking for an equally effective means of maximizing your philanthropic endeavours, then the advice and guidance in this book may be just the ticket. If you think the difference been one good action and another good action is that one of them must be “gooder”, then this book will affirm your intuition. And if your primary goal is the gooderest actions you can accomplish either individually or by subcontracting, ideally in a cash poor but resource rich needful environment, then applying the “scientifically-based” methods of charitable action evaluation espoused in this volume will definitely meet your needs.

The standard criticism of crude utilitarianism was that we, poor mortals, are insufficiently well-informed to determine the action that will lead to maximization of the good (or happiness, or utility, or pleasure) in all but the most trivial of cases. William MacAskill appears to believe that his application of the “scientific” techniques of economics, statistical analysis, and the information gathering readily available via the Internet somehow overcomes this constraint. Well meaning nonsense, of course. This, despite the obvious truth that if you are disbursing substantial wealth gleaned either through personal greed or taxation, it makes sense to do your research first. But don’t confuse the practicalities of policy with the aspects of an action that make it “good” in the first place. Go ahead and help that blind man cross the street. Don’t let anyone tell you that you “ought” to have rather donated the cash that you could have earned in the time you took to perform that act to a charity providing mosquito nets in Africa.

I know my head shaking and ridicule will have very little impact on those who are already convinced that calculations are likely to lead to wise choices and good actions. Just be aware that moral philosophers consider this to be an essentially contested field, with a fair number of them arguing that actions are incommensurable. It’s not just a case of apples and oranges, sometimes it’s apples and bananas.

Better to donate the money you would have spent on this book to a charity providing mosquito nets in Africa.

Edited: Jan 4, 6:10pm Top

>10 RandyMetcalfe: nice to see you here, Randy. And I promise to donate that money to Africa.

Jan 1, 12:36pm Top

Happy New Year. I look forward to visiting here and seeing the lovely books you read.

Jan 1, 12:39pm Top

>10 RandyMetcalfe: I enjoyed your review of Doing Good Better—I wasn't impressed with it either when I read it a few years ago.

Jan 1, 3:17pm Top

Welcome and Happy New Year Judy, Linda, and Zoë. There are better books ahead!

Jan 1, 3:18pm Top

2. Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York by Roz Chast

Roz Chast is smitten. Not with a boy or a girl or the very idea of smittenness. She is smitten with Manhattan. And if you’ve chosen to read her book describing her smittenness, that’s probably because to some degree you’ve been smitten with Manhattan as well. I confess that I am. So I found her account of Manhattan — from basic layout and the need to walk around to get a sense of it, to stuff to do, food and apartments — utterly charming. It is a gentle stroll up an avenue, along one of the many cross streets, and into a park, most likely Central Park.

As with much of Chast’s work, this is a mixture of colour wash drawings, text, photographs, and personal memorabilia. All of which will be familiar if you’ve encountered her in The New Yorker or through one of her many previous books. If you’ve never crossed paths before, then a walk around Manhattan is a fine place to meet. Just be sure to wear comfortable shoes.

Fondly recommended.

Jan 1, 3:38pm Top

>10 RandyMetcalfe: What a crock. Thanks for taking one for the team.

Jan 2, 1:28pm Top

>16 richardderus: Hi Richard. I hadn't considered reading disappointing books and writing short reviews to help dissuade others from wasting their time in a similar pursuit as a form of altruism, but now that you mention it ... ;-)

Jan 2, 1:29pm Top

3. In The Fall They Come Back by Robert Bausch

Ben Jameson decides to take an English teaching position after finishing his undergraduate but before embarking on graduate school, or possibly law school. He’s never taught young people before, and there is every reason to think that he might not be especially good at it. Only the flexibility afforded a private school and the recent loss of its English teacher could make plausible his hiring. But, despite some early ups and downs, it begins to look like a smart move. Good for Ben, good for his students, and good for the school.

That it doesn’t necessarily end up there is, after all, what makes this an interesting read. Also a bit unsettling. Ben is both strangely naive and unappreciative of the consequences of his own actions or those of others. Indeed you might begin to suspect that something very curious might happen. Or that everything you are reading might turn out to be double-edged. That it doesn’t and isn’t is somewhat of a disappointment. Not that what we have here is weak at all. It’s just that it might have been so much more.

The writing, at least in the first half, might have you thinking along the lines of Nabokov. But mostly that is because the character of Ben is so peculiar. Alas his peculiarity is never mined for anything profound. And so we get the ins and outs of two years of teaching by an inexperienced but fitfully enthusiastic amateur who inappropriately meddles in the personal lives of his students, though sometimes with fortuitous effect. Maybe that’s enough.

Jan 2, 1:52pm Top

>17 RandyMetcalfe: Altruism it is, in spades. We have a finite number of eyeblinks in this life and wasting them on almost-but-not-quite books is less and less appealing as one grows older. As I have, and am grateful to continue to do.

>18 RandyMetcalfe: Almost again...nearly had me at Nabokov, my dote, but I've escaped the snare with the lack of mining.

Edited: Jan 4, 1:09pm Top

4. The Power by Naomi Alderman

Setting aside the frame, this is the story of the rise of a genetic shift in what is generically termed “power” here as young women develop a “skein” across their shoulders that gives them access to varying amounts of electromagnetic pulses, from pinpricks to lightening bolts. The young women are able to “wake” this latent power in older women. Soon nearly all women have the power. And the story explores the immediate consequences of that development following five separate individual’s fates. At points their paths cross for better or worse. And, as might have been guessed from the outset, the world is never the same again.

The writing here is full of pace and happenstance. The characters are thinly drawn, but no more so than one might expect in a heavily plot-driven novel. Chance seems to play a part in how the characters eventually cross paths. But it also might be an unexplained further element, a voice that speaks to more than one of the characters, possibly generated by the skein itself, which seems to guide at least some of the action.

It’s very “readable,” as a number of blurb writers on the copy I had noted. But I wonder whether there is much more here than an initial conceit played out under a number of different conditions, one for each of the principal characters. Once you entertain the idea that the world might be substantially different if women had some physical attribute that conferred on them significantly greater “power” than even the strongest man, is there any more to it? Yes, the world would be different. In this case, it goes all Hobbesian, and becomes nasty, brutish, and short, the war of all against all. I suppose that’s one possibility. If you’ve read the setup on the cover flap of the novel, you pretty much have all you need.

For me, the frame, which casts this as an “historical” novel set some five thousands years in the past, was unnecessary. I thought it subtracted more than it added. However, I suppose such a frame is a trope in this kind of speculative fiction, so this is a minor quibble.


I was a bit surprised that this book won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Especially as against Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing. I have a few minor issues with the latter (not least its shocking number of typos) but at least, I thought, it was serious literature. The Power is fun, but weak. For a more interesting but related speculative fiction, you might try The Blondes by Emily Schultz. And for a very good (and serious) take on a post-apocalyptic future, I very much recommend Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Jan 7, 8:29am Top

5. Santa's Last Muffin by Dani Baker

Linn Sommer is a relative newcomer to Kitchener, Ontario. But when she stumbles on the murder of Hank Myers who is playing Santa at the annual Christkindl Market held in Kitchener City Hall, it’s already her second murder-mystery in the past year. Together with her police inspector near-boyfriend, Bas, her journalist friend, Kamryn, and her melange of quirky but lovable roommates in the large house they share just off Victoria Park, Linn (real name, ‘Sieglinde’) is set for a rollercoaster ride of clues, red herrings, romantic tensions, and scrummy baked goods (because she works at the Hanzel and Pretzel Bakery in Kitchener). It’s a delightful confection that will keep you guessing as each new twist adds another ingredient to the mix.

Filled with local colour — Dani Baker’s cosy mystery series was originally written in German, this being the first in the series translated into English — there is plenty to enjoy, both for local readers and for those further afield who will nevertheless be astounded by the ethic and cultural ingredients that make up Kitchener-Waterloo.

Warning: all the discussion of baked goods will make you peckish. Fortunately, Baker has included a number of recipes for traditional German Christmas treats. Bonus!

Jan 8, 11:31am Top

>21 RandyMetcalfe: That one sounds fun.

Jan 8, 4:55pm Top

6. Late Essays: 2006-2017 by J.M. Coetzee

The twenty-three essays included in this collection are wonderful examples of clear, concise, erudite but accessible writing. The majority appeared originally in the New York Review of Books; the remainder had disparate first outings. Their subjects are all literary, ranging from Daniel Defoe and Robert Walser to Tolstoy, Beckett, Les Murray, and Patrick White. Coetzee writes with as much assurance about Friedrich Hölderlin as he does about Gustave Flaubert, or Nathaniel Hawthorne. One constantly has the impression of being in the presence of someone vastly knowledgeable, even about arcane matters, who yet patiently sets down his learning without flourish or presumption. This makes them both a pleasure to read and to recall. It also draws the reader on, sparking a natural desire to read the authors of whom Coetzee writes with such care. But also to read more of Coetzee’s literate but non-academic writing.


Edited: Jan 10, 8:44pm Top

7. We All Love The Beautiful Girls by Joanne Proulx

A frigid January night, temperature below -30c, and a teenage boy, Finn, at a party, frustrated in love, unaccustomed to drink and pot, a fumbling encounter and then easeful near-death passed out in the snow outside. At home, Finn’s parents, Mia and Michael, are just then learning of the duplicity of Michael’s business partner, Peter, how he has defrauded them of over a million dollars while managing to cut Michael out of the business altogether. Yeah! And that’s just how this story begins. The year ahead is equally eventful. And nothing that seemed solid will ever be solid again.

Joanne Proulx’ writing is tremendous, at once evocative and haunting, while also being punchy and alive. She puts you on edge and leaves you there. And even though it feels as though a disaster is right around the corner (as if the opening wasn’t disaster enough) you find you don’t expect it when it comes. Filled with beautiful set-pieces and enough twists to constantly shift your sympathies. Very impressive. I’ll definitely be looking for more from Proulx.

Highly recommended.


This really was so good. I feel as though I should enthuse a bit more about it. I read this book simply because it is the next selection in the bookclub I frequent. What a lucky thing. The opening is so intense that it will have you thinking of the end of Rick Moody's The Ice Storm. But then it just builds and builds. The sentences are often very short, sometimes only a word or two. But whole washes of images are built up and layered and then undercut. And the emotions of each of the principal participants are so raw that you expect almost anything might happen. Wow! It makes for compulsive reading and I feel like I ought to read it again very soon just to see whether I was merely swept along.

Jan 12, 12:00pm Top

Great reviews as always, Randy. Now I have even more books on the list. Sigh.

Jan 14, 6:05pm Top

8. The Third Person: stories by Emily Anglin

The stories in this fine collection are each small masterclasses in diffident, austere, surrealism. I don’t think “surrealism” is overstating it. There is a distanced feeling, a sort of chiaroscuro in the architecture of the stories, and often what takes place is only minimally important. A certain mood overwhelms the reading, almost eerie or uncanny and at times a touch frightening. I was very impressed.

Many of the stories are situated in an academic or quasi-academic environment. Usually one of the characters is a contract (i.e. non-tenure track) professor. That’s an ever-present feature of modern academies. And living and working in such a liminal state, with no contract beyond the course one is currently teaching, yet a strong likelihood that one could sustain such piecework indefinitely, adds to the ungroundedness that the writing conveys. I especially liked, “Eilid,” “Trying Not to Worry,” and, “Alden.” But any of the others could just as easily fallen into my top three.

Emily Anglin is a writer to watch out for in the future. I certainly will.

Jan 18, 2:35pm Top

9. Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall by Suzette Mayr

What is going on in Crawley Hall, home of the Humanities at the University of Inivea? Staff are becoming deathly ill. Ceilings are collapsing. There appears to be an infestation of maggots, often dropping from collapsing ceilings. The new Dean, Phillip Vermeulen, has instigated draconian cutbacks to the infrastructure budget, while at the same time “refreshing” targeted tenured faculty, i.e. firing them. A sink hole has opened up on one side of the building. And what is with all those hares milling about outside and sometimes inside? These are just the conditions that Dr. Edith Vane has to take in stride as she negotiates her way through the upcoming term anxiously awaiting the publication of her dissertation on housewife memoirist Beulah Crump-Withers which will justify her tenured spot on the faculty and help her to avoid refreshment. Oh, and now she’s started seeing things as well. It could be a difficult term.

Suzette Mayr’s comic-horror campus novel is both completely over the top and intimately grounded in the reality of current academia. The uninitiated may think that everything here is horrific. But for anyone with a smattering of experience of university life and work, virtually all of the craziness of Edith’s life (with the exception of the rampant hares and possessed building, I suppose) is just exactly what life and work is like at a small to mid-size university. Realism. Gritty realism. Which is about as horrific as anything you can dream up. So much so that the eerier aspects of Mayr’s story barely register as uncanny.

A very enjoyable though unsettling read. But a bit disheartening if you’ve been through the grind that Edith is faced with yourself.

Gently recommended.

Jan 18, 7:18pm Top

If you’re smitten with New York, allow me to recommend Insomniac City by Bill Hayes, which I just read and which is absolutely lovely. I am not a New Yorker at all, but it felt like a beautiful portrait of the city, woven together with a moving telling of the last years of Oliver Sacks’s life, which broke my heart with how impoverished we are to have lost him. It really was a great read.

Jan 18, 9:56pm Top

>28 pursuitofsanity: Thanks, Maggie. That's an excellent suggestion. I've tracked it down in our public library, so I suspect I'll get to it in the near future.

Jan 19, 3:18pm Top

10. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

The tone of these twenty-four stories is so consistent, with characters appearing in multiple stories, that it reads more like one long story with the protagonist switching from one character to another, Victor or his cousin, or Adrian, or Thomas Builds-the-Fire. What emerges is an impression of late 20th century life on the Spokane Reservation. And life there is both the same and different than it is elsewhere. Poor children grow up seeing their parents or their relatives as heroes. Some people drink too much; others drink diet-Pepsi. Some people are good at basketball. Others are good at stories. A few are good at school, though education rarely serves them well. But permeating everything is the question of what it means to be an Indian (the term that these characters use to refer to themselves) here, now, and tomorrow.

Alexie’s writing is relaxed and accessible, even when it soars lyrically. The stories give the impression of simplicity — broad brush strokes, well-marked action, sentimental moral — but just below the surface there lies a painful personal encounter with history. When everything you do is another chapter in the tragic history of Native Americans, it’s hard to just play basketball. At times Alexie’s characters sound like they desperately want to escape their own cultural baggage, while at others they reconcile themselves to carrying the load at least to next rest station.

I look forward to reading more from Sherman Alexie.


Jan 19, 3:22pm Top

>10 RandyMetcalfe: It's been on my list for a while now. Guess I should read it!

Jan 19, 4:32pm Top

I love Alexie so much!

Jan 24, 2:18pm Top

11. Winter: a novel by Ali Smith

It’s a Christmas story, or at least a winter’s tale, and in either case there are bound to be misrepresentations, ghosts, flights of fancy, and the likelihood of mistletoe. Art is a nature blogger, a copyright checker, a fraud. Charlotte (actually Lux) is only posing as Charlotte. Art’s mother Sophia is a bit lost in her big house, especially at Christmas. And Iris, Art’s aunt, is so mythologizing that she may just talk herself into this story. It’s a homecoming of sorts, a dinner party theatrical, an opportunity to take one more look in the mirror.

Ali Smith continues her seasonal series here with the deftness of wordplay that can only be expected by now. Puns, twists, doubled meanings, even enlivened clichés play a part. There are outside viewpoints, both from characters when they were younger and from a current outsider (Lux). There is a coating of love, again not surprising for Smith. And then there are the heavy hitters, the clunky, clanky, current issue of what it means to be an outsider and of those who try to make an outsider of so many of us. Typically delightful and conspicuously serious.

Just what you hope for from the next Ali Smith novel.


Jan 25, 11:10am Top

>33 RandyMetcalfe: Glad you enjoyed that one.

Edited: Jan 25, 2:29pm Top

12. The Question of Bruno: stories by Aleksandar Hemon

What a fine collection of fictions. Though Hemon’s abound in these tales and though most tales are presented in prosaic style like journalism, the echoes and allusions highlight the craft involved in their imagining. I was solidly impressed with every story, but particular mention should be made of “The Sorge Spy Ring,” “The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders,” and “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls.” Any of these would be enough to mark Hemon as a significant writer. Whether he is writing in a Sebaldian style, as in “The Sorge Spy Ring,” or in a Nabokovian mode, as in the, at times, Pnin-like “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls,” Hemon writes with great assurance, humour, and pathos.

Heartily recommended.


I'm a bit late to the Aleksandar Hemon party. The above is a first collection of stories, which was published in 2001. That means I've got something to look forward to in what he's written since then. Which I will turn to as soon as possible.

Jan 27, 3:50pm Top

13. I Am A Truck by Michelle Winters

Réjean and Agathe have an almost idyllic life together. He’s a hulking, nearly seven-foot, lumberjack with a fondness for Chevy trucks and, apart from their playful sex games, a rather limited inner life. When asked what he does for a hobby, he is stumped. She’s petite, a fabulous Acadian cook, a diligent housewife, who has never really wanted anything more than she’s got at the moment, other than maybe to be able to listen to some rock and roll instead of Acadian folk music when they are driving in Réjean’s truck. So when Réjean fails to return home after a day out fishing and his truck is found abandoned just days before their 20th wedding anniversary, Agathe and the police are at a complete loss.

The story moves back and forth between the present of Réjean’s disappearance and the past in a counterpoint that will eventually lead to full disclosure on what happened. But by then Agathe will have already had to move on, perhaps, to set out on her own on what will likely be a rock and roll highway.

There’s more to it than that. There is a fascinating interplay between the French characters here, whose English is limited despite the intrusion of English words when they converse in Chiac. There is a lonely truck salesman whose own inner hopelessness mirrors Réjean’s. And there is the growing independence of Agathe. It is a curious mix, told in near-comic style — we don’t really have a strong sense of any of these characters, so they all function more like cartoon figures. And ultimately it’s not clear that there is a fully cohesive arc to this story. But that’s fine too. Certainly there is enough here to make it an enjoyable read and more than enough to warrant reading whatever Michelle Winters chooses to write next.

Gently recommended.

Jan 29, 7:55am Top

14. The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

In the lengthy opening section of the novel, James Hunter becomes a POW at the outset of WWII. He is likely to be held for a long time (though how long he couldn’t have guessed) and settles upon a project to occupy his time — the close study of a set of restarts, birds whose charming song forms part of the titular evening chorus. James’ incarceration is not untroubled. He witnesses things that will haunt him the rest of his days, and at one point is firmly convinced he is about to be killed. At that moment, it isn’t the redstarts that are on his mind. It is his young wife, Rose, waiting patiently for him at Sycamore cottage on the Ashdown Forest. Only Rose hasn’t been waiting quite so patiently as he imagined. Time and her affections have moved on. What’s more, her liaison with Toby, who is much closer to her in age than James, has made her realize that her relationship with James was immature. Meanwhile, Enid, James’ older sister, has decamped London after her apartment building gets bombed, and has requested Rose to take her in while she sorts herself out and deals with a trauma she can barely speak of.

Humphreys handles the emotional and relational terrain of her characters with characteristic aplomb. She has an assured and confident tone that lets the sometimes horrific events detailed waft over the reader. She concentrates instead on quiet moments of valour and decision, moments unwitnessed by others as James, Rose, and Enid each separately need to find their way through the war and its aftermath. Is it a close study like James’ study of the redstarts? No. It paints in broader brushstrokes. Nonetheless Humphreys manages to capture something essential about her characters. And her writing is never less than a pleasure to read even if the novel, taken as a whole, is not entirely successful.

Gently recommended.

Jan 31, 3:58pm Top

15. Small Claims by Andrew Kaufman

Charlie is a sad-sack novelist making ends meet as a technical writer. His wife, Julie, is providing the principal income to support them and their two young children, Jenny and Jack. His current novel is such a disaster that there may not be anything in it worth saving. And he finds himself wavering between unwarranted anger and unquenchable anxiety. He’s walking down the road to mediocrity and can’t find the exit. That is until he stumbles into a session of small claims court and witnesses a real life dispute with an overarching adjudicator and a clear outcome. Charlie is hooked. His now-chosen manner of avoiding both his dissatisfying novel and his technical writing obligations is to slip off to small claims court each day and see what else is on the docket. But it’s probably not an effective way to deal with his own self-loathing.

Andrew Kaufman’s typically breezy style works well in some sections of this brief novel. The descriptions of the court cases and, later, of civil weddings are charming. But are they more than that? They seem to function well independently but not cohere into a larger whole. And since Charlie’s woes are almost entirely self-inflicted, it’s hard to sympathize with him. He’s apparently published — not self-published — four novels already. So clearly someone believes in his ability as a novelist even if he is riddled by self-doubt. Perhaps his mistake was thinking that publishing small, quirky novels in Canada was ever likely to lead to financial independence. But then that would merely be another example of Charlie being wholly unrealistic. And disappointment suffered due to wholly unrealistic expectations is not really that substantial, however much it might feel that way to Charlie.

Much like the novel that Charlie disavows, this one feels as though there is a germ of a good idea, maybe more, that just needed a bit more nurturing to turn into something more. Well, now I sympathize.

Feb 1, 10:46am Top

16. What Can You Do by Cynthia Flood

The twelve stories in this collection are precise, intimate, and sometimes so elliptical as to be nearly opaque. Nearly. Flood demands an attentive reader, and possibly one who is willing to read slowly, aloud. Perhaps only then do the voices in her stories come alive. Often set as monologues with reported, real or imagined, dialogue, we encounter displaced individuals witnessing. Sometimes these witnessings are unsettling, as in the title story, or the penultimate tale, “Food.” Sometimes the perceptions of the narrator are suspect, either due to cognitive disorder or stress. “Wing Nut,” is a fine example. But also, “Struggle,” and, “Calm.” And sometimes Flood exquisitely renders systemic organizational fractures as in, “History Lesson(s).”

Flood’s stories are perhaps difficult to like, but easy to admire. They earn their often subtle observations and provoke new ones. All evidence of a confident but questioning writer in her prime.

Gently recommended.

Feb 4, 10:11pm Top

>37 RandyMetcalfe: That one sounds interesting.

Feb 5, 8:27pm Top

17. The Noise of Time: a novel by Julian Barnes

Life under tyranny is precarious. For the artist its risks are as much to the art as to the person. What is art deformed by tyranny? Is it even art any longer? And how can you walk the tightrope of conforming just enough to allow your art to surface without becoming so noticeable that the tyrant is forced to take note of it? Such was the challenge of life and art for Dmitri Shostakovich in communist Russia.

Julian Barnes presents, in fiction, the whole of Shostakovich’s life. The evidence of his research into the biographies of Shostakovich and his peers is rife. And so the fiction reads, to an extent, like biography. It is somewhat distant, diffident, daunted perhaps by the two large elephants in the room. On the one hand there is the Soviet version of tyranny, a monstrosity so enormous that any account of it comes across as banal: it was bad…very bad. On the other hand there is Shostakovich’s music, a sizeable oeuvre over a long life, but in the absence of being a serious student of music, what can one say about it? Some of it was very good. Some of it was very bad. But which and for what reasons? Barnes largely foregoes the challenge of assessing Shostakovich’s music. Instead he concentrates on Shostakovich as an exemplar of life under tyranny. But it isn’t clear whether Barnes gets beyond the observation that it was bad…very bad.

Despite Barnes’ workmanlike account of Shostakovich’s life here, we would be hard-pressed to claim that we gain any insights into him, at least beyond what a competent biographer might have provided. Which leads one to wonder what more Barnes was hoping to achieve in writing this fictional account of Shostakovich’s life. And is the object of Barnes’ quest perhaps too subtle for the broad brush of fictional biography that he brings to it? Certainly there is something about Shostakovich’s life that gives us pause. The problem is that without an adequate presentation of his musical gifts, there is nothing for the reader to use to distinguish Shostakovich from, say, Khrennikov.

Not a bad book. But not one that will bring the reader to a new understanding, I think, of either Shostakovich or Soviet tyranny.

Feb 9, 4:40pm Top

18. Summerland: a novel by Michael Chabon

Ethan Feld is eleven years old and not much of a baseball player. So it seems hardly likely that he would have the stuff of heroes, let alone cross-world mythical heroes that may be required to save the whole shebang. And yet… With his good friend and pitcher, Jennifer T., the changeling Thor Wignutt, and a few other more peculiar acquaintances, Ethan is about to set out on an epic adventure. And also get an opportunity to play some good baseball for a change.

Michael Chabon notes in an introduction that he wrote this lengthy yarn over the course of a single year. And some of that shows. There is more plot here than can be adequately covered in the space available. And a whole host of creatures, characters, and cosmic myth-making that needs more time to unfold, or more simmering to intensify the flavour. And in particular there seems to a lack of attention to the emotional detail and commitment required in a young adult novel. Lots and lots of potential. Just not sufficient delivery this time. Which is too bad because Chabon is a tremendous writer. I think if he had given this story the time (and possibly greater length, or conversely a reduced plot) it deserved, it might have been wonderful.

Sadly not recommended.

Feb 10, 1:23pm Top

19. The Dead Husband Project by Sarah Meehan Sirk

The fourteen stories collected here are wonderfully inventive, just a touch dark, thoughtful and thought-provoking, and remarkably assured. From the title story that opens the collection, you can tell that Sarah Meehan Sirk is a writer concerned not just with ideas but the people who have those ideas. Whether it is the problem is performative artworks, or mathematical genius, or post-apocalyptic misery talk-shows, the writing is fresh and engaging.

Apart from, “The Dead Husband Project,” my favourites here were probably, “OZK,” and “A Road in the Rain.” But really, I could easily chosen any of others, the quality is that consistent. I’ll be looking forward to whatever Sirk writes next.


Edited: Feb 22, 9:07pm Top

20. Nine Lessons I Learned From My Father by Murray Howe

Once you get past the hagiography, the codified and sanitized “official” version of NHL history, there are some pleasant moments in this memoir of a son of a famous father. Murray Howe is the youngest son of hockey legend Gordie Howe. His older brothers, Mark and Marty, also became hockey legends in their own rights. Murray didn’t have the hockey stuff (though he was good enough to have played on the same Junior A team with Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey). Murray switched tracks, studied medicine, became a doctor and later an esteemed radiologist. One of lessons he says he learned from his father was that not being a hockey player was just fine, so long as he was doing something that he loved and made him happy. There are more important things in life than hockey. Even for one of the greatest hockey players of all time.

I confess that I’m leery of Gordie Howe worship. I suspect that almost every trait that made him a fearless and sometimes frightening hockey player has an edge to it. If you just look past the edge you might discover that you don’t like what you see. But these kinds of books never go there. So I won’t either. I give them to my father as Christmas presents and he devours them and enjoys them immensely. Then he passes them on to me to read assuming that I’ll share his awe of Gordie. And then he’ll dredge up memories of when Gordie Howe did something nice for him, or our town, or someone he knows, or someone who someone knows. Nearly every Canadian of a certain age, especially those still living in small towns, has a personal Gordie Howe memory. And that really is a remarkable thing.

Murray Howe’s book is structured as a eulogy (he gave the eulogy at his father’s funeral). He mostly concentrates on things he learned from his father when he was very young. But he also has some dramatic stories of his father’s life in his 80s. One story of his father’s near-miraculous recovery from a stroke after stem cell therapy might not be even credible were it not a physician recounting what took place. But it is the smaller, intimate, events in a life that make the book worth reading. At least to share something with your own father.

Feb 24, 9:36am Top

21. The Journey Prize Stories 29 selected by Kevin Hardcastle, Grace O'Connell, and Ayelet Tsabari

The ten stories selected for the short list of the Journey Prize in 2017 are each solid representatives of work typically gets published in Canadian literary magazines and journals. Impressively, two of the selections are from one author, Sharon Bala, and both of those stories, “Butter Tea at Starbucks,” and, “Reading Week,” are very good indeed. While it is difficult to choose the “best” story in a collection, favourites are always welcome. I especially like the muscular workmanship of Michael Meagher’s, “Used to It.” And Lisa Alward’s, “Old Growth,” is something special as well.

Edited: Feb 26, 10:29am Top

22. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: stories by Denis Johnson

The five stories collected here easily remind us of the verve and skill of Denis Johnson. His narrators, whether college professors or youthful convicts, flit about in a seemingly random pattern that we only later discern to have been a dance. There is sadness in many of these stories, deep sadness, sometimes due to losses earned or acquired and sometimes due to, I think, our condition. But there is also hope, or at least the striving after hope, even if that striving is itself a form of madness self-constituted or pharmaceutically induced.

I won’t pick a favourite. Each story has its unique qualities. And each reveals, as if we needed further proof, Johnson’s remarkable gifts. Perhaps the overwhelming impression is of a writer fully in command of his medium yet still somewhat in awe of what he is able to achieve. As such, naturally, this collection can be heartily recommended.

Edited: Feb 28, 3:38pm Top

23. Zero K by Don DeLillo

Two distinct human desires converge: the longing for rebirth or renewal without end and the wish to end everything not just oneself. It may be the case that the one implies the other. Can there be true rebirth without an absolute end that precedes it? What end is absolute other than the end of rebirth itself? If these questions trouble your sleep, you may be ripe for the burgeoning field of transhumanism. The transhumanist insists that the self is not tied to any specific physical body. We can transcend our bodies. And not just through the questionable metaphysics of souls. Rather through the hard science of mental states and human psychology transferred for a time to a holding place and later possibly reinterred in a physical body which may or may not be similar to the one we now inhabit.

Ross Lockhart is a billionaire whose great desire is for his second wife, Artis, and himself to transcend their finite state. He has funded a facility, The Convergence, in the apolitical wasteland of the former USSR to pursue this end with extreme diligence, for himself and others with the funds and foresight to buy in. When Artis incurs a life-threatening illness, Ross brings his estranged adult son, Jeffrey, to join him as he bids au revoir to Artis. Ross will in due course follow Artis into suspended animation with the clear hope and intent of reviving in a far distant future. Jeffrey is bemused.

With a purposeful detached style, DeLillo follows Jeffrey’s puzzlement and consideration of The Convergence. It is a strange place where unseen scientific developments go hand in glove with daunting philosophical and sociological arguments about ends and the end. It is so otherworldly that it might just as well be set on another planet. Indeed the living inhabitants of The Convergence have even developed a future language more perfect than any available to us as yet on earth, though incomprehensible to Jeffrey. DeLillo’s ambition is huge, though the result feels more like a Tarkovsky film, which is either a sign of brilliant success or abject failure depending on your inclination.

I found myself unenthused by the novel despite acknowledging its technical brilliance. Perhaps novels are not the best fora for exploring challenging philosophical platforms such as the transhumanist agenda even if they are essential for prompting the necessary aporia that might make further serious philosophical investigation worthwhile. And in this light, I gently recommend this novel.

Feb 28, 2:36pm Top

>47 RandyMetcalfe: Hi, Randy. I'd concur with your dissatisfaction with Zero K. I'm a huge DeLillo fan, but that one struck me as his least successful, at least of his later years.

Feb 28, 7:08pm Top

>48 majleavy: Thanks, Michael. I can't say I'm a huge DeLillo fan (my wife is a much bigger fan), but I appreciate his willingness to tackle difficult topics. And reading this one led to a fine discussion of its merits at home here :-)

Mar 3, 5:14pm Top

24. Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans

There are no weak stories in this fine collection. However, there are a few truly exceptional stories. And that misfortune makes the ones that are just good look weak by comparison. It’s a hard problem for such an obviously talented writer like Danielle Evans. Her first story here, “Virgins,” is so well-crafted, full of impact, and perfectly pitched that it would be surprising for any other to measure up. Even so, the next three stories — “Snakes,” “Harvest,” “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go” — come close. With these four stories, it is abundantly clear that Evans will go on to be a writer well worth following (a view already confirmed if you’ve been following her).


Mar 7, 3:43pm Top

I've been reading The Everyman Edition of The Complete Henry Bech by John Updike. Rather than wait until I complete all the volumes contained therein, I've decided to review them as I finish them. Thus,

Bech: A Book by John Updike

With such a vast and various publishing history, it is daunting to decide where to begin with Updike. Bech is as good a place as any and no doubt better than some. Henry Bech is a sort-of alter-ego for John Updike, his less obvious one. Where Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom of Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ novels is a mainstream, suburban WASP, Henry Bech is a literate Jew of Manhattan’s upper west side, droll, ironic, and a bit down on himself. Bech is a writer of early fame and literary regard. We come upon him here in the middle period of his life, his best books (perhaps) behind him, eking out a fallow existence on prize juries, symposia, and cultural exchanges. The first three stories see Bech on a junket sponsored by the State Department in Russia, Rumania, and Bulgaria in the mid-1960s. An opportunity for capitalist comparison to be sure, but also, for Bech, considerable self flagellation. Bech knows he should be writing but his talent, for the moment, escapes him. Perhaps it has fled east but if it has he hasn’t found it in these sad outposts.

Bech is witty, always ready for wordplay even if primarily when he is talking to himself. Perhaps a gift for narration, unused, induces a gift for self-narration. When he is paired with an interlocutor equally playful sparks almost immediately begin to fly, usually (mis)interpreted as sexual. Bech isn’t so much lecherous as likeable; he seems almost surprised whenever younger, more beautiful women, offer him their minds in wordplay and their bodies in bed play. He is, as they say, watchable, even if you might not want to introduce him to your wife. But at heart, as we learn in the last story in the collection, he is still a boy yearning to receive the applause of his literary peers, something he has long forgotten to be the (somewhat) banal driving force behind both his (early) success and his current malaise.

Updike’s writing here is light and engaging and unburdened by late mid-century American angst. Or rather Bech takes on that burden allowing Updike’s prose to swing free. If this were your initial encounter with Updike, I feel that, like me, you’d be more than willing to read on.


Mar 13, 7:11am Top

I'm continuing with The Everyman Edition of The Complete Henry Bech by John Updike. On to the second collection of stories in that omnibus.

Bech is Back by John Updike

In his second collection of Bech stories, John Updike takes the now familiar Bech on a series of dispiriting travels through the third world and on to the apparently interchangeable Australia and Canada before visiting Jerusalem and finally Scotland. Bech is still deep in his writing funk. The long-awaited next novel, “Think Big,” is nowhere to be seen and the years are passing. The biggest change for Bech has been that he finds himself married to Bea, the younger sister of his former mistress, Norma. Bea has three children from her first marriage and provides Bech with an instant family but also the motherly presence for which he may having been longing. However all is not entirely as Bech might imagine it to be, or might have written it to be in one of his novels. Bea is much stronger than he knew, far more Christian (something he hadn’t noticed at all until their visit to Jerusalem) and quite willing to challenge him on his lack of writerly output. Just go up to your office each morning and write a couple of pages, she tells him, no matter how bad they are. Bech resists but in his heart he knows Bea is right. When inspiration isn’t inspiring, hard work will sometimes do the trick. And over a few seasons whilst living out in Ossining (Bech had to give up his much loved upper west side Manhattan flat) he discovers that he has indeed produced something substantial. Something rather large. And although the publishing world itself has changed immensely since he last had intimate dealings with editors and publishers, Bech is definitely back.

All but one of the stories in this collection cohere with Updike’s typical brief Bech story piercing the veil on the literary world of junkets and cocktail parties. The exception is the much longer story, “Bech Wed,” which chronicles the lengthy portion of Bech’s married life, the eventual writing of his next novel and the, almost inevitable, dissolution of the marriage. Clearly Updike felt he had to move Bech through this challenge to Bech’s angst-ridden identity — an inverse dark night of the soul if you will — in order to believably return him to us as the dissolute sipper of bourbon and profferer of bon mots at cocktail parties that we know and possibly love.
While not as light and surprising as the first Bech collection, this further development of Bech remains very readable and believable.

Gently recommended.

Mar 15, 1:09pm Top

25. Daphne: a novel by Will Boast

Daphne is twenty-nine, living in the San Francisco’s Mission district in an up-scale apartment that she regularly redecorates and photographs, unsuccessfully, for the magazine Interiors. She is smart (computer science and project management), ambitious (working in a challenging position for a big pharma company), has at least one sexy, cool friend (Brook - from Daphne’s home town in Indiana), and a caring mother who keeps tabs on her from a distance. But she’s also got something else, a condition that causes her to lose control of her muscles (to the point of effective catatonia) whenever she experiences heightened emotions. Laughter, tears, the caress of a loved one — anything can set her off. For Daphne it’s a condition she’s been dealing with since puberty. She’s got it under control. Mostly.

Will Boast tells this story from Daphne’s perspective. In some ways it hearkens back to Ovid’s account of Daphne and Apollo (Daphne even takes up with a boyfriend name Ollie). But mostly it is more locally situated, both physically in San Francisco, and temporally, given the numerous references to world events that impinge on, especially, Ollie’s actions. It is punctuated by set-pieces that Boast elaborates at length. These are interspersed with numerous short chapters getting us from one set-piece to the next. It’s a curiously deliberate style. And it might account in part for why Daphne never fully comes to life, is never fully believable (at least from the first-person perspective). Daphne has a job which involves her in the distasteful end of medical research, which isn’t fully integrated into her story other than to provide her with a sufficiently high-paying position to warrant her lifestyle. And Ollie is even less believable, or at least less coherent. Characters here have a tendency to inexplicably make left-turns in order to drive the story forward.

It’s a passable read if you don’t mind heavy handed allusions to trees (for Daphne). But for me it seems to not entirely work.

Mar 20, 10:57am Top

And now finishing up on The Complete Henry Bech by John Updike.

Bech at Bay by John Updike

John Updike returns to his writerly alter ego, Henry Bech, for a third round of stories. Bech is older. Much older. But then he seemed old already back in Bech: A Book almost thirty years earlier. By the final story here, Bech is seventy-six. He is, however, newly a father for the first time and the joy of that transition to a new plane of being seems to fuel newfound artistic license and, possibly, hope. But that is to start at the end. In the beginning in “Bech in Czech” we seem to have Bech returned to his roots from the first four stories in Bech: A Book with Bech once again serving as cultural emissary and narrative commentator. Most notable is Bech’s first stop on this cultural tour, the Prague cemetery in which Kafka is interred. Endings dominate the stories. In “Bech Presides,” Bech is tasked with leading The 40, a group of senior artistic figures in which he was inducted some year earlier. Unbeknownst to Bech, his presidency is a device to set about the dissolution of the group. Endings get more active in “Bech Noir,” when Bech takes umbrage at hurtful critics to a new level setting about their demise. It’s a brilliant flight of fancy if only for the jibes Bech recounts his critics taunting him with over the years. In final tale, “Bech and the Bounty of Sweden,” Bech is honoured with the Nobel Prize, much to the shock and dismay of his peers. Almost to be expected, good fortune drives Bech to near despair and wordlessness. Fortunately his infant daughter helps him out with his acceptance speech by saying, “Hi,” and waving bye. A fitting end.

Gently recommended.

The Complete Henry Bech includes one final story published subsequent to the release of Bech at Bay. It is “His Oeuvre”. Bech is on a speaking tour of America and it seems wherever he goes he spots a different woman with whom he’s had a brief liaison long ago. Each encounter prompts fond reminiscence and, as compared his books from which he will be reading passages at those events, satisfaction. It is a helpful reminder to us that as much as Bech defined himself as first and foremost a writer, he is, at root, a man of passion. And so, fittingly, it is by his loves rather than his words that he is remembered.

Mar 20, 11:18am Top

26. The Complete Henry Bech by John Updike

This omnibus edition consists in three volumes of Bech stories — Bech: A Book, Bech is Back, and Bech at Bay — and one further short story, “His Oeuvre,” which rounds out the collection. Over more than thirty years of writing we see Updike’s verve, wit, empathy and angst. But mostly we see an incredible consistency. From the first story, “Rich in Russia,” to the last, Updike’s alter ego, Henry Bech is struggling with what it is for him to be a writer, to be a non-practicing Jew, to be American, and most importantly, to be a man.

It is natural to assume that the best of Bech would be found in the first Bech book when his character is still fresh and Updike is turning him about to show off his angles. And that might be true. But the later stories are perhaps more welcome for the reader given our now familiarity with Bech and his predictable trait of surprising us. There is pathos aplenty in Bech’s elevation to The Forty, an elite group of artists. But there is also disappointment as Bech struggles with his responsibilities as a writer and, briefly, as a husband and step-father in “Bech Wed.” The breakdown of that relationship coinciding with Bech finally achieving best-seller status speaks to the delicate balances of influences and desires that Updike has realized through Bech.

Each of these stories is a pleasant read and most have passages that will make you laugh and others that will make you think and some that will get you to do both at once.

Easily recommended.

Mar 25, 8:40am Top

27. Feel Free: essays by Zadie Smith

There is something clear-sighted and honest about Zadie Smith’s essay style. Over a spread of 31 pieces on such varied subjects as Brexit, dance, art exhibitions, book reviews, and what might be called think-pieces, Smith is consistently insightful, self-deprecating, erudite, and personal. She eschews the fashion amongst (especially British) essayists of disingenuousness. It’s clear that she must have been a precociously literate child, an intense reader of works well above her age bracket, and an early writer (well, obviously, since her first novel was published to great acclaim when she was still in university). When she turns her attention to matters literary or artistic she is able to offer opinions based on both breadth of experience and depth of understanding. And though she is not touted as a philosophical writer, her essays on philosophical topics (e.g. juxtaposing Justin Bieber with Martin Buber) are refreshing and provocative. Yet some of the essays I like best are those in which she mentions what it was like growing up in London with her Jamaican-born mother and her elderly, white, father, both of whom she so clearly loves (and who dearly loved her), even though the marriage itself broke down when she was just a young girl.

I would gladly read almost anything coming from Zadie Smith. This collection reinforces that intention. Enjoy it in full and wait impatiently, as I will, for what Smith writes next.

Mar 27, 8:16am Top

28. Kid by Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage’s poems are typically accessible, full of wit and charm. They use formal elements in their structure, including rhyme (at times), but rhythm is more to the fore. Many are narrative poems in which Armitage voices a character often in unusual (for a poem) circumstances. For example, “Brassneck,” whose narrator is a thief who works the football stadiums, or “Kid,” whose narrator is a resentful sidekick, now grown, but still sulking. There are seven poems that reference “Robinson,” the first of which, “Looking for Weldon Kees,” suggests that Armitage has borrowed his middleman Robinson character from the American poet who disappeared in the 1950s, a presumed suicide. Some of these poems have a dark and cynical edge. But Armitage is also capable of extremely light verse, including poems about cricket and golf, which are delightful.

This is such a solid collection (there are 31 poems included) that you may find yourself returning to it again and again over the years, no doubt finding that the poems you loved in your youth take on new meaning as you age.

Well worth reading again. And again.

Edited: Mar 31, 10:35am Top

29. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

Richard is a classics professor living in Berlin. He had spent nearly his entire life in East Berlin, until it suddenly transformed into just Berlin. Now, years later, a widower and recently retired, he comes upon a demonstration in the Alexanderplatz by African refugee claimants wishing to be recognized as such, to become visible. At first it hardly registers upon his consciousness. But slowly he learns more, his curiosity is peaked, he investigates their situation and goes on to interview some of them. What he learns changes both his knowledge of the world and of himself. Soon he is assisting in language lessons and starting to take an active role in assisting these most desperate of men, each of whom has been denied refugee status and thus even the opportunity to work to support themselves. Most have suffered so much trauma that their lives are unlikely ever to be fully whole again. But Richard has at least some understanding of that, having emerged, himself, from the aftermath of Germany’s great conflagration and the divisions that continued to shape his nominal country throughout his life.

This is a patient novel. We follow Richard as he slowly has his consciousness raised. What he finds is not charming. The modern state can be ruthlessly blunt in the manner in which it deals with displaced persons. The novel acknowledges how complex the situation is, though it pales in comparison to the complexity of the individual life stories of the refugees Richard encounters. And in the end, the helping hand, the traditional welcoming of even uninvited guests, must be honoured. Richard and at least some of his close friends see this. And by extension so do we.

A welcome and much-needed message that does not obscure the subtlety of a finely wrought novel.

Highly recommended.

Edited: Apr 4, 10:01pm Top

30. Manhattan Beach: a novel by Jennifer Egan

Anna is the daughter of a man who sees things and hears things and knows how to take the main chance even after the great crash of ’29 and the destitution that enveloped so many of his peers. Eddie Kerrigan sees an opportunity with the club owner and probable gangster, Dexter Styles. But the currents and tides and eddies that make the waters surrounding Manhattan dangerous are as much at work in the lives of these characters as below the surface. Events and life and the march of time and then the great change brought about by war. We continue to focus on Anna as she undertakes wartime work, then double back to catch up with Eddie and Dexter as their paths cross and cross again.

It is evident from the book’s acknowledgements at the end that researching and writing this novel was a labour of love. A lot of labour, apparently. And while for the most part the book wears that research, all those facts, lightly, it is also true that only in moments does its narrative truly come to life. There is the moment at the outset of the novel with Anna on the beach. There is the moment when she reaches the bottom of the port on her first dive. There is the moment when, with the help of Dexter Styles, she brings her sister, Lydia, to the sea. But getting between these moments is a bit of a slog, like wearing a 200 lb diving suit and being forced to walk across the room and untie a knot. And of course, given Egan’s earlier post-modern triumph, one is always reading between the lines hoping there is something more here than surface, a certain depth if only we could dive into it. Alas, no. A perfectly fine historical novel but not much more.

And so, only gently recommended.

Apr 9, 10:45am Top

31. Magic for Beginners: stories by Kelly Link

The stories in this collection will surprise you. Some may even confound you. And you’ll be left wondering, as I am, what exactly you just read. Did it really go there? Was the world as malleable as that story assumes? Is the bit beyond the edge actually nowhere at all? And why aren’t these rather long short stories even longer? Much longer. Because once you get caught up in the world of living/dead marital relations (“The Great Divorce”), or retail strategies for zombies in The Chasm (“The Hortlak”), or a television programme, “The Library,” that is so extreme and unpredictable that it demands compulsive viewing even though it may not exist (“Magic for Beginners”), you’ll want that world to be detailed and elaborated and brought as much to life as possible.

I don’t always know how to assess a Kelly Link short story. Which is a good thing. They seem open, evolving, as though they might just be more than I imagine. I could definitely read more of these. Or just read these again.


Apr 14, 6:49pm Top

Lots of collections of short stories in these last reviews. Some are very tempting. Thanks.

Apr 15, 9:14am Top

32. Fates and Furies: a novel by Lauren Groff

Lotto is excessively tall, handsome, white, rich, full of the self-confidence of an actor (he is an actor; later a playwright), charismatic, and ferociously loyal and faithful to the woman he loves, his wife, Mathilde. Mathilde is excessively tall, strikingly beautiful, white, rich, brimming with steely determination, ruthlessly loyal and faithful to the man she loves, her husband, Lotto. They make a lovely couple and their story, right up to the surprising death of Lotto in mid-life is one of romantic hardships braved together and eventual success (Lotto’s as a playwright) earned on their own terms. But the story continues after Lotto’s death and both thereafter and through numerous flashbacks to Mathilde’s life before Lotto we learn that she, at least, has never been fully what she seemed.

It’s a novel, you might say, of two halves. But are they equal halves?

Mathilde’s backstory is so extreme that it makes a nonsense of her life of more than 20 years with Lotto. She is revealed as essentially dissembling, diabolical, murderous, unsentimental, even fiendish. But she’s always been this way, we learn. Meanwhile Lotto’s character remains consistent in the second half of the novel. There are no stunning turnarounds, though we do see that he has been ignorant of more than just Mathilde’s true character over the course of his life.

I think the concept for this novel was perhaps more interesting than the accomplishment. This, despite the fact that Groff is so evidently a fine writer. I thoroughly enjoyed her synopses of Lotto’s plays and the unfinished opera. There is verve in the writing and it would still have been a fine novel even if it had ended at the midpoint. However, our discovery that Mathilde is practically a Bond-villain in her duplicitousness undercuts what had been achieved to that point. For surely, given that this novel is written in close third-person, we do not have two sides of the same story. We only have one story for which we were deliberately misled by the author throughout the first half. And that doesn’t work, at least for me. It’s not merely that Lotto and Mathilde have different viewpoints on the same events. I hardly think that would be surprising. Rather, it’s that Lotto’s viewpoint is lessened to be merely naive. What we are left with is simply Mathilde’s story with the now childish and child-like Lotto in the shadows. And in fact, from the novelist’s perspective and ours as readers, that’s all we’ve ever had.

Lauren Groff is an exceptional writer whose work I will continue to read with interest. Nevertheless, on this occasion, not recommended.

Edited: Apr 15, 4:24pm Top

>62 RandyMetcalfe: Very interesting review. I'll even forgive you the spoiler, as it still interests me to see how Groff handles it.

Apr 15, 4:39pm Top

>63 ffortsa: Thanks, Judy. Sorry about the apparent spoiler but this is largely given away by the blurb on the back cover of the book. Unfortunately I failed to read that before plunging in, so I was probably more surprised by the turn of events than most readers. Well worth reading yourself as there is much else there to admire.

Apr 16, 12:24pm Top

>64 RandyMetcalfe: Wow, a blurb that kills the surprise! In that case, I take it all back.

Apr 17, 4:25pm Top

33. The Collected Stories by John McGahern

The 34 short stories in this collection cover a wide swath of John McGahern’s career. And although he is perhaps best known for his novels, he remains one of the preeminent proponents of the Irish short story form in the latter part of the 20th century. Many of the stories here concern small acts of love, lust, shame, or regret that afflict middling people— civil servants, teachers, farmers, etc. Some are so dark as to be nearly scandalous, while others are as light as an Irish breeze. Often characters are transitioning from the country to the city, or from single life to married life, or between life and death. Central male characters have a tendency to be sentimental but ineffectual, whereas the central female characters tend to be unsentimental and driven by the necessities of life. Some stories are more like impressionistic sketches. And, given the number, there is a degree of retreading the same ground. That, and a bit of sameness to the voices.

The stories work best in short doses of one of two at most in a sitting. You might safely dip in to any story in the collection and not be disappointed.

Gently recommended.

Apr 21, 8:16am Top

34. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Even if you’ve never heard of radium or radiation or Ottawa, Illinois, much of this sad story of the young women who worked in factories painting the numerals on watch faces with luminescent paint and who thereafter fell sorrowfully ill as a result will sound familiar. It’s a story of corporate greed, inhuman indifference to the plight of people nominally in one’s care, duplicity, scurrilousness, and abdication of responsibility. If you hadn’t heard the same story in nearly ever other sphere of American business, you might think what you were reading was fiction. Bad fiction. It’s not. It’s just another day or decade in life of rapacious capitalism. I hesitate to say it, but, “Sad!”

Kate Moore chooses to concentrate on the experience of those who suffered directly in this industrial debacle — the young women. Many of them began their employment while still in their teens. Many of them did not reach their third decade of life. And while their ends were similar, Moore does her best to bring their individuality in life to life. It can’t help but be a bit repetitive. And a bit depressing. Your teeth will start to hurt. Your jaw will drop perhaps in sympathy with the jawbones of some of these victims which just disintegrated. And you’ll start wondering about your own unexplained aches and pains. It’s hard going.

And yet, gently recommended.

May 6, 8:27am Top

Happy Sunday, Randy.

May 6, 9:35am Top

Lots of great reading and reviews here!! Have a great Sunday

May 6, 11:06am Top

Thanks Paul >68 PaulCranswick: and Annita >69 figsfromthistle: Hope your Sunday is pleasant as well.

Edited: May 9, 8:05pm Top

35. The Only Story: a novel by Julian Barnes

Looking back on his life now, Paul sees that love is the only story. It’s the only story for any of us, and his story began, more or less, when he was 19, at home for the summer after his first year up at university. His mother had got him an invitation to join the local tennis club. There he encounters Susan for the first time. She is wearing a white dress with green trim and green buttons down the front. They are partnered in a game of mixed doubles. She is charming and encouraging with a beguiling laugh. She is 48. Paul’s story has begun.

What follows is in part an account of Paul and Susan’s life together. And apart. Susan is surprisingly adventurous. Paul is full of pride and conceit. When they get expelled from the tennis club they are almost gleeful. But this is not a brief summer romance, a necessary step in Paul’s romantic and erotic education. This is love. Or what passes for love. So when they eventually escape to London, buy an ex-council house, and get on with things, that’s just part of it. Heartbreak can be part of a love story too, obviously. As can decline, abandonment, disdain, caring, fond memories, self-delusion and more.

Julian Barnes presents Paul initially in the first person, this being a story that Paul is telling us. At some point, however, Paul’s own story moves to the third person, a grammatical distancing from himself perhaps. Paul is never a comfortable character. At times he seems like an alien in his own story. And that too puts up barriers for the reader. It’s as though Barnes doesn’t want us to get too close to Paul, as though he wants us to critically observe and possibly judge him. Even if the judgement he solicits is understanding forgiveness. I confess I never warmed to Paul and his unsympathetic portrayal appeared to have no further redeeming qualities. Susan, on the hand, is a sad figure who we never fully get to know. In part that is because this is Paul’s story and it’s clear that he never really gets to know Susan either, though his curious incuriousness is troubling. Maybe Paul’s love story is really a story of self love, which is rather disappointing.

There are moments here that are compelling. But the story, the characters, and especially their emotional arc never really captivate. Julian Barnes can, has, and probably will, do better. Fortunately this is not his only story. And for now it is not recommended.

May 10, 4:22pm Top

36. Killing and Dying: stories by Adrian Tomine

The six graphic short stories in Adrian Tomine’s collection are filled with exuberance and disappointment, masks chosen or imposed, and deceptions of others and of oneself. The graphic style is somewhat different in each story, ranging from the Chris Ware-like architectural style of “Translated, from the Japanese,” to the Daniel Clowes-like flatness of “Killing and Dying.” But perhaps those comparisons are unfair since Tomine makes his form entirely his own in each story.

Although “Killing and Dying” is probably the best, most well-rounded, of these stories, with numerous doublings and echoes between the three principal characters, the story I enjoyed most was the examination of artistic inspiration, regret, and transmutation found in “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture’.” There a wannabe artist working in menial garden maintenance has a burst of inspiration resulting in what he believes to be an entirely new art form. His wife indulges his creativity but it soon becomes clear that what he longs for is not art but rather acceptance even acclaim and, finally, the love of his daughter. Years of frustration ensue. But redemption and transformation take hold when he abandons his artistic pretensions and enlists his daughter’s aid in a joyful destruction of his hortisculpture garden.

Tomine’s characters will tug at your heartstrings even as they embarrass you with their choices and their blunders. You’ll feel their distress and find it enough to revel in small triumphs.

Definitely recommended.

May 24, 6:04am Top

37. Kudos by Rachel Cusk

For a third outing, Rachel Cusk’s Faye is once again the receptacle of other people’s tales of their lives’ trials and tribulations. This time Faye is attending a writers’ festival in an unnamed sunny European country. Mostly she encounters other writers, most of whom are significantly more famous than she is, or at least think they are. There are also publishers, arts journalists, event organizers, and more. Everyone seems to have their story to tell, though of Faye we learn little. Her son is growing up and her relationship with him and through him with his father seems to set the theme. For much of what Faye learns through her encounters is of broken relationships and how the women in them negotiate the dangers, emotional and physical, that arise in such situations. Especially, perhaps we hear of how children or the lack of children come to define and be defined by these relationships.

At times humorous, often sad, but always very human, we see writers engaging with each other in the ways that such an unusually solitary discipline might suggest, i.e. awkwardly. But beneath the surface of competitive ego management, the writers and those who work in the industry that facilitates them are just people struggling with very similar problems to others. The writing here, as in the previous two works in this trilogy, remains quietly distanced, observant, always potentially ironic, and lucid. And yet, I find it immensely compelling. Kudos are warranted, indeed.

Certainly recommended.

May 30, 4:14pm Top

38. The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

It is a commonplace of accounts of physics, especially quantum physics, that the world is not exactly the way we think it is. After all, contrary to appearances, the earth actually circles the sun rather than vice versa. And gravity turns out not to be as simple as an apple falling from a tree. But in all the disorder brought to our view of the universe by physicists, at least time, one damn thing following another, has stayed fixed in place. Right? Wrong. Time, it turns out, is just as illusory as everything else, at least when seen without the myopic eye of “ordinary” experience. Seen clearly, time does not exist. And yet…

Carlo Rovelli masterfully explodes our preconceptions about space and time before gently reconstructing the world anew. It’s a fascinating account drawn directly from the physics of the 20th and 21st century. Rovelli is no journalist hyping the confusing world of the quantum. He’s a well-respected quantum loop theorist who brings a healthy regard for clarity to his subject. You never feel patronized when reading Rovelli. On the other hand, like me, you may feel a bit inadequate. So I’m glad there are people out there like Rovelli who do seem to understand both the equations and their implications.

Rovelli writes with patience but not condescension. He is at his best when discussing the subject in which he specializes — quantum physics. And his references to analytic philosophers (in the endnotes) all seem entirely apt. I marvel at his breadth. When he strays outside this core his writing becomes more florid and the philosophers he cites switch from analytic to continental, possibly tellingly. But he doesn’t linger in the long grass.

Very likely you’ll want to read this book more than once. I’m sure I would get much more out of it on a second reading.

Highly recommended.

Edited: Jun 13, 7:33am Top

39. Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe is a Titan, daughter of Helios and Perse. She is mild but curious as a child, circling round her father, uncertain of her place in the eternity that will follow. She discovers her powers of witchcraft and transformation through an act of love, attempting to transform her mortal love, Glaucos, into an eternal being. She succeeds but also fails, losing his love and eventually her freedom, banished by agreement of Zeus and Helios to the deserted isle, Aiaia. There Circe grows, over the centuries, through trial and error, into the witch she, perhaps, was meant to be. But she will not be bound by bonds or fate, and even eternity is too restricting. Encounters with Daedalus and, much later, Odysseus shape her story but in the end she sets her own sail. And her ultimate transformation confirms that far beyond mere witchcraft, she is wise.

Madeline Miller, once again, has brought Greek legend to life. Her style is forthright and grounded, yet there is lightness here as well. It is no small thing to get mortal readers to care about an immortal being of fell power and grace. But Miller achieves this without sleight of hand or trickery. Circe’s story is, we find, more interesting and subtle than that of renowned heroes such as Jason or even Odysseus. Circe’s art, her herbal lore and witchery, is not assumed; it is earned. She has to do the work, the tending of the herbs, the gathering, the grinding, the experimentation with differing combinations and words of power. She notes that witchcraft is really mostly will itself.

If Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles, was a pleasant surprise, then Circe is certain confirmation of her skill.

Highly recommended.

Jun 20, 8:08am Top

40. The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Boundaries demarcate limits imposed externally or internally. The wilful transgression of boundaries is a species of violence. Whether one crosses into another country or out of the norms of society, violence ensues. Yeong-hye initiates us into this transgressive territory through her decision to become vegetarian. It is an act of will but also defiance. She will not be limited to the (mis)construed norms of her family or society. But is it an expression of freedom or self-constraint? Yeong-hye is desperate to avoid the bloody violence of her dreams. She seeks not merely abstinence from meat, but perhaps from her own animal nature. So, not so much a desire to become a vegetarian as to become vegetal.

Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is a video artist, only moderately successful. He is shy and pliant, almost weedy. Some time after Yeong-hye’s declaration of vegetarianism, he becomes obsessed with two things: a floral pattern on the naked bodies of a man and a woman engaged in coitus that he draws incessantly in his sketch book, and a small birthmark that may or may not persist on the buttock of Yeong-hye. The artist obsesses. Although Yeong-hye is clearly still emotionally and mentally fragile (her husband and parents have abandoned her), he convinces her to become his female model for the artwork. He takes on the male role in a sexual fantasy facilitated by art. The results are not perhaps unpredictable.

Yeong-hye’s older sister, In-hye, becomes the focus of the third act of this story. She has cut ties with her artist husband. Yeong-hye is now incarcerated in a mental institution but continues to reject both meat and eventually all food. She is dying. In-hye is her only visitor. Yeong-hye’s death may be inevitable but it is not going to be easy. Transgressing the boundary of life rarely is. In-hye appears stoical in the face of wilful death, but she may be hiding an equal longing that she can just barely restrain.

The visceral nature of this novel may catch the unsuspecting reader unawares. But once it grabs hold of you, its grip is unshakeable. Horrific images. Sadly damaged characters. A story that is at once very particular and yet plays at many other levels as well.

Highly recommended.

Jun 20, 4:43pm Top

41. Less: a novel by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is turning fifty. He has loved and been loved. He has achieved a small degree of writerly success. He has known genius without being one. He has, perhaps, found his great love only to have realized it too late. His lover, Freddy, has announced his engagement to someone else. Arthur has received an invitation to the wedding. There is only one thing to be done. Escape! And so Arthur cobbles together an itinerary from symposia, teaching engagements, awards ceremonies, magazine writing assignments, and a writing retreat in order to make his way around the world. All to avoid the necessity of attending his love’s wedding to someone else. And his fiftieth birthday.

This is a gentle, comic romance filled with mishap, angst, and joy. Less is endearingly put-upon, though primarily by himself. He is ever the last to know some key fact. And the things that he believes he does know, like German, are not reliable. If he weren’t so consistently sad, he might even be happy. Or perhaps it is his self-directed sadness that is part of his charm, because men do find themselves falling for him, bad German and all.

The writing is filled with flourishes in keeping with Less’s romantic take on the world. But it is largely held in check by the enforced transitory nature of the round the world central plot. As a result, Less is the only character we come to know well. And to a lesser extent Less’s most important romantic attachments. Of course he meets numerous sparkling characters on his travels but only enough to amuse us as readers. But amuse it does. Gently.

And so, gently recommended.

Edited: Jun 21, 4:20pm Top

42. Nobody Move by Denis Johnson

Trust Denis Johnson. If you need someone to lay down a straight flush pulp masterpiece, one of the best writers in the business is a safe bet. Not that I usually expect to find Johnson writing in this genre. But if anyone understands the movement of plot and character through dialogue, it’s him.

Jimmy Luntz is a bit down on his luck. He’s in debt to some unsavoury people. The kind who come round to collect. And that gun you see in the first act will go off. In the first act. It’s that kind of novel. When Jimmy crosses paths with Anita Desilvera, he might think his luck has changed. She’s clearly out of his league. But she’s got troubles of her own, a taste for vodka, a bad karaoke habit, and a few million in missing funds that she’s taking the fall for having pilfered. She’s also got a bit of a mean streak. But she and Jimmy hit it off, sort of. And their two narrative paths are certain to comingle. With consequences.

Mostly this is just fun writing and fun reading. There isn’t really much more to it than that. Johnson’s dialogue is endlessly refreshing. And he knows how to mingle fates both subtly and with lead. You might as well just sit back and enjoy. Gently recommended.

Jun 28, 10:16am Top

43. Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes

Vernon Subutex is down on his luck. He’s lost the record store that he owned and ran for 20 years near the Bastille in Paris. He’s spent the last couple of years picking up bits of work as a music journalist here and there and selling off his record collection piecemeal on Ebay. And for the past year his old chum Alex Bleach, the only one of his friends to have made it in the music biz, has been paying his back rent. But now Alex is dead, an overdose. And as sad as that is, it’s the fallout that is on Vernon’s mind. No one is going to pay his rent on which he is some months in arrears. And when the bailiffs come knocking to evict him, he has only ten minutes to grab what he can and stuff it in a bag. For some reason, one of the things he takes with him is a set of three tapes that Alex made one night in Vernon’s apartment, a drug-fueled rant Vernon assumes but one that might now be worth something. But first Vernon is going have to deal with this homelessness thing.

Apologies if the above sounds like a lot of telling. But that is the mode of presentation of this lengthy first volume in what is to be a trilogy of the life and decline of Vernon Subutex. It’s just a lot of telling and very little showing. And periodically there are new characters introduced who do some further ranty telling for a few pages. They are mostly far-right exhortations against one group or another, or against women or certain types of women. Or they are far-left exhortations which, in the curious world we live in these days, sound incredibly similar.

I’m not sure why the original French text of this novel became acclaimed in France. Perhaps the people reading it are the same people who are blithely ignorant of what occurs on the Internet on a daily basis, or are surprised to learn that there are angry people in France who have difficulty articulating their views but not their anger. And, shock, it turns out that there are homeless people in the capital of culture as well! So perhaps this book is being treated as reportage. If so, I’m glad it is opening people’s eyes.

But otherwise it is rather dull. And so, not recommended.

Jun 30, 5:05am Top

44. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Saeed and Nadia live in an unnamed city under siege by militant fundamentalists. He is shy, mildly devout, a star-gazer. He still lives with his parents. She is forthright, wilful, ambitious, practical. She lives alone in her own apartment and although she wears the trappings of devoutness (for protection), she does not pray. Their paths cross, there is a spark, they are young, and love flourishes. But their city is no safe place to live and the danger is getting worse. If only there were a way out. There might be. Doors are being opened. Or rather “doors,” since these are no ordinary openings from one room to the next. Rumour has it that a “door” could take you almost anywhere. And almost anywhere other than this city is where Saeed and Nadia decide they want to be.

With a beautiful, lyrical, almost magical, touch, Mohsin Hamid describes the lives of Saeed and Nadia and the progress of their love across space and time. It is a world filled with new possibilities, but also great risk. And not everyone or every love survives. When they finally decide to escape through one of the doors that have opened up in their city, Saeed’s grieving father asks only that Nadia see his son to safety, a promise she is determined to keep. Hamid nicely interweaves brief sketches of other travellers through these mysterious portals, stories of hope, mostly, and new love.

This is a gentle read that will sweep you along through what at times is a horrific world, though recognizably similar to our own. You’ll find yourself wishing their were doors out there available for everyone. But where that leaves you at the end is not entirely a happy place.

Highly recommended.

Jun 30, 10:24am Top

45. The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg

The eleven essays collected here cover a long period in Natalia Ginzburg’s writing life. Her vocation, as she often refers to it, has brought her solace through hard times and other pleasures as well. It is her guide to much of life’s vicissitudes, even to the point of steering her understanding of the virtues, little and great.

I preferred the essays in part one of the collection. These are at times nostalgic, a touch mournful, highly particularized, and personal. The very first essay, “Winter in the Abruzzi,” may be the best, though her two portraits of England are charming, if only because they describe a land that no longer exists: “It is a country which has always shown itself ready to welcome foreigners, from very diverse communities, without I think oppressing them.” If only.

The essays of the second part of the book are more abstract. Not because they deal with essentially abstract notions, but because, I think, Ginzburg’s writing style has changed. Her claims become sweeping, about childhood, education, her own vocation and vocations in general, and the nature of virtue. Here the writing is less compelling, less communicative, less appealing. At least for me.

Jul 6, 5:04pm Top

46. Judgment Detox by Gabrielle Bernstein

Risible blather.

No review is possible here. I was drawn to this book because a delightfully acerbic friend had picked it up in response to a student or students accusing her of being judgemental. “Am I too judgy,” she asked. “No,” I responded, “You’re just judgy enough.” But in truth I didn’t know what to make of her students’ complaint. Judgement is a fundamental aspect of our apprehension of the world. Without judgement there is no discernment of difference, of time or space, of properties both primary and secondary. Without judgement there is nothing. Indeed, judgement is the first sign of the conscious mind. Surely these young people were not hoping to live in a world without conscious minds. That would be mindless indeed. Clearly what they were objecting to was needlessly harsh opinion, possible bias, humiliation, and the certain knowledge that their inadequacies had been found out. Well, we’d all feel sympathetic with them about that state of affairs.

I read this book with an open mind but not an empty mind. But after only a few pages I was stymied by an odd mingling of coined terms, borrowed “spiritualism”, real science (such as reference to the amygdala or the right and left hemispheres of the brain), and nonsense. The nonsense included repeated phrases such as, “one step building on the next.” It sounds right, doesn’t it? But think about a bit more. How exactly can a step build on the step that comes after it? Surely steps build on the ones that precede them, don’t they? This was merely typical.

In the end (and I did read through to the end), the book became distressing. I began to worry about thousands and thousands of people who read this book (it’s a #1 New York Times Bestseller). And I began to worry about the writing of such a work (and this is one on many she has written. It’s a mystery to me.

But rest assured that my acerbic friend remains as she always has been. As do I.

Jul 9, 2:21pm Top

47. Demonology: stories by Rick Moody

For the novelist, the short story form is often an outlet for momentary inspiration, development of technique, display, and burlesque. But for a writer as talented as Rick Moody, these short forms are more like gems, finely cut, delicately set, polished in the extreme. The range across these thirteen stories is breathtaking. How does the same author who writes, “Surplus Value Books,” or “Wilkie Fahnstock,” also write, “The Double Zero,” or “Demonology”? There is a feast of language, insight, acute observation, and silliness available here. Of course the “silliness” is actually in service of a larger ironic, often sadder, end. But that doesn’t stop those stories being fun (at times). And indeed a certain playfulness is present even in the saddest of these stories.

Moody has a predilection for the extended stream of consciousness monologue (sometimes in dialogic form). But he is not wedded to it, and it has the feel of technique rather than empathy. So it is in the stories where he moves away from monologue toward a nuanced close third person that life fills the darker places. Even the easy and (as far as I can tell) proper use of continental philosophical and literary critical terminology that percolates some of the stories seems light and never merely about display or cheap mockery. You’ll see connection, in style and form, to Moody’s successful novels. But I take that as a sign that there is a constant interplay between his work in the short form and that of the longer form narrative. Successfully.


Edited: Jul 20, 5:16pm Top

48. The Nix: a novel by Nathan Hill

There are parts of Nathan Hill’s hefty novel that are exceptional. These are mostly standalone chapters, such as the one in which our protagonist, Samuel Anderson, has a meeting with a college student who has failed, due to plagiarism, an essay on Hamlet. (Well, that one’s actually a bit too frighteningly real.) And there is another chapter with our protagonist immersed in an multi-player online fantasy game. Or the one about… You get the picture. Brilliant set-pieces. The question is whether they are more than that, since the novel as a whole is fairly standardly narrative. It cuts back and forth between events in 2011, 1988 and 1968. The plot is intricate and involved. Perhaps predictably all the bits and pieces tie up, sometimes in surprising ways, before the end. But that isn’t so surprising in a novel that was 10-years in the writing, apparently. Lots of plot. A few memorable set-pieces. And what else? Not so much.

It’s a novel that you may feel could have lost a third of its content without losing any of its narrative push. Which makes it a bit of a slog to get through, perhaps. Still, I loved the brilliant set-pieces. So there is much to hope for in future novels from Nathan Hill.

Edited: Jul 22, 1:40pm Top

49. The Troll Garden by Willa Cather

Willa Cather’s first collection of short stories (originally published in 1905) remains a vital introduction to her style, interests, cultural milieu, and emotional commitments. Katherine Anne Porter’s afterword to this edition is itself distinctively mannered, forthright, and clear-eyed. Cather’s protagonists are often artists, either musicians or painters. They are either cut off from their art through impoverished distance (“A Wagner Matinee”) or through illness (“A Death in the Desert”) or death itself (“The Sculptor’s Funeral” and “The Marriage of Phaedra”). Sometimes wealth is a bar to one’s artistic resonances (“The Garden Lodge”). At other times it is clear that wealth proffers no route to artistic sensibility (“Flavia and Her Artists”).

However, the story for which the collection remains known (“Paul’s Case”) is only tangentially connected to the arts. Unless how one lives one’s life could be considered an artistic creation. If so, then Paul has a singular vision of how he wishes to perceive himself and his world, and how he wants to be seen or, perhaps, unseen. His mechanism of achieving this vision (grand theft) ensures its demise. But for that brief period, isn’t he truly alive? Until, that is, he is truly dead. No doubt many young “cases” have been compared to Paul’s case. No doubt many more will. It’s an unsettling and still unsettled debate.

There is a great deal to think about in these stories, some of which have dated. One thing that struck me on this reading was Cather’s assumption, or insistence, that even those living in poverty or near poverty on the American frontier would be longing for, had a right to, the cultural and artistic richness of the whole world. And nothing save distance and means cuts them off from what is after all part of their human condition. I fear that is a viewpoint now vanished.

Still worth reading.

Jul 31, 9:59pm Top

50. Cabot-Caboche by Daniel Pennac

Life does not begin well for Le Chien (a name he acquires later from his young mistress, La Pomme). He is the runt of the litter and ugly to boot. His owner decides to do away with him by drowning him. So it is already a bit remarkable that he survives that particular attempted canicide and ends up in the community dump. There he has the good fortune to fall under the protection of a large, old, female dog, La Gueule Noire. She teaches him some of the essentials of what he will need to stay alive. All about smells and, importantly, the necessity of dodging. But along with good fortune, misfortune too seems to follow Le Chien. The package, however, is mixed enough that he survives a number of early scrapes and eventually finds a mistress whom he believes will be his boon companion until the end. Well, it’s not all plain sailing ahead, naturally. And drama ensues.

This is a delightful tale told from the point of view of Le Chien but, mostly, without the anthropomorphism that typically accompanies such books. Le Chien is always a dog. He has one or two dog-mentors who perhaps are a bit too knowing, but its a minor distraction. Le Chien is very sympathetic, though filled with night terrors and a black-and-white view of injustice. He knows when he’s been harmed and he is not above vengeance. But it is his relationship with La Pomme that everything turns on and that, as it develops, is wonderful to see.

Daniel Pennac has a marvellous lightness of touch combined with a narrative drive that keeps you reading page after page. Even if your French is as modest as mine. Highly recommended.

Aug 7, 12:40pm Top

51. The Enchanted - a novel by Rene Denfeld

Narrated primarily by an unnamed death row inmate at an aging prison, this is a surprisingly lyrical tale that shifts its focus between a defrocked priest, a lady investigator (she is always referred to simply as "The Lady"), a warden with a wife dying of cancer, unscrupulous prison guards, convicts with aggressive appetites, and the aforementioned death row inmate. Our narrator is either exceptionally perceptive or imaginative or both. He has done something terrible in the past, and something less terrible but very bad while inside which necessitated his move to the solitary confinement of death row. But the details are sketchy. We learn much more about another death row inmate named York whose background The Lady is investigating. Perhaps not untypically he comes from an exceedingly impoverished and abusive childhood. It's not a justification for his actions, which remain unspecified but are said to have been horrific. Rather it is a history, something that traces a path from A to B. Not that such a path is itself inevitable, as evidenced by The Lady's surprisingly similar childhood.

At times the novel reads more like a non-graphic, graphic novel, if that makes any sense. Your could easily imagine it as a graphic novel. Maybe that is simply a sign of its slightly vague, unreal atmosphere. Indeed, "enchanted" is no bad descriptor for this effect. It is a compelling read but not predictable, at least for me. It was, as noted by many, a surprise.

Gently recommended.

Aug 7, 3:24pm Top

>86 RandyMetcalfe: I read it long time ago, in Dutch translation, and liked it.
For those who don't read French, there is an English translation Dog.

Aug 14, 2:39pm Top

52. Florida by Lauren Groff

Some stories that you reread years later present as both familiar and strangely new. Lauren Groff’s stories are often like that. Even if you read one on its initial publication, or came across it republished in a “Best American Short Stories” collection, you will be struck yet again by how eerily right it feels. Even when the adjectives draw you up short and get you to rethink what could have been a tired expression. Even when stories take sudden left turns, or undercut their own narrative drive by giving away something about the protagonist years ahead, or when heavy handed nature steps in to produce fear and trembling that was mostly already present in some shade of depression or hunger. It just works.

Each of the eleven stories here have a connection to Florida. Either they are set in that state, or a character is from there though currently abroad. Often the protagonist is from away, typically a northern woman who has married into a Florida family. But nearly everyone in Florida is effectively from away. Only the alligators, snakes, and the rare panther are truly native. Events, relationships, love itself, even the land here is fluid. Indeed land periodically disappears into sink holes or encroaches on former wetlands. It’s sometimes hard to find firm ground.

The majority of the stories are astonishingly good. In particular, I would mention, “The Midnight Zone,” “For the God of Love, for the Love of God,” “Dogs Go Wolf,” and “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners.” But others, such as “Ghosts and Empties,” might be even better. I was struck by “Above and Below,” a story new to me, and also by “Salvador.” But as there were no stories I didn’t enjoy it seems almost churlish to single any out.

Here, as in her novels, Groff displays a nuanced touch with metaphor. Her adjectives sometimes just startle you. It makes her writing a distinct pleasure to read. And easy to recommend.

Aug 15, 12:13pm Top

53. The Book of Words by Jenny Erpenbeck

Words cascade through the young girl at heart of this brief but dense novella. They shimmer. They sparkle. They circle round and round a truth that she can’t quite reach. She has a taciturn father, a well-manicured mother, a wet-nurse, all in a very large but mostly empty house in a land where the sun shines hot every day and there is no snow. She is endlessly fascinated by the world around her, but forever unable to piece together the picture that has so many pieces missing. People literally go missing. Some are pulled off buses by their hair. Others just “go on vacation” but never return. That is, until they do start returning to visit her in the form of insubstantial spirits. Somehow, the girl knows, her father is in some way responsible for these disappearances. But it all seems a blur.

This is a fascinating, macabre, approach to the limitless destructive power of a state and the men who wield that power. At times you just have to let Erpenbeck’s words wash over you like waves on a shore, as she visits and revisits particular phrases and telling images. The effect is haunting. As much tone poem as narrative.


Aug 18, 2:59pm Top

54. Fishbowl by Bradley Somer

An apartment building can present a wide range of lives and lifestyles. And even the briefest of views — the time it takes a goldfish to fall from the 27th floor to the ground (about 4 seconds) — can capture (with a bit of fudging) complex emotional intensity and subtlety, and a bit of naughtiness. Set aside the conceit of the falling goldfish synoptic view if you find it irritating (understandable) and you still have a solid slice-of-life novel with some interesting and some fun characters. It’s not War and Peace, but then it doesn’t pretend to be. And though it may lack some plausibility (for example, it has a character walk up 27 flights of stairs, have a row with her boyfriend, and stomp down those same stairs all in less than 30 minutes), it has believable action and reaction, and a few nice insights.

This is an ensemble piece, apart from Ian, the goldfish, but if there were a primary protagonist, it would be Katie, the slightly implausible stair walker. And her antagonist would be the villain, Conor Radley. Lest you be in any doubt as to how to read these characters, the labels “villain” and “heroine” are helpfully applied in the appropriate chapter headings. Yes, it’s that kind of a whimsical novel. Just go with it.
Naturally, the action here is a bit cartoonish, but with that proviso in mind, the writing is actually very solid. Once I got past my annoyance with Ian, I found it an enjoyable read. Light but not wholly insubstantial.

And so, gently recommended.

Aug 21, 9:31pm Top

55. Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay

David Harwood is down on his luck — an unemployed widower with a young son currently living with his parents back in Promise Falls. He used to be a reporter. A good one. So he knows how to ask questions, how to dig into a story. When his gently disturbed cousin, Marla, gets fingered as an infant abductor and possibly also a murderer, David is called upon to ask the questions that will prove she didn’t do it. There’s also a police detective with a wayward son, a doctor with gambling debts, a disgraced politician looking for a way back into the limelight, a single mom with an itch that needs scratching, coeds, nurses, hospital administrators, and a toy train set. This being the first in a series, some of those are more and some are less relevant to the David/Marla main story line.

I’m not the target audience for this book. But there is one. And for those readers, I’m guessing that this book hits all the right notes. It’s not overly saucy, and there are just enough murders over the course of 500 pages in order to keep those pages turning. There are plenty of red herrings, at least with respect to the main storyline, but enough hints that, like me, you may guess the ultimate big reveal long before it shows up on paper. That’s just part of the fun though.

Not for me, but gently recommended for those who like their thrillers a bit on the tame side.

Aug 26, 7:17am Top

56. Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky

Lilian Quick is an artist. She paints what she sees. She sees dog auras. Not just dogs. She sees the auras of all animals. But not people. Animal auras are constant, sure, steady. Whereas people are so changeable and unpredictable. Maybe that’s why she can’t see them. And it also may explain why she can’t really connect with them. Her truest friend, when she was growing up, was her cousin Florence. But a rift between their mothers ended the habit of spending summer vacation together. She hasn’t seen Florence since they were both 20 and attending their grandmother’s funeral. She hasn’t seen Florence, but she follows her. As do thousands of other women. Florence is now the life guru Eleven and her Ascendency program is sweeping in ever more committed devotees. She also has her own product line. When Florence/Eleven brings her Ascendency event to Toronto, Eleven comps Lilian a couple of tickets and invites her to join them as an aspiring ascendent. And thus begins Lilian’s transformative period, escaping near-penury as a struggling artist in Toronto, moving to New York, working at The Temple with Eleven and her hand-picked cadre of women who stage-manage all of the Ascendency’s events, online communication, affiliation program, recruitment, and product development. But Lilian isn’t merely raising her consciousness. She’s reconnecting to the memories of her one true childhood friend. The first and only person who believed her when she revealed that she could she animal auras. The one who was a beacon for her. And once again Florence (or rather, Eleven) is lighting the way.

Sarah Selecky’s writing is pitch perfect. She absolutely captures the tone, the linguistic niceties, and the sincerity of the alternative self-help phenomenon. She also catches its underlying fiscal motivations, its competitiveness, its sophisticated use of online and social media, its irreality. Yet this is not bald satire. What looks to be a novel critiquing an industry, is in the end more a novel of character. Lilian is fully committed. She sees what she sees. And at times she does see through what is happening around her. But she also begins to see even more. And who’s to say it isn’t due to Ascendency? And who’s to say that the state of being Lilian achieves isn’t real? It’s a tightrope that Selecky is walking but she gets to the other side as though she were walking on solid ground. Remarkable.

Highly recommended.

Edited: Aug 28, 10:06am Top

57. The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller

Robert Weekes is just a boy. He’s like many another boy growing up in Montana at the outset of the 20th century. With the slight rarity that he can fly. He’s not especially good at it, as his older sisters and mother regularly remind him. Yet when evil times force him to rescue his mother and two others in the middle of a tremendous storm by flying them to the hospital in Billings, he dreams of doing the same on the front line as part of the US Sigilry Corps’ Rescue and Evacuation team. He knows there’s never been a man in R&E. But a young boy can dream. His heroics in Montana win him a Contingency placement at Radcliffe College where he will be trained by some of the best sigilrists in America. One step closer to his dream, perhaps. Or maybe it will be the end of him. Can he survive the rigours of the training, the humiliations heaped upon him by the young women who can all (or nearly all) fly the pants off him, the loneliness of life in Boston, and the personal dangers of the anti-sigilrist movement, which also happens to be headquartered in Boston?

Tom Miller has added a wealth of attractive and intriguing elements to the stew he is brewing in his narrative cauldron. Apart from Robert’s individual story, Miller has to present a plausible alternative American history filled with sigilrists, or smoke carvers, the vast majority of whom are women. It’s a robustly imagined world, with no small amount of violence, death, arson, sexual flowering, and politics. Nasty! But it doesn’t take long for Miller to gain our sympathies for young Robert and the very real dangers he faces. All with telling echoes, if not parallels, in real America. Plus, it’s a page turner. Almost begging to be continued in a series.

Gently recommended.

Aug 28, 4:22pm Top

58. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Sabrina is missing. She was last seen walking home to her apartment. When she later turns out to be the victim of a vicious taped murder distributed to various news outlets across the state of Illinois, there is a frenzy of speculation, conspiracy theories, grief, and anguish. Her sister, Sandra, and her mother are left to deal with the investigation and the media hysteria on their own. Sabrina’s boyfriend, Teddy, leaves town in a state of shock in order to be taken in by his old high-school chum, Calvin. Calvin works for the Air Force. He has an empty house since his wife, Jackie, and their daughter, Cici, have left him. Calvin leads a sad existence of work, online games, and not much else. His video calls to Cici are about his only contact with the outside world.

This is a bleak world filled with soulless jobs, incessant bombardment by ranting right-wing radio hosts, virtual “kills” in video games, and burgers. Yet Calvin has enough fellow feeling to be willing to take in Teddy and see to his minimal needs for an indefinite period. Who knows how long it will take Teddy to process what has happened? Can any of them? And with the perpetrator already dead by his own hand, where is the outlet for anger and vengeance? Is there even hope for any tomorrow when we are constantly surrounded by predictions of apocalypse? And yet Teddy does survive in his way. As does Sandra. And even Calvin turns a page. It’s not exactly hopeful, but I suppose if tomorrow actually arrives, then that in itself is a kind of hope fulfilled.

Drnaso’s draftsmanship tends toward the minimalist. There are few details available in the views into these lives and fewer still in the faces of the protagonists. People look similar, a theme picked up by the conspiracy theories as well. But it might also just be the case that there is an unseemly sameness to these lives. At times Drnaso’s panels are filled with text. At others he gives us whole pages of textless panels, lending a kind of quietude to those moments. And although it might seem the narrative is headed toward a specific endpoint, in fact nothing gets closed off. It’s a haunting presentation of a world we know all too well but wish we didn’t.


Aug 30, 2:11pm Top

59. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Romy Hall is not getting out. She’s never getting out. Maybe she’s never been out. Maybe she’s always been incarcerated in this life. This awful life. In which she’s done her own share of awful, though the awful for which she is headed to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility for two life sentences plus six years seemed more like something good, something to protect her son, Jackson, and herself. There is more awful ahead. She’s getting ready for it. It’s all one. But maybe she’ll figure out how to get through the razor wire and the electric fence and the almond tree plantation. Or maybe not.

Though most of the novel is told from Romy’s perspective, Rachel Kushner moves us to a variety of points of view, different lives but maybe shared priorities. There is Gordon, the well-meaning but possibly deluded English teacher. There is Kurt, the creep. There is Doc, who was a bent cop. And interspersed are conflicting notes on alienation and community from Thoreau and the Unabomber. It is a rich tapestry. Yet Kushner never lets the writing slip into cliché or sloppy romanticism. Her characters are harsh or tender, but never dreamlike. Even the worst of them seem like human beings, though not particularly human beings you might want to meet (other than in these pages). And for Romy, there develops a hopeless hopefulness. Because in our hearts and in our minds, we know she’s never getting out.

This is exceptional writing. Reason enough to read everything else Kushner has written or will write.

Highly recommended.

Aug 30, 3:23pm Top

Hello Randy! First time visitor. first time poster. Wow. What an eclectic selection of books to survey. It was a pleasure and interesting challenged to see what I might enjoy amidst the collection.

>24 RandyMetcalfe: What a wonderful review! It gushes and gives us the opening, but as you describe the book doing, you draw me in telling me only about narrative style and plot curves. You make me want to read the book, but I am certain I will not because train wrecks aren't my thing. Referencing The Ice Storm was additional proof that I might not make it past the opening.

>54 RandyMetcalfe: This one looks interesting.

>78 RandyMetcalfe: This, on the other hand, sounds like fun. I enjoy a hard boiled noir every once in a while and you're guaranteeing snappy dialogue, I'll give it a go.

Aug 30, 6:27pm Top

>97 brodiew2: Hi Brodie. Welcome. Glad you could find something of interest here.

Edited: Sep 2, 12:36pm Top

60. Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

When Yoshie’s father dies with a strange woman — lover’s pact or murder/suicide, it’s never fully determined — Yoshi and her mother are plunged into a muddled grief. Of course they mourn for their father and husband, but the manner of his death means they are also filled with resentment and anger. Yoshie decides that a change of scene is all that she can do to redirect this bad energy, so she moves to the Shimokitazawa district of Tokyo where she takes an apartment that overlooks the bistro, Les Liens, where she later finds employment. Is she moving on or just running away? And just how far can she run when, much to her surprise, her mother decides to move in with her? What follows is a lengthy period of growth and adjustment as both of these women reconcile themselves to their grief and discover new resources for strength within themselves.

As much a love letter to the Shimokitazawa district as an exploration of grief, Banana Yoshimoto follows her characters to bistros, noodle bars, cafés, tea houses and more. It seems as though the principals are either eating or drinking in every scene, which is a bit disconcerting. Or is it misdirection? Is there something else we should be noticing instead? It’s hard to get a clear picture since the emotions here are so muffled. There are momentary bursts of joy or tears, but the overall impression is a subdued pallor.

Written originally as a newspaper serial, that may have some impact on how the story develops. Certainly it calls for a great deal of repetition. Events arise and conclude quickly, no doubt to be contained within one issue of the newspaper. And other than the nods to seasonal change, time seems to nearly stand still. So when you discover that more than two years have passed since the opening of the novel, it may be a bit of a surprise. Nevertheless, there is a lot here to like — tender relations between a mother and a grown daughter, burgeoning love, the indecisiveness that accompanies the decision to be decisive, and, of course, the atmosphere of Shimokitazawa itself. But perhaps it doesn’t entirely work in this rendition.

Sep 5, 9:49am Top

61. The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang

Charles Wang was rich, having built a cosmetic empire in American despite arriving as an immigrant with (virtually) nothing. The operative word there is “was”. Charles has lost everything: the factories, the bank accounts, the many cars, and the Bel Air mansion. But he’s still got his three children, his second wife (but first love) Barbra, and a dream. His dream is to reclaim the Wang ancestral properties in China, for which he carries the deeds like a talisman. He just has to gather up his children from their boarding schools and colleges, drive them across the country to New York State to his eldest daughter’s house, and then he’ll put his plan in motion to make his comeback, this time in China. It’s going to be a road trip like no other.

Well, actually, it’s a bit like some other road trips, but that’s no bad thing. Jade Chang admirably keeps the pace of this gently comic novel moving by scrolling through the principal characters’ perspectives chapter by chapter. We see Siana, the oldest Wang daughter ensconced in her rural New York hideout (a recent personal and PR disaster has temporarily sidelined her artistic career). Then there is Andrew, at college in Phoenix but longing to be on stage embarking on his chosen career as a standup comedian. And finally, amongst the Wang children, is Grace, a style-smart teenager who is not quite as sure of herself as her demeanour and style blog suggest. Also available for perspectival chapters are the step-mother, Barbra, whom Charles first knew in Taiwan before he came to America, and also, perhaps oddly, the elderly Mercedes they are driving. Hijinks, some of them hilarious, ensue.

Although this reads very smoothly, far moreso than might be expected of a first novel, there are a few jarring notes. For example, one chapter breaks form to become a mini-lecture on the causes of the financial collapse of 2008. Siana’s relationships with her ex-fiancé, Grayson, and her current lover, Leo, are just implausible. And their is a noticeable tone-deafness when it comes to property and its obligations. Charles longs for the vast estate he believes his family once ruled in China. But if his distain for peasants and other chattel is representative, then his family is one reason why communism would have found such fertile ground in China.

Nevertheless, this is an easy read that skips along and is, at moments, pleasantly amusing. Though possibly worth the ride primarily for the spunkiness of the youngest daughter, Grace.

Sep 7, 6:42am Top

62. The Monarchy of Fear by Martha Nussbaum

Fear is basic. Unlike virtually all other creatures, humans are born helpless. Our first response to the world outside the womb is fear. It is fear and our overwhelming desire for release from fear that drives us to treat all about us as slaves to do our bidding. To feed us, warm us, clean us, protect us. Fear rules. Later, of course, most of us develop more complex responses to our environment. The full range of the emotions flourish. Fear is held in check. Always present but not always dominant. At least not in our best selves. But fear reasserts itself in anger, disgust, envy, and misogyny as Nussbaum patiently reveals. It is a promising analysis of the current political malaise to which Nussbaum offers hope and love as the remedy, drawing heavily on the examples of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Ghandi.

As ever, Nussbaum’s analysis is rooted in her comprehensive familiarity with ancient philosophy. Here it is Lucretius on whom she most heavily draws, with many a nod to Socrates via Plato, Cicero, and others. Of modern philosophers her most frequent referent is Rousseau and of contemporary philosophers John Rawls. But philosophy is merely one of the disciplines on which she relies. Indeed a substantial portion of her argument finds inspiration in the work of early childhood development psychologists and other scientists studying the emotions. The writing is fresh and engaging, sometimes almost startlingly embedded with points from Nussbaum’s own personal experience (her father was a racist with anti-Semitic leanings). It does not shy away from the worst of what is happening in the upper echelons of power in America, but it also does not merely bewail the present state. It seeks to understand but also to propose alternatives.

The role of the public intellectual is rarely an easy one, whether in America or in Europe. The move from pedant to pedagog to professor to policy wonk to pundit is fraught with innumerable occasions on which one’s peers will declare one to be irrelevant. Martha Nussbaum’s career is exemplary in this regard; she has weathered numerous broadsides. Yet her willingness to engage rationally with all arguments, to base her opinions on deep historical and philosophical learning, and to be, perhaps, hopelessly optimistic, mark her as one of those few philosophers who actually practise what their philosophical study guides them to recommend to others. I confess, I’m less optimistic, and I don’t have a lifetime of public service behind me (she might argue that those two points are related), but I admire her example and wish I were better able to follow it.


Sep 11, 10:18pm Top

63. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor has everything under control. She’s got her routine. Each weekday she takes the bus to work (thanks, transit pass!) where she processes invoices as an administrative assistant. Each weekend she obliterates with a couple of litres of vodka. Oh, and each Wednesday there is the excruciating call from Mummy. Mummy isn’t very nice. Mummy never was. And if Eleanor has everything under control now that’s only because she’s got her memories of life before and of Mummy under wraps. Tightly under wraps. But love has a way of unravelling us all and Eleanor’s life is about to open up.

Gail Honeyman has created a character that is both wonderfully transparent and completely opaque. Her Eleanor might appear to be on the autism spectrum, but in reality she is a much rarer case. The loneliness she suffers from is both a curse from early childhood trauma and a blessing that helps keep her safe and sane. Her burgeoning friendship with her work colleague, Raymond, and especially the aid they render to Sammy, whom they encounter suffering a heart attack on the street, leads to new possibilities. But also maybe Eleanor is just ready for something more, as well as ready to finally say goodbye to her past. It’s a surprisingly enchanting mix, filled with kind and good people even if they don’t fully know it yet.

Gently recommended.

Edited: Sep 14, 2:35pm Top

64. From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

Three stories of three men told separately, later entwined. Farouk is a gentle doctor forced to flee his war-torn Syrian home, who in the process loses his wife and daughter and is utterly bereft. Lampy is a boy in Ireland without direction, with bursts of anger he cannot manage, who is getting by as a mini-bus driver for the local care home. John, also Irish, recounts his sins which are various and extreme and his one shot at love which ended badly, but can he say his act of contrition or not? In the final act, Farouk, Lampy, and John’s lives come together in an unexpected manner, evidence perhaps of near Greek-level tragedy at work.

Donal Ryan’s writing is lyrical and vivid. He paints a soft picture of Farouk, but for Lampy and John there is forensic scrutiny. And also a different technique full of conjunctions linking sentence after sentence. Farouk may be an innocent caught up in a world gone mad. But John and Lampy are not so easily absolved. Their fate is as much beyond their reach as Farouk’s. That they should come together at the end is not inevitable. But it may yet reveal evidence of things not seen, of the something that arises out of nothing which troubles each of them separately. A fascinating tale, beautifully told.


Sep 17, 10:45am Top

65. The Unaccompanied by Simon Armitage

The fifty-two poems in this collection reveal a mature poet in his stride. Although some poems here are positively opaque, (a case perhaps of the poet stepping outside his comfort zone?), most are typically accessible, many are playful, and a few are actually fun. So, about what you might expect from Simon Armitage.

In the latter, mirthful, camp is certainly the justly famous, “Poundland,” a satirical treatment of shopping in a pound (or dollar) store done in the style of an Ezra Pound canto. Brilliant! Almost equally pleasant is, “Thank You for Waiting,” and, “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party.” There are also allusive poems here with a nod to poets past, such as Wordsworth (“The Candlelighter”). A number of the poems take objects as their meditative subjects — “A Chair,” “A Bed.” And others are more directly concerned with metaphysical matters such as passing time (“Nurse at a Bus Stop”) or death (“The Unaccompanied”).

There are no weak poems in this collection but inevitably there will be favourites for each reader (and potentially different favourites on different readings). My favourites on this reading were the aforementioned “Poundland,” “The Present,” “Miniatures,” “The Unaccompanied,” and “Homework.”


Sep 18, 8:36am Top

66. American Innovations: stories by Rivka Galchen

The ten stories in this collection are by turns startling, bemusing, quirky, and real, or conversely, profound. Each is very much its own thing; style, diction, even the narrative approach vary markedly. About the only thing in common, I imagine, is the response most people would have to reading one of them, something like, “Who wrote that?” Any one of them would have been reason enough for me to read everything else by its author. Collectively it’s almost a surfeit.

One thing that struck me was how Galchen’s phrases, her word choices, and even her juxtapositions would catch me up short. I found I couldn’t anticipate. And rather than find that distressing, here I found it delightful. Whether it was the economic valuations of “Sticker Shock,” or the weight of the crush in “Wild Berry Blue,” something here felt excessively true, but gently so. A story such as “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman,” probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. But it does. And so you begin to think that Galchen is doing something very impressive — pushing the short story form itself in new directions. Or maybe she’s got a knack for a modern idiom that I’ve only just now cottoned on to.

Other than those already mentioned, my favourites included: “American Innovations,” “The Lost Order,” and, “Once an Empire.” Your favourites may differ.

Certainly recommended.

Edited: Sep 21, 3:16pm Top

500 Reviews

The above turns out to be my 500th review on LibraryThing, which prompted me to write this reflection.

Back in 2010, I wrote my first review on LibraryThing. It was for a book that I greatly enjoyed at the time called The Book Thief. I suppose I wrote that review for no better reason than to enthuse about a book that was, being a YA novel, outside of my typical reading zone. It was two years until I wrote another review and this time for a somewhat different reason. By then I’d stumbled upon one of the many groups on LibraryThing. The one that caught and held my attention was the 75 Books Challenge {for that year}. Many of the participants in that group, I’d noticed, posted a short review of each book on their personal thread in the group. And most also added those to the main page for that book in LibraryThing (the latter is by no means necessary; nor, for that matter, is the former). I liked what I saw and wanted to take up the habit as well. The habit stuck.

In the years since then, I’ve joined each year’s 75 Books Challenge. Most (but not all) years I reached that total. And for nearly all of those books I wrote a brief review. My typical review is between two to four paragraphs. I usually give a hint at the content in the first paragraph. And then I comment on the writing itself in what follows. I usually conclude with a recommendation for or against reading that book. Since I’m self-selecting the books I read, for the most part, I tend to read books that I am comfortable encouraging others to take up as well. There have been some notable exceptions but, given the total number of books read, the exceptions are rare. I try to be generous with my reviews but I’m rarely ecstatic. It takes a truly exceptional book to get me to rave about it. And then, of course, my reading tastes may be peculiar or at least highly particular.

When I set out to write these reviews, I hadn’t intended anything more than that. But like most positive habits, there are secondary or tertiary effects that accrue over time. For example, as I age I find that I don’t remember things as easily as I did as a young man. Maybe there are just more things to remember. But one thing I do remember easily, thanks to the review I will have written, is what I thought and felt about a book I’ve read. Indeed, for any of the 500 books I’ve reviewed, a quick glance at my review almost instantly brings the whole book back to life for me. I certainly hadn’t set out to write reviews as mnemonic devices. But I very much value their functioning in that way now.

I’ve also had a lot of fun.

Not every review I write is witty, or dryly ironic, or sly. But every once in a while, I do craft a review that tickles me. And I’ve been delighted to find that some of them have been enjoyed by others on LibraryThing as well. It’s a small pleasure, which is the best kind.

And so I’ll continue with my reviews and more especially with my reading. I’d be happy to discuss any of the books I’ve read. Just give me a moment to refresh my memory by reading the review I wrote when I read it and then fire away.

You can find my 500 (and counting) reviews here: http://www.librarything.com/profile_reviews.php?view=RandyMetcalfe

Sep 20, 12:02pm Top

67. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Nathaniel is fourteen in 1945 when his parents leave him and his sixteen year old sister, Rachel, in the care of someone they barely know, whom Nathaniel and Rachel have nicknamed, “The Moth.” The war may have ended in one sense but in others it is still very much active and London is city of rubble and shadows. The Moth and his associates — a motley of folks from all walks and professions — keep a close eye on the children though no closer than they are doing in turn. Everything is a bit vague, a bit ambiguous. And when Nathaniel takes on some jobs for The Darter, an associate of The Moth, it’s clear that the moral and legal certainties are also a bit vague and ambiguous as well. Looking back on this period from a distance, Nathaniel can see how strange it might seem though at the time it was merely part of the strangeness they had put up with through the war. And when they discover that, at least, their mother has certainly not gone where she told them she was going, Nathaniel and Rachel are left in a precarious state.

The state of unknowing pervades this novel. Nathaniel is continuously in a process of uncovering, not the truth exactly, but perhaps the next layer of disguise and misdirection. And although he longs for something solid, he too soon develops the habits of legerdemain. That, however, will stand him in good stead in his later work for the Foreign Office, which seemingly, at one time or another, taps on the talents of nearly everyone in his life. All of which is much easier to see and appreciate from his later vantage point, which allows him to piece together the events of his life that he did not directly witness into a plausible, if singular, narrative.

Michael Ondaatje imbues Nathaniel’s world with a substantial portion of chiaroscuro. His rich description of The Darter’s late night journeys on the Thames or its linked canals, or the midnight escapades of Nathaniel and Agnes in the empty houses they enter, or even the movements of Nathaniel’s mother, Rose, and her Gatherer, Felon, in post-war but yet unruly Naples — all serve to create a romantic picture of espionage, smuggling, illicit sexual encounters, and more. But how much of this is Ondaatje and how much is meant to be Nathaniel’s inflected view of his past? It’s hard to say.

Despite the evident amounts of research that infuse this novel, there are difficulties as well. For example, all of the women (with the possible exception of Rachel) end up sounding and acting the same. They’re all brilliant, beautiful, daring, and sexually adventurous. They just might not be fully believable. And the same holds for most of the men. There is also a curious fascination and faith in the order and plans of the Foreign Office, almost as though in the face of a godless amoral existence only the web of nefarious plans and counter plans provides footing, even if not firm. There is also a curious lack of sensitivity here to the nuances of class and the diction that accompanies class difference in Britain both in 1945 and today. In general, although the novel is certainly readable it feels rather empty. Or maybe I’m missing something.

So, only very gently recommended.

Sep 20, 12:20pm Top

I'm a bit surprised that I'm finding no commentary on the similarities and differences between Michael Ondaatje's Warlight and Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth. Both involve central characters groomed by MI5 (or its predecessor) handlers. Both involve fiction recreations, apparently, by the protagonist of a past which can only be partially believed. And both have a running meta-fictional commentary. Since Ondaatje takes so long between novels, I imagine him well into his research for Warlight when McEwan's Sweet Tooth appeared in 2012. And now I wonder how much of the novel he had intended to write needed to change after that point in order for him not to abandon it altogether.

Of course, it could just be me ;-)

Sep 20, 3:50pm Top

68. Roughneck by Jeff Lemire

If you were under the impression that life in northern Ontario could be a bit grim, then this graphic novel about the an ex-NHL half-native bruiser named Derek and his sister, Beth, will confirm your view. When Cochrane is “down south”, you know you are in the serious northern reaches of Ontario. Life is hard there. And it is made much harder by alcohol and drugs, pervasive racism, and the dreadful legacy of Canada’s residential school system that removed indigenous children from their native communities and forced them to attend schools (usually) far from their families. The latter is what happened to Derek and Beth’s mom and might explain how she ended up in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic non-native. But violence and abuse are never closed off; their effects persist and are passed on to the children and maybe even their children.

The graphic style is fluid and immediate, almost entirely in a monotone blue-grey. Colour is used sparingly. Panels are only fully coloured in flashback memories. And partially coloured during current violence. All, that is, except for the final full page which gets full colour but is set in the present and without violence — a hopeful ending.

If you aren’t familiar with the violence and brutishness of (some) real life, as opposed say to superhero comics, you may find this graphic novel difficult. It should be difficult. These are not pleasant matters. But Jeff Lemire handles the violence and the gritty reality with grace and sensitivity. Maybe the ending is too hopeful. Or maybe hopefulness is the best you can hope for.


Sep 21, 2:54pm Top

>106 RandyMetcalfe: Wow, 500 reviews, that is a lot. Ten years in this group only led to 81 reviews for me ;-)

Sep 23, 8:50am Top

69. French Exit by Patrick DeWitt

The money is gone. However many millions. The houses and cars are about to be sold at auction. The locks have been changed. For Frances Price it’s decision time. She and her adult son, Malcolm, have been burning through all the worldly assets of her dead husband, Franklin. Good. She disliked him when he was alive and her opinion hasn’t improved now that he’s dead. Besides, their cat, Small Frank, keeps looking at her strangely and it’s a bit unsettling. But with characteristic decisiveness (or madness) Frances gathers what resources they have left and hops aboard an ocean liner (first class!) to leave Manhattan and take up residence in Paris in an empty apartment owned by her friend, Joan. And Malcolm’s coming too. Hijinks ensue.

There is certainly a surfeit of wit and charm in this novel. But it is also pervaded by death. Not just Franklin’s death, but also death aboard cruise ships, death in parks, death in contemplation and planning. So, a bit dark, really. And it’s an open question whether the lightness of tone and the silliness of many of the characters can balance the gloom. If so, just.

DeWitt has created a memorable character in Frances. And almost as unmemorable a character in her son, Malcolm. The cat has more personality. But the delightful Mrs Reynard, Julius the Private Detective, and Madeleine the mystic lend plenty of support. At times it looks to become a French farce, but there is always the harsh reality of life on the street that can be seen out the window. And it doesn’t look pretty. Unfortunately the novel just sort of drifts off at the end once Frances achieves her anticipated exit. It’s as though there just isn’t enough life left to keep the story going.

So, I liked a lot of it, was amused and delighted with DeWitt’s mastery of diction and pace, but I can only offer a lukewarm recommendation. Very gently recommended.

Sep 30, 3:40pm Top

70. Something for Everyone by Lisa Moore

Whether there is something for everyone in the nine stories and one novella contained in this collection is an open question. There is certainly something here, and I’ll choose to hope that everyone takes up the opportunity to partake. For those in doubt, the very first story, “A Beautiful Flare,” ought to be enough to convince. Three employees in a shoe emporium in a mall. Each one is taken with, indeed blindingly infatuated with, another of the three. An overriding condition — a sales competition amongst the brand’s employees across the country — adds heat to an already steamy environment. Moore cuts between each of the principal characters’ points of view and back story, so that images pile on top of one another, not unlike the stacked boxes of shoes in the tiny storeroom that tumble down on two of the three in flagrante while the third enters and witnesses. Well!

The density of Moore’s writing is what strikes you, almost suffocates you. Her stories are so rich that you could imagine unpacking almost any one of them into novel length. But when she does expand her form, as in the novella, “Skywalk,” the writing is just as dense. With a lesser writer it would be too much, but with Moore you just revel in her skill. “Skywalk,” is a good example of how she can create an overriding mood, in this case a palpable misogyny, that serves as backdrop to the foreground action.

Her subjects are varied but often edge toward the grittier components of life. And Moore does gritty well, whether from a female perspective or from that of a man. Her characters tend to be driven, compulsively reaching toward something even if they let it go before attaining it, as in ,”The Fjord of Eternity.” But just as often there are a chorus of characters who may or may not interact directly, but whose various storylines form a contrapuntal fugue as they are woven together. An excellent example is, “The Viper’s Revenge.”

I enjoyed each of the stories here and gained renewed admiration for Moore’s skill. She continues to be one of the brightest lights in Canadian literature.


Oct 17, 8:09am Top

71. Washington Black: a novel by Esi Edugyan

George Washington Black lives a curiously scientific life, the fact that he begins that life as a slave born on a sugar cane plantation in Barbados notwithstanding. Life is hard, initially. Actually it is always hard for Wash. As a boy he is singled out for use as ballast on an experimental airship being constructed by Christopher Wilde (Titch), the younger brother of the plantation’s de facto owner, Eramus. Where Erasmus is vicious in his control and manipulation of his “property”, Titch is mild and, ineffectually, an abolitionist. When he discovers that Wash has hidden artistic talents (they were also hidden from Wash as he had never had any opportunity to discover them), Titch sets about to encourage Wash’s development both in art and letters so that he might better serve him as an assistant in his scientific endeavours. And so Wash’s life transforms. But events ensue, and soon enough Titch and Wash find themselves absconding in the night in the airship. Wash’s life after that is a series of encounters with scientifically inquisitive men, and women, but it is unease about his own origins that remains the greatest mystery in his life.

Esi Edugyan writes with a fluid style in the first person from Wash’s perspective. She captures his wonder at discovering his native abilities with understated charm. But the narrative never feels entirely at ease. Nor is the plot particularly plausible. And over the course of less than ten years Wash not only develops astonishing skills but his very manner of speaking elevates, almost more than is creditable given that the entire tale is told in reflection by him from his later life (though at which point is unclear). There are parts of the story that are set-pieces — e.g. the adventure in the arctic, the airship in gale, etc. And there are certainly moments which are especially beautiful, such as the early days of Titch and Wash’s friendship. But the plotting and the obvious desire for external tension (which involves one close call after another) undercuts the expressive possibilities. Always an enjoyable read, but not always fully captivating.

Edugyan remains a writer full of promise and this novel adds to that without quite achieving it. Gently recommended.

Oct 18, 7:58pm Top

72. A Drifting Life by Yoshiro Tatsumi

This graphic memoir by an acknowledged master of the gekiga style of manga recounts the early of development of that during the turbulent post-war years. Picking up in 1945 when Hiroshi is 10, we see his early love of manga and his attempts to draw brief four-panel stories that he would send off to contests. His dedication to this hobby developed into a full-blown career even before he graduated from high-school. And though the vicissitudes of the manga industry would mean that his earnings were often precarious, the fervent competition also opened up opportunities for experiment and influence from other media, especially film. Tatsumi patiently recounts these years through to 1960 when he renews his commitment to gekiga.

Along with the personal history, important moments in post-war Japan are highlighted, giving this memoir a more solid context, especially for those unfamiliar with either the history of manga or post-war Japan. But it is the relationships that Hiroshi develops, both amongst his fellow artists and within his family that drive the story along. It provides a fascinating glimpse into a time and milieu that might otherwise be inaccessible.

Gently recommended.

Oct 23, 11:29am Top

>106 RandyMetcalfe: I've had a heady time catching up on your reviews this morning, and in fact didn't get all the way through them, but I'll come back later. You write some of the most elegant, thoughtful reviews of any of our group, and I've very glad you will continue to do so.

I have about 900+ unread books already owned, in one form or another; some of them represent a young college graduate's random list of 'shoulds', some just collected against the time available - and then forgotten! But as I make room for titles, I plan to refer to this thread, and perhaps your aggregated thread, for ideas.

Do you also display your reviews on a blog outside of LT? Or any other form? They are really a notch above, and might be prized by others outside our community.

Oct 23, 12:00pm Top

>115 ffortsa: That's very kind, Judy. For a time, I was also sharing some of my reviews on my blog, but that habit seems to have dropped off. I've also noticed that sometimes when you search for an obscure book in Google Books, you find one of my LT reviews there at the bottom of the page. But maybe that's just a Google thing showing me where I've mentioned that book elsewhere on the net (Google is suspiciously adept at that).

Oct 31, 5:28pm Top

73. The Overstory: a novel by Richard Powers

Almost any story on a global scale is either going to have to start very large or quite small. This one starts small with eight distinct roots, lives caught sometimes in the clutch of generations, or in a very particular moment. The stories are unconnected, or seem to be. And only the observations of a plant scientist, Patricia Westerford, who hypothesizes that trees, in a variety of ways communicate with each other, begins the tentative process of drawing these disparate roots together into one trunk. Soon enough, however, the stories are intertwining, testing and strengthening each other, and sometimes just missing each other. For many in this main thread, common cause is found with trees. Risking life and limb to protect and serve them becomes the most natural thing to do in the world. Doomed to failure? Probably. But also necessary. And ultimately, if time permits, we might just find a way to save them and in the process save ourselves.

There is an extraordinary level of optimism in the denouement of this novel that shouldn’t discount the garish pessimism about the human project that permeates nearly everything. Indeed the only hope, it seems, is some sort of pantheistic trans-humanism that is magicked into being by, I think, AI bots which will learn all that is to be learned at a speed beyond human capability and somehow arrive at solutions we are not privy to. Though whether those solutions could involve anything other than the massive reduction of human life currently on the planet is doubtful. So, there’s still plenty of doom and pessimism there even if you think of this outcome as positive.

Powers sets himself a formal structure for the novel which sounds good in the abstract but doesn’t fully captivate in its realization. I confess that I much preferred the opening section when it appeared that each character’s story would run independently, tangentially (though sometimes centrally) touched upon by trees. Everything begins to get a bit programmatic and, sadly, predictable once the stories start to converge. But no doubt that was all part of the initial plan, so I take it this is what Powers wanted. For me, it lessened what might have been, but without undermining entirely what remains. There is a lot of earnestness both in the characters and the writing here, which might put some readers off, but seems appropriate to the subject matter. And if you can finish this novel without a keen desire to learn more about the life of trees, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.

Gently recommended.

Nov 4, 4:24pm Top

74. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Trees talk. Their conversations may not amount to much more than, “Yikes, pests!” or “Sure is cold!” but this amounts to loquaciousness in life-forms we used to treat as insensate. Moreover, at least in a forest, trees act communally. They sometimes share resources. They nurture their young. They work together to fend off infestations. All within the broader context of the competition of all against all. There’s a lot going on in the forest, if you can see it amongst all those trees.

Peter Wohlleben is a forest custodian in Germany. He draws on years of experience tending both planted and old-growth forests. He also makes reference to the latest scientific research in extensive notes. His observations of arboreal behaviour, though they may at first sound remarkable, have very solid foundations. If his language in describing these behaviours strays into pathetic fallacy — attributing human intentions and emotions to non-human objects, animals, or, in this case, flora — that may be both understandable and deliberate. For he does have an agenda, though not a particularly hidden one. He is making a case for the unimpeded development of large swaths of old-growth forest. Unimpeded by harvesters and the incessant tidiers who mistakenly wish to remove dead trees rather than let them decay naturally, providing homes to thousands of species as they transition back into humus to feed future generations of trees.

One of the things that comes across most strikingly here is the contrast in scale between humans and trees. Most of the trees that Wohlleben considers have natural life-spans of well over 400 years (some stretch to 1000 years or more). That makes almost anything that looks like a disaster in a human timeframe a mere inconvenience. Droughts, floods, global climate change, plagues of insects — trees have to simply weather them. And in most cases they do. Even evolutionary adaptation works differently when it may be as much as 700 years between generations. Trees need a different approach to adaptation than fruit flies, and apparently they have one.

The writing here is fresh and accessible. It is never burdened by the science (references are relegated to endnotes for the curious). And since Wohlleben is often referring to his direct experience in the forests that he manages, his observations come across as heartfelt and genuine. He is someone who actually cares about the trees in his care.

You will walk through your local forest with a renewed appreciation after reading this book.

Gently recommended.

Nov 9, 7:58am Top

75. A Manual For Cleaning Women: selected stories by Lucia Berlin

The forty-three stories in this collection are both a vibrant demonstration of Berlin’s excellence with the from-life short story and, to some degree, the narrowness of her range. Certainly the best of these stories are up there with the highest examples of the artform during the latter half of the 20th century. Some are so poignant and painfully raw as to be almost embarrassing to read. A few are just so sad. Berlin suffered early physical trauma, childhood sexual abuse, emotional shrivelling due to rampant alcoholism in her family especially her mother, and constant uprootedness as the family followed the father’s job placements at mines in the American southwest, in Chile, and elsewhere. Perhaps it is no surprise that Berlin herself turned to alcohol and had to battle with its charms and bedevilment for much of her life. She was as sexually adventurous as the female protagonists in her stories, but she also raised four boys, took on numerous service-related jobs to make ends meet, and, as this collection shows, also managed to write and publish dozens of fascinating and skillful stories.

One thing that surprised me here was not the vivid content of the stories or their frank presentations of alcoholism or sexual wandering. Rather it was the near absence of the act of writing, the process, the hours and hours that Berlin, as a real person, must have spent developing and honing her craft. That must have been a major component in her life and yet here it is nearly invisible. For someone touted as a great realist writer who famously draws on her own experience and presents it seemingly unfiltered, this seems curious. I can only assume it is deliberate artistic choice. (Because I doubt she found writing to be more shameful than some of the things she did under the malign influence of alcohol.) My question is what does that choice reveal?

I’m glad I read this collection and got a chance encounter some of Berlin’s writing. I just don’t think I’ll confuse that with having met her. I think there is more here than what appears on the surface. Which is probably no surprise.


Nov 9, 8:04am Top

Challenge met!

That brings up my 75. After two years in a row not quite getting there, it feels good to once again have reached the plateau. Yet it doesn't feel as though I've read any more books this year than I did last year or the year prior. Which is often the case when your goals are achieved. It's a bit deflating. Except that I'm thinking that I've got time to read a few more really great books this year. So I'll get on to that straight away.

Nov 9, 9:50am Top

Congrats! I'm glad you hit the goal with a good one. And yep, there's time for more before the year's out!

Nov 9, 7:34pm Top

Congratulations on reaching 75, Randy!

Nov 12, 2:30pm Top

76. Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

Jared is a teenager living in Kitimat in northern B.C. with his native mom and her current boyfriend, Richie. Jared’s got the normal problems of teenagers — alcohol, drugs, sex, and surviving high school. Plus his mom is somewhat challenging even when she’s not drunk, or high on coke, or out of her head on meth. At least Jared has some elderly neighbours, the Jaks, that he likes. And he’s got a hobby, baking cookies. Okay, they are not your ordinary cookies, but at least gaining the label “Cookie Dude” by the stoner crowd is some kind of acceptance at school. And now Sarah, the Jaks’ granddaughter, has come to stay with them. Sarah is smart and sassy and beautifully weird. And if he could ignore the talking fireflies buzzing around her head, she’d be great.

Eden Robinson brings Jared and his friends entirely to life in this novel. That’s no small feat since Jared’s life will be outside the experience zone of most readers, I think. He’s funny and sensitive and sweet but life for him is especially hard. It probably doesn’t help that there are rumours that he’s not entirely human, that he’s really the offspring of the Trickster god, Wee’git. And just like that, Robinson is able to weave the mythic into her gritty realism in such a way that the reader just takes it as one more of the many things weighing down Jared’s life.

That has a double edge. Because life is hard enough without also learning that you and your mom and others are at the mercy of not-so-friendly gods and witches. If this mythic world is real — and certainly it is consistently taken as real in the novel — then it seems very unfair. Yet one hesitates to think what all this means if the mythic here is not real.

As the novel develops, Jared’s interactions with the spirit-world increase with numerous consequences. Alas, just as things are taking a turn, this novel ends. Just one of the dangers of reading something that turns out to be a trilogy. Now I’ll definitely have to track down the next two books in the series. And all of Eden Robinson’s other writings as well.

Easily recommended.

Nov 14, 5:57pm Top

Congrats on reaching 75 books :)

Nov 14, 10:15pm Top

>125 figsfromthistle: Thanks Anita.

Nov 16, 1:39pm Top

77. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

From the moment that Cazaril trudges up the road to Valenda, fate seems to take a hand. Or perhaps the gods were gently guiding Cazaril long before. Who knows? His first task is to find some form of employment in this town where years earlier he had been a Page. And once he has managed to sustain mind and body, he can look to reclaiming some of his honour. Yet each step brings him closer to events which will transform both himself and the land from which his honour springs.

In this rollicking work of high fantasy, Bujold masterfully moves the chairs about in order to set up the ordering for the momentous events that will follow. And although plot is of necessity to the fore, she paints a bold portrait of her protagonist, Cazaril, and the two young women he is employed to serve, Iselle and Betrix. The political manoeuvrings of this medieval-like world might have been sufficient to hold any reader’s attention, but this is also a world in which the gods have a palpable presence. They lie behind the curse that enfolds Chalion and its eventual cure through the bravery and self-sacrifice of Cazaril.

I especially enjoyed Bujold’s pacing throughout. She provides just enough explanation to keep us riveted while continually pressing the larger plot forward. It gave the effect of brisk leisureliness, unexpectedly. In so doing, Bujold manages to encompass an epic story — what might have taken volumes for another writer - in one tome. Nicely done!

Gently recommended.

Nov 16, 1:46pm Top

It's fair to say that The Curse of Chalion is outside my typical reading range. Which only shows it is well worth the effort to periodically go a step beyond. Especially when one of your nieces strongly enthuses about a certain book :-)

Well, at least now we have something to talk about other than astrophysics, a subject matter on which I have even less to say than high fantasy :-)

Nov 19, 4:46pm Top

78. Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli

Sometimes it's not what you understand or what you know for certain that really matters. It's acknowledging the limits of your understanding and still to be willing to press on. That, in fact, is close to what Carlo Rovelli identifies as the chief virtue of science. It's a point he makes in the final chapter of this fascinating journey from Anaximander past Copernicus and Newton, to Einstein, Dirac, and a host of other startlingly brilliant physicists, all of whom ventured forth from that initial point of ignorance. I feel like I'm in good company even though my ignorance may be clouding out my brilliance.

Rovelli writes clearly and simply. He doesn't hide behind the math, but he also isn't afraid to trot out the beautiful (his word) equations of Newtownian physics, Einstein's special and general relativity, and of his own field, quantum loop theory. For those with more of a math and physics background, this book will probably even be more illuminating. But even if you are just an interested onlooker, you'll certainly gain something. And it's comforting to learn that Einstein himself was not also a brilliant mathematician. Theoretical physics is at least as much about conceptualizing the problems and pointing in the direction of the possible solutions. And Rovelli certainly brings these concepts to life.

Am I ready now to give a lecture on the true nature of reality? No. But I have a much better idea about just how strange it is as compared to what I once may have thought. And I want to learn more.


Nov 21, 12:04pm Top

79. Love, Dishonour, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: a novel by David Rakoff

From the title alone, you’ll guess that this is a novel filled with all the stuff of life. From disappointed childbirth to dementia and death, the characters here suffer and glory in equal measure. There is the young artist who finds himself in the heaven that was San Francisco in the mid-70’s. There is the generous Jewish hobo who shares his warmth on a train bound west. There is the jilted lover and the innocence of beauty and youth. Spanning a century, the story moves between characters who sometimes only tangentially cross each paths. But always echos of their earlier hopes or fears recur. If it were merely a novel, it might have been merely gripping. But it is a novel in verse. Yes, in verse!

The challenge for the reader, I suppose, is to consider what, if anything, being in verse adds to what might already have been a fascinating story. And what, if anything, does it take away. I don’t have a full or firm answer to those questions. I found the verse, which is Seuss-like, to be plodding and lumpen. And yet, it was also, at times, surprising. Certainly the audacity of pursuing such mature subject matter in such a childish verse form cannot be gainsaid. It is a feat. But is it more than a feat?

For what it is, I enjoyed the story and characters, even when grim. I find I could have done without the verse. But then, maybe I wouldn’t have read this particular story without the attraction of such a whimsical literary effort. Maybe.

Only very gently recommended.

Nov 25, 10:00am Top

80. Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li

The nine essays that comprise this collection might be considered an act of revelation or disguise. It’s hard to know with Yiyun Li. She admits to being a recluse, to seeking to disappear, to refraining from engagement with others, to seeking to end her own life (more than once). Yet at the same time she writes with such honesty, painfully sometimes, about events in her life, her emigration to America, her adoption of English as her principal language, her shift, apparently suddenly, from immunology to writing. You might guess that she’s a bit conflicted. However, and thankfully, not so when she is engaging with the literature that has inspired and challenged her to write, including the work of Elizabeth Bowen, Marianne Moore, Turgenev, John McGahern, Stefan Zweig, Thomas Hardy, and William Trevor.

Famously, Li read a William Trevor story while in graduate school in Iowa City, and shortly thereafter changed her field of study from immunology to creative writing. It sounds implausible. And certainly, when you learn of her love of Turgenev as a teenager, her brilliance in both arts and science as student, her incredible ability to absolutely pour herself into the object of her efforts — you suspect that she was always already on the verge of becoming a serious writer. Later, after she has dramatically established herself through her first published stories and had attained a significant level of acclaim in America, she slipped into depression and attempted suicide, which resulted in two lengthy stays in hospital. In effect, this book is Li’s attempt to work through her vulnerabilities by re-engaging with the literature she admires. Perhaps not surprisingly there are a number of tragic figures included amongst her literary heroes.

Li’s writing is unemotional (maybe). She analyses. She considers. She worries. She worries herself and her theses, running back and forth across them, without reaching final conclusions. She remains tentative and uncertain about much, and her remaining certainties cause her to doubt herself. Her affection and respect for some writers is illuminating. But with her final essay about the transformational effect William Trevor had upon her life-course, and her later friendship with him, it’s clear that love is not too strong of a descriptor.

Well worth reading, thinking about and thinking through. Recommended.

Nov 26, 7:39am Top

81. The Journey Prize Stories 30 complied by Sharon Bala, Kerry Clare, and Zoey Leigh Peterson

In 2018, thirteen stories were selected for the short list of The Journey Prize in Canada. Although none of the stories this year stand out head and shoulders above the others, always there are few that impress. I like the awkwardness of the relationship in “Barcelona,” by Aviva Dale Martin, and grittiness of “Castaways,” by Rowan McCandless, and the obliqueness of “Before He Left,” by Jason Jobin. Many of the stories overtly signalled the gender, ethnicity, or orientation of their authors. Curious. It might be a sign that the journals that submit stories to the prize for blind refereeing are being tempted to game the system. Or that the selectors wanted to be gamed. That would be disappointing if it were true. It might also be telling none of the stories that stood out for me ended up in the final three from which the winner of the prize was chosen.

Nov 26, 4:14pm Top

82. Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

The eight graphic short stories collected here were originally published in Japan in 1970. Tatsumi is the originator of the gekiga style of manga, which uses a cinematic style and involves adult themes. Both are in evidence here. Tatsumi’s focus is often on underclass protagonists who are barely eking out a living. Sometimes they are so set upon by burdens or responsibilities, or just unending back luck, that they despair. And in despair their lives slip across the border of the human. To describe these stories as bleak would be an understatement.

Since the stories were originally published for differing audiences (some for young people, and some aimed solely at the underground adult market), there is a significant variety in tone. Humour is typically a component of the stories, but in some the humour is exceedingly dark.

Recommended, with caution, to anyone interested in the growth of alternative manga in Japan.

Nov 28, 7:45am Top

83. The Push Man and other stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

These sixteen stories from 1969, republished by Drawn and Quarterly in English in 2005, brought a master of gekiga manga to recognition in North America. The stories are dark, typically with underclass protagonists with little or no hope, yet with all of the drives and will of their better-off brothers. Sexually frank, violent, and usually involving the shredding of personal vanity to the point of self-harm. Stories like “Piranha,” or “Black Smoke,” or the title story “The Push Man,” see protagonists pushed (literally in some cases) beyond the breaking point. Others, such as “Projectionist,” “Test Tube,” “Bedridden,” peel back the surface on real but repulsive individuals.

Uneasily riveting.

Dec 1, 7:58am Top

84. The Death of Truth: notes on faslehood in the age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani

Any clear-eyed analysis of the current state of discourse in politics is likely to be frightening. So many actors are at work undermining the very bases of rational debate that it surely does seem as though truth itself is at risk. Where does one turn for insight (or comfort) at such times other than towards the mirrors lining one’s own information silo? It doesn’t seem like a useful strategy. Michiko Kakutani relies instead on that old journalistic trick of citing what people actually say and do. And that ought to be enough in the present case to damn them all (but it won’t).

Kakutani writes in a straightforward fashion, providing an overview of what she believes led us to this sorry state. The death of truth —note that hyperbole is the now the norm — has been a long time coming, though its primary injuries were incurred in the 20th century, and then exponentially exacerbated through the “information” tools provided in the Internet-era. The usual suspects are trotted out — Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Putin, the GOP, and, of course, the hero/dupe Trump. But Kakutani has another bugbear that she wants to stomp on as well - post-modernism. Here, she specifically has in mind the French literary theories of Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and Jean Baudrillard. Wait, really? Yes. Repeatedly she swings her focus back on those nasty close-readers with their fuzzy logic and waving hands. And this is where she somewhat undermines her otherwise solid case. However, I imagine there is a much longer and larger story to tell here and I’m just getting the backwash. In any case, this does not overly compromise the otherwise usefulness of this book.

One disappointment is the relative absence in the book of a way forward, or indeed of any hope. If the analysis of nihilism can only breed despair, the entire undertaking might be called into question. However, I think we have not reached the point of utter debasement of language. Even a “post-truth” society is parasitic upon Kakutani’s favoured conception of “objective truth”. (And the same glimmer of hope is available in the face of post-modernist critiques of literature; as evidenced by the fact that people keep writing novels.)

Recommended for those who feel they’ve been observing on the periphery and would like some insight into what has been happening. For those inside their respective silos, there is no point reading this book. You already know that you either love it or hate it.

Dec 2, 2:59pm Top

85. The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson is a highly regarded novelist, cartoonist, essayist, screenwriter, philosopher, and teacher. He is also a scholar of Buddhism. But his “way” here might best be described as sheer hard work and productivity. He’s the kind of writer who would write six novels in draft over a two-year period just to practice the techniques he thought he would need, and then turn the seventh one into his first published novel. He appears to have had that kind of work ethic throughout his life. And it paid off for him. It’s also something he has attempted to inculcate in his students over 33 years teaching Creative Writing at university.

The book does not offer a programme or set of exercises or step-by-step guidance (he has written other books for that). It is, rather, a set of reflections on various aspects of the writing life prompted by a year-long interview conducted with him by the poet E. Ethelbert Miller. Certainly there are pointed pieces of advice. But much more of the pleasure of the book comes in the oblique insights we get into Johnson’s craft. How he works through the night, each night. How much of his fiction writing he culls in the course in re-writing (he estimates a 20:1 ratio). How his early experience as a journalist shaped his practical approach to writing. And, most especially, on the importance of mentorship. Johnson’s mentor was John Gardner, who seems to have made promoting Johnson a personal project. Successfully.

Without being a brilliant essayist (Johnson humbly acknowledges this), these reflections remain highly readable and informative. Anyone interested in the late 20th century world of publishing would find something of interest here. And for the aspiring writer there is also much to emulate and consider.

Gently recommended.

Group: 75 Books Challenge for 2018

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