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Randy's reads in 2020

75 Books Challenge for 2020

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Edited: Dec 31, 2019, 11:49am Top

Welcome. Nine years seems like a lengthy stay in the 75 Books Challenge, but I keep coming back. I don’t always make my numbers (I didn’t last year), but I do usually find some excellent books to read and I enjoy writing brief reviews on every one.

I live in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. I’ve now lived here for 13 years, which is the same length of time I spent in England immediately prior. Perhaps I’m due for a new locale. If so, I hope I’ll still find time to go back and visit the places I love, such as Waterloo, now, and Paris, always.

Best of luck on your challenge in 2020.

Edited: Mar 31, 5:09pm Top

Books read in 2020


1. My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
2. The Ten Loves of Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami
3. Speaking the Piano: Reflections on Learning and Teaching by Susan Tomes
4. The Bromeliad: Truckers, Diggers, and Wings by Terry Pratchett
5. The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis
6. The Starless Sea: a novel by Erin Morgenstern
7. The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada
8. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
9. Lanny: a novel by Max Porter
10. Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson


11. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
12. The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
13. The Mere Wife: a novel by Maria Dahvana Headley
14. The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom
15. Human Acts: a novel by Han Kang


16. Florida by Lauren Groff
17. All Things Consoled: a daughter's memoir by Elizabeth Hay
18. Breakfast at Tiffany's and three stories by Truman Capote
19. Nietzsche and the Burbs: a novel by Lars Iyer
20. The Emissary by Yoko Tawada
21. The Importance of Being Funny by Al Gini
22. Beauty and Sadness by André Alexis
23. Come Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross
24. 77 Dream Songs by John Berryman
25. The Glass Hotel: a novel by Emily St. John Mandel

Dec 31, 2019, 9:51am Top

My top reads of 2019:

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
Told from the points of view of Adam, a high school senior, and his two parents, both psychologists, it captures the unlikely prospect of communication in the age of “the spread”.

The Angel Esmeralda: nine stories by Don DeLillo
DeLillo’s trademark distracted, sometimes muffled, realism suffuses these stories drawn from more than 40 years of superlative writing.

Milkman by Anna Burns
An irrepressible but arresting narrative voice tells a story as infolding and obsessive as its sentences. A remarkable achievement.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
A father and his two sons mourn the loss of their wife and mother, respectively. Their grief is a garrulous, wild thing, rather like Ted Hughes’ Crow, an elemental thing, a somewhat friend that comes and lives with you when the balance in your life has been tipped.

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
This metafictional narrative of wealthy New Yorkers both frustrates and rewards. Apparent obsessions of the flesh, however, pale beside the excoriating self-reflection (or self-regard) of the ultimate narrator. Perhaps.

Dec 31, 2019, 10:42am Top

Best wishes for 2020!

Dec 31, 2019, 11:56am Top

Thanks, Diana. And all the best to you as well!

Dec 31, 2019, 12:39pm Top

Another resolution is to keep up in 2020 with all my friends on LT. Happy New Year!

Dec 31, 2019, 1:44pm Top

Welcome back!

Dec 31, 2019, 5:49pm Top

Happy reading in 2020, Randy!

Jan 1, 12:10pm Top

Thank you, Jim and Anita. Happy reading to you as well!

Edited: Jan 3, 10:41am Top

1. My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Korede’s sister, Ayoola, is a serial killer. She has killed at least three times. Maybe more. And each time Korede has rescued her, disposing of evidence (including corpses), cleaning or torching the murder sites, and ensuring that the beautiful Ayoola is able to go on as though nothing has happened. Which she does. But for Korede the weight on her conscience of aiding and abetting a serial killer, even one as beautiful as her sister, may be too much. She needs to confide in someone, someone who will listen and not judge. Fortunately the patient in room 313 has been comatose for some months. He’s a very good listener. And Korede feels better just talking to him.

There is so much to like about this novel. It is fresh and incisive at the same time as being dark and slightly askew. Oyinkan Braithwaite handles the first person narrative voice with a lightness of touch and gentle (though dark) humour. She wisely never lets Korede go on too long, even to the point of having exceedingly short chapters. She presents us with a flicker of action or character and moves on. It’s a very effective technique.

I especially liked the way Braithwaite would allow aspects of the local milieu to come to the fore — language, customs, even clothing and food. You can be reading along and suddenly realize that Lagos, Nigeria, is very different from what you know, even though most of the novel could just as easily be taking place in London. It makes for unusual highlights and draws new insights for the reader. I really enjoyed it. Plus, it seemed wiser than its subject might initially suggest.

Certainly recommended.

Edited: Jan 3, 8:50am Top

Dropping my star. Looking forward again to following your immaculate style of recording your thoughts along the reading trail. Hindsight is 20/20 so I'm wishing you a year of intense clarity! I am wading through classics (perpetual catch up) so reading about more contemporary authors here helps balance the scales. Thanks for your service to humanity! =) My 50bks group thread sifts my own efforts, but lurking otbt (off the beaten track) quenches suppressed rebellion!

Jan 3, 10:36am Top

>11 frahealee: Welcome, Francine!

Edited: Jan 5, 10:06pm Top

2. The Ten Loves of Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami.

Nishino is an enigma. Presented here at different points in his life are ten perspectives on him. Each is from the point of view of a woman who loved or was loved by him, though “love” appears to be an essentially contested concept throughout. At times Nishino claims that he doesn’t know if he is capable of love. At times one of his female companions attempts to throttle her love only to find the controls subsequently shattered. Sometimes (often) love is expressed sexually. But not always. And despite the definite article in the English title, it is evident that Nishino’s love-making has not been restricted to ten women over the course of his life. So why these women? Why their particular stories?

Possibly, these ten perspectives are meant to generate a rounded view of Nishino. But to me, he remained inscrutable. We learn a few important tidbits about his personal history. He had a much older sister who after a troubled marriage, an infant death, and the breakdown of the marriage, commits suicide. It is very likely that in one way or another Nishino’s “loves” are a response to or reflection or refraction of that seminal incident in his life. But since we know so little otherwise about him — he dresses well, is polite, works hard in an office job, is a generous lover — it is difficult to come to any satisfactory conclusion. He is also duplicitous, frequently two-timing his sexual partners, unwilling or unable to commit himself, consistently opaque to himself, and ever haunted by the sister he feels he failed somehow.

If the novel does not present a comprehensive view of Nishino, perhaps its goal is instead to canvas aspects of womanhood. The women at the centre of each of the ten chapters are very different in some respects, though they might be said to share a common fascination with and flexible relationship to “love”. Yes, “love” as a concept, since they are typically always questioning either whether they are in love or whether they should decide to be in love or even what love is. It’s as though their interaction with Nishino triggers these reflections. Perhaps then this is a study of ten different ways of love being in the world, in which the persistence of the character of Nishino is merely incidental.

One thing is clear. Kawakami does not make claims to comprehensiveness. There is a lightness (despite sometimes dark subject matter) to her writing that belies ponderous statements. Or perhaps there is a flickering to lives themselves that makes firm conclusions inappropriate.

Gently recommended.

Jan 5, 8:59pm Top

Have a great reading year!

Jan 5, 10:05pm Top

>14 thornton37814: Thanks Lori. You too!

Jan 9, 9:53am Top

3. Speaking the Piano: Reflections on Learning and Teaching by Susan Tomes

Solo classical pianist, chamber musician, and teacher, Susan Tomes considers and explores a range of issues in teaching and learning music. Her insights are subtle and at times profound. She draws upon a wealth of experience but doesn’t use that experience as a hammer to insist upon her points. She presents her findings as personal observations that may or may not be generalizable. She acknowledges that she is a particular kind of performer (analytical) who comes from a particular locale (the UK) at a particular time (the latter 20th century). This gives her access to certain ways of understanding the classical repertoire but also, she fears, delimits that range of understanding. And so she is constantly seeking new ways to understand, to learn about herself and the music she loves, and to unfold this new understanding through her performance. Without even trying, reading this book is inspiring.

I was especially taken with Tomes’ presentation of her own challenges as a student in masterclasses. By that point in her musical education she is already highly accomplished. And yet she discovered that she still had so much more to learn. Indeed, she regularly acknowledges that to always be the case. By encountering a wide array of star professors in various masterclasses, Tomes became familiar with very distinct teaching methods. But her account of the methods and manner of György Sebők are wonderfully evocative. Clearly he was an exceptional teacher and, in her presentation, an outstanding human being. She has lots of less savoury examples, but it is her encounters with Sebők which have inspired her.

I also very much enjoyed the essay on Tomes’ attempts to learn and appreciate jazz. Fascinating. Coming to jazz from a classical background as well, I could entirely relate to her puzzlement and admiration at those, like Bill Evans, who play improvisational jazz piano at such a high level. Even a late effort to learn palmas, the clapping accompaniment to flamenco, is startlingly revealing and insightful.

Easily recommended for musicians and serious music lovers. I look forward to reading more from Susan Tomes.

Jan 10, 10:24am Top

4. The Bromeliad: Truckers, Diggers, and Wings by Terry Pratchett

The Bromeliad consists in three novels: Truckers, Diggers, and Wings.


Nomes marooned on earth for over 15000 years are on the move. Actually, at first it’s just a few starving nomes. Led by their last hunter, Masklin, they escape the barren wastes adjacent to a motorway service station by hitching a ride in the back of a truck. A truck! Yes, it’s daring in the extreme but the extreme is generally rather motivating. They’ve got nothing but their wits and The Thing, a revered object of ancient wisdom and lore which hasn’t said anything in generations. Still, if The Thing is all you’ve got, at least you’ve got something. Fortunately for these nomes the empty lorry they have stowed away on is headed for The Store. And The Store has All Things Under One Roof. And much to Masklin’s surprise, The Store is also filled with nomes, thousands of them.

As Masklin and his kin negotiate their introduction into a much larger nomish culture, their treasured object of ancient wisdom and lore finds what it has been waiting for thousands of years — electricity. It turns out that The Thing is actually the navigational computer of a galactic starship. And one of first things that The Thing lets the nomes know is that The Store is slated for destruction. It’s time they were on the move, again. All of them.

It’s a whirlwind of adventure. But then, nomes are very small and consequently live very fast. So maybe it’s just a whirlwind from the perspective of a lumbering, slow human. Nevertheless, Pratchett’s writing embodies that dramatic admonition: pace, pace, pace. You’ll barely find time to catch your breath. Pratchett builds worlds and demolishes them with wit and wisecracks faster than, well, a nome.

Perfectly delightful.


Oh that tricky second novel. Always a cross between treading water and merely serving as the transition to the third, concluding, novel of the trilogy. Plus, there is that temptation to introduce a superfluous image, such as a bromeliad — a tropical flower that lives its life high in the upper branches of trees in the rainforest, which is thumpingly presented only to set up a pay-off at the end (and latterly to give the trilogy its title).

The nomes that escaped the destruction of The Store are camped out in a quarry. Life isn’t as easy as it was when the pickings were rich, but they are getting by. Sort of. But time moves fast for nomes and already they are forgetting their real objective — to go home. Fortunately, Masklin has not forgotten and he knows, with the help of The Thing, that the nearby airport is where he and it need to be. Thus, early in this novel, Masklin and a picked crew set out on a quest and are not seen again. At least in this novel.
In the absence of Masklin, Dorcas, the wise engineer who figured out how to drive the truck that helped them escape The Store, is technically in charge. But he’d rather spend his time on his own pet project. Which leaves Grimma to keep the nomes together in anticipation of Masklin’s return. It won’t be easy. Food supplies are dwindling, and soon they learn that the quarry will be re-opening for ongoing roadworks. Humans will be coming and there aren’t a lot of places to hide in a quarry. It may be time to be on the move again.

Adventures ensue.

Perhaps not as focused or delightful as its predecessor, Diggers nonetheless is filled with Pratchett’s characteristic charm and wit. And it also has the virtue of brevity. Almost as though it knows from the outset that there is more to come.


Meanwhile, back with Masklin and The Thing… This final volume of the trilogy catches us up with how Masklin got from a trip to the airport to arriving back at the quarry in a spaceship with a bromeliad. It involves some fast travel so you need to hang on.

Once Masklin, Gurder, and Angalo arrive at the airport, The Thing is able to interact with the wealth of computers there to determine where their quarry is located (yes, I noticed the two meanings of quarry — it’s a Pratchett kind of joke). Grandson, 39, is located in the waiting lounge for the Concorde flight to Florida. So naturally Masklin and his pals decide to stow away on that flight. Which brings them at great speed to where the space shuttle will soon be launched that carries the communications satellite that Grandson, 39, owns. (Just go with it.) If Masklin can just get The Thing close enough to that shuttle, it will be able to commandeer the satellite’s primitive computer in order to use it to contact the nomes’ ship.

Complications ensue. Naturally.

But before the end, we get one of those remarkable turnabouts that happen so frequently in a Pratchett novel that you’d start to believe he is doing it on purpose. And so that superfluous image of the bromeliad becomes, well, rather more meaningful, and not just for the nomes.

It’s a fitting end, though as ever with Pratchett novels, it positively calls out for a further sequel. Those are just the kinds of stories he tells.

Recommended, inevitably.

Jan 10, 10:34am Top

I was reminded of The Bromeliad by a podcast that I've been listening to recently, the BBC's A Good Read: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006v8jn It's a lovely format in which host Harriett Gilbert invites two guests to each recommend their choice of a good read. She does likewise and the three of them read the others' recommendations in advance of their discussion. She is a wonderful host, both generous and thoughtful. She doesn't hold back if she doesn't enjoy one of the selections. But she does usually either locate her frustration with a book in her own particular history or discern at least few aspect of it that she can agree are worthwhile. She's charming.

It's been years since I read any Pratchett, so this was a lovely change of pace for me.

Edited: Jan 19, 10:02am Top

5. The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

Charles Highway is approaching his twentieth birthday. All too soon his teenage years will come to a close. But there are yet things to be done: he must study for and write the entrance exams for Oxford, compose a bitingly cruel letter of rebuke to his philandering father, dissipate in London (though admittedly in the basement of his sister’s house), bring his sardonic wrath down upon the history of literature, and oh, sleep with an older woman. Rachel, two months his senior, is his choice. And just as his does with his exam prep, his letter to his father, his personal chronicle of his dissipation, Charles has a dossier on Rachel, a battle plan, if you will, that will ensure his conquest. Well, maybe.

Charles may be nineteen but his angst-ridden sexual single-mindedness makes him seem more like an emotionally stunted younger teen. As though the various medical conditions that delayed his education also retarded his psychological growth. But his scatter-gun disdain is telling, especially when he ends up being its target, which is often the case. He knows that he is ridiculous, but then so is the world around him and everyone in it. The irony is that when he isn’t self-consciously an ass, he is an attentive lover capable of real emotional connection. But only up to the point of realization. Then he seems determined to crush out any honest emotion like the dregs of a cigarette.

The writing here is deceptive. Charles is not sympathetic. And even when he lets his mask slip, it’s difficult to have any emotional investment in his plight. Amis’ writing absolutely delights in Charles’ self-loathing. As Charles writes in one of his exam papers, there is a “meretricious exaltation of verbal play over real feeling.” Amis knows precisely what he is doing and is completely willing to skewer himself in the process. It is a first novel that announces that more and greater things are bound to come from this writer (and they do). After a slow start, it entirely won me over at least to an appreciation of Amis’ much-touted skill.


Jan 22, 3:36pm Top

6. The Starless Sea: a novel by Erin Morgenstern

A secret library, a hidden realm, stories fated and entwined, a dangerous club, swords, crowns, bees — what’s not to like? When Zachary Ezra Rawlins stumbles upon a curious and possibly miscatalogued book in the university library, he is already in a story which may have begun fourteen years earlier when he chose not to try the doorknob of a door painted on a wall in an alley. Choices matter. Zachary, a graduate student in Emerging Media Studies, is fully invested in narrative and narrative games. Following up a thread like a mis-located book is par for the course. He has no idea what pulling that thread may entail. Soon he will be drowning in a sea of story, a honey sea.

Morgenstern weaves a tasty tapestry of mythic love, obsession, and kindness. With nods to numerous other world-makers along the way, her cavernous world by the starless sea is nonetheless unique. Zachary’s quest mingles with many other story paths but ultimately it all depends on Fate. And Fate keeps her cards close to her chest. So it might as well be described as free choice. Time has a role, inevitably, Time and Fate being bound together. But this all makes it sound rather grand and mythic. Whereas much of Zachary’s story is just the simple one of a boy who loves a boy and will go to the ends of the earth, to death and back, for love.

There is a cloyingness to this style of writing. Vast numbers of single sentence paragraphs, which are either lyrical and poetic or portentous. Labyrinthine plots and worlds double down on the stylistic choices. So this is probably not going to appeal to everyone. But, I admit, I’m a sucker for this kind of story. And though I resisted at first, I got pulled in and raced along to see whether everything would come out fine in the end. Well, this is a romance after all, of many kinds, not least of which is love of narrative.

Recommended, but possibly not for everyone.

Jan 23, 7:51pm Top

7. The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

The factory is vast and all encompassing. Between its northern and southern components — joined by a huge long bridge over the river that flows through the factory — it has everything from countless restaurants, theatres, a bowling alley, numerous bus lines, some on-site accommodation, and more. So it’s perhaps not surprising for someone to find through the vagaries of life’s accidents that they end up working there. This novella follows three such characters: a young woman who gets assigned contract work as a document shredder, an engineer who is forced to take on a temp work assignment as a proofreader, and a botanist who is directed by his university supervisor to apply for a post at the factory as a bryologist (a moss specialist). None of them have ever really wanted to work in the factory, but here they are doing jobs that they are not entirely suited to. Still, it’s a living.

There is a matter of fact tone to the writing as we follow chapter by chapter the different factory lives of these workers. Things are sometimes a bit strange. But not so strange as to be alarming. Just a bit worrisome. However, over time (and time is a factor here), their engagement with the factory becomes more nuanced. Or stranger. And there’s something odd about the fauna.

This was an intriguing scenario. The writing reminded me of Magnus Mills crossed with Kafka. So, a bit alienating. Yet it was also a series of finely drawn portraits of these characters as their own existential anxiety comes to dominate their self-perspective and their relations with others. Not too surprisingly the various story lines cross before the end, but they do so in ways that are unexpected. And Oyamada also has a very curious manner of dealing with the dialogue, occurring at different times, yet mingled in the same paragraph. It forces you to periodically stop what you are doing and figure out who is saying that and when. Clearly deliberate, but to what end? I liked it.

Gently recommended for those willing to take on something just a bit out of the ordinary.

Jan 25, 4:58pm Top

8. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Professor Don Tillman is a bit odd. He’d admit that. Or at least he’d admit that other people find him strange. But to him a highly scheduled day, including standardized meals, brisk aikido sessions, and lab work (he’s a professor of genetics) is normal. He does, however, have a problem interacting with people. There seems little likelihood that he will be able to find a life partner. At least until he arrives at the plan of a scientific questionnaire to help him identify prospective matches as part of what he is calling the Wife Project. Well, that goes about as well as you’d expect. Worse, he finds himself attracted to someone who, by any rational score, would certainly fail his questionnaire — enter Rosie Jarman onto the scene to thoroughly mess up his projects, his plans, and his life. Thank heavens!

This is an enjoyable romp filled with quirkiness and light. There are plenty of set-pieces for Don to display his high-functioning asperger’s skills. And also plenty of opportunities for crossed wires, misunderstandings, false starts, and red-herrings. Along the way, Don and Rosie both learn something about themselves and about love.

This isn’t great literature. It’s probably not even good literature. In fact, if you looked at it very close you might find some significant problems with the portrayals and the writing (not least the very awkward denouement). But this really isn’t a book that calls for that kind of scrutiny. So just enjoy it for what it is, and forgive it for what it’s not.

Plus, it’s often funny which doesn’t hurt.

Jan 27, 4:36pm Top

9. Lanny: a novel by Max Porter

Lanny is a little boy living in an English village outside London. His father, Robert, is an asset manager in the city. His mother, Jolie, was once an actress and now writes edgy psychological thrillers. Lanny is learning about art from Pete, a famous artist who resides in the village who has agreed, at Jolie’s plea, to take on Lanny’s art tutelage. But deeper underground, or in the air, or in everything perhaps, is Dead Papa Toothwort, the elemental spirit of this land that sees all, feels all, and becomes all. And he’s taken a special interest in Lanny.

Max Porter’s writing captures the lives in this village in remarkably brief lines, like a charcoal sketch. But the village totally comes to life. He peoples it with the full range of village characters all of whom, of course, Toothwort himself embodies. It is a lively dance as the reader bounces across characters’ thoughts in the Toothwort sections of the novel. But the picture created of Lanny himself is always a bit vague. In part that’s because everyone sees him a bit differently. And in part because he is a bit different. He’s so in tune with his present moment, which in this case is also the ancient mythical Toothwort moment, that he is more naturally a resident of the village than anyone else there, and at the same time somewhat otherworldly. Enchanted would not be too much to say.

I found this novel entirely captivating. And it’s impossible not to be wondering even as you are reading, how did this novel find a publisher? It’s so unusual. Almost like an extended poem. And yet so dramatic (and sometimes traumatic). A wonderful, significant achievement.

Definitely recommended.

Edited: Jan 31, 11:15am Top

10. Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Self-justification is the commonest response to cognitive dissonance. It’s the reason we typically end up deceiving ourselves and sometimes others, all the while believing that we are in the right. Tavris and Aronson explode our practice of self-justification with comprehensive appeal to experimental psychology, reams of scientific articles, statistics, and therapeutic experience that, first, lays out the conditions that give rise to cognitive dissonance and then the standard kinds of response that are found. They explore these in the realms of history, science, therapy, criminal justice, and personal relationships. The analysis is astounding. You will be amazed at the discrepancy between things we say, do, and believe, and what the science actually shows.

Tavris and Aronson affect a breezy, colloquial style in their writing. They are quite willing to call out hypocrisy and foolishness. But they substantiate their judgements with substantial appeal to the scientific literature. (There are forty pages of endnotes.) The result is a book that is highly readable but also remarkably grounded in supporting scientific research.

So pervasive is the practice of self-justification in the face of cognitive dissonance that the reader can easily despair. How can we possibly overcome this pervasive distortion of reality? And indeed, instances of people in authority admitting to making mistakes are so rare that only a tiny portion of the book canvases them. Nonetheless, the authors do provide some general guidance as to how we might work against our potential for self-justification at least in our own lives. Like me, you might wish for more. However, the larger task of opening readers’ eyes to what is going on around them is most assuredly accomplished.

Certainly recommended.

Feb 2, 2:39pm Top

11. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The aliens have come to earth, they’ve partied, and they’ve left behind their rubbish. It’s very likely they didn’t even notice the humans clamouring for their attention. Certainly they made no effort to communicate. And now they are long gone, years gone. But still the detritus in each of the Zones they visited on earth continues to captivate the humans. It’s dangerous stuff to be sure. Lives can lost just trying to touch it. There are pockets of wildly differentiated gravity. There are scalding burst of hot air and lightening bolts. But these are merely the risks that stalkers, the illicit scavengers of the Zones, balance against the potential rewards: perpetual batteries, health rings, magnetic containers, and the much-rumoured Golden Sphere which, it’s said, grants any human wish.

Red Schuhart is a stalker. He’s been in and out of the Zone numerous times. But not too numerous to count. Because each one is worth counting when the risks are so considerable and the price for ignoring them is high. So far Red has survived. But whether he’s working with the Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures or on the sly for cold cash, he’s got to be careful, ruthlessly careful. The story mostly follows Red over the course of ten years as his fortunes wax and wane. He loses friends, he finds love, his dead father comes home to live with him (hey, it happens when you live near a Zone), but always there is that last trip into the Zone waiting for him, the one in which he seeks out the Golden Sphere.

Deservedly famous as the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker, this is remarkably muscular science fiction. Much of it is enigmatic and tantalizing. It slips a bit in its third section, with over-explanation, but the ending is both fully earned and entirely unforeseen. I was impressed.

Plus there is a delightful foreword to this edition from the late Ursula K. Le Guin, which is both clear-sighted and thought provoking.


Feb 4, 8:02am Top

12. The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

Jane Rosenal is funny, straightforward, uncertain, beautiful (but not nearly as beautiful as her great aunt, the novelist), vulnerable, and kind. She’s disinterested in her career in publishing, or maybe she’s just not that good at it. She’s equally not so good at her life, often baffled by relationships, her own and others, and missing out on that guy who gets her for who she is. Although verbally witty, she’s not acerbic, which probably marks her out as not a real New Yorker. And although she finds and loses loves, it’s rather as though she’s still waiting for her life to begin.

Through a series of standalone stories, Melissa Bank introduces us to Jane at the age of 14 and then returns to her at key points in her life. In all but one of these stories, Jane is the main protagonist. And it is Jane’s voice, with running piquant commentary (not always uttered aloud), that carries us along. She’s quirky adorable and you’ll want her to find what she needs even if it isn’t what she wants. But you’ll also feel her humiliations and fear that things just might not work out for her.

In most of the stories, the tone is breezy and light even though the subject matter may be difficult, such as infidelity, or concerning, such as abusive relationships or end-of-life dramas. As such, that works better in some stories than in others. That’s not exactly an inconsistency, just an acknowledgement that the book is built out of separate stories and not through-written as a novel. However, some of these stories are so distinctive and droll that they must surely get reprinted (or read) even today as standalones.

Feb 14, 4:44pm Top

13. The Mere Wife: a novel by Maria Dahvana Headley

What is a monster? At different points in The Mere Wife, nearly every character is identified or self-identifies as a monster. About the only monster-fact that holds universally is that it takes one to know one. But if we are all monsters then we are all also not monsters. What then shall we be?

This is a modern reworking of Beowulf. Modern in that it is set in the nominal present, there are guns and trains and mother-in-laws. But in other respects it feels ancient. Headley does a remarkable job generating a visceral and muscular form of tale-telling. She moves focus from one protagonist to the next, periodically offering the joint voice of the chorus of mothers (very scary!) or the animated voice of the earth itself and its working as a further alternative. But the focus primarily is on Dana Mills, the former soldier and prisoner-of-war, the one who was executed by the enemy but somehow — it’s never quite clear — survived. Dana is the mother of Gren, progeny of she-knows-not-what event, only that when she came back to herself in the desert, she was both alive and quick with child. Alternately, the focus is on Willa, the mother of Dylan, a self-possessed centre of almost pure desire. Mostly Willa desires more — more wealth, safety, power. And if inconvenient husbands threaten her ascent, well, oopsy.

The action involves a burgeoning friendship between Gren and Dylan that upsets the natural order. But basically everything conspires to bring Dana and Gren into direct conflict with, first, Willa and her first husband, Roger (who is, in reality, her second husband) and then, ten years later, with Willa and her second husband, Ben (who is really her third husband). The outcome may never be fully in doubt. But the lyrical (almost operatic) means by which Headley reaches her end (i.e. everyone’s end) is mesmerizing.

Not at all what I expected but captivating, and yes, a bit haunting, nonetheless.

Gently recommended.

Feb 17, 4:22pm Top

14. The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom

Hermann Mussert wakes up in a hotel room in Lisbon that he visited twenty years previous, despite having gone to sleep in his room in Amsterdam the night before. Clearly all is not as it seems, which prompts the question what is as it seems. And the answer to that traces the course of a life, which Mussert pursues in hopes of recalling himself to himself. Most recently he has been a writer of travel books under the name ‘Dr Strabo’. But before that he had been a teacher of Latin and Greek in a high school in Holland. None of which explains how it is he has woken up in Lisbon. But Mussert knows enough to know it probably has something to do with love.

Thereafter he intersperses recollections of Lisbon with his time teaching and of the woman with whom he fell in love. It is a complicated tale of love and revenge made more so by the fact that Maria Zienstra, his lover, is a biology teacher at the school and her temperament — rational and exacting — couldn’t be more different from his own. There is also the unfortunate fact that she only agrees to a liaison with him to spite her husband, who is having an affair with one of the students at the school. In the second half of the book it becomes more probable that Mussert is in a kind of limbo which he imagines as a voyage on a ship from Portugal to Brazil. The culmination of the journey will lead to his transfiguration. But for that to occur, he will have to be able to tell his story to its end.

For a slim volume, this is intensely rich writing. It is soaked in classical allusions and direct reference and quotation (for which translations are provided). Nooteboom handles the depth with surety and lightness. Mussert’s teaching methods are mesmerizing and the way in which they contrast with those of the biology teacher are stark. But it is the enigmatic figure of the brilliant young female student, Lisa d’India, that sets the action alight. Muse or siren? Or innocent? It is marvellous writing that positively demands rereading.

Highly recommended.

Feb 22, 11:27am Top

>28 RandyMetcalfe: I do like Cees Nooteboom but prefer Harry Mulisch, have you ever read anything by him?

Have a great weekend, Randy.

Feb 22, 12:59pm Top

>29 PaulCranswick: I haven't read Mulisch yet, Paul, but I see that our public library has The Discovery of Heaven, so I'll give that a whirl.


Feb 22, 3:19pm Top

Coincidentally, I just read Rituals by Cees Nooteboom, not an author you see mentioned everyday, though Rituals is on the 1001 list. I will look for The Following Story.
And I will second Paul’s recommendation of Harry Mulisch, who I like very much and have read several books by. The Discovery of Heaven is wonderful, but it is rather long (I’m thinking 700 pages or so). The Assault is much shorter, and deals with an incident involving the Dutch resistance during WW II, and may be an easier book to sample.

Feb 22, 3:28pm Top

>31 arubabookwoman: Thanks Deborah. I'll look for both of those.

Feb 23, 7:37am Top

>31 arubabookwoman: Yes, The Assault is probably the place to start, Randy!

Feb 23, 8:16am Top

15. Human Acts: a novel by Han Kang

Dong-ho is a a middle school student living in Gwangju who gets caught up in the labour and student unrest that took place there in May, 1980. The brutal repression of those clamouring for democratic rights and labour justice was devastating. Its effects live on, both in the lives of those directly touched by these experiences and those who only experience the ripple effect. Like radioactive fallout, the half-life of government sponsored terror permeates everything with which it comes into contact. Dong-ho, however, is one of those who never got a chance to live even half a life. Along with friends, relatives, and others he serves as an ongoing reminder of the acts we as humans are capable of inflicting on others.

Dong-ho’s story is told from various perspectives and at different points in time. Often the narrative is written in second person, though whom the “you” is addressing is not always clear. Initially we see events from the point of view of Dung-ho and his boyhood friend. Years later, an editor at a publishing house is touched by the events of that day and its ongoing effects. We see the later life of one of those taken prisoner during the repression, though “life” is probably an over-statement. And we hear the story of a young female factory worker who participated in the protest, and what her involvement has done to her life. Lastly there is the story of Dong-ho’s mother, who never stops fighting for a recognition of the harm that was done to him. The book is rounded out with a section with the voice of “the writer”. Each of these sections could almost stand alone. They have distinctly different styles. I was especially struck by the section from the editor which is fashioned as an attempt to forget the seven vicious slaps she has received from the secret police. But each is devastatingly poignant in its own way.

Han Kang has created a masterful means of bringing Dong-ho to life. Her writing is so spare and judicious that it reads like unsentimental journalism, even when the narrative voice is that of a disembodied spirit still clinging to his bodily remains. But be aware that this is heavy going. You will find it almost impossible not to be moved. It is writing that feels both essential and, one fears, dangerous.

Certainly recommended.

Feb 23, 8:26am Top

>33 PaulCranswick: Well that's disconcerting, Paul. The Touchstone for The Assault is going to a book by Al Gore. Perhaps it's a sign.

Mar 3, 11:44am Top

16. Florida by Lauren Groff

This was a reread of a collection of short stories I read a few years. I've reread it for two reasons. The bookclub I frequent will be discussing it some time this spring. And I recalled how much I enjoyed these stories the first time I read them and felt like rekindling that experience. They did not disappoint. These are such fine stories and I really like the narrative voice that Groff conjures in the different stories.

One difference this time. I decided to test out the updated ebook app used by our public library. This is Libby from Overdrive, which is no doubt common in many public libraries. I haven't read an ebook in 7 years, so I thought it might have changed a bit. Not really. Perfectly adequate for use on my small hand-held device. But I confess I don't really love reading in this format.

Mar 6, 10:21am Top

17. All Things Consoled: a daughter's memoir by Elizabeth Hay

The fine Canadian novelist, Elizabeth Hay, explores the final years of her aged parents lives, interweaving memories of her childhood with them and her sometimes friendly, sometimes fraught relationship with her father and her mother. Hay grew up in southern Ontario and for anyone who knows the region, or, like me, both knows the region and is a near-contemporary, this memoir will strike chord after chord. Written in Hay’s distinctively dry, almost journalistic, style, matched, in the audiobook, by her equally dry and distinctive voice, you will find it surprisingly compelling. I did. Perhaps I’m getting sentimental, or perhaps it was the numerous similarities between her mother’s decline and my own mother’s. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an end-of-life memoir that was as clear and matter-of-fact about the details of dying while constantly being just on the verge of lyricism. Remarkable.

There aren’t any startling revelations in Hay’s memoir. She seems to have had the normal range of frictions with family members. However, she shows both a prickly sensitivity as well as unsparing self-criticism. The result is a very rounded view of her parents and of herself, a very human view. And one in which you really can’t help feeling deep affection for each of the principle characters of this memoir.

Warmly recommended.


Having just completed an ebook for the first time in seven years, I've now listened to my first audiobook in at least as long. Again, just testing out the library app. But this had the added advantage of being read by the author, Elizabeth Hay. I've heard Hay previously at book readings and at literary events. So it was very nice hearing her familiar voice recount her memoir.

Mar 11, 11:51am Top

18. Breakfast at Tiffany's and three stories by Truman Capote

The famed novella that constitutes the bulk of this collection is everything you might have guessed it would be and more. It is everything in that it is liberally populated by the extreme and outré characters that appear in the equally famous film based on it. They are simply more extreme, almost other-worldly, and more wise and venomous. Holly Golightly is both vapid and insightful. But also terribly, terribly young. And yet so sadly worldly wise. The environment positively reeks of sex and desire, but also a pervading hopelessness, except for those whose dreams remain (somewhat) pure. And there is no doubt that a St Christopher’s pendant from Tiffany’s represents the most that any of them can hope for. Thoroughly impressive writing that will stay with you a very long time.

The three short stories that bulk out this collection are less well-rounded though probably still highly outré. One is set on the island of Haiti, one is set is a southern prison camp, and the last is set in an extremely poor household during the depression. Each is fine in its way, but set against the brilliance of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, they pale by comparison.


Mar 16, 1:55pm Top

19. Nietzsche and the Burbs: a novel by Lars Iyer

Sometimes adolescence feels like it will last forever, a kind of purgatory or worse. Ennui and narcissism are rich breeding grounds for anxiety and angst. Excoriating self-regard functions as both a purificatory act and an act of self glorification. Mingled together it begins to sound rather like existential nihilism. And anything that raises the state of being a bored teen in the suburbs to the level of a philosophical theory has got to appeal. But, y’know, it’s all so samey, isn’t it? And that, in a nutshell, is both the methodology of this novel and its underlying flaw.

Life in the suburbs is often repetitive and banal. Lars Iyer takes that as inspiration to present us with a novel that is regularly repetitive and banal. Days of the week repeat and repeat. Even sentences repeat, with minor clauses or individuals swapped in and out. Your eyes will glaze over. That may sound like rhetorical success. But it’s also tiresome. And almost never funny. Which is a shame, I think, because Iyer’s previous books have been startlingly drôle. And though it may be unfair to criticize a novel for what it isn’t rather than what it is, still I think it permissible to register at least a disappointment. There’s no doubt that Iyer’s style here is a kind of tour de force. It’s just that I was hoping for more than an exercise carried out at length.

Unusually, I haven’t put forward a summary of the overall plot of the novel. It seems unnecessary. Of the five characters who form the core of the novel (and the band), they are, effectively, interchangeable. This, even though there is range of genders and ethnicities. Interchangeable. That doesn’t seem to me like something you want in a novel.

It’s entirely possible I’ve simply missed the subtle and powerful message being conveyed here. It happens. In the meantime, I find I can’t recommend this novel.

Mar 19, 1:03pm Top

20. The Emissary by Yoko Tawada

In a vaguely distant future Japan that has reverted to extreme isolationism in the face of an ecological or man-made disaster, an elderly (but still vibrant) great-grandfather, Yoshiro, is the sole carer for Mumei, his great-grandson. Along with aggressive restrictions against foreign ideas, technology, and words, nature itself has rebelled. The lives of the young are excessively precarious, either due to mutation or some other change. Mumei, for example, loses all of his baby teeth at once, has difficulty walking, and has a peculiar relationship to his own sensations and emotions. But Yoshiro’s care for him is unquestioned, despite his own failed marriage and earlier experiences with his own daughter and grandson. There is a recurring mention of emissaries, both in the form of a novel that Yoshiro wrote years earlier but never managed to get published and in the need for actual emissaries to go abroad surreptitiously in order, perhaps, to reforge Japan’s ties with the wider world.

This is a strange, almost oblique, novel. The characters are nearly transparent. So much so that you may begin to think that it sounds like a novelization of a futuristic Japanese anime. I found that although the overall story was curiously compelling, I never felt at home in the story. And I wasn’t certain that the transformation at the end was fully earned (a point which might hold for early points as well). However, the premise was so out-there that I would certainly be willing to read further works by Tawada on the basis of this one.

Gently recommended.

Mar 20, 10:01am Top

>2 RandyMetcalfe: That list sounds very interesting! The kind of books that I could get lost in. I like it :) I'm anxious to hear what you tell us about them.

Edited: Mar 20, 10:15am Top

>23 RandyMetcalfe: My kinda novel!!! I've put Lanny : a novel by Max Porter on reserve at my public library. Thanks Randy! I would have never heard of this novel if you hadn't selected it and wrote about it :)

Mar 20, 10:12am Top

>40 RandyMetcalfe: Your first 20 novels are very interesting. I've reserved one at the library already and will probably reserve more -- gotta get more tea and wake up first.

Mar 22, 2:45pm Top

21. The Importance of Being Funny: Why We Need More Jokes In Our Lives by Al Gini

This is a gentle and sometimes thoughtful survey of historical and philosophical musings on why humour might be important in our lives. It is written in a straight ahead style, with many endnotes referencing other texts that have considered these questions, or memoirs by funny people. And it is sprinkled with numerous jokes, or, if you prefer, “jokes”. If you don’t go in expecting a comprehensive and persuasive argument, you won’t be disappointed. Just enjoy it for what it is. It’s quick and periodically funny, or, “funny”.

But there are probably more useful and much funnier books out there for you to read, so I won’t actually recommend this one.


This was another ebook selection from our public library, which of course is now closed due to the current situation.

Mar 26, 8:28am Top

22. Beauty and Sadness by André Alexis

As the subtitle, “Or the Intermingling of Life and Literature,” suggests, this is not a mere collection of fictions and essays. The fictions, themselves set off in a section entitled, “Echoes,” are highly personal pastiches, of a sort, of such luminaries as Maupassant, Cocteau, Henry James and Carlos Fuentes, and Kawabata. Some are tours de force as Alexis captures the essence of an earlier writer’s style. But each are also very clearly Alexis-stories. Here you find the calm, poised prose, the delicate turn of phrase, the artful exercise. And ghosts. Because each of these writers with whom Alexis chooses to engage have themselves also peopled their prose with spirits. And the state of ghostliness, Alexis notes in his introduction, is not unlike his own state as an immigrant in Canada, not entirely present, but rather haunting the present.

The second part of the collection consists in two essays or engagements or reconciliations with Tolstoy’s Ivan Illych and the works of Samuel Beckett, plus a loose memoir of Alexis’ writing life from the time he moved to Toronto to what was the present at the time of writing. In these, as in the fiction pieces, Alexis is very present. And to some extent we gain an impression of André Alexis, the writer.

The writing throughout is never less than clear and concise, and characteristically distanced from emotion even in emotional scenes (both fictive and real). Alexis is a thinking writer, as you might expect for someone who aligns himself with the Oulipo group. He is also, perhaps surprisingly, harshly critical of some other writers and critics in the Canadian literary establishment. But he often undercuts his own harsh opinions, at times second-guessing himself. I found the whole to be interesting and well worth reading even if not wholly persuasive.

Gently recommended.

Mar 28, 11:53am Top

23. Come Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross

From the first story in this collection, “Love Silk Food,” it is evident that an exceedingly fine writer is at hand. Indeed, so many of the stories here are startling, either in conception or in execution, that they almost immediately demand rereading. I’m thinking here of stories like, “President Daisy,” or “The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant,” or “Minty Minty.” Some are eye-openingly erotic, such as “Art, For Fuck’s Sake.” Others are positively creepy, such as “Covenant,” or “Mudman.” Incredible range and all written with exquisite observations and linguistic deftness.

Not easy to forget, but very easy to recommend.

Mar 31, 1:17pm Top

24. 77 Dream Songs by John Berryman

No review is offered. The truth is that, despite its Pulitzer Prize, I found these poems to be virtually opaque. I got very little out of them, even on a second reading. Perhaps there is some key I’m missing. Or maybe I’m just not a very good reader of (certain kinds of) poetry. Alas!

Perhaps I’ll search about on the Internet for some discussion or analysis of what is really going on in these poems. Feel free to give me a tip if you’ve had better luck with this collection.

Mar 31, 5:08pm Top

25. The Glass Hotel: a novel by Emily St. John Mandel

Almost no-one in The Glass Hotel is uncorrupted. From its outset to its end, or at rather across the splintered time line in whose parts it consists, one character after another is presented with a degree of appeal only to have that appeal undercut. Ostensibly, the story revolves around a young woman, Vincent, and her half-brother, Paul. At sometimes meaningful points their lives intersect, but Paul is mostly a lost cause from the beginning, so our hopes, if we have any rest with his sister, Vincent. Vincent is beautiful, self-aware, clear-eyed and comfortable with being bought. She makes a stunning trophy wife (or almost-wife) for a New York financier, Jonathan, who has a fine appreciation for appearance. And that’s because, we soon learn, his entire fiscal edifice is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, a Ponzi scheme bilking billions out of the rich and merely moderately well-off. Vincent may not be in on his scheme, but, as she notes, she’s not an idiot. And she has reconciled herself to accepting what is necessary in order to live in the kingdom of money.

Mandel sets up a complex and intricate web of characters whose paths eventually cross. It’s an impressive feat, I suppose. But it’s almost impossible to care about any of these characters. Even Vincent. And that’s a bit regrettable since it also leads the reader not to really care about the infernal and monstrously huge fraud being committed. We just don’t care. Yes, many lives are ruined. Yes, some individuals end up killing themselves (and others, who don’t, really should). But it all washes over the reader likes the waves trammelling one of those massive container ships plying the oceans.

At times Mandel can be a tremendously sensitive writer with a real eye for subtle connections. But sometimes that’s not enough. And so, although I enjoyed reading The Glass Hotel, and I think Mandel is a fine writer, I can’t really recommend it.

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