Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

Possibly a tiny bit spoiler-y ahead… just the next few lines, before the first quote.

Chekhov’s gun! Chekhov’s gun!! Seriously. Checkhov’s. Gun. And I almost fell for it, but just kept questioning the device too much to be fully blindsided by the inevitable twist. She’s clever, that Ann Patchett!

But she is up to something far more subtle, startling and painful than that. There is nothing inevitable or fated here, unless it is that actions have consequences, most of which are unintended. A person might seem “unbearable”, but then the narrating mind suggests, “maybe that’s the real problem”, that a person who seems unbearable may rather be “emblematic of what can never be overcome”. When the whole tragic power of her story hits the reader, about two-thirds of the way through, the effect is physically breathtaking. Patchett sucker-punches you, but leaves you feeling you had it coming – whether for underestimating her, or her characters, or humanity, is hard to say.*

Okay. Now that that is out of my system…

About the book (jacket description, from the publisher):

y648The acclaimed, bestselling author—winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize—tells the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives.

One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families. 

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

160906_boork_ann-patchett-crop-promo-xlarge2When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.

Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.

I love Ann Patchett. So much. I tend to go into her books hoping I will love them, but I do try to keep my expectations in check, and approach each book freshly and with an open mind. of course, as a patchett fan, it was near-impossible to not be excited about this new novel. heck, it’s been one of my most anticipated reads for 2016. And my curiosity (or anticipation) was heightened further through interviews AP has given, noting this is her first autobiographical novel. That did add an interesting layer to the reading, along with the whole meta thing going on — the novel features a novelist who has written a new work of “fiction”, based on the life of the main characters of AP’s book. His novel is also called Commonwealth. Are you with me still? Excellent! This all worked wonderfully for me because I am basically a sucker for any works of fiction which feature writers and writing. (I’m not predisposed to automatically liking them all, but i am predisposed being intrigued by these kinds of books and throwing them onto Mt. TBR.)

What I find Patchett does exceptionally well are the nuances and dynamics of family (She didn’t know how to hate her mother yet, but every time she left her father crying in the airport she came that much closer to figuring it out.), and the excavation of the idea of responsibility. (Actions have consequences.) She’s an insightful writer. she’s also very funny, albeit sometimes it’s a dark-funny (The priest, whose mind was wandering like the Jews in the desert… or …people moved to Brooklyn to fall in love and write novels and have children, not to get old, and she couldn’t go to Holly, though she imagined dying in the Zen centre might come with spiritual advantages.), which I can fully appreciate. And when themes can get heavy or sad, those moments of levity are terrifically welcome moments. I hugely respect how Patchett creates complicated, messy characters. I feel as though she is writing openly and realistically when she creates characters who could be hard to embrace by some readers, but I also feel she has tremendous empathy for those she is creating.

My only real criticism of the novel is that I would have loved a bit more depth/story from each of the members of the Keating-Cousins families. Jeannette, for example, who completely intrigued me. And Albie. Oh, Albie. But, really, apart from Franny who functions as the novel’s centre and presented as a more complete character (save for one thing that was really left dangling), I would have been down for so much more on this whole family. But — that is just my very minor quibble. I was so engaged with the book, and fairly tore through it as I had a hard time putting it down. So, I hope you will read this book, and that you will let me know what you think when you do. I believe this will be a book I recommend to many people.

* — excerpted from Sarah Churchwell‘s uber-gushy (in the best way) review in The Guardian.


Question:

I mentioned that Commonwealth will be a novel I recommend to many people.  I would love to know if you have particular books that serve as go-to recommendations for you – books you never hesitate to recommend, no matter the reader?

Here are 10 books I love to suggest, and feel work for any type of reader:

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2014 – A Year in Reading

Illustration by Charlotte Runcie

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”  

T.S. Eliot,  (from: Little Gidding)

While I am definitely thinking about all of the great reading ahead in 2015, I very much wanted to share with you my favourite reads from 2014.

 

Lists are always subjective…I recognize this, but I read some truly wonderful books last year and I wanted to record these stand-outs. Maybe this list will help you discover some new reads, or prompt some interesting conversations; I hope it will do both!

The 5-Star Reads:

Fiction:

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. I read this book back in March. It’s still sitting with me, burrowed into my being, taking up space in my heart. How Toews gets into the grit of family – and does it so beautifully and with such humour – is continually and amazingly impressive to me. This is my top fiction read for 2014.

The Wars, by Timothy Findley.  A work of classic (contemporary) Canadian fiction. Blew. My. Mind. This is a 200-page epic – how did Findley do that? The discussions in an online book group really added to the read for me too.

Sweetland, by Michael Crummey. I LOVE MICHAEL CRUMMEY! Crummey carries the better part of the second part of this novel with only one character. How?! Because he’s the master! That’s how.

Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies. Another contemporary classic Canadian book, this was an awesome reread. As with The Wars, mentioned above, this novel is fantastic, and benefited from some really wonderful discussions with an online book group.

* The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland. I found this debut novel to be fantastic. Rowland has done a tremendous job giving us fully realized worlds – both the inner and outer lives of main character, Lena. I also felt this new novel to be different – a bit of a new story, that reminded me of nothing else I have ever read. It’s very well-written and well imagined.

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. I just really like this novel. This was a reread for me – I loved it on first reading in 2013. At the beginning of 2014, I reread this novel because one of my book groups was reading it. The Snow Child held up wonderfully! This is a perfect winter read: it’s moody and lovely and a bit of a fairy tale for adults.

Winter Sport: Poems, by Priscila Uppal. I really enjoyed this collection. I mean… who knew you could create such compelling poems about winter events at the Olympics? Perhaps I really hadn’t actually thought about it – but I am so glad to have read this wonderful collection from Uppal.

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5-Star Nonfiction:

The Empathy Exams: Essays, by Leslie Jamison. I really loved the way Jamison wove some fairly different topics together through the theme of empathy. This book is my favourite nonfiction read of 2014.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. This is just a damn good book. Smart and interesting, it also allows the reader to be a bit of an armchair traveller as we go with Kolbert on her research missions.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh. I loved this book right into my heart. I loved it hard. Brosh is so open about her depression, but she’s also – particularly if you are a dog-owner – laugh-out-loud funny.

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4-Star Reads, Worth Honourable Mentions:

Fiction:

* Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. Overall, I found this to be a very impressive debut novel from Australian Hannah Kent (who has been mentored by Geraldine Brooks). It makes a lot of sense, this pairing. Both tell great historically-based tales and perform, it seems, fairly monumental research. There’s also an effective simplicity to their prose. Kent really brought Iceland to life in this novel too, something I really enjoyed.

* The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton. This is another wonderful debut novel, and another work of enjoyable historical fiction. At the time of reading this book, I was in dire need of an excellent, escapist read – The Miniaturist completely fit the bill. Burton’s research appears to be solid, and gaining a fictional perspective on Amsterdam in the late-1600s was a true reading pleasure.

* We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. This was such an interesting and different read. I loved the premise, and Fowler’s style. I have also realized that this should maybe be bumped up to a 5-star rating. The novel has sat with me for quite a while now, and I find myself thinking about it often.

* The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner. This was an interesting and evocative read – at times I could feel and smell the cold, wet sea. This will be a great summer, or vacation, read for many people.

* Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie’s writing is great – she’s evocative and engaging. Everything is quite vivid, and I could easily see, hear and feel the places she describes. If I had not read any of Adichie’s previous novels…this probably would have been a 5-star read for me. In Americanah, I found quite few similarities to her other books – similar characters, similar situations, similar challenges. So while the writing was great, I felt like she had recycled some stuff. If you have not read Adichie before, this is definitely the book I recommend I recommend as your starting point.

* Curiosity, by Joan Thomas. Thomas did a great job evoking the time and the setting, and conveying the challenges Mary Anning faced. There is a line in the story that really stood out to me: “Oh, she’s a history and a mystery, our Mary.” While i know only a little bit about Anning, I hope that Thomas’ fictional portrayal is embraced and enjoyed by many readers. Anning did not receive the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, given the divide between men and women, as well as the class divide, and Anning’s lack of formal education and training. So, this book is definitely a tribute to a remarkable woman, and I am so glad I finally took the opportunity to read it!

* The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett. Sometimes you read the exact right book at the exact right time. That happened for me with The Magician’s Assistant. Patchett handles the themes of love, loss, grief, family dynamics, how the past defines a person, and improbable relationships so wonderfully. There is a grace to her writing that pulls me in and, at moments, stops me in my tracks as I admire her prose. The ending was a bit of a disappointment, so I couldn’t (didn’t) give this a full 5-stars.

* can’t and won’t: (stories), by Lydia Davis. All I can say about this collection is it is quirktastically wonderful. I had a lot of fun reading this book, and was pleased to find another short story author I enjoy. (I was already a fan of Davis’ translation work. Her edition of Madame Bovary is excellent!!)

* Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Such a fascinating read – and probably not what you think it’s going to be if you are only basing your opinion on film or stage adaptations. I had some issues with certain points in the story feeling like padding. Shelley is also a bit clunky with her writing – but she was so young when she wrote this novel. It’s quite an accomplishment for a 19yo’s first book – a story that has endured and been loved for such a long time. This specific edition the one I recommend. I enjoyed Elizabeth Kostova‘s introduction a lot. (Which I read it after I finished the novel itself, and it did add to my enjoyment of the story.)

* Mãn, by Kim Thúy. The partnership of author Kim Thúy and translator Shiela Fischman is truly a thing of beauty! They are both so wonderfully talented! Thúy’s prose is so rich and nuanced, and it often feels lyrical when I am reading her books. (I felt the same way about Ru.) I enjoy how Thúy plays with memory in her writing, and how she is able to generate visceral responses.

* The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. This novel really grabbed my attention – I found it so interesting and creative, and it got me very curious about the real events upon which it is based. As well, the style of the story is hugely entertaining. McBride is a funny guy, I think. And while this novel is dealing with a serious subject, I loved the moments of levity included. I think this is a novel that can be appreciated by many readers.

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4-Star Nonfiction:

* The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese, by Michael Paterniti. What a great read! I enjoyed this book so much and loved that, while the story really is about a very special cheese, it’s a book about many different things in life – things we all wonder about, and struggle with: belonging, family, friendship, our path in life, our own truths, storytelling, love. Some big subjects, to be sure, but Paterniti does a great job.

* Saint-Exupéry, by Stacy Schiff. Schiff did a great job with this biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the man most well-know for writing The Little Prince. It was clear to me that extreme care was taken with the research for the book. Saint-Exupéry was an interesting and odd fellow. He was emotionally needy, and immature in many, many ways. But he was also, it seems, quite intelligent. This was a great look at his life.

* Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman. This was such an enjoyable story – and a perfect book to read during the summer. I really liked being an armchair traveler with Bly and Bisland on their around-the-world adventures. Goodman did a great job presenting the race, and I appreciated that he also included historical context and sidebars for what was going on in the world in 1889 and 1890. As well, Goodman provided brief looks at the women’s lives post-race.

* Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, by Sheri Fink. An absolutely fascinating and challenging read. I am already quite interested in bioethics and, in particular, how ethics are used (or not) in hospital settings, so Fink’s book is a great complement to this field of study and research. There were so many infuriating moments during this read – not because of Fink or her writing, but rather because of what went on during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I tend to believe i am a fairly upbeat/optimistic person, and though I have curmudgeony moments, I also tend to believe the best about people. And yet…I was continually angered by the behaviours shown in Fink’s investigations. As Fink notes in the book, it is very hard for most of us to know how we would respond or act under the circumstances faced in New Orleans. It was a many layered disaster, but I hope people have learned, and continue to learn, from what was endured.

* Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman. During the read, many worries surfaced over whether Huguette Clark’s caregivers and advisors were taking advantage of her financial generosity. I don’t want to give away too much and spoil it for those who may read it, but I will say that I liked how Bill Dedman presented the information. As a reader I went back and forth on the idea, as circumstances were developing, trying to decide what I truly believed. I kept feeling as though Huguette Clark would make for an awesome subject to fictionalize, the way Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald or The Paris Wife did, with the lives of Zelda Fitzgerald and Hadley Hemingway. I really loved Dedman’s biography of Clark, but there are many unknowables not addressed in the Empty Mansions, and I think it could be fun to fill in the spaces, imagining the whys and hows. Empty Mansions has been optioned for film rights – I think with the right team, this could make for a wonderful adaptation.

* The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death, by Colson Whitehead. I may have curmudgeonly predispositions sometimes. I may have a literary crush on Colson Whitehead. Whatever. I enjoyed this. The last bit of the book wasn’t quite as strong as the rest, and it seemed abrupt at the end. But I had a lot of fun reading it. It’s a great summer read, or a bit of an escapist read for any time, really.

* Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright. The narrative is compelling and utterly fascinating. And not just a little bit freaky. Scientology is a world that seems so out there, to me (which would probably please L. Ron Hubbard to no end). I stumble – wondering how seemingly intelligent people can end up so deeply involved in practices and beliefs that don’t make sense. Wright makes a lovely case for the fact that there is – of course – faith required in all religions, and all religions employ magic or unnatural events that can’t be explained…but with scientology, that faith seems mistakenly placed. And wright offers plenty of evidence to support this concern. Interesting to note that a documentary adaptation of this book is completed, and HBO has a team of 160 lawyers prepared and ready for the notoriously litigious ‘church’.

 

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My Year In Reading – Stats:

books read: 99
pages read: 34039
international: 30
canadian: 25
american: 44
in translation: 8 (boo!)
fiction: 76
nonfiction: 23
female author: 63
male author: 36
longest read: 826p. (New York)
shortest read: 122p. (Winter Sport: Poems)
average pages: 344p.
publication dates:
– 79 of the books <2000
– 3 in 1800s
– 3 between 1900 and 1940
– 14 between 1940s – 1990s

ratings
1-star: 3
2-star: 27
3-star: 28
4-star: 31
5-star: 10

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I am not a planner with my reading. I very much read by mood. Sometimes I wish I could create a reading plan and stick with it, but it just never works for me.

In 2014, I did pay attention to reading more women authors, as part of the Year of Reading Women, which was declared for 2014. And I also did focus, for a while, on reading the 2014 longlist for the Women’s Prize in Fiction. I have managed 10/20, so far!

One thing I did notice, in reviewing my year in reading, was an unintentional focus on empathy as a theme. I know many believe that reading helps develop and further one’s empathy, but I actually had many books dealing specifically with the idea of empathy. So that was very cool to notice.

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So there you have it – the best of my year in reading!! I am sorry this is such a long post – though my hope is you will discover some new reads of great interest.

Please let me know about your favourite reads in 2014 – I would love to hear your recommendations. (And I would also like to hear if you are a mood reader, or plan your reading. Heck, just talk to me about your reading – book talk is rarely bad talk!)

 

Happy New Year, and may 2015 be filled with lots of wonderful books!

 

Illustration: Jane Mount, My Ideal Bookshelf