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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Amazing Female Novelists to Read for #IWD2016

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March is Women’s History Month, and International Women’s Day (#IWD2016) is recognized on March 8th each year.

In support of #IWD2016, I am taking a bookish approach, of course, and sharing with you book recommendations from some of my favourite female novelists. I have included a fairly international roster of awesome women who have all opened the world to me through their writing. All are incredibly gifted storytellers – their settings and characters truly come to life when you read their stories, and their work has far-reaching appeal.

 

  1. Italy:  Elena Ferrante – The Neapolitan Novels

From the book’s description (of book #1): My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

So this is a bit of a cheat, because I am endorsing four books for Ferrante, right off the top. It cannot be helped. #FerranteFever is real, and it hit me hard in 2015. This series is the most incredible collection of fiction I have ever read concerning women’s lives, female friendships, coming of age, and feminism. These books are raw and rich, and they have taken up a large chunk of space in my heart.

 

2. France: Anna Gavalda – Hunting and Gathering 

From the book’s description:   Gorgeously original, full of wry humour and razor-sharp observation, redolent of Paris, its foibles, its food and its neglected corners, Hunting and Gathering is a universal story about despair, love and the virtues of ensemble-playing in a naughty world. It’s a big novel that you will not want to put down. 

I found this non-traditional love story so wonderful. Gavalda has an eye for nuance and a gift with language. Spending time in Paris, through literature, is never a bad idea.

 

3. Nigeria:  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah 

From the book’s descriptionIfemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.

My favourite of Adichie’s novels, her examination of race, identity and belonging felt so vivid and real.

 

4. Haiti – USA: Edwidge Danticat –  Breath, Eyes, Memory 

From the book’s descriptionAt the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished village of Croix-des-Rosets to New York, to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child should ever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti–to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence, in a novel that bears witness to the traditions, suffering, and wisdom of an entire people.

Danticat is a wonderful and evocative writer, and this is definitely an emotionally challenging story. Sophie’s strength and resiliency have stuck with me for so many years, as has Danticat’s talent.

 

5. Sri Lanka: Ru Freeman – On Sal Mal Lane 

From the book’s description: A tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

On the day the Herath family moves in, Sal Mal Lane is still a quiet street, disturbed only by the cries of the children whose triumphs and tragedies sustain the families that live there. As the neighbors adapt to the newcomers in different ways, the children fill their days with cricket matches, romantic crushes, and small rivalries. But the tremors of civil war are mounting, and the conflict threatens to engulf them all. 

In a heartrending novel poised between the past and the future, the innocence of the children—a beloved sister and her overprotective siblings, a rejected son and his twin sisters, two very different brothers—contrasts sharply with the petty prejudices of the adults charged with their care. In Ru Freeman’s masterful hands, On Sal Mal Lane, a story of what was lost to a country and her people, becomes a resounding cry for reconciliation.

 

6. Australia: Hannah Kent – Burial Rites

From the book’s descriptionA brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.

Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, Burial Rites evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

 

7. Mexico: Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate

From the book’s descriptionA sumptuous feast of a novel, Like Water for Chocolate relates the bizarre history of the all-female De La Garza family. Tita, the youngest daughter of the house, has been forbidden to marry, condemned by Mexican tradition to look after her mother until she dies. But Tita falls in love with Pedro, and he is seduced by the magical food she cooks. In desperation, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura so that he can stay close to her. For the next twenty-two years, Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds. Earthy, magical, and utterly charming, this tale of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico became a best-selling phenomenon with its winning blend of poignant romance and bittersweet wit.

 

8. Egypt: Ahdaf Soueif – The Map of Love

From the book’s description: [Soueif] combines the romantic skill of the nineteenth-century novelists with a very modern sense of culture and politics–both sexual and international.  At either end of the twentieth century, two women fall in love with men outside their familiar worlds. In 1901, Anna Winterbourne, recently widowed, leaves England for Egypt, an outpost of the Empire roiling with nationalist sentiment. Far from the comfort of the British colony, she finds herself enraptured by the real Egypt and in love with Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi. Nearly a hundred years later, Isabel Parkman, a divorced American journalist and descendant of Anna and Sharif has fallen in love with Omar al-Ghamrawi, a gifted and difficult Egyptian-American conductor with his own passionate politics. In an attempt to understand her conflicting emotions and to discover the truth behind her heritage, Isabel, too, travels to Egypt, and enlists Omar’s sister’s help in unravelling the story of Anna and Sharif’s love. Joining the romance and intricate storytelling of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Ahdaf Soueif has once again created a mesmerizing tale of genuine eloquence and lasting importance.

 

9. China: Xiaolu Guo – I Am China

From the book’s descriptionIn her flat in north London, Iona Kirkpatrick sets to work on a new project translating a collection of letters and diaries by a Chinese musician. With each letter and journal entry, Iona becomes more and more intrigued with the unfolding story of two lovers: Jian, a punk rocker who believes there is no art without political commitment, and Mu, the young woman he loves as fiercely as his ideals.
 
Iona cannot possibly know that Jian is mere miles away in Dover, awaiting the uncertain fate of a political exile. Mu is still in Beijing, writing letters to London and desperately trying to track Jian down. As Iona charts the course of their twenty-year relationship, from its early beginnings at Beijing University to Jian’s defiant march in the Jasmine Revolution, her own empty life takes on an urgent purpose: to bring Jian and Mu together again before it’s too late.

 

10. Finland – Estonia: Sofi Oksanen – Purge

From the book’s description: Purge is a chilling drama of two generations of women, set in wartime 1940’s Estonia during the Soviet occupation, and in the same country in the 90’s as it grapples with the realities of a new Europe. Purge tells the suspenseful and dramatic story of Aliide Truu, an old Estonian woman whose hands are soiled with the crimes she committed during the Soviet era, and Zara, a young trafficking victim who in the present has managed to escape and has come to seek shelter at Aliide’s countryside home. As the two women start to approach each other and the links between them are revealed, a tragic and complex family drama of rivalry, lust, and loss that plays out during the worst years of the Soviet occupation of Estonia unfolds. In this way, Purge becomes an investigation into the cost of survival in a repressive system.

 

11. Iran – USA: Sahar Delijani – Children of the Jacaranda Tree

From the book’s descriptionBased on the harrowing experiences of Sahar Delijani, her family and friends, Children of the Jacaranda Tree is a stunningly evocative look at the intimate side of revolution. Told from alternating perspectives that connect to Iran’s current political stirrings while vividly recounting a past that must never be forgotten, it is a moving, timely drama about three generations of men and women moved by love, inspired by poetry, and motivated by dreams of justice and freedom.

 

 

12. South Africa: Marlene van Niekerk – Agaat

From the book’s descriptionSet in apartheid South Africa, Agaat portrays the unique relationship between Milla, a 67-year-old white woman, and her black maidservant turned caretaker, Agaat. Through flashbacks and diary entries, the reader learns about Milla’s past. Life for white farmers in 1950s South Africa was full of promise — young and newly married, Milla raised a son and created her own farm out of a swathe of Cape mountainside. Forty years later her family has fallen apart, the country she knew is on the brink of huge change, and all she has left are memories and her proud, contrary, yet affectionate guardian. With haunting, lyrical prose, Marlene Van Niekerk creates a story of love and family loyalty. Winner of the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize in 2007, Agaat was translated by Michiel Heyns, who received the Sol Plaatje Award for his translation. 

 

13. England: Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist

From the book’s descriptionOn a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin. But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . . Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

 

14. Trinidad: Monique Coffey – The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

From the book’s descriptionAn unforgettable love story, brimming with passion and politics, set over fifty years in Trinidad – a place at times enchanting, and at times highly dangerous . . .  This novel tells the story of Sabine and George Harwood, a French woman and a British man who arrive as newly-weds in Trinidad at the end of the colonial era. It is 1956 and Trinidad’s new and enigmatic leader Eric Williams has set up the PNM, the first popular people’s party, and is canvassing for votes and for change. Sabine listens to Williams’ speeches at the University of Woodford Square, hears him proclaim Massa Day Done, and knows it is time to leave. George, on the other hand, plans to stay in Trinidad, forever. As Sabine recounts her early years, and confesses her secret letter writing habit to Eric Williams, the reader is drawn into her personal feelings of disillusionment about the many political failures of the island’s independence era. 

 

I hope that some of these novels catch your fancy! Reading is truly a wonderful way to travel the world, and these female novelists make the journeys unforgettable!

Who are your favourite women novelists? Do you like to read beyond your own borders? I would love to hear your recommendations!

 

Happy reading!

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

 

A Few Recommendations…

Illustration: Jane Mount

So…sometimes life can be a numbskull. We’ve all been there, haven’t we – unexpected emergencies; personal challenges; sad news; and loss. So many things make up life’s rich pageant, and most of us carry our own “stuff”,  as we make our way in the world.  So far, 2014 has been…difficult. I have not been able to pay much attention to this blog, but that does not mean I have been away from reading. While the chaos of life did send me into a bit of a reading slump (do you grapple with those sometimes?), I have been plugging along lately, and have enjoyed some wonderful books.  I hope to create new reviews soon, but until then I did want to share a few suggestions with you.  I found these following six novels to be wonderful, and I am happy to recommend them to you.

1. The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett.  This is one of Patchett’s earlier novels. I loved it – the story pulled me right in. If you have ever experienced the loss of a loved one, and been mired in the murkiness of grief, you may find this story interesting, and maybe even a bit of a balm.

From the book’s description: “Sabine– twenty years a magician’s assistant to her handsome, charming husband– is suddenly a widow. In the wake of his death, she finds he has left a final trick; a false identity and a family allegedly lost in a tragic accident but now revealed as very much alive and well. Named as heirs in his will, they enter Sabine’s life and set her on an adventure of unraveling his secrets, from sunny Los Angeles to the windswept plains of Nebraska, that will work its own sort of magic on her.”

2. The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride.   I enjoyed this novel so much. It won the 2013 National Book Award; the voice, time and place McBride brings to life in his story are wonderful.

From the book’s description: “Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.”

3. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. This novel is utterly lovely and charming. If you sometimes just want to read a “nice” book – this is it! Plus — if you are any sort of card-carrying book lover with a heart, a novel that features: books, a bookstore, and publishing should really appeal. Zevin’s novel is like a book nerd’s most amazing dream.

From the book’s description: “Hanging over the porch of the tiny New England bookstore called Island Books is a faded sign with the motto “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.” A.J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.

A.J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It’s a small package, but large in weight. It’s that unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming him or for a determined sales rep named Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light. The wisdom of all those books again become the lifeblood of A.J.’s world and everything twists into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming.

As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read and why we love.”

4. Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. This is a fantastic debut novel, from a young Australian writer. Kent has done a great job creating an evocative story. You may very well feel this one right to your bones.

From the book’s description: “A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.

Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

5. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie examines the ideas of race, identity and belonging. It’s edgy and it’s essential.

From the book’s description: “Ifemelu–beautiful, self-assured–left Nigeria 15 years ago, and now studies in Princeton as a Graduate Fellow. She seems to have fulfilled every immigrant’s dream: Ivy League education; success as a writer of a wildly popular political blog; money for the things she needs. But what came before is more like a nightmare: wrenching departure from family; humiliating jobs under a false name. She feels for the first time the weight of something she didn’t think about back home: race.

Obinze–handsome and kind-hearted–was Ifemelu’s teenage love; he’d hoped to join her in America, but post 9/11 America wouldn’t let him in. Obinze’s journey leads him to back alleys of illegal employment in London; to a fake marriage for the sake of a work card, and finally, to a set of handcuffs as he is exposed and deported.

Years later, when they reunite in Nigeria, neither is the same person who left home. Obinze is the kind of successful “Big Man” he’d scorned in his youth, and Ifemelu has become an “Americanah”–a different version of her former self, one with a new accent and attitude. As they revisit their shared passion–for their homeland and for each other–they must face the largest challenges of their lives.

Spanning three continents, entering the lives of a richly drawn cast of characters across numerous divides, Americanah is a riveting story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.

6. The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland. Another wonderful debut novel, from a very engaging writer. Rowland has a great way of shining a light on many absurdities of modern life.

From the book’s description: Lena, the transcriptionist, sits alone in a room far away from the hum of the newsroom that is the heart of the Record, the New York City newspaper for which she works. For years, she has been the ever-present link for reporters calling in stories from around the world. Turning spoken words to print, Lena is the vein that connects the organs of the paper. She is loyal, she is unquestioning, yet technology is dictating that her days there are numbered.

When she reads a shocking piece in the paper about a Jane Doe mauled to death by a lion, she recognizes the woman in the picture. They had met on a bus just a few days before. Obsessed with understanding what caused the woman to deliberately climb into the lion’s den, Lena begins a campaign for truth that will destroy the Record’s complacency and shake the venerable institution to its very foundation.

An exquisite novel that asks probing questions about journalism and ethics, about the decline of the newspaper and the failure of language, it is also the story of a woman’s effort to establish her place in an increasingly alien and alienating world.”

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I hope you will find some books of interest on this list. I think each of these novels will appeal to many readers, and that within these stories are characters and situations to which we can all relate. There is also much to be learned within each of these books. I always love gaining new perspectives and new knowledge while reading, and while many of these stories may have you looking within, they will also have you looking out, to the world beyond your own personal sphere. And that is never a bad thing.

If you have read something wonderful lately, I would love to hear about it. Please feel free to leave a comment, below this post.

Happy reading!

My Most Anticipated Reads For Spring & Summer (And Brief Hiatus Announcement)

Photo: Aude Van Ryn

Photo: Aude Van Ryn

First, a quick explanation about my planned hiatus: Some health issues will have me in hospital and out of commission for a time. So, I won’t be able to share any reviews or news for a little while. In my absence, I hope you will tell me all about the books you are reading and enjoying. I always love to hear great recommendations from fellow book lovers and given I will have some extensive downtime – your suggestions will be particularly welcomed right now.

So — please leave a comment and share some reading suggestions with me or tell me about the books you are most anticipating this spring and summer!! (I truly would love to hear from you.)

Before taking my break, I thought I would share with you some titles I am really looking forward to this spring and summer. (One resource I love and look forward to each year is The Millions: Most Anticipated. This is a giant list of books and there are always a large number of titles that hold appeal for me.)

Anyway…onto my hotly anticipated books:

* And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini – Hosseini’s wonderful novel The Kite Runner was an amazing and emotional reading experience for me several summers ago.

* Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – with each of her novels, I become more and more intrigued with this writer. This could be a huge book for her.

* Transatlantic by Colum McCann – McCann is another writer I respect and I am quite curious about this new one.

* Night Film by Marisha Pessl – only her second novel, it’s been delayed a couple of times and is being much-hyped. I didn’t love her first book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, though I did like it and was impressed by her potential.

* The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin – Grandin is a bit of a hero in this house so I am keen to read her new book which was released today!

* Paris by Edward Rutherfurd – Rutherfurd is always great for an immersive and escapist reading experience. This 832 page tome should be a wonderful summer read!

* Gioconda from Lucille Turner – a debut that is getting me quite excited: a) I love literary fiction debuts; b) historical fiction!!

* The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion – okay, the word ‘screwball’ in the description is appealing. And, if I am being shallow – i love the cover design. So yes! Sometimes I judge a book by its cover.

New Canadian Books Making Me Drooly:

* In Calamity’s Wake by Natalee Caple – this is silly but the word ‘calamity’ has always been one of my favourites and I have long been taken with the legend of Calamity Jane. So…this book really is a must read for me.

* The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai – this book sounds amazing!

* Bone & Bread by Saleema Nawaz – sounds fascinating and possibly has the potential to be a novel that can crossover to mature YA readers.

* The Family Took Shape by Shashi Bhat – a debut novel that has really captured my attention! (In case you didn’t note earlier in the post: I am such a huge fan of literary debuts. It’s like a genre unto itself for me!)

* Caught by Lisa Moore – Moore is such a compelling storyteller. Any novel she writes is going to be worth reading!

* Maxine by debut novelist Claire Wilkshire – As we have already established…I love a debut novel. A debut novel from Newfoundland-based writer makes me very excited!

* Miracles of Ordinary Men by Amanda Leduc – I have heard such great things about this book!

* Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado – I actually received an advanced copy of the novel from Penguin Canada (thank you!!) and devoured it. Szado’s well researched imaginings are immersive and transportive. I really loved this book and have been working on a proper review for the novel.

* River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay – I think this is going to be a great read. Kay is a lovely man and cares deeply about the research he puts into each of his historical fiction novels.

If you are looking for more reading suggestions, Publishers Weekly has also posted a fairly comprehensive list of books – there’s sure to be something for every reader here.

So – tell me what you are most looking forward to reading over the next couple of months?? I really would love to hear about all the great reading you have planned.