Friday, August 27, 2010

#41 - No Way Down

Perhaps I should follow up my furious Franzen rant with another post about the state of publishing or some other issue floating around (and, believe me, if I was still remotely anonymous, I would). But, instead, I'm going to go back to basics: a book review. This week I took a break from guilty pleasure reading and read, well, more guilty pleasure stuff. Most people imagine armchair travel to be lovely, pretty memoirs like Eat, Pray, Yawn or the like. Instead, what I love is a truly good horror story incurred by a natural disaster happening at the top of a mountain. Yes, I love climbing disasters -- I don't know what it is about it, maybe the time I spent in Banff during my formative years scrambling up mountains, maybe it's the sheer Titanic-ness of it all -- the knowledge that the weather's about to turn, something's about to crack, someone's about to fall, and no one will ever be the same again.

In 2008, eleven climbers died on K2, the world's second-highest mountain. NY Times reporter Graham Bowley first saw the story flash across his screen as an assignment (I think) for the paper. He wrote so convincingly about it that it appeared on the front page and then he went on to realize that the story was so much larger than the paper could accommodate. The resulting effort, his book No Way Down, couples a little bit of the climbing history of K2 (it's deathly grip!) alongside a detailed, poignant and utterly captivating look at what went wrong.

The weather was seemingly perfect on the assent. A record number of climbers advanced to the summit despite some epic problems getting up through a bottleneck of people who were having trouble at one particular point on the mountain. But as the aptly titled book suggests, the descent was problematic for many. Between glaciers breaking, avalanches, snapped ropes and leaving the summit simply too late, many of the climbers were trapped at high altitudes, which had disastrous consequences -- deaths, frostbitten limbs, climbers getting lost coming down, bad weather, accidents -- all contributed to the high toll the mountain took on that day.

It's hard to explain what I find so fascinating about these kinds of stories. I'm hugely attracted to the idea of climbing to the top of a mountain even if health- and lifestyle-wise I'd never be able to do it. I'm also consistently amazed at the propensity for things to go wrong and that, still, hundreds of athletes still push themselves to the limits and then put their lives at risk in a very classic human versus nature scenario. Bowley's careful to explain, both in his preface and his epilogue, how much research went into constructing the narrative. In his words, he tells the story as well as he could, but there's always room for conjecture. It's a sad, captivating story and even though it's a terrible tragedy, it makes for one hell of a good read.

No Way Down coverage on NPR
Bowley's original NY Times piece

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Franzen, Freedom, and Fly Away Home

Like I start off so many of my posts, I'm going to make a confession. I work for the Canadian publishing company that will release Jonathan Franzen's Freedom next week. Even for those of you outside my industry, it's impossible to miss the chatter flying around the interweb about the author and his new novel, the NY Times coverage (2 reviews, etc), Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, Laura Lippman, and the myriad other peeps tweeting about the dust-up. Essentially, and I'm not going to call it sour grapes, but Picoult tweeted last week that the Times lavishes critical praise on "white male literary darlings" and virtually ignores commercial fiction authors.

And while that might be true, that the newspaper doesn't necessarily cover and/or review commercial fiction with the same, let's say verve, that it would a novel by Franzen, in the end, why does she care so much? Is it as simple as a writer's craving to be accepted by the denizens who look to the Times as the cultural beacon for the world? Is it sour grapes for not releasing a novel poised (and perhaps over-praised but still) to become a huge book in the collective literary consciousness?

I'll make another confession. I've never read Picoult -- her books don't appeal to me. So I can't really hold up her prose against Franzen's. I have, however, read Freedom and it's one hell of a novel. While it might not be deserving, say, of the cover of Time (which featured the author this month), it's certainly one of the best books I've read this year and nowhere could I say this about it: "There’s a twist at the end and lots of saccharine, predictable moments in between." (from The Globe and Mail's review of Picoult's latest book).

Does Picoult really want the notoriously rough Michiko Kakutani reviewing her books? How come I can already read the review in my mind -- "here's a novel full of predictable plot points, terrible amounts of wrought emotions and suffering from the curse of the "book a year" crowd." However, I know that's not her point -- that Picoult's trying to bring to light the fact, one that Jennifer Weiner has been relaying for many, many years, that the Times doesn't treat women's fiction with the same "ohmigodthisissoawesome-ness" that they do a book by say, Franzen. That they don't review, interview, lavish praise upon many commercial writers the same way they do the literary establishment. And that this deems much of commercial fiction as "unimportant" in terms of anything other than sales.

But someone needs to discuss culture (read: review) in a rational, intelligent and furious way. If not the NY Times then who? And regardless of whether or not Picoult wants to take issue with the WMFB (white males from Brooklyn) who seem to be driving the literary establishment in the US these days, it's still unmistakable that their talent is certainly contributing to, if not defining, our current written culture in an undeniable way. But this kind of smells a little, "oh the popular kids really suck why can't I be a popular kid" for my liking.

Maybe I'm reading too much into it -- but, then again, I know how important the Times is to my industry. Entire meetings are given over to discussing the bestseller list; books used to be made on reviews; independents up their orders based on whether or not a title has good blurbs from them, and so on. Yet, none of that seems to have any affect upon the sales of either Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult. They both write novels that sell like stink and that allow companies like mine to publish other books that won't get reviewed but will probably end up on a list like this one. Many, many worthy writers don't get reviewed in many, many papers. It's practically impossible to get coverage in Canada for kids books; sure, everyone will report on a trend and offer up the odd "supplement" but regular, week by week coverage of middle grade fiction's non-existent. Perhaps those authors should be complaining too. But if we're about to keep complaining how about we discuss the death of papers, their lack of ability to monetize, shrinking book coverage in general, and the overall collapse of the publishing industry (yawn). There's not enough room to discuss every book published in America and someone, somewhere has to make a decision about what's WORTHY of being covered and what's not. I'm okay with that. It's not like there aren't alternative places for people to read and review popular fiction, right? Hell, I've just spent the summer pretty much doing just that -- reading and reviewing popular fiction. I, however, don't have the clout of the Times, naturally, and does that upset me, not really.

So, call me a literary snob -- put me in the camp that labels Jennifer Weiner's novels chicklit, allow me to judge Freedom beside Fly Away Home, and there's no contest. Yes, Weiner's latest novel grabbed me emotionally and kept me on the edge of tears for most of the reading. Yes, it's about women, relationships, and family. But so too is Freedom -- half of the novel reads from the perspective of the female protagonist, Patty Berglund, a stay-at-home mum who struggles with her place in the world, tries to understand the feelings she has for her husband, his best friend (an enigmatic Jeff Tweedy-esque rock star) and severely parents her two children. But there's a richness and a depth to Franzen that isn't there in the other novel. There's a scope of the human condition that doesn't come from the cliched, "ripped from the headlines" plotline that starts off Weiner's latest book. Yes, women's fiction is undervalued, hell, I'd even say that Harlequin romances are undervalued -- when I was writing back cover blurbs I read more than a dozen or so that were not just great reads but excellent ones (I read quite a few raspberries too) but I wouldn't ever label them "literary" as I would the Franzen. I wouldn't label Weiner literary either and that's the number one reason why I wouldn't expect to see it reviewed in the Times, Entertainment Weekly, sure -- because that's what commercial fiction does, it entertains. There's no shame in it, and why not celebrate the differences instead of whining about the coverage, instead of flogging that dead horse why not just stand up and shout: "proud never to have been reviewed in the Times."

There's probably a huge feminist issue with undervaluing the "chicklit" label in general, but why not embrace it instead of fighting against it at every turn. Why kick up a fuss in the first place unless you really want to be judged on the same level as Franzen by the same people, the same reviewers -- and then what'll someone say when the coverage is less than glowing? Will there then be the same brouhaha over the kind of coverage, the negative reviews, the harshness of the criticism? I doubt it. But I know one thing for sure, it certainly won't affect their sales -- the ability for Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, enviably, being able to make a living from their pen as Aphra Behn attempted to do all those years ago. We've come a long way indeed. Women drive this industry. They buy the majority of the books, edit bucket loads of them, find authors, nurture authors, create culture, discuss culture, form book clubs, read Oprah, etc. The real issue here isn't that women's fiction is ignored by the literary establishment. The real issue here is the age-old fact that women will read all kinds of genres -- men, not so much. And if we're out to criticize the establishment, why not take a poke at the fact that women's fiction seems to always be packaged in the same way: floaty white covers, pictures of shoes, foggy, pretty scenery -- why aren't these writers demanding that their publishers take a step back and repackage the books so they're taken more seriously?

The more I write about this, the more I read about, the more I think that it's not so much the review that sparked the debate, it's the idea that there are gender divides in our industry that maybe shouldn't be here. But, regardless, I'll be one of the many who puts Freedom up on a pedestal for how it deals with human nature in the world today -- the issues that it raises, how Franzen writes about people, their plights, their inner lives, and the emotional consequence of actions. It's a deep, engaging, political novel, one that feels fresh as compared to the rote books of late from his contemporaries (McEwan, Irving, I'm looking at you), and I frankly don't care whether Jodi Picoult likes it or not. I'd urge anyone to read it and then try to disagree with me. It might not be the book of the decade but it's certainly about to become the book of the year.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

#36 - #39 - Summer Chicklit & #40 Gone

There's something I've discovered about my iPad -- it's incredibly easy for me to buy books with one click. Books I had long ago stopped buying because they were (and I don't want to use this word) disposable -- not that they're throwaways but that they satisfy the need I sometimes have for the reading equivalent of a girlie movie. When I was pinching my Gail Vaz-Oxlade-inspired pennies, I couldn't justify buying a book that would only take me an hour to read. I needed to buy books that were an investment, that would keep me occupied for longer than the time it would take to watch a film.

Well, my iPad has changed all that -- I can spend less than $15.00 (which is less than the cost of a movie now) and in some cases, less than $10.00 (and let's not get into a moral discussion of what's wrong with ebook pricing because I work in publishing, I KNOW), for books that I can read like my mother used to read Harlequin romances, quickly, painlessly and with some tears (because I get so emotionally involved). I don't always have to be reading literature but it does have a very special place in my book snob heart so forgive me if I'm a bit harsh on these books. Take this all with a grain of salt.

#36 - Fly Away Home
I still remember reading Good in Bed one afternoon when I was home sick from work. I bawled from start to finish. Weiner has a way with writing female characters that just gets to the heart of the hurt that we all seem to carry around. I haven't read a novel of hers for a while and so I downloaded one thinking it'd be good to read up north last week at the cottage. The situation that starts off the novel feels "ripped from the headlines" Law & Order-esque. The wife of a prominent politician discovers via CNN or something equally horrible (her best friend calls to comfort her re: the news that had just broken) that her husband of x-number of years cheated on her with a not-quite intern. Sylvie Serfer Woodruff has two grown daughters: Diana, an overachieving doctor, and Lizzie, a recovering addict. When each woman hears the news of their father's affair, they react differently but in each case it becomes a catalyst for change. It's a very chicklit scenario -- the overtly dramatic "event" that spurns women into some sort of evolution as if regular life just isn't enough to make anyone become introspective, but whatever, the emotional journey each takes throughout the novel is rewarding and I can't front -- I bawled like a baby towards the end. BAWLED. IN FRONT OF COMPANY. AT THE COTTAGE. So it's a breezy, solid, emotionally rewarding read even if it feels overwhelmingly cliched in many, MANY places.

#37 - An Ideal Wife
I didn't read this on my iPad, a friend sent me a copy, and Gemma Townley used to be one of my favourite chicklit writers -- I always felt she was one step above so many of her counterparts. Her characters felt fresh, their lives just that little bit more interesting, but I'm no longer in my 20s or even early 30s and I'm less charmed by her books as I once was. An Ideal Wife follows Jessica Wild, a protagonist from two earlier books, and she's never been my favourite. The hijinks that happen in the book feel contrived and I could tell what was going to happen almost from the beginning pages. In a sense, I think it's the curse of a successful mid-list chicklit writer, the sales are good so the publisher puts you on a book-a-year treadmill and so you start churning out titles to suit the schedule and not the work. I'll still recommend Townley over writers like Giffin and the like, simply because I've met her in person and she was AWESOME, but the last three books, in fact, the whole Jessica Wild series, has kind of disappointed me.

#38, #39 - The Sookie Stackhouse series (Dead Until Dark & Living Dead in Dallas)
Oh sweet Sundays I'm obsessed with a capital "O" with True Blood these days. It's smart, sexy, fun, silly, fascinating, and now almost complete with fairies (as per Sookie's reveal). Contrary to Salon, I don't think fairies are lame and neither would about a half-dozen YA writers I know. But I digress. I'm dying for spoilers -- even those trapped in cliched, irritating, truly terrible writing. Wait, did I just start to review the books? I know you have to give over to the nature of them, to the silly, candy-like essence of these books but I can't help but feel my intelligence slipping away each time Sookie curls her hair or has someone comment on her perfect breasts. I've imbued the literary characters with a little of the spirited nature of the television show and that makes the writing a tad more palatable but I can't help but wonder if Charlaine Harris doesn't spend hours laughing her way to the bank over her royalty statements. What a fast one she's pulled on all of us -- there's so little in the way of actual writing here vs. pure narration for the sake of narration that I'm not surprised it only takes me a little over three subway rides to get through one book (my commute is anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes depending on the TTC). And it's not that I'm NOT addictively flipping pages -- it's that I AM. I'm not reading. I'm scanning. I'm dying to know what happens just so I can know what happens and not at all because I'm enjoying the writing. I roll my eyes more times than I can count but I respect Harris for her success and I'll probably read all eight of the books that I downloaded last week.

#40 - Gone
Anyway, I felt a little sick to my stomach after reading so much chicklit in a row that this weekend I took Mo Hayder's EXCELLENT new novel, Gone (published in Canada this January), away with me to the cottage and then proceeded to stay up very, very late to finish it. It's a Jack Caffrey novel and it picks up relatively soon after Skin ended. There's a new case in town -- a man's carjacking comes with a twist: he's only taking cars with children in them, and the deeper Jack Caffrey gets into the case, the more goes wrong. Mo Hayder's novels are suspenseful, terrifying, impeccably written and researched and this series just gets better with each novel. I know January is a long time to wait but if you're at all interested in top-notch thrillers, why not give Ritual or Skin a try before then?

#35 - The Cookbook Collector

I truly admire Allegra Goodman's storytelling techniques, and while her latest novel, The Cookbook Collector, isn't 100% successful, it did manage to convey the same deep, emotional resonance that I found so affecting in Intuition. The novel opens deep in the heart of the Silicon Alley dot com explosion of the mid-1990s where the main protagonists in The Cookbook Collector, two radically different sisters, find themselves on opposite ends of the economic spectrum.

Emily is the CEO of a tech company about to launch its first IPO -- she's driven, successful and engaged to an equally driven and successful man whose career mirrors her own. Jessamine works part-time at a bookstore where her boss, George, collects rare books and sells them to like-minded men and women who like to own things. She's still a student, and finds herself increasingly involved in causes -- whether it's Jewish mysticism or saving the redwood trees, Jess's life drifts along in a mist of misguided intentions.

Where her sister drives to succeed, Jess can't seem to find her footing. And Emily's trouble comes when she discovers that monetary/business success can't necessarily propel you into being well-adjusted in the face of tragedy and/or disappointment. Both girls show their strengths in different ways throughout the course of the novel, and their evolution is at once both as disconcerting as it is refreshing. In a sense, they take a cue from the central metaphor in the novel -- this cookbook collection that George discovers and then covets -- it's full of rich lives, rich recipes, but it's crammed into a kitchen not used for cooking. Where there should live pots and pans, there are books upon valuable books. And when you collect things, be it rare books or stock shares, there's an element of your life that you aren't necessarily living.

In a way, the journey that both Emily and Jess take moves from being a collection of attributes: motherless daughters, successful/unsuccessful, preppy/hippie, to fully realized human beings. It's not an easy process for either of them, and there's bookended tragedies that seem to define their growth -- the death of their mother on one end and then the aftershock of 9/11 (with things I won't spoil here) as the other. I'm not saying Goodman's novel isn't flawed, it is, the coincidences are a little too coincidental, and I'm not sure that any novelist has really gotten to the core of 9/11 in a way that I feel comfortable with -- the way Goodman used it didn't ring 100% true to me in this case. But she's such a great writer of characters, and I still couldn't put this book down once I started. Not sure I agree with the blurbage on Amazon and other places that compares The Cookbook Collector to an Austen novel, but I enjoyed so much about it, from the setting to the delicious descriptions of the cookbooks themselves (they are awesome, trust me), that it made for a truly satisfying summer read.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Summer Reading: A Catch Up Edition

I have a huge list of books to get caught up on in terms of keeping track of my reading here in the blog. As I doubt I'll find the time to create individual posts for every book I've read since the beginning of July, I'm going to do one big post here, and then try very hard for the rest of the summer to update here more than once a month.

#24 - Shadow Tag
This was the very first book I read for my new book club. I'd read Louise Erdrich back in university and remembered enjoying Love Medicine very much. Shadow Tag, with its semi-autobiographic overtones and extremely dark subject matter, was an unsettling novel. It's not even that you can't trust the protagonist, or that she's an unreliable narrator; it's more that both Irene and her husband Gil are truly, completely unlikeable. They lie to one another, feed off each other's insecurities, have a terrible, damaging relationship, and ultimately aren't the best parents to their three children. The writing is terrific but I consistently go back and forth on the age-old debate in my head -- can I really enjoy a book when I hate the characters? We had an amazing discussion about the novel, about their motivation to stay together, about the destructive nature of art in the book, and about both of their selfish, selfish behavior. It's an intense novel, be prepared for that should you decide to delve in.

#25 - Freedom
I'm not sure how much to say about Franzen's latest novel because I read a work galley (well, I begged to borrow a work galley and it's my ONLY copy) and the book isn't being published for another few weeks. However, I will say this -- it's a terrifically engaging chunk of a book that follows the lives of the Berglund family. Like The Corrections, Franzen writes so convincingly about American life that it's impossible not to get emotionally involved in the lives of these characters. It's an excellent novel.

#26 - I'd Know You Anywhere
The same goes for the new Laura Lippman. She's one of my favourite commercial fiction writers -- her stories are always page-turners and her characters always have issues to overcome that develop into rich, realistic plot lines -- you never feel like she sacrifices anything for the story, it's relentless. Her latest novel is no exception. Eliza Benedict has worked hard to create a very particular kind of life for herself -- until the man who abducted her when she was a teenager tracks her down and asks something of her she isn't necessarily prepared to give. The novel reminded me in a way of Barbara Gowdy's Helpless in the way it gives a bird's eye view of not only the victim, but the criminal as well. It's a captivating novel -- perfect for summer reading.

#27 - We Have Always Lived In The Castle
Oh my goodness I adored Shirley Jackson's macabre, Gothic novel. This was another book club book and what an awesome choice it was. Merricat (Mary Katherine) Blackwood and her sister Constance live in a run-down old manor house with their Uncle Julian. Years ago her entire family was killed by a fatal dose of arsenic-laced strawberries during dinner. Constance, the elder sister, was accused of the crime, and then tried, but found innocent. However, the townspeople have never quite forgiven her, and so Merricat (an 18 year-old who acts far more like a 12 year-old) and Constance have somewhat shut themselves up against the world. That is, until their cousin Charles arrives and throws their world in chaos. It's a delicious, deceptively simple novel, and we all raved about it at book club. I comped it to the best of Flannery O'Connor with even more edge, if that's possible.

#28 - Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard
Richard B. Wright remains one of those Canadian authors, like Jane Urquhart or Michael Ondaatje, that I'll read anything they write. If they wrote a grocery list, I'd probably read and enjoy it. His latest novel, Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard, feels like a departure, and that's not a bad thing. While I loved October, I felt like it had a definite place in the Canadian canon -- it was almost as if he was actively trying to write back to Hugh MacLennan. With this new novel, I feel like he's moved into decidedly new territory. It's a hybrid kind of novel -- one part historical fiction (the book's protagonist is the bastard daughter of Wm Shakespeare), one part typical literary fiction, and one part juicy page turner. Aerlene Ward has lived her entire life with a secret: William Shakespeare was her father. As she gets on in age, she feels the need to tell her story and enlists the help of Charlotte, the youngest daughter in the manor house where she's been the housekeeper for all of her adult life. It's a rich tale -- both as its told and as it was lived -- and Wright has a keen ear for Elizabethan London. The biggest issue that I have with so much historical fiction is the romance-novel-ness of them all. This book isn't that, while I can see how it would appeal to the biggest fans of Philippa Gregory, it's so much richer in how the historical details are integrated into the fabric of the story. These are strong, interesting women, and there's an apt feminist critique to be explored upon a more educational reading of the novel. Anyway, I've got high hopes for this book for the fall -- I really want many, many people to love it as much as I did. We're doing a Savvy Reader read-along post for it that should be live in the next couple weeks.

#29 - The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Like the rest of the universe, I finally went back and read the first of Steig Larsson's ridiculously addictive series. I'm glad I did, if only to fully understand how all three books fit together, and to see how Lisbeth and Blomkvist actually meet for the first time. We watched the film the other night, and I found it almost better than the book -- while definitely not as detailed, it was far more streamlined, which I appreciated. As much as I find these great books, great social experiments in how a book can "tip," sometimes the writing is clunky, the dialogue terrible, and there's just too much detail. And I enjoyed seeing the Swedish landscape if only to give myself a visual picture to accompany the reading experience in my head. I read this book on my iPad with the Kobo application and found that there were some layout issues with the text that made transitions a little awkward but overall I think it's the perfect way of reading commercial fiction. It's not a book that I'm dying to keep -- it's an impulse, something I want to read right now and steam through, and knowing I don't have to pawn off a physical copy on a friend was a relief.

#30 - The Help
Now, this novel truly surprised me. From the cover, it screams "Oprah" and "Nicholas Sparks," but because it's my job to know what kinds of books sell like stink, I figured it would be another good one to try on my iPad. This time, I used the Kindle application, and I found it just that teeny bit superior to the Kobo (mainly in the fact that it gives an accurate idea of where you are in a book), but there's really little difference between the two as a reading application for the basic stuff that I need (good bookmarks, easy navigation, etc). Annywaaay, The Help. I bawled like a baby by the end of it, found myself reading until 4 AM one night at the cottage when I couldn't sleep and realizing it's just a really good novel. Set in Jackson, Mississippi smack-dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, The Help entwines the stories of the young white women who form the "society" of the area with the black women who they consider their "help." From debate over why separate bathrooms IN ONE HOUSE for the women who feed, clothe, bathe, and raise their children to Miss Skeeter's desperate 'Peggy in Mad Men-esque' quest to get out of her Southern life entirely, the novel keeps you emotionally invested from beginning to end. Stockett writes convincingly from both perspectives and the payoff at the end was impeccable.

#31 - Locavore

When the iBookstore launched at the beginning of July, I bought a few of our books so I could make sure they worked. Sarah Elton's look at the local food movement from a Canadian perspective had been on my TBR pile forever. I did a lot of work with her when the book first came out and she's just such a lovely author (but that's an aside). She has a very easy-going writing style and her way into the topic (from a pink sugar cookie made in China in her daughter's loot bag) was both personal and intriguing. There were so many things that I didn't know and so many interesting, new perspectives about the local food issues that Elton puts forth that I learned a lot. How wrong was my assumption that once I'd read Pollan and Kingsolver that there was nothing left to know about the locavore movement. This is a book for anyone remotely interested in the issues surrounding the food we eat -- and even if you aren't, it's a great primer to get you started. But my favourite part of Elton's perspective isn't a holier than thou approach, it's more "do the best you can; it all helps in the end." And I feel like this suits my life -- we buy local where possible, support farmer's markets, grow our own veggies, and balance out the more exotic aspects of your eating with better choices. I LOVED this book.

#32 - The Lovers
I have so much respect and admiration for Vendela Vida. Not just because she leads an obviously envious life and is bloody gorgeous, but because she's an exquisite writer whose craft I covet every time I read a sentence of hers. Yet, this novel disappointed me. It lacked the emotional resonance that reverberated so nicely through Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, and the tragic event posited by the jacket copy to "rock" the protagonist, Yvonne, to her core, felt contrived and even stereotypical when looked at in context. It felt very Hollywood, this novel, and maybe I was just expecting too much from Vida because I pushed her earlier book on every single person I know. So, in short, Yvonne, a middle-aged widow, visits Turkey, the site of her honeymoon, to try and figure out how to move on with her life. She's had a good life, but one with issues, and she starts to unravel the more time she spends trying to 'find' herself in relation to who she once was: mother, teacher, wife. The setting, at once meant to invoke her past and perhaps spurn Yvonne into a sense of self-discovery, becomes exotic and strange to her. And then, things start to go very awry when she befriends a young Turkish boy visiting his grandmother. There could have been such a rich palette to explore so much in the book but Vida doesn't drift beyond the superficial in a way. You never truly feel like you know Yvonne, and maybe that's on purpose, but the whole novel felt incomplete to me, especially the ending.

#33 - Secrets of Eden
And, again, here's another of my favourite novelists with new books that fell short of my expectations. I adore Chris Bohjalian's books -- even his critical misfires work for me, unlike many, many reviewers, I really liked the trippy nature of The Double Bind and didn't even mind his last book, Skeletons at the Feast despite its truly awful cover. But Secrets of Eden, well, it failed to impress either with the moral premise underneath the story or by its storytelling. Like in Vida's novel, the "twist" at the end felt very much like an M. Night Shyamalan film -- far, far too apparent from too early on and really quite stereotypical for my tastes. The whole book felt like a Law and Order episode but without any convincing or interesting characters. I find the complex nature of religious characters in novels interesting -- but I'll turn to Marilynne Robinson when I want to explore it in more depth -- Bohjalian used it to very obviously pit "good" against apparent "evil" and in this case it didn't work. Oh, the plot, right: a reverend loses a member of his flock, a woman who had been abused by her husband, and becomes accused of the murder when she and said partner are found dead the morning after her baptism. Enter a very famous writer who has made plenty of money writing about angels. They become involved, which, of course, casts even more suspicion on the poor Reverend Stephen Drew. Yawn. Yes, I know, I'm being sarcastic, but the book was truly tedious in places. Anyway, nothing will stop me from reading Bohjalian, because I adore his fiction, but this just wasn't the book for me.

#34 - The Big Short
Wow, was this a dynamo of a nonfiction book. Michael Lewis examines the financial crisis in such a detailed and fascinating way that it's impossible NOT to think of the yahoos on Wall Street as crooks by the end of it. While the book has a LOT of technical jargon as it relates to the financial markets, it's not remotely dry. In fact, it's just the opposite -- it's utterly riveting and totally fascinating. He breaks down the few characters who managed to short the crisis even before it began, including a hedge fund owner whose driving characteristic is his Asperger's, along with a few "outsider" funds who actually took the time to investigate the market and pull it apart at the seams -- primarily to find the ways of making huge amounts of money from what they could see coming: a total collapse of the system. It's incredible that the US government propped up the big investment houses, essentially rewarded them for their stupidity, and then they turned around and rewarded themselves with huge bonuses, and, well, got to all keep their jobs. Billions upon billions of dollars with hidden paper trails and bad trades are lost, unknown or hidden from the general public, just so we can keep the illusion that the big investment banks actually had any idea of what was happening. I'd highly recommend this to anyone remotely interested in why the US is such a mess these days -- it's just utterly captivating and you will shake your head in amazement that not a single person stopped the madness before it all collapsed. Anyway, it's a great, great read.

Whew. That's about it -- I'm sure there are a couple of books that I've probably forgotten but that's about the extent of my summer reading so far. I'm so behind in my reading in general this year that it's nice to just have a big stack of books out of the way before the insanity of the fall creeps up on us.

My Boy is Ten

My friend Heather took this photo a couple of weekends ago. We went for a walk in the woods. It was a bit cold at first, neither my boy nor ...