Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

beatiful-ruinsThere is a certain someone* over at HarperCollinsCA who spends an awful lot of his time raving about Jess Walter. And because of that certain someone, a couple of years ago I gave The Financial Lives of Poets a try. I liked it ok, but wasn’t blown away by it. Just not my cup of tea.

Then this past June Walter published Beautiful Ruins and got a LOT of great press. I was intrigued to say the least. Finally, after many months of waiting, I have read it. I must say it is a pretty good book and at times even masterful. Walter is undoubtedly at the top of his game right now, which is good for him because his latest, We Live in Watera collection of short stories, has just been released.

I have often heard Beautiful Ruins described as a story about Hollywood’s golden age and the filming of Cleopatra in Italy in the 1960’s. That, however, is only half (or even just a third) of the story. It is also story of an aging Hollywood producer and his idealistic assistant, a washed up actress, an Italian searching for the washed up actress and that actress’s son. I guess what I’m trying to say is that in many ways Beautiful Ruins is epic in scope. It is a story about dreamers searching for truth and love that spans 50 years. Though the portions of the story dealing with the inner workings of Hollywood are fascinating, they serve as merely a backdrop for what Walters is trying to achieve.

In spite of the grand tableau presented by Walter, I found the writing to be a little bit uneven. There were some portions that were absolutely unbelievable. These tended to be the portions where Walter was dealing with grand themes. Particularly near the end of the story Walter waxes poetic without sounding trite.

But aren’t all quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos – we know what’s out there. It’s what isn’t that truly compels us …true quests are not measured in time or distance anyway, so much as hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of a serendipitous savant – sail for Asia and stumble on America – and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.

However, I felt that the prose was weaker when Walter was setting up the canvas upon which to paint his epic. At times the story lagged. This does not take away from the overall effect of the novel. It certain deserves the accolades it has received and I expect that whatever Walter produces next will be breathtaking. He has certainly honed his craft over time.

Who would like this book? The easy answer is lovers of Hollywood. Hollywood past and present is a constant in the novel. But if you are looking for a light, gossipy read this is not it. As I have mentioned Walter deals with grand themes. This elevates his tale to the level of serious fiction. Above all, I think Beautiful Ruins is a hopeful and inspirational novel.

*Yeah, that certain someone is Cory. Go figure.

The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam

the blind man's gadren

I hate that I have to write this, but I did not love The Blind Man’s Garden. It hurts me to say that because for years I have thought that Nadeem Aslam is one of South Asian literature’s brightest stars. I loved his Maps for Lost Lovers. The imagery in The Wasted Vigil was breath taking, but The Blind Man’s Garden kind of left me cold.

It recounts to the story of two brothers who set off to fight in Afghanistan in the months following 9/11, and the extended family they leave behind in Pakistan. Although I did not enjoy the novel, I do think that it is perhaps one of the most important novels to document the conflicting tensions that existed in post 9/11 Pakistan and Afghanistan. Aslam deftly shows that in that world the conflicts were all in shades of grey, not black and white as they were often portrayed in western media. He also shows that the decision to fight on any of the sides in this conflict may not have so much to with right and wrong, but with survival, personal revenge, pride and dignity.

As with The Wasted Vigil, Aslam’s imagery is haunting. In The Blind Man’s Garden there is the recurring image of a fakir draped in chains who carries the wishes, hopes and dreams of devotees in each link of the chain that weighs down his body. The fakir is eventually killed and his chains are used to secure an American prisoner. Simplistic though this description seems, the image is suffused with meaning that accrues throughout the narrative.

So why did I not like this novel? As I write this, it is difficult to say, but I certainly found reading it a bit of a slog. It may come down to the fact that I don’t really enjoy war novels. There were sections of the story that I enjoyed immensely, but they tended to be the secondary stories. It may also be that the narrative was weighed down by language. It is not the most accessible of books to read. I started reading The Blind Man’s Garden after reading Janet Evanovich, which made reading Aslam’s prose feel a little like wading through a swamp, a beautiful swamp, but still a swamp.

Who would like this book? This book is for someone who is looking for a highly nuanced story about the was in Afghanistan and who is not afraid of a very literary read. In some ways it reminded me of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Both novels show the complexities of being Muslim in the modern world and the sometimes unlikely factors that contribute to making one more or less conservative in their religious views.

Notorious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich

notoriousnineteenI debated long and hard about whether or not I was going to review Notorious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich for the blog. Until now I have stuck to literary fiction and non fiction. And as much as I like a challenging read, there are times when some lighter fare is called for. I won’t lie to you, I love Janet Evanovich, or more precisely Stephanie Plum, the character of many of her novels. She’s someone I can relate to with her aversion to domesticity and marriage. So here goes, my first review of something a little more commercial.

You already know that I love Stephanie Plum and like many of her fans it goes without saying that I will always read her latest adventure. That being said, I was a little disappointed in Notorious Nineteen. The antics Stephanie gets up to as she tries to apprehend those who have skipped out on their bail were clever and entertaining as always, but there was much about the portrayal of her private life that troubled me. For the first time, I felt that her relationship with Ranger was a little creepy and predatory. He seems to cross a line even though in this novel Stephanie is firmly with Morelli (oh yes).

The second issue I had with Notorious Nineteen is something that has bothered me with all of her novels: guns. I am a Canadian and we are not a gun toting people so gun culture is a bit of foreign concept for me. I know that in the United States carrying a gun is much more acceptable. However, given catastrophes like the recent school shooting in Newtown I would be interested to see a writer such as Evanovich take a sterner stance on gun control. It is true that Stephanie does not like to carry a gun, but the conversations about guns in her novels seems so casual. It is frightening.

Overall, I found Notorious Nineteen to be one of the weaker Stephanie Plum novels. It was still enjoyable, but not as solid as some of the others. In fact, there were times while I was reading when I thought that this may even be the last Stephanie Plum novel, though there is no solid evidence for that.

Who would like this book? If you are looking for a light, funny crime based novel Janet Evanovich is your woman. The characters that populate the Stephanie Plum novels are great. They tend towards the quirky and may not be too realistic, but they are entertaining. In a similar vein to the Stephanie Plum novels are the Spellman novels by Lisa Lutz. Lutz’s novels lack the sexual tension that permeates the Stephanie Plum novels, but are still a good read.

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont


UK edition

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont has been out for a year in hardcover and has just made an appearance in paperback. I am embarrassed to say that it has taken me this long to get to it, but that’s what happens when you have an ever growing To Be Read list. I also have to admit that I read the UK version, which makes no difference but I think it has a better cover.

I have admitted my love of the boarding school novel before so it should come as no surprise that the reason I was originally drawn to The Starboard Sea was because it is set in an elite New England boarding school. It also received great reviews all over the place. These reviews are certainly warranted, but it does feel like a first novel. For some reason, it seems to me that a lot of teenage angst and tragedy tend to get thrown into first novels.


US Edition

The angst begins when Jason Prosper has to transfer to Bellingham Academy for his senior year after Cal, his best friend and roommate, commits suicide. Like layers of an onion, as the story proceeds we learn more about the events leading up to Cal’s death and what may have precipitated it. Tragedy begets tragedy, and as the story proceeds Jason encounters more adversity. This is where the story becomes a little too much for me. There is just too much that happens to Jason. Not only that, he blames himself for most of it.

Now I’ve made it sound like The Starboard Sea is a sad or depressing tale, which it is not. It is a coming of age story and is a genuinely enjoyable read. I look forward to reading more by Dermont in the future.

Who would like this book? The heart of the story lies in male friendships and for that reason I think The Starboard Sea can easily be recommended to men (though women would also enjoy ita0 . A large component of the novel also has to do with sailing, which Dermont writes about masterfully. I would recommend it along side other boarding school novels, though A Separate Peace by John Knowles stands out as a particularly good companion piece since both deal with male friendships and untimely deaths.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

the dinnerWow. It has been a long time since I have been this floored by a book. The Dinner by Herman Koch is haunting. It has been somewhat of an international sensation that has finally been translated into English from Dutch. Now it goes without saying that I am a book snob on many levels and there is one part of me that hates reading books in translation. I don’t know why. I argue that the beauty of the language is lost in translation, that translations lack nuance, but basically it comes down to the fact that I often find translations inaccessible. That is certainly not the case with The Dinner. The prose is crisp and clean – whether or not it was like that in the original Dutch I have no idea, but it does seem to work in the English. Furthermore, there is such subtlety conveyed in the translation that I went from quite liking one set of diners at the dinner in question, to being horrified by them.

It is difficult to talk about The Dinner without revealing too much, but I shall try. A recurring theme in the novel is Tolstoy’s old adage that “all happy families are the alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. This is particularly relevant since The Dinner is set for Paul and his wife, and Paul’s brother (an important politician) and his wife. They have met and come together to discuss an important matter that involves their children. And yes, it takes the whole novel to reveal what is covered at this dinner. The mantle of ‘unhappy family’ glides from the relationship of Paul and his brother, to his brother’s family, to Paul’s own family. The inter-relationships of the four main characters at the dinner are fascinating and sublimely revealing. It would be difficult to find another character based story so deftly told.

In the end The Dinner is a deeply troubling novel. The events that transpire and the characters’ reactions to them are, at times, horrifying. Yet this only makes the novel more compelling. In the early pages of the story I found myself quite liking Paul and his commentary on the social pretensions of his brother and the restaurant in which they are dining. But by the end of the novel Paul’s ideas seem so repulsive I could not believe that I had once sympathized with him.

Who would like this book? At the end of the day I don’t know if ‘like’ is even a word you would ascribe to The Dinner. It is powerful, haunting, creepy and provocative, but likable it is not. Although I never read The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, I suspect that The Dinner raises many of the same kind of uncomfortable emotions. Right now I’m recommending this book to everyone. It is hard to put down. You may not like it in the end, but it will make you think.

Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

frances and bernardThe buzz surrounding Frances and Bernard, the debut novel by Carlene Bauer, since its recent release (January 23, 2013 in Canada and February 5, 2013 in UK) has been immense. By the time I picked it last week I was filled with anticipation and excitement. Certainly, the characters of the story interested me – two writers, a novelist and a poet, who meet at a writers retreat and establish a long letter-writing relationship. These characters are based to a large extent on Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell and their long relationship.

For the most part the novel is comprised of letters going back and forth between the title characters. The most revealing and interesting letters, however, were often those written to others outside of this relationship – Frances’ best friend, an agent, an aging nun and Bernard’s closest friend.

I must admit that as excited as I was about Frances and Bernard, I initially found it to be a bit of a struggle. In fact, those first sixty pages were some of the longest sixty pages I’ve read in a long time. They were dominated by discussions of faith: Bernard’s recent conversion to Catholicism and Frances’ life long commitment to it. And as fitting two writers who read a lot, they batted back and forth names and ideas belonging to those such as St. Augustine and Simone Weil. I’ve got to be honest with you here, I have a degree in Religious Studies and these discussions to me back to some of my most boring and loathed classes.

After that initial hump, the book really picks up. I don’t want to tell you how or why the book picks up, but let’s just say it becomes a little more plot driven and a little less philosophical. In fact, Frances and Bernard becomes a rather poignant love story.

Who would like this book? Fans of letter writing and the epistolary novel rejoice! Letter writing is an art that is deftly mastered in Frances and Bernard. That each character’s writing voice is so strong and distinct really showcases Bauer’s talent. Due to the religious angst that Bernard experiences Francis and Bernard reminded me of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which was a novel I adored in high school, so I might recommend it as a companion piece. Personally, I plan to follow up Frances and Bernard with Bauer’s own memoir Not That Kind of Girl, which recounts her own struggles with her Evangelical upbringing.

Canada Reads 2013 Round Up

Canada Reads is upon us. One of the things I like and hate most about Canada Reads is that you can never predict what is going to happen or who will win. We have to remember that these are not just books at play, but also the sometimes quirky and unexpected personalities that defend them. Yes, I’m thinking of you Justin Trudeau circa 2003 (was it really that long ago?)

For 2013 our books and defenders are as follows:

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese defended by Carol Huynh,

The Age of Hope by David Bergen defended by Ron MacLean,

Away by Jane Urquhart defended by Charlotte Gray,

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan defended by Jay Baruchel,

February by Lisa Moore defended by Trent McLellan.

indian horseRight now the fan favorite, hands down, seems to be Indian Horse according to this CBC pollThe one thing that could derail Indian Horse‘s success is Carol Huynh, the books defender. Huynh was a complete unknown to me before this and as it turns out she is a wrestler. I would like to think that this will give her a competitive edge somehow, but never having heard her speak I can honestly say that I have no idea how well she will do in the literary wrestling ring that is Canada Reads. The book itself, however, is breath taking. I can see other celebrity jurors  who get voted off early falling hard for Indian Horse.

bergenSpeaking of getting voted off early, I think The Age of Hope should be the first to go. Of all the books, I think it was the weakest in meeting the Canada Reads criteria. I also think it will not appeal to as many of the panelists as some of the other books (ahem, Indian Horse). That being said, it is being defended by none other than Ron MacLean. Not only is he a persuasive speaker who regularly has to go up against Don Cherry, but I am also really, really interested to see why he chose The Age of Hope. Will his reasons be compelling enough to convince me, not to mention the other panelists, of its merit as a Canada Reads contender? And if all goes according to plan, he will quickly become an advocate for Indian Horse once his book gets voted off.

awayInitially Away was favored to win Canada Reads 2013, and with good reason. Not only is the book a well loved Canadian classic and award winner, it is also being defended by the formidable Charlotte Gray. I suspect Away still has a good chance of taking the title, though I must admit I would be a little disappointed if it did. It just seems like one of the usual suspects.

twosolitudesSurprisingly, to me at least, I think Two Solitudes has a very good chance at making it until the end, but not winning the title. It is a book that has certainly stood the test of time. It is as relevant to day as it was when it first came out in 1945. I think it also captures what Canada is about for a vast section of the population. Jay Baruchel is likely to give a well thought out, personal and I am expecting humorous defense of the book. But will this be enough to make it the ultimate winner?

february_lisa_mooreFinally, February. I see it outlasting The Age of Hope and Away, which means that I think it will do quite well in this battle of the books. It is being defended by Trent MacLennan, a comedian who’s work I am not familiar with. The book, however, is solid and I think it will be well liked by the panelists. I can also see a panelist who gets voted off early throwing their weight behind February.

So that’s the way I see it. Away and The Age of Hope getting voted off early, the last three fighting it out in a blood bath of unprecedented proportions. I hope the winner will be Indian Horse, but who knows. By this time on Tuesday everything may have changed. I will try to post throughout the week, but my vacation may get in the way. Good luck to all!

Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran

why we writeHere I go again. Another book that I absolutely loved. Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran is a simple book, and that is the beauty of it. She took 20 well known authors both of fiction and non-fiction, commercial writers and literary writers (Ann Patchett,Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Egan, Michael Lewis etc.) and asked them one simple question: Why do you write? The answers are all slightly different but drift back towards one truth: writers write because they can’t not write. As a notable aside, a portion of the sales goes to 826 National, a youth literacy program started by Dave Eggers.

Each chapters focuses on one writer. It starts with a short excerpt from their most recent work, follows with some background material, before breaking into a section called The Vitals which includes date of birth, hometown, day job, awards and notable notes. The Vitals was  in fact one of my favorite things about the layout of the book – a quick snapshot of the person you were dealing with. Not surprisingly, the next section listed the writer’s collected works. Finally we get to the bulk of the chapter in which the writers answers why they write. This section is written in a very casual, conversational way. Often other questions from Maran are interspersed in the narrative. The final color-blocked portion is Wisdom for Writers, in which these famed writers distill what they have learned about writing into three or four bullet points.

One of the reasons I liked Why We Write so much is because it granted me access to a unique club and made me feel as though I belonged there. It is certainly nice to know that blockbuster author David Baldacci, Pultizer prize winner Jennifer Egan and I all write for the same reasons. I also appreciated knowing that I shared some key characteristics with Michael Lewis (late night writing) and Susan Orlean (love of researching). Above all, Why We Write inspired me to keep doing what I am doing, and that feels good.

Who would like this book? This book is for the person in your life who loves reading, loves writing and loves reading about writing. I also think it would be perfect as a graduation present for the right person. If only someone had encouraged me when I was younger instead of telling me there is no money in writing, then I might be somewhere else right now. It is an easy read, but it is an enlightening read.

The Juggler’s Children by Carolyn Abraham

Juggler's childrenWow. I loved The Juggler’s Children by Carolyn Abraham.I must say that the reason this book is so great is because Abraham is a wonderful storyteller. Normally, listening to someone go on about the ins and outs of their family history can be a little on the dull side – especially when it gets into DNA testing. But someone how Abraham has managed to weave the most captivating story out of this. Her turns of phrase are remarkable and with every page and chapter of this genealogical caper I wanted to read more. When it came to explaining the intricacies of DNA testing, Abraham makes that interesting and understandable.

Families can be as twisted as the genetic strands that bind them, old as time, born of chance and random couplings.

The story was born out of a search for identity. Abraham is of multi-ethnic background, leading people to ask “so where are you from?”. The answers of Mississauga and England did not seem satisfactory to those who saw a darkish skinned girl with unusual features, even though it was the truth. As a result Abraham looked back to her ancestors – a juggler, a sea captain, a slave owner? – to get some answers. The journey into her ancestry took her to India, China and Jamaica. As the paper trail wore thin advances in DNA testing moved Abraham in new and sometimes unexpected directions.

Who would like this book? I was drawn to this book because of Retreat by RandomHouse‘s description of  as a cross between The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. That, of course, is just another way of saying that it is a well researched and enticingly told story that has science as it’s backbone. I would also recommend it to anyone interested in genealogy. On more than one occasion it also made me think of What Disturbs Our Blood by James Fitzgerald, which I also really enjoyed.  But really, it is a well written yarn that will appeal to just about anyone.