The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

unchangeable spotsThe Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma is one of those post-modern, meta novels that is hard to describe. There are stories within stories, outside of stories all told by a highly unreliable nameless (or multiply named?) narrator. Sound confusing? Well, it was and it wasn’t. One thing that can clearly be said about The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is that it is brilliant. I feel like I’ve been saying that about books too frequently lately, but it is true. It is also true that I do not choose to read books that I don’t think will appeal to me.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a readers’ and a writers’ novel. The two main protagonists are writers who meet in college and continually push each other to achieve greater writing. One of them finds fame, the other doesn’t but leads an exciting life. At its heart it is a novel about writing. For the die hard readers out there, the novel is jam packed full of literary illusions from all over the place. I probably only caught onto a fraction of them, but the ones I saw were captivating. I suspect that due to all the literary illusions it is a novel that gets better with multiple readings, kind of like the movie Magnolia, that gets better each time I watch it.

The central theme of the book is truth and the nature of storytelling. Jansma plays with these two ideas throughout the novel to the point where you do not know what is really happening, or just happening to make a better story. The narrator slips on different identities that become so real you forget that he is just playing a part. It becomes all the more confusing when he meets his doppelganger in Ghana. While trying on these different identities the narrator tells the same story of love and loss, but in different ways and in different setting, though the outcome is always the same. It is utterly fascinating the way Jansma weaves the narrative together.

Who would like this book? As I have already mentioned, this is a writers’ and a readers’ book. As a writer it appealed to me in the same was as The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman did. It is about writing, struggling to find your story and making it better. The writing style of The Changeable Spots of Leopards, which I like to call post-something and meta, reminds me very much of Eleanor Catton‘s The Rehearsal. Because you are never exactly sure where you are, the narrative style is slightly destabilizing, but highly rewarding once you orient yourself. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It is challenging at times, but it is also humorous, adventuresome and rewarding.

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

psychoCan I just start of by saying that I love Jon Ronson? It’s something you should know. I mostly know him through his appearances on This American Life, the CBC and BBC, and his TED talk. The Psychopath Test is actually the first book by him that I’ve read. Not surprisingly, it was fascinating, but it wasn’t really what I expected. Based on all the media he had done when the book first came out way back in 2011, I had thought that the book was largely going to be about the Psychopath Test, its development and uses. Not so. Really, it is a series of stories dealing with either the mentally ill, psychopaths or the Psychopath Test to varying degrees. Ronson, is after all a journalist, and this appears to be an attempt to string together some marginally related stories into a book length treatment. Just over half the book is really about psychopathy, the rest is marginal.

Fortunately for Ronson, the loose framework of the book did not deter from my enjoyment of it (though I did spend the first chapter wondering how it was related to psychopathy). Ronson is a natural born story teller. Here he weaves together a wonderful narrative that includes his many anxieties, through the lens of the Psychopath Test, that he is now authorized to administer. This new power skews the way he sees people around him, especially people he is interviewing. Are they psychopaths?

Interestingly enough, the study of psychopathy has a fir bit of Can-con (that’s Canadian content) in its history. The test itself was developed by a Canadian and before that Canadians were leaders in some very controversial psychopathy research.

Who would like this book? This book is a fascinating and not too challenging read. I like my non-fiction to have a healthy dose of storytelling to it, and in that respect Ronson delivers. If you are looking for a hardcore study of psychopathy this is not it. Most if what is contained inside is anecdotal. Remember, Ronson is a journalist, not a psychologist. A more hard hitting look at psychopathy around us may be Snakes in Suits by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare. I say that not because I’ve read it, but because the authors are noted psychopathy researchers.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

swimming-homeSwimming Home by Deborah Levy was plucked from my To Be Read pile. It was there largely because it was nominated for the 2012 Booker Prize. I had heard various things about it, both good and bad, but the real reason I wanted to read it was because it reminded me of the 2003 British movie Swimming Pool. Both are reputed to be thrillers, both are set in the south of France and both involve a young, nubile, uninvited guest. Now truthfully, I can barely remember Swimming Pool, but I would say the similarities end there.

Swimming Home was purported to be a psychological thriller. When it comes to literary fiction, perhaps that is what a thriller is, but the truth is, it did not keep me sitting on the edge of my seat. Rather, I would classify this novella (it is very short) as a character study. The core of the story revolves around Kitty, an uninvited and psychologically troubled guest at a holiday villa occupied by two middle aged couples and a 14 year old daughter. Kitty is found swimming naked in their pool one day and is invited to stay out the rest of the week with the family. Ostensibly the reason Isabel has invited Kitty to stay is so that she can ‘catch’ her husband in a compromising position and end their marriage.

I said I would classify Swimming Home as a character study, for that is what I imagine it is trying to be. The problem is that most of the characters are not fully flushed out. Early on we get the sense that Kitty is odd (and has a propensity for nudity), but the depths of her psychological problems are not fully explored. Instead she seems slightly ‘touched’, as Isabel describes her. In particular, Laura and Mitchell, the couple with whom the family is sharing the villa, seem like cardboard cut outs. In many ways, Swimming Home feels like it was left unfinished. The premise of the story is engaging, but it just doesn’t pan out.

Who would like this book? I love reading novels that give the reader a sense of place, especially when that place is somewhere far away. All of its other weaknesses aside, Swimming Home made me want to beeline it for the south of France. Levy really conveyed the feeling of a lazy holiday in the summer heat. In that sense I think it would make a good holiday or beach read. For me, it provided a quick bout of escapism (and warmth) when I needed it.

Honour by Elif Shafak

honorThe build up to Elif Shafak‘s latest novel, Honour, has been tremendous. I first heard about it months ago at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. No doubt the hype is due in part to the subject of honor killings that stands at the center of this novel. Shafak herself is quite outspoken when it comes to feminist and political issues. I think that is why I was so surprised at the subtle manner in which Shafak deals with the topic in Honour. I was expecting a much more forceful indictment of honor killings and the role of a woman’s honor in relation to family status. Instead Shafak has provided the reader with a twisting and turning story that is truly plot driven while still casting honor killings in an unapologetic light.

That being said, there are still moments when the interwoven themes of shame, disgrace and honor are handled in a rather heavy handed way.

… ‘Honour was more than a word. It was also a name. You could call your child ‘Honour’, as long as it was a boy. Men had honour. Old men, middle-aged men, even schoolboys so young that they still smelled of their mothers’ milk. Women did not have honour. Instead, they had shame. And, as everyone knew, Shame would be a rather poor name to bear.

Honour is going to be gaining literary accolades this season. It has started already with Shafak’s inclusion on the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (nee Orange Prize). However, I had difficulty getting into to it. Particularly in the beginning the writing seemed to take on an overly mythic tone. Either I got used to it, or it tamed itself as the novel progressed, but I did find it off putting. Shafak writes in both Turkish and English and I wondered if the earlier parts of the novel had been translated. I know I am going to be in the minority when I say that Honour was just alright. It definitely picks up, but there seemed to be a lot of back story from when the characters lived in Turkey that weighed the narrative down.

Who would like this book? I was immediately reminded of Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernieres when I started Honour. True, both are set in rural eastern Turkey, but it was actually the writing style that made me thing of Birds Without Wings. Since Birds Without Wings is widely accepted as a good novel that may not be a bad thing for most people. I, however, have attempted Birds Without Wings several times and I have never finished it. That very rarely happens to me. The plight of minorities in London in Honour reminded me quite a bit of Brick Lane by Monica Ali and I think a favorable comparison can be made of the two books.

Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

penelopeRebecca Harrington has written one helluva good romp through freshman year at Harvard in her debut novel Penelope. It is a laugh out loud funny story about a socially awkward girl trying to navigate the highly fraught waters of Harvard’s social world. She is a fish out of water. When everyone else seems to know everybody else in this elite fishbowl, she knows no one. When everyone else seems to know where they should be and more importantly with whom they should be seen, Penelope is left wandering around alone, longing to play Tetris.

Penelope was not unused to nerdiness. She had hung around with nerds her whole life, or tried to, for nerds can be very exclusionary.

Harrington’s brilliance comes from the way she portrays the people with whom Penelope comes into contact. To a certain extent these people are mere stereotypes of those one meets at university, but in a way that is precisely what makes them so real. One of the things I loved was how the ‘cool’ people in the novel are constantly describing one another as ‘hilarious’. This phrase is used so often to describe anyone and everyone that it essentially becomes meaningless and turns into the most banal of statements. Similarly, all the students that surround Penelope are constantly complaining about all the work they have to do. Again, this seems to be a familiar chorus of university life, complaints about workload while doing very little besides complaining about it. And while everyone else seems to be struggling to get good grades, Penelope sails on by, barely aware that there are assignments to be done. That seems to be the one fault in the novel. I was left wondering how Penelope ever managed to get into Harvard when the competition seems so tough.

Who would like this book? This book is for those who love a good humorous look at college life. Penelope is funny and makes for good social commentary that goes beyond the Ivy League. In some ways it reminded me of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Both novels deal with the perils of social relationships in closed communities and devastation that one false step can unleash. Penelope is a fast read and would be ideal for a plane or one concentrated sitting.

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

newlywedsI flipped and flopped a fair bit over whether I should read The Newlyweds. In many ways it is Nell Freudenberger‘s breakout novel, though it is her third. I remember when The Dissident by her came out, and I was attracted to it. By way of contrast, The Newlyweds  seemed so … domestic and pedestrian (the cover of the newly released trade paperback does nothing to dispel this; I’ve pictured the hardcover edition). But for some reason it was gaining wide spread acclaim. So I read it and was pleasantly surprised.

On the surface The Newlyweds appears to be a story you’ve heard before: a man from the States meets a woman from Bangladesh online and they get married. A clash of cultures follows as the woman resettles in the United States. Freudenberger makes this staid plot come alive with deceptive twists and turns and of course, bewildering sets of family dynamics on both sides. Her writing is simple and unadorned but her characters are far from it. They are what make the novel great.

The one thing that impresses me the most about Freudenberger is her ability to get into the heads of people from different cultures. She has successfully done this in all of her books, but most notably in The Dissident and The Newlyweds. I have spent a lot of time in South Asia and was wary of how someone, who is ostensibly American, would portray a Bangladeshi family. It would seem, however, that Freudenberger has done her research. She is able to paint a picture of Deshi village life that is as realistic as her portrait of suburban Rochester, NY. Moreover, I don’t recall any criticism of an American ‘appropriating the voice of a third world other’. This comes as a bit of a relief to me as I am in the middle of writing a novel with several ‘others’ in it.

Who would like this book? Freudenberger really is one of those hot, young American writers you should be watching. Everything she has written has been highly praised and award winning. I suspect her next novel will be huge. So that being said, I would encourage you to follow in my footsteps and read other stuff by her. I may bypass The Dissident and go right onto Lucky Girls, collection of short stories.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

ghana-must-goGhana Must Go is a pretty awesome achievement for first time novelist Taiye Selasi. It is a powerful story written in dense poetic language that is stunning. The story focuses on the death of Kwaku, the family patriarch. Told in three parts, the first section focuses on Kwaku’s experiences in leaving Africa and immigrating to the United States for medical school. The second part takes place mostly in the United States and focuses on Kwaku’s wife, Fola, and the life she assembles for herself and her four children in the wake of Kwaku abruptly leaving them. The final section of the story deals more with the four children and the emotional fallout that their father’s death and his abandonment of them years earlier has on their adult lives. The overall effect of the novel is haunting and devastating.

Before Ghana Must Go came out I heard lots of praise for Selasi’s writing and it is certainly deserved. Her writing is dense and poetic, which means that this novel is not a fast read and probably deserves another look to fully appreciate everything Selasi is doing. I must admit that I did not love the first section of the novel as I was reading it. It was more in hindsight that I saw the craft behind the story’s literary structure. I also found the second two sections to be more interesting and therefore more readable because of the psychological dimensions added to the narrative.

Though I argue that Ghana Must Go would be more fully appreciated with a second reading, for me that second reading will never come. There are aspects of the story that are just too heartbreaking for me to read again. Selasi is ruthless in the truths about families that she presents. We know that all families are unhappy in their own particular way and, moreover, that each member of a family bears that unhappiness in their own way and Selasi illustrates this with aplomb.

Who would like this book? This book is for the connoisseur of serious literary fiction. Selasi’s prose style is unique and takes some time to get used to, but it is beautiful. Ghana Must Go is a book to be studied an appreciated. The story itself would appeal to those looking for the immigrant experience, both first and second generation. Surprisingly, given the title, very little of it takes place in Africa.

Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

happier-at-homeHappier at Home is the follow up to Gretchen Rubin’s huge hit The Happiness Project (2009). It is now five years later and Rubin has realized that although her initial Happiness Project was a success, there is still room for improvement. In The Happiness Project she took a year to revamp her life by making small changes. Every month had a theme such as family or work and she came up with small changes that would improve the quality of that area of her life. In Happier at Home, Rubin focuses more specifically on what would make her home life happier. This reflects, in some ways, a shift in her own world as her children grow up and become more independent. This time instead of dedicating a full year to her task, she takes a school year – a more logical chunk of time for someone with school age children.

Like in her earlier book, the thing that makes Happier at Home such a success is how personable Rubin is. She is not some self-help guru with the answer to everything. She tries different things – sometimes she fails, sometimes she succeeds, but the whole time she remains true to herself. The goals she sets for herself are not always lofty, but do improve the quality of her home life. She creates small shrines around her house to remind her of what is important to her and of family memories. She comes up with a way to prevent her BlackBerry from taking over her life. She spends more dedicated time with each of her children.  And she does all of this without being prescriptive. The idea, after all, is not to do what she does, but to find your own way using her as a guide.

As I mentioned above, Rubin is very personable and relate-able. I felt like she could be a friend. We share many similar interests, such as reading,writing and research. This is reflected in the quotations that fill her book. She is well read, and to me that makes reading her book more enticing. She also admits to some dark truths that I share with her: I would often rather be at my computer writing than with my family, and no matter what I am doing I would almost always rather be reading. Scary but true.

The one major difference between Happier at Home and The Happiness Project is that reading The Happiness Project was like a call to action for me. I started my own (failed) Happiness Project and thoroughly checked out This time, after having read Happier at Home I have not jumped to action in the same way. That may because all the hard ground work was laid after The Happiness Project or it may reflect that I, like Rubin, am at a different stage in my life. Happier at Home did reignite my awareness of certain things, and there are concrete changes I am going to make but it will not be the grand overhaul that The Happiness Project inspired.

Who would like this book? Like The Happiness Project, this is a self-help book for people who hate self-help. I don’t even like to think of it as self-help but that is probably what it is. Both of Rubin’s books make you think about your life, even if you are not unhappy, and the ways that you could make it happier. More importantly, Rubin is a regular person making simple changes. Nothing earth shattering.