Monthly Archives: June 2012

House of Prayer No. 2, by Mark Richard

So, imagine you’re reading a book or article where someone recommends this great memoir, and it sounds good, so you check it out. And you start to read it, and the author tries to grab your attention with the rather funky device of writing in the second person. And you think, OK, this is interesting, but you find yourself hoping that he drops the second-person narration soon, once he gets out of the introduction, because it’s irritating to you and distances you from the narrative.

BUT HE NEVER DOES DROP IT.

You read on, anyway, partly because you paid good money for the e-book and partly because it really is an interesting story, the tale of a boy growing up in the Southern U.S. with a brilliant unconventional mind, a physical disability, a tangled family life and a keen eye for observing the world around him. You appreciate that it’s the story of a writer’s coming of age, and also a spiritual memoir in which the storyteller finds his way from spiritual darkness to faith, and even considers going into the ministry, but it’s in no way similar to any evangelical conversion story you’ve ever heard or read. You appreciate the freshness and vividness of the author’s writing but every moment, on every single page, you can’t help being irritated by that second-person narration. It’s a gimmick, you think, and one that has never caught on broadly for good reason: it should draw the reader in, speaking so intimately to the reader as “you,” inviting the reader to put him/herself in the narrator’s shoes — but it does just the opposite. It creates a wall where there should be a window into another person’s thoughts. You decide that you really can’t cope with it.

So, in brief: you liked a lot of things about this book, but would have enjoyed it more had it been written in first-person, as memoirs more usually are.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is a new and hilarious addition to the “I got a book deal from my blog” phenomenon. Jenny Lawson already has a huge following at The Bloggess and it’s not hard to see why. Her style is breezy, funny, occasionally profane, and sometimes a little too bloggy for a book (the rambling, discursive style of writing that makes some of the best blogs great doesn’t always translate perfectly to the page). She also has great material to work with — her wildly unconventional (though not necessarily dysfunctional) upbringing, her own wide variety of neuroses, and her marriage to what must certainly be the most patient man alive. Lawson’s memoir is not for the prissy nor for the faint of heart, nor for those who are big on literary structure. But it is always entertaining. I read it quickly and although I think her writing works best in its natural environment (online), I did enjoy it a lot and would read another book if it came out. Meanwhile, I’ll continue checking out her blog.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

Thirst, by Shree Ghatage

I love Shree Ghatage’s writing because it is rich and redolent with a sense of place and time, and Thirst is no exception. It is set in India, Wales and England in 1942, and each locale is lovingly brought to life with the kind of detail that makes it feel as if you’ve really visited. More than just setting details, the details of characters and their emotions seem true to time and place. Thirst tells the story of two young people joined in an arranged marriage, who have never met before their wedding. At first Vijay and Vasanti seem to have little in common, but over the months following the wedding a shy, sweet love story unfolds. However, before the relationship can truly have a chance to blossom, Vijay leaves India for London, where he has made plans to study law. Everyone thinks he’s crazy for going to England in the middle of the war, especially as he’s leaving his new bride behind, but Vijay has reasons of his own for making the trip.

Nothing in England is quite what Vijay hoped it would be. The story leaves Vasanti behind and follows his adventures as a series of events leads to him turning up alone, injured and temporarily amnesiac in a remote Welsh village. There, a brief encounter with a kindly old man and the man’s daughter leads Vijay to make a fateful mistake that will test his deeply ingrained sense of honour and duty.

I loved reading this book and felt completely immersed in it, and curiously shocked when it ended. I think this may be one of the disadvantages of reading a book on an e-reader — unlike a physical book, you can’t always tell how close you are to the end. At the point the story ended, I was expecting there to be a lot more, and so the ending struck me as abrupt and, in many ways, unsatisfying. Having left her main character with an almost unsolvable problem, Ghatage does not tell the reader exactly how he solves it — though she leaves enough clues for us to draw a conclusion. I was disappointed by the ending but I think the disappointment I felt was probably what the author would have wanted me to feel — in other words, she did not intend to tell a story that tied off all the loose ends as neatly as some readers might like. After the emotional energy I’d invested in Vijay’s and Visanti’s relationship at the beginning of the book I was jarred by how it ended — but then, real life is all too often jarring, and many loose ends don’t get tidied away. 

I definitely recommend this book and would be interested in hearing how others responded to the ending.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

The Serpent’s Shadow, by Rick Riordan

I haven’t reviewed every Rick Riordan book I’ve read; I’ve talked about the original Percy Jackson novel and also about The Lost Hero, the first book of Riordan’s second series (the first series deals with ancient Greek gods and demigods in the modern world, the second with the gods of Rome). However I have read everything Riordan’s published in these series as well as his “Kane Chronicles,” a series about a teenaged brother and sister who rediscover the gods of ancient Egypt, of which The Serpent’s Shadow is the third and final book. Emma and Chris both enjoyed the first series; Chris kind of lost interest after that — he’s been into more realistic fiction lately — but Emma and I have continued reading Riordan.

I enjoy the breezy tone of the Kane Chronicles very much, and the interplay between the bickering brother-and-sister narrators, who often remind me of my own two children! And, just as the earlier series did for the gods of Greece and Rome, this trilogy gives readers a good introduction to the mythology of ancient Egypt. Fair warning to conservative Christian parents who are uncomfortable with their kids reading about pagan gods: you will probably like this series even less than the others, since the form of ancient Egyptian magic that Carter and Sadie Kane and their friends practice includes having humans serve as hosts for various gods and allowing the gods to speak and act through them.

For readers who don’t share those concerns and would just like their kids to enjoy a good action/adventure story with a little painless learning about ancient cultures, this is a great series that wraps up neatly in three books. Emma and I have been speculating on what Rick Riordan will do next, and we’re convinced Norse gods are coming soon … wonder if we’re right?

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Filed under Children's, Fiction -- fantasy, Young Adult

Sister Queens, by Julia Fox

Sister Queens is a biography —  or rather, two parallel biographies — of the well-known Katherine of Aragon and her slightly less well-known sister, Juana the Mad. Except that she may not have actually been mad. Fox argues that Queen Juana’s supposed insanity was probably invented or at least exaggerated, first by her father and later by her son, to prevent her from reigning as a sovereign queen and to consolidate their own grips on power.

Both sisters’ lives were sad: Juana spent most of her adult life under house arrest, and after Henry VIII decided he wanted a divorce, Katherine was pretty much a prisoner too, with her beloved daughter Mary not even allowed to see her as she was dying. It’s understandable that a writer would want to compare these two women’s lives, all the more so because they were sisters. The parallel presentation is somewhat weakened by the fact that after leaving home to marry, the sister had only one brief meeting and no further contact, not even by letters, nor is there any evidence that either was concerned about the other’s plight. The presentation is also, of necessity, a little imbalanced: the letters Katherine wrote throughout much of her life survive, but there is little extant evidence that Juana ever wrote a letter, or anything else, after she was incarcerated. Her story has to be told from an outsider’s view, with few glimpses into how she herself might have felt about her situation, which is frustrating for the reader.

Despite its limitations, this is a very readable and informative biography, and I was interested both to learn more about Juana, and to learn more of Katherine’s well-known story from her point of view.

 

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Filed under Nonfiction -- general

Holy Ghost Girl, by Donna M. Johnson

This is another of the memoirs that I picked up as a weekend break from the long historical tomes, and I devoured it in a matter of hours. Of course any story that explores the author’s religious and spiritual roots is almost guaranteed to be a hit with me, but Holy Ghost Girl is a particularly good example of the genre.

In some ways, it reminded me less of other memoirs I’ve read than of a novel I recently finished: Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows. Just as The Little Shadows made the world of early twentieth-century vaudeville performers seem real to me, so Holy Ghost Girl illuminated another hidden world, a different kind of performance art: life on the sawdust trail, under the big tent of a charismatic (in both senses) revival preacher.

Donna Johnson, as a young child, travelled in the entourage of Brother David Terrell: her mother played the organ in Terrell’s travelling revival meetings. I’d never heard of Terrell before reading this book, but the type is familiar, although Terrell is a late-day example of a phenomenon that flourished more in the earlier years of the twentieth-century. He was (and still is) a genuine hellfire and brimstone holiness preacher, whose stage show was complete with tongues-speaking, Spirit-slaying, and faith-healings.

As Donna describes the early years, in the 1960s, it’s clear that the ministry and the minister operated on a shoestring budget, dependent on offerings, dirt-poor much of the time, driven by all-consuming faith. Over the years, this changed: Holy Ghost Girl documents how, with growing popularity, prosperity crept into the movement and Brother Terrell began to live in fine style while many of his followers remained in poverty. Fancy cars and swimming pools weren’t the only signs of deviation from the original cause: sexual immorality was a problem too. Donna’s mother was only one of several women with whom Terrell not only carried on affairs, but had quasi-marriages and secret families.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

Ninety Days, by Bill Clegg

Lately I’ve been reading some long historical books — I reread Wolf Hall right before Bring up the Bodies, and I have two long biographies on the go right now — and breaking them up with some short, punchy memoirs. The first was Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days, the sequel to his Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.  It was actually an excerpt from Ninety Days that drew my attention to Bill Clegg’s writing and made me want to read more, although I sensibly read the first book first.

Ninety Days picks up shortly after Portrait leaves off, with Bill returning from rehab and trying to get through ninety clean days. He’s back in New York City but instead of being an up-and-coming literary agent with a beautiful Manhattan apartment and a loving boyfriend, he’s alone, unemployed, and, at first, homeless: depending on a friend’s loaned studio for a place to sleep.

Regaining any element of his old life seems impossible: all that matters is staying clean and sober. Except for the times when he relapses, or thinks about relapsing, and then all that matters is getting money and getting drugs again.

He does relapse. Several times. There’s nothing easy or triumphant about this recovery tale: in some ways it’s harder to read than the prequel, describing the depths of addiction. It’s sobering (pun intended?) to realize that someone can experience those depths, know how bad they are, get through withdrawal and get clean, and then want to run right back to the same substance that created all that damage and devastation. Ninety Days is a testament to how weak the human will can be, and how necessary are those staples of Twelve-Step recovery: a community of other recovering addicts, and yes, even a Higher Power. Even for those, like Bill Clegg, who aren’t conventionally religious.

Along the way, as Clegg is fighting for those ninety days (having to start the count over at one every time he relapses), he sees James Frey on Oprah, hears about (maybe reads? I can’t remember) Frey’s book. He doesn’t actually name James Frey or A Million Little Pieces, but the references to the most famous addiction memoir of the twenty-first century (so far) are unmistakeable. He’s nakedly envious — if a bit cynical — about Frey’s simple conclusion: after enduring the hell of withdrawal and rehab, Frey decided he didn’t need a twelve-step program, didn’t need a recovery community, didn’t need a Higher Power. He just needed himself and his own simple, moment by moment decision not to drink or use drugs again. Comparing his own fractured journey to sobriety with Frey’s makes Bill Clegg feel like a failure: why, he wonders, can’t he just decide not to drink and use, and be done with it?

It’s a fascinating glimpse into the psychology of addition, told in simple, clear language with few frills but great lucidity. Along the way the author shares not just his own story but, inevitably, those of other addicts he got to know in recovery — and there are, of course, some triumphs and some heartbreaks. If anyone, anywhere, still thinks that breaking an addition is as simple as just saying No, they really need to read this book.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s Wolf Hall was my favourite book of the year in 2010 — mine and a lot of other people’s, since it won the Booker Prize. It was a work of historical fiction that elevated historical fiction beyond genre categories; it was a superb piece of literary fiction that, along with the exquisitely beautiful writing, had the richly realized sense of place and time and compelling characters that mark the best historical fiction. And, like Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, it took a generally unpopular historical character — in this case, Henry VIII’s all-purpose right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell — and, without whitewashing him, made him not just real but sympathetic.

Everything that began in Wolf Hall is continued, just as brilliantly, in Bring Up the Bodies. This sequel has a much narrower and more specific focus — it tells one of the best-known and most compelling tales of English history, the story of Anne Boleyn’s swift fall from grace after Henry had spent most of a decade wooing her and wrenched the English church out of the grasp of Rome in order to accomplish his divorce. Anne’s dizzying decline in fortune has all the marks of classical tragedy — she begins this novel as the adored queen, and ends it disgraced and headless — and there is about the story the inevitability of tragedy. What makes Mantel’s telling unique is, of course, Cromwell’s point of view. We have heard Henry’s  story and Anne’s story: what we haven’t heard before is the story of the tireless civil servant who worked with such dedication to bring about the king’s divorce and make it possible for him to marry Anne — and who worked with just as much dedication, only a few short years later, to discredit Anne, to have her and several men close to her charged with adultery and treason, and to have her put to death, all so that Henry could marry the next woman who caught his eye (and who might finally give him the son he desperately wanted).

It’s easy to cast Cromwell as a villain but harder, especially in this part of his story, to make him a sympathetic character while portraying the sordid business in which he is involved. Mantel achieves it here, by making Cromwell so real that even if we disapprove of his part in the tragedy we can empathize with the man playing that part. Nor can we forget, as we read this story, that there is another tragedy coming, another inevitable downfall of one who rose to dizzying heights so quickly. Four year and two queens later Cromwell himself would fall from Henry’s favour — and for a man like Cromwell in his time and place, with no lofty family name or coat of arms to support him, the king’s favour was the one thing he could not afford to lose.

For those who know history, the shadow of that last fall hangs over Cromwell’s machinations in Bring up the Bodies. But avid readers will have to wait for a third volume to see how that story takes shape under Hilary Mantel’s skilled pen. I, for one, can’t wait.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

The Little Shadows, by Marina Endicott

The greatest pleasure in reading, especially in reading fiction, is the ability to visit places and times to which you could otherwise never have access. This, I think, is a big part of the impulse behind historical fiction: most of us want to visit the past, but you just can’t book a flight there. Unless you pick up a book like The Little Shadows, which takes a tiny, intimate part of the past and illuminates it so vividly you feel like you’ve been there.

The novel is set in the early 20th century, in the small world of vaudeville theatres in the western part of both Canada and the U.S.  Aurora, Bella and Clover, along with their mother who was herself a vaudeville artist in her day, travel from one theatre to another with their singing sister act, trying to find a steady gig that will pay the bills. Along the way, the three teenaged girls fall in love, grow up, and find their own places in the spotlight. It’s a coming of age tale, but one that derives its unique pleasure from so brilliantly recreating a lost world.

In the heyday of vaudeville, just as now, ambitious actors and singers who wanted to make a steady living had to work ridiculous hours, take any gig offered, and constantly walk the fine line between respectable and non-respectable work. These struggles are sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, and always believable, as they’re portrayed in the pages of The Little Shadows. Against the background of a world rapidly changing and plunging headlong into the madness of the First World War, the vaudeville subculture, and the characters trying to make their way in it, emerge fully realized in this book, a world you can step into and in which you can, for a little while, lose yourself.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical