Like much of Louise Erdrich’s work, The Round House is set on an American Indian reservation, exploring with realism, humour and depth the world of the contemporary Native American. Or, almost contemporary – The Round House is set in the 1980s. The narrator, 13-year-old Joe, is living a comfortable life as the son of a Bazil, a native judge and Geraldine, who is in charge of the tribal records office. When Geraldine is the victim of a brutal rape, she withdraws from her husband, son and community, refusing to talk about the crime. Despite her silence, it’s not long before everyone figures out who raped Geraldine — the more pressing question is whether the man can ever be prosecuted. The Round House points up the prevalence of rapes of Indian women by white men and the difficulty of bringing such cases to justice because of tangly questions of jurisdiction. On a more intimate level, though, it’s the story of a teenage boy coming of age in the context of a close-knit family and community, dealing with the trauma that strikes his family, and figuring out what “justice” looks like — which, in the world of this novel, doesn’t always mean following the letter of the law. I found this a compelling book, well-written as is always the case with Erdrich and, if not exactly enjoyable because of the painful subject matter, certainly powerful.
Category Archives: Fiction — general
I’m going to say right up front: it was a mistake to read this book during the “rolling blackouts” that led to the power outages in the first week of 2014. Reading dystopia when you’re safe, warm and comfortable is one thing. Reading dystopia when you’re living through a freezing cold weekend without power and realizing all too vividly how precariously our entire lifestyle is balanced on the reliability of electrical power and supplies, is a whole different experience. This is a well-written dystopian novel that starts in a time and place that is entirely relatable and believable — current-day suburban California, as experienced by an eleven-year-old girl — and quickly spins into nightmare as the earth’s rotation inexplicably starts to slow. Days and nights are thrown out of whack and everything reliable about the environment and human culture gradually slips into crisis as 24-hour days become 25-hour, then 30-hour, 48-hour and 60-hour days. Julia, the protagonist, is going through the typical changes and challenges of middle school in a world that appears at first to be keeping a grip on normality, but is changing in ways she can’t even begin to understand.
I found this novel very hard to put down and very hard to forget. While the actual triggering event — the slowing of the earth’s rotation — is farfetched and never explained (which annoyed some readers who were expecting a more sciencey science-fiction book), the resulting devastation is the kind that could occur as a result of any one of a number of ecological disasters. As I said, I was probably more vulnerable to this kind of thinking because I read it during a dark night when we were being warned that our power plants could generate enough electricity to see us through a winter cold spell, so the picture of a world where everything humans have come to rely on slowly falls away was poignant and terrifying. This book gave me chills on a very cold night, and troubled me in a way dystopian visions of the future don’t normally do.
When I finished reading this book, I felt such a sense of loss, it was like a break-up. We’d only been together less than a day — since I could not stop reading it — but during that time I fell deeply in love with at least three of the book’s characters. As for the author, I’ve always been in literary love with Joshilyn Jackson, but this, her sixth novel, may be my very favourite.
Someone Else’s Love Story tells the stories of two characters — Shandi Pierce and William Ashe — whose lives collide when they are both held at gunpoint in a convenience-store robbery. Shandi is a young single mom trying to finish college, raise a brilliant three-year-old, and balance the competing claims of two divorced parents who both love her very much but want different lives for her and her son. William is a brilliant scientist with a touch of Asperger’s and a life shattered by the tragic loss of his wife and daughter a year earlier. Shandi falls head-over-heels for William, and the story alternates between their two perspectives (Shandi’s in first-person, William’s in third-person) chapter by chapter as they deal with the aftermath of the store robbery and the secrets from their pasts each of them has been forced to confront.
Jackson has such a beautiful command of voice in this novel: William and Shandi are very different people and the way they think and view the world is completely different, and the language in their chapters reflects that perfectly, drawing us into each of their minds. This is not the sort of story where the desired “happy ending” is obvious from the start: as you read you realize that many outcomes are possible and there will be some joy and some loss however it works out. One thing Joshilyn Jackson is a master of is the unexpected twist in the story that forces you to view everything that’s happened so far in a different light — and when she pulls off the twist in this one, the ground under your feet will shift and so will your idea of what a “happy ending” might look like.
Shandi and William are great, multilayered, well-developed characters but so are the others in this book — William’s tough-as-nails best friend Paula; Shandi’s mother; William’s wife Bridget, whose love story unfolds in the flashbacks, and perhaps my very favourite, Shandi’s devoted best friend Walcott, who genuinely seemed to me like he had wandered into a Joshilyn Jackson novel from his original home in the pages of a John Green novel. Even the most potentially hateable character in the book — I won’t tell you who that is — turns out to have a very human face. This is a novel where people are capable of making wrong choices and doing very bad things, but even the villains are viewed through a compassionate lens.
What I love most about Joshilyn Jackson’s writing is that she’s a good church lady whose books are full of the kind of scenes that good church ladies’ books aren’t supposed to contain — by which I mean that she’s a Christian who writes novels no Christian bookstore would carry, because they have sex scenes and people are flawed and messed-up and real. Every book Jackson writes is a work of theology and her one theological teaching is always the same: grace. Her characters need grace and they extend it to each other, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Her novels nearly always include at least a few characters who are overtly religious, church-going people — and often it’s those same characters who are agents of divine grace, but rarely in traditionally religious ways. For example, in this novel, William’s wife Bridget is a devout Catholic girl who plans to become a nun. Even after she abandons that vocation to marry William, she works at inner-city missions, but for her atheist husband, the most powerful way in which Bridget acts out grace is through a rundown city park that she transforms into a place of beauty and refuge by planting flowers and building birdhouses. In Jackson’s novels, grace comes in unexpected ways and sometimes from the people you’d least expect to receive it from — but it never fails to show up.
I’ve never read a Lionel Shriver novel before, because everybody I know has read We Need to Talk About Kevin and I just found the subject matter too disturbing to pick it up. I did feel I ought to read one of her books and I was intrigued by the premise of Big Brother — a middle-aged woman takes her brother, a down-on-his-luck jazz musician, into her home for awhile, but is horrified to discover that in the years since she’s seen him last he has become morbidly obese and a compulsive over-eater. It’s not like these are the only problems in their adult sibling relationship — they both bear the scars of being raised by an actor father more invested in his Brady-Bunch-style TV family than in his real kids — but Edison’s weight is always central to the story. His sister, Pandora, is married to a man who is as obsessed with health and fitness as her brother is obsessed with snack foods. For her, Edison’s obesity leads to reflections about her own body image, about the meaning of eating and food in American culture, and about the responsibility family members have toward each other.
I found this an interesting book to read; my enjoyment of it was somewhat muted by the fact that I disliked all three of the main characters — Pandora, Edison, and Pandora’s husband Fletcher — almost equally. I go back and forth on this question of how likable characters should be — I know you don’t have to “like” characters in order to find them well-written and compelling, and you certainly don’t need to approve of their life choices, but I think for me it’s hard to connect emotionally to a book if there’s not at least one character I find sympathetic on some level, so that was a problem for me here. The main character, Pandora, was one of those characters I just want to shake till her teeth rattle, which did not predispose me to be sympathetic to her.
Other quibbles I had with the book — parts that I thought were simply unrealistic or unbelievable — were beautifully resolved by some unexpected twists at the end, which left me far more impressed by Shriver’s skill as a writer than I had been in the middle of the book. All in all, I enjoyed reading the book, but I don’t think it will linger as long with me as some others because of my inability to connect with the characters emotionally or care deeply about what happened to them.
For a long time now I’ve been reading great stuff by and about Jennifer Weiner. She has a lot of strong opinions about why women writers get less respect than men, and why writers of commercial fiction get less respect than writers of literary fiction, and where and how we draw those lines, something that kind of fascinates me too. (If you want a flavour of what I like about Weiner, read this). I got the impression from reading about her, and reading articles and things she’d written, that Weiner was a writer of good-quality, highly readable, contemporary commercial fiction, but I figured the best way to find that out would be to read one of her books myself.
So I picked up Good in Bed, Weiner’s first novel about Cannie Shapiro, a single woman in her late 20s who’s horrified when she discovers that her ex-boyfriend has revealed their bedroom secrets (and paid tribute to her plus-sized body) in a national magazine article titled “Loving a Larger Woman.” The horror of that discovery sends Cannie on a roller-coaster journey of self-exploration which does have a happy ending, but not without some detours into dark places. It’s a fun book, certainly, and a funny one, but there’s depth and real heart there too. However, I liked the sequel, Certain Girls, even better, picking up the story as it does several years later while Cannie is trying to raise a teenaged daughter. Since I’m raising teenagers myself now, Certain Girls may have appealed more because I could relate to it more. But I liked both of them (although there were some Very Sad Moments in Certain Girls and you should have a box of Kleenex handy; don’t say I didn’t warn you). And I’d definitely pick up another Jennifer Weiner when I’m in the mood for a well-written but light-hearted read.
This is a relatively fast-paced and enjoyable novel by comedian and writer Palin. The main character, Keith Mabbut, is a writer whose dreams of changing the world through groundbreaking eco-journalism have gradually been ground down by the necessity of earning a living, and his latest works have mostly been uninspiring corporate histories. Then he’s offered the chance to write an exclusive, unauthorized biography of an eco-activist he’s long admired — the only problem being that Hamish Melville doesn’t give interviews and doesn’t want anyone to write about him.
Mabbut sets off in pursuit of Melville, but the closer he gets to finding out about the man, the more suspicious he becomes about the motives of the publisher who’s commissioned the work. And the more he learns, the less sure he is of everything — even Hamish Melville’s status as a hero.
This was an enjoyable book to read and I found the story’s twists and turns engaging, though it hasn’t lingered in my mind long after finishing it, so I don’t think it will become a favourite.
This is the book that was always in the back of my mind when I thought about this project of tackling all the Great Books I should have read. For years I thought I ought to have read Tristram Shandy, and several times I actually tried, but I could never get past the first few pages. It’s got all the language barriers of an eighteenth-century novel without any strong storyline to pull the reader forward — in fact, the plotlessness of the book is kind of the whole point. Also, it was apparently considered both hilarious and naughty at the time it was published (in nine volumes, 1757-1767), but a lot of the humour and innuendo don’t translate well across the centuries.
So, to put it mildly, this was a slog. It took me months (the months of July, August and September, to be exact).
That said, it wasn’t an entirely unrewarding slog. Much like Infinite Jest, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shady, Gentleman is a book I’m very glad to have read, even if reading it was tedious at times. It contains a few real gems both of wit and of wisdom, and a few bits of humour that manage to translate through the years (such as when Tristram is travelling through Europe and accidentally leaves the notes he’s writing for a book on his travels in a carriage that he sells. Going to the home of the man who bought the carriage, he finds that the man’s wife has used Tristram’s papers to put up her hair. The papers are returned in their mangled state and each one has to be carefully untwisted and straightened out, Tristram philosophically musing that if his words ever get into the hands of a publisher, they will be twisted far worse).
Tristram Shandy anticipates and incorporates many of what we now consider “postmodern” elements of fiction, mainly its completely self-referential nature. The best description I’ve seen of it is that it’s a book about a man attempting and failing to write his autobiography; the story starts with the first-person narrator’s conception and three books later he hasn’t even been born yet, due to the author’s constant digressions from the story. Really, it is a book about the process of writing a book, in which Tristram-as-narrator frequently addresses the audience directly about the difficulties he encounters in telling his tale, making him far more real and interesting than Tristram-as-character, who does virtually nothing. It’s worth reading because of its place in the history of the English novel and because it helps point out the extent to which later writers were not, perhaps, being as innovative as they thought they were — but don’t expect it to be an easy read.
I have a complex relationship with Wilton Barnhardt. (As a reader, I mean; it’s not like I’m his stalker or anything). I’ve already written on this blog about his first novel, Emma Who Saved My Life (1989), one of my favourite novels of all time. I had a different but equally intense relationship with his second novel, Gospel (1993), the book that should have gotten all the hype that went to The DaVinci Code. Then his third novel, Show World, came out in 1999 and I didn’t read it. The blurb didn’t grab me and I didn’t want my opinion of a favourite author tarnished by a book I didn’t enjoy. I figured I’d wait for his next book.
Then FOURTEEN YEARS went by. After the internet happened I occasionally googled Wilton Barnhardt and found that he was teaching writing courses, but didn’t seem to be producing any new novels. I was afraid he’d just given up.
It had been awhile since I’d googled his name, and I tried it just a couple of weeks ago only to find that he had an entirely new novel — the saga of a Southern family — coming out this very month. This time it didn’t matter whether the blurb sounded interesting or not; I downloaded it as soon as it was available.
And I have … mixed feelings. There were certainly very enjoyable moments in Lookaway, Lookaway, but I doubt it’ll make my Top 10 Best Books list this year, which is too bad given how long I’ve waited for a new book from an author I loved so much.
Lookaway, Lookaway, is indeed the saga of an American Southern family, full of threadbare wealth and ferociously maintained social position. The novel has three sections: Scandal Averted (set in 2003), Scandal Regained (set in 2007-2008), and Scandal Redux (2012). Which “scandal” is referred to never becomes quite clear — numerous things happen that could bring shame upon the family name, but the plot never really converges around a single incident and its consequences.
I thought it was going to. Early in the long middle section of the book something genuinely shocking happens, something that seems to connect logically with the 2003 event described in the book’s first section (thus justifying why that section is there at all). It seems like the rest of the book will be about how each character is affected by the ramifications of that Genuinely Shocking Event, and it is shocking enough and yet in-character enough that it could be the engine that drives the rest of the book. But then … it’s not. We jump on to another character’s point of view, another set of problems, and the earlier Shocking Event, while not forgotten, recedes into the background, its consequences (or indeed its motivations) never fully explored.
The real problem with this novel is the multiple points of view. I love multiple points of view, but they’re hard to do well and I don’t think they’re handled as well as they should be here. Only one character, as far as I can recall, ever gets a second turn at being the main character after their viewpoint chapter has passed, which means that Barnhardt sets characters up in interesting situations and then we only see the outcome of those situations through the perspectives of other characters, not those directly involved. Some of the characters are more interesting and easy to relate to than others — always a problem with multiple points of view — but none of them has the kind of power and appeal of characters like Gil and Emma in Emma, or Lucy and Patrick in Gospel.
It might work a bit better to think of these as linked short stories rather than a novel, but that undercuts even further the device of organizing the novel around a “scandal” the implications of which are never fully explored. I have to say that while there were certainly great moments in this book — Gaston, the arrogant alcoholic bestselling Southern author, stands out as a favourite — overall, it was a disappointment, and the ending was particularly disappointing. Also, while there are sparkling, insightful and funny moments here, there are also incidences of strangely sloppy writing — like the narration occasionally slipping into present tense from the usual past tense for no discernable reason.
It’s been 20 years since the release of Gospel and I’m still waiting for the next great Wilton Barnhardt novel. I wanted to badly to love this book, and I wouldn’t tell anyone not to read it. You might have a lot of fun with it, especially if you like dysfunctional families, because this one has it all. But I would suggest you don’t go into the novel with expectations as high as mine were.