Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby

funnygirlI loved this book. I devoured it. I devoured it rapidly like a box of chocolates, if I were going to eat an entire box of chocolates at once, which I would not do because it’s a bad idea. I always enjoy Nick Hornby’s books and this is one of my favourites. It’s the story of Barbara from Blackpool, who changes her name to Sophie Straw when she goes to London in the mid-1960s seeking a career in comedy. Ironically, she ends up as Barbara from Blackpool again when she lucks into a starring role in a BBC sitcom. This is a story about an ambitious young woman and the behind-the-scenes world of the BBC in the golden age of television.

It’s not just Sophie’s story — Hornby handles an omniscient point of view with ease and allows the story to unfold through several points of view, mostly through the men who are Sophie’s coworkers. But Sophie is the engine that drives the story — her energy, her ambition, the genuine joy she finds in her job. This book is not only funny and engaging but is driven by Hornby’s signature ability to tease out the nuances of what characters are thinking beneath the surface of what they’re saying and doing. This book was a joy to read, and I only wish it had been longer.

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Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

gosetawatchman Warning: Long post ahead.

Yes, I read it. I couldn’t NOT read it — if nothing else, I was too curious, and the revelations about Watchman’s plot revealed in the last few days only made me more curious. I did not buy it; I read it in two sittings in the bookstore cafe, something I used to do years ago when I was younger and poorer but wouldn’t normally do now when I can afford to buy all the books I want. In this case, reading what I’ve read about the book’s turbulent history, I was pretty much convinced that a younger and perhaps more sound-of-mind Harper Lee would not have approved publication of this book in this form, and I didn’t want to give any money to anyone who may be exploiting an elderly woman who can no longer defend her literary legacy. Having read the book, I’m more convinced than ever that Lee would not have knowingly OK’d the publication of this book, but I’m also not sorry I read it.

First off, let’s talk about what Go Set a Watchman (apparently) is and is not. It reads like it should be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird; it features our familiar main character, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (here in third-person limited point of view rather than the first-person of Mockingbird). She is very recognizably the same girl, but now she is twenty-six, living in New York (as Nelle Harper Lee was when she wrote the novel), and returning home to visit her aging father Atticus in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama.

But this is not a sequel, as near as we can tell from the manuscript’s murky history; it’s the book Lee wrote first. Her first draft, if you will, and while her writing style is strong and skillful and recognizable, it also sometimes reads like a first draft, especially towards the end, when she tries to pull everything together and doesn’t quite succeed.

Apparently, Lee’s editor convinced her to take the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood that are embedded in Watchman and fashion those into a different novel, a novel that confronts the same issue — the deeply embedded racism of the segregated South — through the eyes of a child rather than a young adult, and (importantly) against the backdrop of the Great Depression rather than on the cusp of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Watchman and Mockingbird are, in a way, telling the same story — a young white Southern girl discovers that the community she loves and belongs to is capable of deep and vicious racism. The difference that makes a difference to most readers is that in Mockingbird, Scout’s father, Atticus, viewed through the hero-worshipping eyes of a child, stands against that racism. In Watchman, the older Attticus stands for a certain kind of racism, and he becomes Scout’s antagonist rather than her hero. Continue reading

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The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

Arkham cover D finalThis is one of those classics that I’ve always intended to read and never gotten around to. And I sort of do love Oscar Wilde, so it seems strange that I’d never read his one novel.

Everyone knows the basic premise, maybe because it’s one of the most fascinating premises in all of literature (an agent would call this “high concept” if ol’ Oscar were trying to sell it today!). In fact, I made a Dorian Gray joke just this morning on Twitter about a friend who seems to be perpetually youthful and energetic even as he gets older. So there’s a painting of Dorian Gray, made when he’s young, handsome, and innocent, and as he becomes older and evil and corrupt (but not very old; he’s only 38 at the end of the book!), he never ages or changes, but the portrait changes to reflect the corruption of his soul. It really is a wonderfully weird book, engaging and thought-provoking and chilling all at once.

Also, I had huge fun on my Facebook page announcing that I was going to read that controversial book about the wicked Mr. Gray by the scandalous British author. I can’t believe how many of my Facebook friends actually thought I was going to read Fifty Shades of Grey. Really, people? Really???

Give me Oscar Wilde any day.

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Fathomless Riches, by Richard Coles

fathomlessrichesAlthough I love memoir, two sub-genres of memoir I don’t read much are the celebrity memoir, and the “I once was lost but now am found” type of Christian conversion memoir. I’m willing to make an exception for celebrity memoirs if the celebrity is a British comedian, preferably one who’s appeared on QI. And apparently that leads to a second exception, if for “comedian” in the above sentence you replace “funny gay pop star turned C. of E. clergyman.” Hence, the Reverend Richard Coles’ autobiography turned out to be just my cup of tea.

Since I’d never actually heard of the band he used to be in, the Communards, I wasn’t totally fascinated by the story of his early rock-and-roll years, but Coles is an engaging, self-deprecating author and he describes his coming to faith with a refreshing honesty. I’m quite interested in his post-conversion life in the ministry, as he’s anything but the typical clergyman — but apparently I’ll have to wait for a second volume in 2016 for that story!

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A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

agodinruinsKate Atkinson is somewhat of an unpredictable author for me — there are books of hers I haven’t liked at all, books that I’ve liked but that left no long-lasting impression, and then books of hers (two in particular over the last several years) that have made my all-time favourite books ever list. A God in Ruins, which is a companion volume to one of the favourite-books-ever, Life After Life, also makes the latter list. I found it absolutely engrossing and beautifully written.

You may recall that Life After Life was what publishers and agents like to call a “high-concept” book — it’s the story of an Englishwoman named Ursula, born in the early years of the 20th century, who gets to live her life over and over again, gradually coming to realize that she is getting second chances and can change the outcome of her life. Ursula’s many lives unfold against the background of early 20th century England, particularly the London Blitz of WW2, in which she frequently (but not always) dies.

Ursula has a brother she’s very close to called Teddy; Teddy is a bomber pilot in the war, and in almost every version of Ursula’s life story, he is killed in action. A God in Ruins is another version of the story — Teddy fights in the war, but survives a crash and time in a German POW camp, and goes on to live out his life (I was interested by the fact that he was born in 1914, just like my Aunt Gertie, and died at 98 in 2012, two years short of when she did; the idea of a life that spans all the social change of an entire century is fascinating in and of itself).

There’s no high-concept, no magic realism, repeated lives or time travel in this book: it is a very straightforward story, in a way, of a single, realistic life. The only thing that makes it not straightforward is the narrative voice, which weaves in and out of the timeline of Teddy’s life at random, juxtaposing events from his young manhood with old age, and exploring the perspectives of several different characters, not just Teddy himself. Where Life After Life played with the possibilities of multiple lives, A God in Ruins examines, in beautiful prose, the layers, the twists, and the turns of a single, unique life. Very highly recommended.

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Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, by Margaret MacMillan

paris1919Like the companion volume, The War That Ended Peace, this book took me awhile to get through, but it’s absolutely packed full of fascinating background information about the 1919 Paris Peace conference that ended World War One. Everyone with a cursory knowledge of history knows that that conference produced the Treaty of Versailles, whose harsh punitive terms have often been blamed for fanning the flames of fascism in Germany, leading to World War Two. However, there was so much more going on at the Paris Peace Conference as well!

I often tell my Grade 12 History students that the peace conference “redrew the map of Europe,” but I had never realized how true that was, how contentious the process was, or how fascinating the characters involved were, till I read this meticulously researched but completely approachable book. Countries such as Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia appeared on the map for the first time, while the destruction of the old Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires led to competition and struggle for the lands they had once ruled. This book is an important, popular-level work written by a scholar who not only knows how to study history but how to make it interesting.

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Off the Road, by Jack Hitt

offtheroadI picked up Off the Road after watching for the second time the very underrated movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen as a grieving father walking the Camino de Santiago with his son’s ashes. I love the movie, and noticed on my second viewing that it was “inspired by” (not “based on”) Jack Hitt’s book about walking the Camino.

The connection between book and movie is fairly tenuous, although a couple of minor episodes from the book are included in the movie. Hitt’s story is the tale of a modern-day pilgrim, driven not by the religious faith that has motivated people to walk this trail for hundreds of years but by — well, he’s not sure what motivates him. And by the end of the book, he’s still not sure, but he’s certainly met some interesting people and had some memorable experiences along the way.

One of my life bucket-list items is to walk this ancient pilgrim route, so I always enjoy stories about it, and Jack Hitt’s book is an interesting addition to that list of stories, even if it doesn’t offer any particularly deep insight.

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