Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

casualvacancyOK, let’s get the obvious out of the way right up front. In case you haven’t heard yet, this book is NOTHING like Harry Potter. Not at all. Not even a little bit. If, in reading J.K. Rowling’s first post-Potter book, you were hoping for an adult novel with hints of magic, or a sort of “Hogwarts for Grownups,” I suggest you read Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circusor Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Do not — I repeat, do NOT read The Casual Vacancy.  I mean this.

On the other hand, if you like contemporary, character-driven novels full of social issues and flawed, complex human beings, and you don’t care whose name is on the cover — you should definitely read The Casual Vacancy.

If you perhaps have a tendency to get a little too wrapped up in books and you empathize with characters and feel devastated when something bad happens to a character you’ve grown to love — you should read The Casual Vacancy, but only if you’re feeling particularly mentally well and strong, and have a box of Kleenex handy just in case.

The novel explores the interconnected lives of a group of people (the point of view is omniscient and we see through the viewpoints of at least a dozen different characters throughout the course of the story) living in a small English village. The catalyst for the events of the story is the sudden death of a town councillor, Barry Fairbrother, and fallout, both personal and political, from his death and the scramble to replace him. Small-town political maneuvering taps into bigger issues as mayor (actually he’s a step down from being called mayor because the town isn’t big enough to qualify for a mayor, but that’s basically his role)  Howard Mollison is pushing to transfer responsibility for the local public housing estate away from the village of Pagford and onto a nearby town, which will prevent children from public housing from attending Pagford schools and also provide a convenient excuse to close the addictions clinic which serves many of the estate’s residents.

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Help, Thanks, Wow, by Anne Lamott

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a big Anne Lamott fan and I’ve enjoyed both the books she’s released this year. Help, Thanks, Wow is a book about prayer — not from a conventionally evangelical Christian point of view, as so many books on prayer are, but from a considerably more liberal and non-prescriptive point of view. Lamott is, of course, a Christian (a Presbyterian to be specific, though I’m pretty sure she’s not a double-predestination Calvinist) but a very liberal one, and her perspective on prayer is accessible to everyone, no matter what their belief system. Some Christians will find Lamott’s concept of prayer a little too vague or wishy-washy, and to those people I would say, well, if your concept of God is not big enough to embrace other concepts of prayer than what you’re familiar with, then there are plenty of other books on prayer for you to read and enjoy. For people who struggle with traditional concepts of prayer or for people who have firm belief system yet sometimes feel that need to cry out to someone or something bigger than themselves, Help, Thanks, Wow may be the book they need.

As the subtitle explains, “Help,” “Thanks” and “Wow” are what Lamott considers the three essential prayers: the cry for help, the prayer of gratitude, and the moment of awe. She talks a little about each of these with her trademark humour and honesty, but hardcore Lamott-lovers like me will find the book a little too short — I was hoping for another big chunky collection of essays in the Traveling Mercies or Grace Eventually vein, but this is a much slimmer volume. It will, however, make a good stocking stuffer, and maybe a good intro to Lamott’s work for those who aren’t familiar with her brand of quirky spirituality. If this is the first Anne Lamott book you read and you like it, there’s lots more good stuff waiting for you to discover.

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The Sweet Girl, by Annabel Lyon

I don’t entirely know what to say about this book because I both liked it and didn’t like it. It’s a sequel to Lyon’s The Golden Mean, but also stands alone. The main character is Aristotle’s daughter Pythias, or Pytho, a bright and unconventional girl in a world that has no place for such a woman. That makes it sound like a very predictable sort of book but it’s really not. It’s beautifully written, and, as in The Golden Mean, while the language is often strikingly modern, the characters, their worldviews and the society they inhabit is believably ancient.

Aristotle dies partway through the book, and Pythias is left to cope, try to run her household, and find her own destiny in a world where a fatherless, unmarried teenaged girl needs to find a protector as soon as possible. From that point on, the book takes some odd twists and turns, as Pythias experiments with being a priestess, a courtesan, possibly a midwife — to be honest I was a bit confused by this point. She finally hooks up with the guy she’s been attracted to for most of her life, but it’s not exactly a satisfying experience, and she almost hooks up with a guy who may or may not be a god … and then she gets married. She also learns that it’s very hard to keep the slaves in line without a man’s authority.

I think somewhere partway through this novel — which I read right after Ken Follett’s The Winter of the World — I finally figured out the difference between commercial and literary fiction. The difference lies in how much the writer trusts the reader. I’m often frustrated by how very commercial writers like Follett spell everything out for you and allow no subtlety. But sometimes I flounder when reading books that are extremely literary, like this one, because too much is left for me to figure out, and I need the writer to fill in a few more blanks for me. To be honest, I did not understand the ending of this book at all. It was beautiful, but way too subtle for me. If you asked me how it ended, I would not be able to tell you for sure.

This is not, in any way, an indictment of Annabel Lyon’s writing, which is beautiful. It’s more an indictment of me as a reader, that I couldn’t keep up with her. If you like historical fiction that’s very literary, and especially if you liked The Golden Mean, I would still highly recommend this book. It just didn’t connect with me as much as I hoped it would because I had trouble seeing the plot amidst all the lovely language.

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The Winter of the World, by Ken Follett

I read this sequel to Fall of Giants quickly and with a good deal of interest, although I’ve decided in reading a Ken Follett novel that it’s important not to expect more than he’s going to deliver as a writer. It picks up the stories of the several different families explored in Fall of Giants — English, American, German and Russian families — about fifteen years after the last book ended, in the mid-1930s. The Great Depression is going on; the aftermath of the First World War is still unfolding and paving the way for the Second. The babies born during the last book are teenagers and young adults now, finding their way in the world and, of course, falling in and out of love as the world hurtles towards, and then through, a second war. This book takes the story past the end of World War Two and into the early years of the Cold War, exploring the huge events of those years through the eyes of young people from several different countries.

Some of the things Follett does are quite interesting: for example, he has the German family gradually become aware of the true horrors of the Nazi regime, not through what happens to their Jewish acquaintances (though that is, of course, given some attention) but primarily through the lesser-known but equally horrific Nazi treatment of physically and mentally disabled people, when a developmentally delayed child dies in care at a special Nazi “hospital” and one of the characters becomes curious enough to investigate. It’s really interesting to get a perspective on what the war years might have been like for a nurse in Berlin, an ambulance driver in London’s East End, a diplomat in Moscow, etc. Follett does a good job of weaving the personal and the political together, as when two Russian characters who are quite well-regarded in the Party are honoured to have Stalin show up at their wedding reception — only to have him receive a  piece of news and leave abruptly, obviously upset. He has just received word that the US has dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.

If you like twentieth-century history this is a good, quick-moving way to explore it and get a bird’s-eye view of its major events. That said, if you like your fiction literary, you’ll find Follett’s style grating at times. For a bestselling author, his writing is breathtakingly mediocre. Everything is right out there on the surface: there’s not a hint of subtlety. Everything a character says is exactly what s/he means, and then Follett often comes along behind as narrator to tidy things up and tell us what the character meant, just in case we missed it. So if we read: “‘I’m proud of you, son,’ he said,” we not only know that he is exactly, literally, proud of his son, we can also be pretty sure the narrator will be right along to explain, “He had never been as proud of his son as he was that moment.” Nothing is left to the imagination.

If this kind of writing doesn’t bother you, and you like history, then you’ll have no problems at all with The Winter of the World.  If it does, you may still find the storyline and the historical background enough to be drawn into it anyway, as I was. 

Conveniently, near the end of this book, all the characters have babies, just in time for them to grow up and star in the third volume of the trilogy. I’ll probably still be grinding my teeth over Follett’s writing style, but yes, I’ll be reading it.

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Back Story, by David Mitchell

This book is simply fantastic. It’s the second “celebrity bio” I’ve read this year (for my very low value of “celebrity” which basically means “person who makes me laugh on BBC panel shows”), and like Rob Brydon’s Small Man in a Book, David Mitchell’s Back Story perfectly captures the actor/comedian’s voice and personality as I’ve come to know and love it from TV, and adds a layer of apparently very authentic self-revelation to give some depth to the comic persona. Only, Back Story is much, much funnier (and that’s not to say the Rob’s book isn’t very funny, just that this one is hilarious).

It might not be funny to people who haven’t watched David Mitchell as a regular panelist on Would I Lie to You, or as a guest panelist on many other British quiz shows including my favourite, QI,  or who haven’t seen him in any of his other comic incarnations (as part of the comedy duo Mitchell & Webb, and starring in Peep Show, and regularly ranting on David Mitchell’s Soapbox, which is almost my favourite thing on YouTube). You might need to already have his voice in your head and have a sense of what he refers to as his “tweedy persona,” in order to appreciate mentally hearing that voice throughout the book and finding out how much of that persona is constructed and how much is … well, just David Mitchell. 

Mind you,  you might like his voice so much that you could be like my husband, who, after I had already paid good money for the e-book, insisted on buying the audiobook as well because he wanted to listen to David Mitchell read it. Yes, we bought this book twice in one week. It’s that good. If you’re unfamiliar with David Mitchell’s work, click the link above and watch a few Soapboxes. If you’re as enchanted as I am, go ahead and buy the book. You won’t be sorry.

If you’re still unsure, check out the author’s own endorsement/apology (I hope you’ll note this is the only time I’ve EVER put a video link in a book review!!)

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A Year of Biblical Womanhood, by Rachel Held Evans

Having enjoyed her last book, Evolving in Monkey Town, and followed her blog, I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy Rachel Held Evans’s experiment in trying to follow everything the Bible says women should do and be, over the course of a year. And, of course, I did enjoy it very much.

This is, of course, another in the A.J. Jacobean vein of “try something crazy for a year and write about it” books, but it’s driven by a genuine quest for truth. Rather than an outsider’s exploration of Biblical rules and regulations, it’s written from the perspective of a person of faith trying to learn how to understand and apply the Bible to her life. As a young woman growing up in fundamentalist Christian subculture, Rachel Held Evans got lots of very specific messages about the roles and responsibilities God intended for women — in the home, in the church, and in society. Part of her quest was to discover what the Bible actually does say (as opposed to what preachers, Christian writers, etc., claim that it says). The other part was to see how much of it she could actually follow.

There are some predictably funny hijinks, like Rachel attempting to sew a garment, or sleeping in a tent in the yard during her period. Her writing is always witty and easy to read, but the real gems here are Evans’ explorations into the standards the Bible really sets for women. She doesn’t shy away from confronting the “texts of terror” that have been used to justify the oppression of women, but she also attempts to get past ideals of “biblical womanhood” that are really purely cultural — for example, the idea, promoted by many conservative male pastors, that the greatest commandment for women is, “Thou Shalt Not Let Thyself Go.”

Often funny, always thought-provoking, A Year of Biblical Womanhood offers no easy answers. Rather, it invites us into the journey of a woman whose faith, though it has changed over the years, is still the central fact of her life, as she tries to learn what it really means to be a “godly woman.” Her conclusions won’t be appreciated by some readers — there’ll be conservative Christians who disagree with her feminist, egalitarian views, and secular readers who wonder why an intelligent modern woman even bothers to read and apply a collection of ancient texts to her life. But for a reader like me, occupying that same often muddy ground between intelligent skeptic and committed believer that Evans explores so well, this book was a wonderful read.

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Ape House, by Sara Gruen

I found myself reading Sara Gruen’s Ape House almost by accident. I’d heard a lot of good things about her earlier novel, Water for Elephants, but it wasn’t available at the e-library and Ape House was. I’d heard an interview with Gruen about Ape House that made the book sound worth reading despite the fact — and this is a HUGE caveat — that I am really, really creeped out by apes, monkeys, chimps, gorilla … you name it, if it’s a non-human primate, it gives me the willies. The stars of Ape House are bonobos, and I guess for most readers it’s their human-like behavior that makes them intriguing and engaging characters in the novel, but for me, it was a huge obstacle to overcome.

Fortunately, there are human characters as well — a researcher studying the bonobos; a journalist trying to get the story while keeping his own career alive; the journalist’s wife, an aspiring novelist; and a host of minor characters. I’ve read bad reviews of this novel in which readers have said that the apes are the only well-developed characters while all the humans are caricatures. I didn’t find that to be true, although there certainly is a bit of stereotyping going on, especially when Amanda, the would-be novelist, gets a screenwriting job in Hollywood. While they may not have been as compelling as the characters in some books I’ve read and loved lately, I got absorbed into the storyline and interested to find out what would happen — and that was in spite of, not because of, the bonobos. I clearly was not the ideal reader for this book but found it readable and enjoyable nonetheless.

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