I’m only halfway through the Obama book, but I took a break to read this month’s neighborhood book club selection, so I’d be sure not to totally fail like last month. I’m glad I did, because All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews (2014) was a beautiful jewel of a book.
My poet friend, Kelly, recommended it so strongly that I just had to get it. Then, when we learned more about it, the neighborhood women also wanted to read along.
I hope they like it as much as I did. A book about a Canadian woman (Elfrieda) who is driven to commit suicide doesn’t sound like fun, you end up enjoying the story very much. The interplay among the family members is so poignant and nuanced, that sometimes I had to re-read the dialog.
I enjoyed getting to know the protagonists, a family burdened by an oppressive Mennonite upbringing. The main character is the younger sister of the suicidal piano genius (Yolandi). She has her own issues, which are fascinating to watch unfold as the book progresses. She was fascinated by her sister, but readers will be fascinated by her.
Then there’s her mother and aunt, completely charming women on their own journeys of discovery. Their banter and insight will live with me a long time. That and all the poetry Toews shares just makes you want to savor this book. You’ll hardly notice that the book sort of lacks a plot.
Who cares. It’s both funny and poignant. I’ll be reading this again. I wish I were articulate enough to really convey the beauty of the language and the depth of the characters in All My Puny Sorrows, which apparently is semi-autobiographical. I’ll have to read Women Talking or another of her books, too.
The book I’m talking about today is next month’s topic for the cul-de-sac book club in Austin. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was Joanna Cannon’s first novel, which came out in 2015. Since I wasn’t reading novels five years ago, I’d never heard of it, but dutifully ordered it when it was decided upon by the group.
I got it on Monday, and finished it last night. It was a nice respite from the more solemn reading I’ve been doing lately, but it doesn’t mean that Cannon didn’t sneak in some messages, some of which are quite current today.
I’d say almost anyone would enjoy reading this, though it helps a LOT to be familiar with the everyday items in England in 1976. I know what Fairy Liquid is, thanks to spending so much time in Ireland, but do you? (It’s dish washing soap.) And candies are very important, at least to the main characters, so it would help to Google those as they come up.
The fun thing about the book is that it’s about a cul-de-sac and the varied characters who inhabit it, which of course reminds me and my neighbors of OUR little Bob Cat Run, with its fascinating cast of characters. We will have to decide who is the “Walter Bishop” of our street (he’s the one everyone has a bad opinion of). Oh wait, I think I already know, ha ha. It’s not me or Anita, either!
Much of the story revolves around two young girls who are best friends, Grace and Tilly. They are the junior detectives in the mystery aspect of the book, who, after one neighbor disappears suddenly, decide to find God in the neighborhood. Eventually Jesus shows up, which is a fun twist (I won’t tell you how that happens). All the neighbors get their chance to shine, too, and you eventually learn all their secrets. That’s the fun of the book.
You’ll love the woman who wears a bikini and tans in her front garden every day, the couple with the very nervous wife, Grace’s parents (and her very odd mother), the guy who lives with his elderly mother well into his forties, the friendly widow, the refreshingly rational gardening guy, the exotic new family, etc.
What really makes the book special, though, is how gently Cannon weaves lessons about honesty and lies, ignorance and enlightenment, and most important to me, about how each and every one of us has secrets we think will be ruinous if revealed, but are probably worse being hidden. It’s a fun read with interesting characters, but it also makes you think about morality and judgment. That’s what elevates The Trouble with Goats and Sheep from a pleasant escape to a book that will live with me for a long time.
By the way, it’s also really funny. I had to read passages aloud to Lee. I think I laughed the hardest when Grace’s father tries to convince the new neighbor he’s a worldly, tolerant guy by repeating racist stereotype after racist stereotype. I was happy to see the two of them actually ending up talking to each other from the heart and becoming friends. That’s what we all need to do when confronted with “the other,” I think.
I have a nice stack of books on my shelf, so I’ll start another one while patiently reading a chapter a day in Caste.
Even though practically no one reads my book reviews, I have another one already. That’s what you get when you pick up a Young Adult selection; they go fast.
Oddly enough, I am not sure where this book came from. Maybe someone loaned it to me? Maybe I bought it that last, wonderful time I went to Barnes & Noble and got it on sale? Anyway, I’m glad Wonder, by R.J. Palacio (apparently a pseudonym) showed up magically in my stack of books to read. I needed something uplifting and cheerful, in which everyone learns from their mistakes and grows.
I can see why Wonder was a best seller and why lots and lots of adults read it. All the characters in the book were interesting and fun to learn about. It made you want to follow them as they go through the rest of school. It’s great to see how people learn and screw up and keep learning, including the adults in the book.
Also, it’s just funny, and I think that’s important, since a book about the trials of a child with facial deformities going to school for the first time could be mostly heartbreak, otherwise. Instead, you empathize along with everyone as the hero, Auggie, shows how much of a normal (and resilient) kid he is and makes it through the ups and downs of his first year in a school.
If you have a child who’s “different” in any way, this would be good to read along with. And if you were a “different” child, you’ll enjoy rooting for Auggie and his family. I’m glad I had parents who were supportive like his, since I played the role of Auggie’s big sister in protecting my younger brother, who wore an eye patch and got picked on when he was little. We both ended up fine, or at least survived to adulthood!
I promise I’ll write something on another topic later. Until then, enjoy the new week.
Been wondering where those book reports went? I had to take some time off while reading The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennet, because at some point, my dislike of almost every character in the book made me not look forward to picking it up again. I was also disappointed that I’d scheduled a trip to Austin just to attend book club there, and they moved it to next week, when I have to stay in Cameron to attend all-day meetings that would drive Anita nuts.
In the end, I came to appreciate how everyone in the book constantly lied to themselves and each other, because it became clear that the theme to the Bennet’s story was that we are both tied to the labels we are assigned at birth, but we are also free to move away from them, when we are seeking our true selves. More on that in a bit.
The Vanishing Half was chosen by the book club members, and I wasn’t there for the discussion, so I knew nothing about it until I opened it up. I was hoping for something less intense than How to Be an Antiracist. Imagine my surprise when I found out the symbolism-laden Louisiana “town” the book centers around is populated exclusively by light-skinned Black people. It was a chance to explore race in a fictional context. Serendipity!
This skin color thing was a source of great pride in the community, which consisted of people with freckles, red hair, hazel eyes, and other combinations of superficial markings of White people. But, the surrounding area deemed them Black, and they worked at jobs that Black people in the South used to be stuck with. They were proud of being culturally Black, but also looked down at darker-skinned people. As you can imagine, that can complicate things.
Eventually, the very light twins who are the pivotal characters end up exploiting all the possibilities you can imagine for people like themselves. One stays home, and one vanishes. They each have daughters, one very light, one very dark. The daughters meet, and all sorts of racial stereotypes get twisted, turned, and explored.
Every single character you run across is very human, capable of truth, lies, devotion, desertion, prejudice, and acceptance (which explains why, at some point, I really didn’t like some of them). The only character I didn’t feel like I got to know well was the husband of one of the twins, but maybe it’s good that the stereotypical White business dude is the one who’s not worth fleshing out. At least it’s a nice change.
I liked how the daughter of the twin who lives an entirely new life after disappearing becomes an actor, herself, and feels most comfortable when playing a role. It’s all acting, for them. They fluidly go from identity to identity.
And I liked how Jude,the daughter of the twin who stays and plays the role tradition assigned her, knows who she is and what she wants to do, despite hardship and prejudice. She never doubts herself, just her confusing family. She never doubts the love of her life, Reese, sticking with him as he transitions his external appearance to match who he is inside.
I hope the world comes to accept everyone like the characters in The Vanishing Half. Be who you want to be. Love who you want to love. Cherish your roots, however tangled they may be.
I gobbled up this novel, which I found via my usual method of discovering books, an interview on NPR (National Public Radio in the US). I figure anything Scott Simon likes, I’ll like. I encourage you to read or listen to the interview about A Hundred Suns, with the author, Karin Tanabe.
Tanabe is known for writing historical novels, and this one’s about Vietnam before it was Vietnam, in the 1930s when it was still French Indochina. It’s a period and place I’m interested in and wanted to learn more about, so why not learn history through a novel (it’s how I learned when I was young; those novels about Queen Elizabeth I sure were more interesting than history books, even if they weren’t 100% accurate; after all, neither are history books).
There is so much to like about the book, and I especially liked how each and every character in the book (French people, Americans, and Annamites (what Vietnamese people were called then)) had a fully developed personality. Like real people, each of them had admirable aspects and made plenty of mistakes. Each had prejudices but learned not to be so confident. You end up empathizing with each major character, even though they do some pretty icky things.
Tanabe, of course, weaves a lot of history into the narrative. You get to see the country from the eyes of the French colonists (ooh, la la, they were fancy), local people who tried to assimilate into French society, wealthy communist sympathizers, grass-roots communists, and of course, random mercenaries. I found it easier to understand the Vietnamese point of view on communism from this book than I did in books I read when I was younger, which all took the capitalist viewpoint exclusively (one character in the book was like me, neither colonial nor communist nor really capitalist…just wanting the best for everyone).
One thing I really liked about the book is how Tanabe portrays relationships between people of different cultures and races. As someone who’s enjoyed being close to Asians in the past and remembers how people STILL looked askance at it in the 1980s, I appreciated how the relationship between the characters Marcelle and Khoi in the 1930s was depicted. I’m so glad that people are much freer to love whoever they want to now.
I actually liked how she portrayed all relationships. She made arranged marriages make more sense, yet showed that both friendship and true love that can grow and change as people mature, as well. Here’s my favorite quote, from Khoi, the rich and handsome silk merchant, talking about two friends:
“We are not perfect people, you and I,” he said, “No one is. Even Anne-Marie and Sinh. I know we hold him up on a pedestal now, but he wasn’t perfect. We all have moments of weakness, of strength, of stupidity. But if we’re lucky, we’ll have even more moments of love.”
A Hundred Suns, page 340.
There were a couple of things that bugged me about the writing style of Tanabe. Sometimes she gets a little didactic and seems to be giving a history lesson rather than letting it come out through the characters. But, there IS a lot of historical context about rubber plantations and such to get through.
And she has a writing style that sometimes bothers me, where at the end of any utterance she inserts some bit of physical description of the character’s eyes, or skin, or something. I have no idea why that style annoys me, but it always seems like the author couldn’t find any other way to add these details, so they get stuck into the dialogue. And I always wonder if whether someone’s skin is tanned or not matters to the story (in this case, I’ll assume the main character’s deepening tan symbolizes her growing understanding of the Asian culture she finds herself immersed in).
Shoot, I’ve totally forgotten to say what the book’s plot has to do with. You see, there’s a nice social-climbing American woman named Jessie who gets her wealthy family sent to Indochine to escape her past. They are a part of the Michelin family, and the husband wanted to do more with tires and rubber and less with writing tour guides. Jessie meets up with locals, both French and Annamite, deals with her servants (fascinating in their own right), travels through the country, and gets drawn into intrigue as she begins to doubt her sanity. Mayhem ensues.
Wow, can I summarize a book, or what? Anyway, I’d say A Hundred Suns is worth getting a hold of. It will take your mind off the present, and you’ll get to meet a lot of fascinating people in an interesting historical context. You might as well learn something!
Proud of myself, I am, for finishing the latest book in the neighborhood book club series, especially since this is not something I would have picked out for myself. But, the assignment was Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, so I read it!
As someone interested in history, I did enjoy all the historical references and real people who came and went throughout the book, some of whom happened to be favorites of mine (like Emma Goldman, the anarchist). I think it helps to have some clue as to what was going on around the beginning of the twentieth century, though I guess you learn a lot even without any helpful background knowledge. This great review by the late John Brooks said it really well:
This mixture of fact and fiction may confuse or mislead the unwary or historically uninformed reader, and it suggests a projection onto the past of the suspect techniques of the New Journalism. I, for one, although no friend of that aberration, am willing to forgive any historical novelist who makes his flights from historical fact as funny and pertinent as Doctorow makes his. Like Houdini’s audiences, I am made to enjoy being fooled. As to the topical descriptions, they appear to be accurate enough to satisfy an exacting student of Americana. Certainly they are alive enough never to smell the research in old newspaper files that they must have required.
John Brooks: From the Archives: A review of E.L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’, Chicago Tribune, March 05, 2015 (Suna’s birthday)
Now, as much as I enjoyed getting to know some fun details about historical figures, especially the imagined inner thoughts of Harry Houdini, the ground-breaking way the book was written seemed a little contrived and sometimes annoying. Here’s how John Brooks (a man of many more words than Suna) put it:
Here’s one of those quirky facts about me that I’m not sure where it came from: I strongly resist jumping on the bandwagon of the latest “popular item,” whether it’s music, types of cars, clothing fads (no one has ever seen my bare midriff in public) decorating styles (“a nice, bright white”), and most assuredly, books.
So, when I was first encouraged to read Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, I resisted. I kept thinking it would be one of those motivational books like The Secret or Chicken Soup for the Soul or that book about the shed…oh, The Shack. I figured, if everyone was reading it, snobby intellectual elitest Suna had probably read all the original source material.
That’s a bit harsh. I admit to not being fond of most books with mass appeal. But, the person who recommended Where the Crawdads Sing to me is also an intellectual elitist, and it’s a novel, so how could I have already read the source material? Oh, I know, it’s probably all formulaic and full of poor attempts at regional accents, with too many big words where small ones will do. Yeah. And it’s in Reese Witherspoon’s book club. Ew…