This book embarrassed me. I found the title was too quaint and whimsical and when toting it around in public I was forever being stopped by old ladies saying – “oh, I really enjoyed that book when I read it”. When my friends would ask I what I was reading I would half-mumble the sprawling title and pre-emptively make a joke about it being “girly” or “just a vacation book”.

And yet despite all that, I must confess I really enjoyed this novel.

The story follows Juliet, a writer living in London just after WWII. She wrote a column in the newspaper during the war, a sort of light distraction every week from what the world was going through, and at the outset of the novel her columns have been published as a book. She is also exploring ideas for a new project, when she gets sent a letter from a stranger on Guernsey Island. Thus begins Juliet’s fascination with Guernsey and the island’s stories during the German Occupation throughout the war.

The entire book is made up of letters written from Juliet to various other characters and vice versa. What I loved about this device (when it’s done well, as it was in this case) is that you hear each individual voice very clearly. Instead of only seeing characters through a protagonist’s eyes, you are able to gain insight into who they are by listening to their own words. The result is a charming, funny, engaging book that races by.  The novel’s protagonist, Juliet, is just the type of woman you can’t help cheering for – spunky, fun, and full of life. The stories we hear, first hand, of what went on in Guernsey during the German occupation are shocking and vivid, which makes it even more of an accomplishment that this book still manages to feel uplifting.

This book may not change your life and the writing is certainly not revolutionary, but it is brimming with humanity. There’s always room for more books like that, I say. Maybe just find a better title next time…

Next up: Just finished The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeannette Walls. I can not wait to write about it.

Happy Reading!

Amber

Hello world!

I went on a vacation. Literally, I went on a fabulous, week long, luxury-fest to St Martin with three of my best friends. Here’s a picture to make you all jealous! It was the best way I could have imagined to welcome in spring.

I also took a figurative vacation – from my blog, from acting, from a lot of things really. I can only see it now that I’ve come through it, but I think I had a serious case of the winter blahs. I find that the older I get, the more Canadian winter seems to take it’s toll on me. It’s like some kind of terrible ex-boyfriend or girlfriend that keeps showing up on a yearly basis and hanging around for months while I hopelessly try and protect myself in any way I know how. Now that spring has sprung (and my measure of this is that I’m back on my bike!) I felt it was uber appropriate to get back to blogging.

My vacation from the world has not meant a vacation from books. In fact, an excellent book has prevented many a winter from destroying me the way this one did. My lack of satisfying reads was the final straw in a hay stack of winter desolation. Since I last been blogged I started (and didn’t finish) The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, for which I had the highest of hopes, but nonetheless found self-indulgent and tedious and forced myself to finish Joanna Skibscrud’s Giller Prize winning The Sentimentalists in which the voice throughout was so clearly and irritatingly the author’s (not the character’s), halting its way along in an attempt to be poetic, but instead reading as stalled and uncertain (much like this sentence!). In between I re-read Alice Munro’s stunning short story Tricks from Runaway as a reminder of what it can feel like to be swept away by a good story. Incidentally, I’m now considering how I might adapt that story into a play….we shall see…

Finally I threw my hands up and purchased three new (used) books for my literal vacation. I wanted to ensure that I would have something fun and engaging to pick up while lying on the beach. I chose Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot (which I read while on the trip), The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows & Mary Anne Shaffer (which I began en route home), and Jeanette Wall’s memoir, The Glass Castle (which I intend to tackle next).

I won’t spend a whole lot of time on The Wonder Spot. It was a charming, funny novel that was just the ticket for vacation reading. It follows Sophie Applebaum from awkward teen through to uncertain adult as she struggles to find her place in the world. Each new chapter generally focuses on a new (usually doomed) romantic relationship. Although this makes for fun, juicy vacation reading, it gets a little depressing. Each time she’s introduced to a new man you think – yes, Sophie! Here’s your guy! And that’s generally what she thinks too. Problem is, for some reason or other, it never seems to work out. This frame is also problematic for me, as it would seem to suggest that the value of one’s life is measured primarily by the quality of one’s romantic relationships. Dangerous thinking, if you ask me, but a fun book nonetheless.

Next up: I just finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Despite the overly cutesy title, I enjoyed this book and will be writing about it very soon. Also, I’m thinking about starting to blog about restaurants. Whenever I try a new place, I always love to share!

Happy Reading,

Amber

“Four Splendid Truths

  • First: To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.
  • Second: One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.
  • Third: The days are long, but the years are short.
  • Fourth: You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy. “

~ from Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project Blog (www.happiness-project.com)

The reason I felt compelled to purchase and read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, a real life account of Rubin’s exploration on how to be happier, was because I heard this interview on Q with Jian Ghomeshi (scroll down to the Jan 19th Episode). I had seen the book on bestseller lists and dismissed it as the kind of flakey, over-sentimental, mid-life crisis dribble that seems to be permeating our bookshelves these days. I know, I know I sound really judgemental and cynical, and I definitely can be both those things, but in Gretchen’s interview with Jian she turned me around. She sounded so smart and literate, so honest about her own short comings, and so interested in the subject of finding one’s happiness without changing all sorts of major things about one’s life, that I bought the book on my way home that evening.

This book took me longer than usual to get through. I think that’s mostly because I’m such a fiction junky that reading a “stunt journalism” book tends to feel like more work somehow, there’s less opportunity to be swept away. That being said, for all my skepticism this book had me doing a lot of considering and evaluating of my own happiness. The marriage chapter in particular urged me to think more about what unhelpful behaviours and habits I could change to potentially improve the quality of interaction between my husband and I.

As I continued the book much of it pushed me to evaluate my actions. I consider this to be a good thing, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of annoyance, particularly towards the end of the book. Perhaps I was just tired of Gretchen. No offense to Ms Rubin, but, as she acknowledges herself many times throughout the book, it is a pretty self-indulgent project. She does however always remind her reader that your own happiness makes other people more happy, and therefore the pursuit of happiness isn’t a totally selfish thing. I get this. I agree with it…I think.

It was just that in the later half of the book I couldn’t shake the idea that this book belongs to the newly identified genre of “priv-lit“, most famously showcased in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Although Gretchen Rubin doesn’t decide to travel around the world on her quest for happiness, she certainly seems to enjoy a very privileged life style which I can’t help but feel plays a major part in her happiness. And, please, it’s not that I can’t identify – I come from a middle class family, my upbringing was relatively privileged too – but it became problematic for me to read all about her being an “underbuyer” (someone who tends to “delay making purchases or buy as little as possible”) when from my perspective it seemed as though she was spending money left, right, and centre!

Coupled with that, her relationship with food drove me mad. I must confess, I am very sensitive to how society talks about our relationship with food to begin with, but I found Gretchen’s relationship with food was so tied up in guilt  and shame that just reading it made me anxious for her. That being said, I think her relationship with food is probably typical of how most North American’s think about eating, so maybe that’s just my own larger beef.

Overall I think this book is worth picking up. Her practical methods of learning new behaviours are particularly inspiring, and the fact that she’s so literary and did such extensive research on happiness wins points with me. As proof of the good the Happiness Project wrought in my life my husband commented several times on my lack of nagging, I completed a personal goal chart for 2011, and I took numerous first steps towards several things that had been on my to-do list for a long time, all while I was reading the book.

So there it is. Listen to the interview on Q at least – it’s a good one.

Happy Reading,

Amber

p.s. – next up: The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb (who wrote Sweetness in the Belly). Also, more attempts at daily blogging: questions, lists, and more!

 

 

 

Your Most Embarrassing Read

January 31, 2011

In an attempt to blog more often, (mostly inspired by my current read The Happiness Project, but more about that when I finish), I have decided that this blog won’t just be reviews of books.

“WHAT??!!” I can hear you saying,  “What else could POSSIBLY belong on a book blog?!!”

Well my friends, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. And this morning while riding the subway I was stuck standing with my travel mug in hand and therefore no room or opportunity to read my book. Instead I was checking out what my fellow TTCers were reading.

As I was being a nosey nelly, I recalled the times when I’d been reading something I wasn’t too keen on my fellow travellers seeing, and I thought – “I wonder what terrible /humiliating/awkward/too personal books other people have been embarrassed to be caught reading on the subway (or bus, or train, or plane). So I put it to you, world.

What is the WORST book you’ve read in a public place?? A book you didn’t want anyone else to see you reading, but you read anyway…

I would love if you would leave a comment and share your thoughts. And to be fair, I’ll share mine….

It was My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I was sucked into reading this sentimental drivel because my friend (who shall remain nameless) left the book at my house. I had nothing next on my book list to read, so I picked it up and started. Well let me tell you, when Ms Jodi Picoult gets started she HYPNOTIZES you and manipulates you into CRYING on the subway about characters that you thought were hollow and poorly drawn.

Anyway. I finished it. But every time I was on the subway I would try to hide the cover. And it was the MOVIE cover!! The WORST when you have the movie cover on the book!

Let me know yours, people…

Happy Reading,

a.

Room by Emma Donoghue

January 26, 2011

“Chapter 1: Presents

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. “Was I minus numbers?”

“Hmm?” Ma does a big stretch.

“Up in Heaven. Was I minus one, minus two, minus three — ?”

“Nah, the numbers didn’t start till you zoomed down.”

“Through Skylight. You were all sad till I happened in your tummy.”

“You said it.”

Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh.

I shut my eyes just in time, then open one a crack, then both.

“I cried till I didn’t have any tears left,” she tells me.

 “I just lay here counting the seconds.”

“How many seconds?” I ask her.

“Millions and millions of them.”

“No, but how many exactly?”

“I lost count,” says Ma.

“Then you wished and wished on your egg till you got fat.”

She grins. “I could feel you kicking.”

“What was I kicking?”

“Me, of course.”

I always laugh at that bit.

“From the inside, boom boom.” Ma lifts her sleep T-shirt and makes her tummy jump. “I thought, Jack’s on his way. First thing in the morning, you slid out onto the rug with your eyes wide open.”

I look down at Rug with her red and brown and black all zigging around each other. There’s the stain I spilled by mistake getting born. “You cutted the cord and I was free,” I tell Ma. “Then I turned into a boy.”

“Actually, you were a boy already.”

~ from Room by Emma Donoghue

I finished Room by Emma Donoghue a couple of weeks ago and have been itching to write about it since.  Room is the story of 5-year-old Jack whose world consists entirely of the 11ft x 11ft room in which he has spent his entire life living with his mother.  Room is strange, disturbing, and absolutely riveting. I devoured its 321 pages in two days. I literally couldn’t put it down.

The conceit of having Jack as the narrator is Donoghue’s most brilliant move. Seeing the world through Jack’s perspective is an exercise in wonder. He accepts his tiny universe, he embraces his routine, he’s curious, bright, thoughtful – altogether a normal 5-year-old, were it not for the overwhelming strangeness of his circumstances.

What amazed and impressed me about Donoghue’s book its ability embody the spirit and tone of a gripping thriller and also manage to have something real to say about the world in which we live. Room draws you in with Jack’s charisma and Donoghue’s amazingly ability to slowly eke out bits and pieces of the twisted truth. As an adult reader witnessing Jack’s world, you have the unusual experience of being one step ahead of the main character.

It’s hard for me to talk more extensively about the specifics of what I enjoyed in Room without giving away some important plot points, so I won’t get into too much detail. Suffice it to say that for a novel about two people locked away in one small room for years, this insightful and compelling book is not small on perspective.  

Happy Reading,

Amber

Next up: I read Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden but am torn about whether or not I should blog about it. To sum up: I had great expectations and it let me down. Currently I’m reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. It’s a non-fiction book about a woman who decides she wants to teach herself how to be happier. It’s just what I need right now.

 

 

 

 

Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls” 

  Paris Correspondent-Lloyd Burko  

Lloyd shoves off the bedcovers and hurries to the front door in white underwear and black socks. He steadies himself on the knob and shuts his eyes. Chill air rushes under the door; he curls his toes. But the hallway is silent. Only high-heeled clicks from the floor above. A shutter squeaking on the other side of the courtyard. His own breath, whistling in his nostrils, whistling out.  

Faintly, a woman’s voice drifts in. He clenches his eyelids tighter, as if to drive up the volume, but makes out only murmurs, a breakfast exchange between the woman and the man in the apartment across the hall. Until, abruptly, their door opens: her voice grows louder, the hallway floorboards creak-she is approaching. Lloyd hustles back, unlatches the window above the courtyard, and takes up a position there, gazing out over his corner of Paris.   She taps on his front door.  

“Come in,” he says. “No need to knock.” And his wife enters their apartment for the first time since the night before.   He does not turn from the window to face Eileen, only presses his bald knees harder into the iron guardrail. She smoothes down the back of his gray hair. He flinches, surprised to be touched.  

“Only me,” she says.  

~ from The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

I bought myself The Imperfectionists during boxing week, using the Indigo gift card I got for Christmas (thanks Mom & Dad). This book had been recommended to me twice – once by an Indigo employee when I was searching for a book to purchase for my friend Adrian as a birthday gift (I went with another book because I hadn’t read this yet, and it turned out he had already read the one I bought…should have listened to the sales staff at Indigo…), and again by my best friend Jess. Now, my friends, I am here to HIGHLY recommend this book to you.

Tom Rachman’s remarkable first novel is a love letter to the newspaper industry. It tells the story of an English language international paper based in Rome, started on a whim (or seemingly so) by the extremely wealthy American business man, Cyrus Ott during the 1950’s. The majority of the novel takes place in 2007 and each chapter follows the life of one person who is connected to the paper. In between these chapters are shorter excerpts following the paper’s inception and tracing its history through to the present day.

I think what struck me most about this clever and honest book was the way each chapter, each person, felt so complete. There was never that longing you often get when novels change perspective of – “ooooh, I wished I could have stayed with that character longer”. Rachman has an incredible way of writing each chapter almost like a short story unto itself, or perhaps more appropriately, a newspaper article. What adds to the novel’s depth is the small ways in which characters pop up in other people’s stories. Because they are all connected to the newspaper, the book becomes this nuanced relay race with one character elegantly passing the narrative off to the next.

The Imperfectionists is funny, touching, smart, and intricate. It’s a book I would confidently buy for almost anyone I know because of its broad appeal. Both the writing style and content of the novel make it imminently readable and accessible, while also making you think. There are so many delicious moments in this novel that I could recount, but it’s better if you just go read the book. It’s now available in trade paperback.

Happy Reading,

Amber

Next up: between The Elegance of the Hedgehog and this I read Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, but didn’t want to write about it before our book club discussion two weeks from now. This morning I just started another Christmas gift book – Room by Emma Donoghue.

p.s. – I realize that I mention “Indigo” several times here, and while its a great place to go when you want to browse, I would encourage you to support your local independant book stores! Too many of them are disappearing these days. Or check out your local library for that matter!

“Profound Thought No. 1

Follow the stars
In the goldfish bowl
An end

Apparently, now and again adults take the time to sit down and contemplate what a disaster their life is. They complain without understanding, and, like flies constantly banging against the same old windowpane, they buzz around, suffer, waste away, get depressed then wonder how they got caught up in this spiral that is taking them where they don’t want to go. The most intelligent among them turn it into a religion: oh, the despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence! Cynics of this kind frequently dine at Papa’s table: “What has become of the dreams of our youth?” they ask, with their smug, disillusioned air. “Those years are long gone, and life’s a bitch.” I despise this false lucidity that comes with age. The truth is that they are just like everyone else: kids who don’t understand what has happened to them and who act big and tough when in fact all they want is to burst into tears. “

~ from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Translated from French to English by Alison Anderson, Muriel Barbey’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog follows the stories of Renee, a mid-life concierge at a posh apartment building in Paris, and Paloma, a 12-year-old resident of the building who has decided to commit suicide and burn down her parent’s apartment on her 13th birthday. These two seemingly opposite characters are the alternating narrators of the novel and eventually their paths cross in a most unusual and unexpected way.

I was immediately charmed by the title of this novel, and as I cracked its spine it lived up the quirkiness I had anticipated. Both characters are eccentric outsiders struggling to mask their hyper intelligence, and as a reader you feel immediately privileged to be welcomed in to their exclusive little worlds. I did find that I was more consistently invested in Paloma, the 12-year-old girl. As she heads toward ending her life she’s determined to have a series of “profound thoughts”. This device causes each of her chapters to be high stakes – after all these thoughts will be her legacy.

Conversely, Renee’s chapters, particularly in the beginning, are packed with endless references to Tolstoy and Japanese film, and while these references eventually have a bearing on the story I found them excessive and dry in the early stages of the novel. When I wanted to know what was happening with Renee now, in the reality of her life, she was constantly layering quotation upon memory, upon allusion and consequently veering the reader away from any forward momentum. For me I struggled to stay with Renee’s chapters until the introduction of Kakuro, a Japanese gentlemen who moves into the building and into Renee’s life. After he was in the picture I was consistently moved by and engaged with Renee’s story, but he isn’t introduced until the last third of the book.

That being said, that last third of the book is potent. Barbery has saved all her momentum for this section and if you stick with the dense, sometimes dull literary weight of the earlier chapters you will be rewarded for your patience. What awaits you is a conclusion that will break your heart, make you smile, and perhaps cause you to have some profound thoughts of your own.

Happy Reading,

Amber

Next up: Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden and hopefully a few amazing books that were on my Christmas list!

Two days later, I sit in my parent’s kitchen, waiting for dusk to fall. I give in and light another cigarette even though last night the surgeon general came on the television set and shook his finger at everybody, trying to convince us that smoking will kill us. But Mother once told me tongue kissing would turn me blind and I’m starting to think it’s all just a big plot between the surgeon general and Mother to make sure no one ever has any fun.

At eight o’clock that same night, I’m stumbling down Aibileen’s street as discreetly as one can carrying a fifty-pound Corona typewriter. I knock softly, already dying for another cigarette to calm my nerves. Aibileen answers and I slip inside. She’s wearing the same green dress and stiff black shoes as last time.

I try to smile, like I’m confident it will work this time, despite the idea she explained over the phone. “Could we . . . sit in the kitchen this time?” I ask. “Would you mind?”

“Alright. Ain’t nothing to look at, but come on back.”

The kitchen is about half the size of the living room and warmer. It smells like tea and lemons. The black-and-white linoleum floor has been scrubbed thin. There’s just enough counter for the china tea set. I set the typewriter on a scratched red table under the window. Aibileen starts to pour the hot water into the teapot.

 “Oh, none for me, thanks,” I say and reach in my bag. “I brought us some Co-Colas if you want one.” I’ve tried to come up with ways to make Aibileen more comfortable. Number One: Don’t make Aibileen feel like she has to serve me.

“Well, ain’t that nice. I usually don’t take my tea till later anyway.” She brings over an opener and two glasses. I drink mine straight from the bottle and seeing this, she pushes the glasses aside, does the same.”

~ from The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help is set in Jackson Mississippi in the 1960’s. It tells the story of Eugenia    ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, a 23-year-old daughter of a plantation owner who dreams of being a writer and Aibileen and Minny, two African-American maids who work as ‘the help’ in local white households. Following college, the unmarried and prospectless Skeeter writes to a publishing house in New York City to apply for a job. She doesn’t hear anything, but finally receives a letter from an editor there encouraging her to write about something she’s interested in and suggesting that if Skeeter does this, she might be willing to read it.

Skeeter promptly drafts a list of things she cares about, but quickly realizes that none of what she’s written actually matters. In the meantime, she gets a job writing a weekly column on housekeeping for the local newspaper, only to realize that she knows nothing about housekeeping. She decides to enlist the help of her friend Elizabeth’s maid, Aibileen. It’s through these unlikely sessions of crafting the answers for a housekeeping column that Skeeter decides she wants to interview black maids who work in white households and compile their stories into a book.

During a time when race relations are incredibly tense, particularly in Mississippi, the writing of this book is a huge risk for all involved. The deeper in the women get, the closer they become and the more they realize how much they need to tell their stories.

Stockett wisely rotates the narration between Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny, the other maid whose involvement in the book is particularly crucial. This creates an eminently readable novel told with incredible sensitivity and respect for all sides of the story. In Minny, Aibileen, and Skeeter, Stockett has created three women who you can’t help but cheer for. Although they are all completely different in their personalities, the novel is balanced by Skeeter’s gumption and conviction, Aibileen’s heartbreaking warmth and patience with the white children she cares for, and Minny’s fiery spunk. Conversely, in vindictive bully Hilly Holbrook she has created a villain for the ages.

I would (reluctantly) file this book in the ‘chick lit’ section of my local independent bookstore, so gentlemen be forewarned. That being said, Stockett’s novel holds the microscope up to racial issues that are still (unbelievably) relevant in today’s world in such a way that it would be small minded to dismiss this book as sentimental or fluffy. At its essence it’s an intimate deconstruction of the life of women in America’s south under constraints that feel archaic, when in reality they are only recent history.

This is a touching book that reads very quickly. It would be a perfect pick for someone who doesn’t have time to read something super dense, but craves an interesting story. It’s no surprise that they’re making it into a film. I’m thrilled that Aibileen will be played by the effervescent Viola Davis.

Happy Reading,

Amber

Next up: I’m currently reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. So far it’s charming, but not nearly as engrossing as the last few books I’ve read. Following that I’m looking forward to starting Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden, and whatever books Santa might bring me…. 

 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

November 25, 2010

“The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now-but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.”    ~from Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen about 2 years ago, prompted by a resounding endorsement from my good friend and frequent book lender, Daniel Krolik. About ten pages in I realized I was in for something special and it quickly became one of my favourite recent reads. I mention this because when I miraculously found Freedom on top of the return bin at the library I was so thrilled to take it home and dive into it, but observing its girth I thought, “oh no, he’s just trying to do something as epic as The Corrections”. I was almost convinced it would be impossible for his follow-up novel to live up to my lofty expectations. Then I read it.

In brief, this 600 page beast is the story of the Berglunds – a family comprised of parents Patty and Walter, and children Jessica and Joey.  Of course, as with all dense, satisfying works of fiction it isn’t “just” about a family, but rather about the pain and joy of being human.

Franzen is a master storyteller. His characters are so clearly drawn, defined in such glaring detail that you feel as though you know them. At various junctures in the book I would pause to consider what was so special about the writing, what was making me dream about these characters long after I’d stop reading, and I realized it’s his bravery. I feel like Franzen, possibly more than any other author I’ve ever read, seeks to make you witness to the ugly truth that is inside us all. The bits and pieces we would never share with the world. Our guts.  The proof is in the way you equally loathe and cheer on each of his characters at various points along the journey.  Just when you’ve come to identify with someone, to see yourself in their shoes, they turn around say the most hurtful, horrible thing to someone they love, but it stinks of the truth.

Franzen writes what crawls around in the dark corners of people’s minds. The secrets we’re ashamed of, the desperate self-pity, the nasty judging, but also the vulnerability, the warmth, the desire to love and be loved. And while doing all that he also uses his characters to constantly spark political and philosophical debates. He manages to wrestle with everything from global warming, to downloading music, to adultery, to the war in Iraq and 9/11…you name a hot button topic and it’s in there somewhere. And yet what you leave the novel with is not these intellectual ideas, although they’re there in spades, but the immensely flawed and wonder-inducing struggle that is the human condition.

If you read one book this year it should be this book.

Next up: another miraculous “best bet” library find – The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Also on the radar are my next two book club picks: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and (my pick) Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden.

Happy reading,

Amber

 

 

 

 

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

November 15, 2010


“People talk about the happy quiet that can exist between two lovers, but this too was great; sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating.  Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel-before all of these things there had been only one person, Zora, and only one place: a tent in the living room made from chairs and bed-sheets.  After a few years, Levi arrived; space was made for him; it was as if he had always been…He did not consider if or how or why he loved them.  They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.”

~ from On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is one of those beautiful, rich books that permeated my brain and heart for its duration. Case in point: while reading On Beauty I got onto the wrong subway train and rode two stops in the wrong direction before realizing it!

The story focuses on two very different but interconnected families – the Belseys and the Kipps. The fathers of both families are university professors and have an infamous disdain for one another. The novel opens with Jermome Belsey, the eldest son in the family, writing an email to his father saying that he’s planning to marry Victoria Kipps, the eldest daughter of that family. This relationship falls apart before it really has a chance to begin and Smith begins to weave her complex and intimate story of desire, art, friendship, jealousy, and of course, beauty.

The in and outs of the plot are too dense and nuanced for me to attempt to explain here. Smith makes a meal of each character, allowing us to spend time getting inside the mind and heart of all her creations. The centrepiece of the novel for me is the relationship between the Belsey parents, Kiki and Howard. When the story begins we discover that Howard has recently had a short-lived affair with a colleague of his who is, in every way, the opposite of Kiki. Kiki is devastated by this, having managed 30 happy years of marriage, and Howard, apologetic and regretful, questions why, after 30 years of love, sex has to mean everything.  Thus begins a  long and fascinating journey that will challenge the reader’s assumptions about the nature love and beauty.

Howard is a professor of art history and throughout the story all the characters seem to describe each other and the world like they might a piece of art. Beauty is at once revered and flipped on its head. Throughout Smith’s intimate prose we see the world as each of her character’s see it, and miraculously empathize with each one equally. Everyone we meet is at once likeable and deplorable, admirable and irritating, generous and selfish – in other words – human.

This book got under my skin and into my heart. I felt it was the perfect blend of captivating storytelling and elegant, funny, intelligent writing. I highly recommend it to you all.

Happy Reading,

Amber

Next up: I scored HUGE at the library and managed to take out Jonathan Franzen’s (author of the much celebrated novel, The Corrections) highly anticpated new book, Freedom. I’m only allowed a week loan on it, so I’m reading like it’s my job this week. So far it’s not disappointing.