Why we read. A Review of ‘North of Normal’

I recently read ‘North of Normal’ by Cea Sunrise Person.
I can see that this book took a huge amount of courage to write. I hope I can find that courage in my writing. Recognizing that bravery I am reticent to throw stones, but I feel the book slightly misses the mark.
Spoiler alert, I am going to discuss content.
As I read the book, following the story of young Cea, I was puzzled by my reaction. The story is written in First Person Point of View (POV). This usually leads the reader to get very close, intimately close, to the main character and narrator. But I didn’t feel that. It was always as if I was watching the action and the behaviour of the people around Cea. I wasn’t getting an emotional reaction, I wasn’t feeling either the joys or disgusts that I would think the narrator experienced. Or the fears.
This lead me to the larger question: What do we want to get out of great literature? Why do we read?
I think it is to get those experiences. I want to know and feel the joy of falling in love when I read. What does it feel like, what is the effort, challenge and excilaration of climbing Mount Everest. And then losing friends up there.
Can I bare the fear of walking through a jungle as a platoon trooper on patrol in hostile territory?
What is it like to be in the command of a mad man chasing a white whale around the globe? Or serving under Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar?
The anguish of rejection by a lover.
The fear of the totalitarian state.
The overcoming of incredible obstacles.
The loss of holding a dying child in your arms.
I want to feel and experience these things, without the costs and effort they would take in real life. And that is what a great book delivers. Not a view to the action, but a role to play and experience in that action. To live it in our minds.
‘North of Normal’ only gave me a peak at the action. So it is good, but not great.

Review of ‘All the Light We Cannot see’ by Anthony Doerr

I read Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ in about 4 days. It was one of those books I didn’t want to put down. It is truly wonderful. The best book I have read in at least a year. Superb.
The main characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, are wonderfully developed. You care for them, you worry about them, they light up the book.
You see characters act with courage in fightening situations. The huge scope of war with armies moving across Europe tosses all the characters about. So many show goodness and compassions, and some show greed and malevolence. As in real life.
I give this book 5 stars. I wish I could write this well.

Book review of Station Eleven

I finished Emily St. John Mandel’s ‘Station Eleven’ this week. Really enjoyed it. A dystopian novel with some nice people.

There are 4 or 5 main characters that are tied together through 20 years, tied back to the night it all began. And St.John Mandel does it really well. Little clues like the name of the dog, Luli. What are the chances? The intersection of Kirsten, Jeevan and Arthur. It held the book together.

I like books with characters you come to like, or at least come to care about what comes next for them. This book has that.

And I like books with a positive message. This book sort of has that. As compared say to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. Finishing that book was painful.

I didn’t understand howTyler could go so bad, and I would have liked to know. But then I am not sure how the good characters went and stayed good.

And a few of the plot elements didn’t quite work, like believing that nobody at the airport was exposed to the flu. Or that such a devastating flu could not be caught, like ebola or Sars was before it. But never the less, I enjoyed it. Well worth a read, and I will look at reading other books by the author.

Book review of ‘The Sun Also Rises’

I finished reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises last night.
Spoiler alert: I am going to discuss the plot, characters and themes as though I have read the book. And I didn’t like it.
About half way through the book I nearly put it down. The characters are mostly horrible people. I was struggling to find a reason to keep reading. I actually read a couple of reviews, and they raved about this as Hemingway’s break out novel and that it was a novel that came to epitomize that ‘Lost Generation’. So I stuck with it. I was hopeful the nihilistic characters would learn, would grow and would become better people. It doesn’t happen.
I worked in a bar while in University. I learned about myself that I don’t really like being around drunks if I am not drinking myself. Well this book was about being around drunks all the time. They were either drinking, planning on where to drink, getting over the affects of drinking or behaving poorly while drunk. One character, Jake, calls Brett, the woman he loves, ‘a drunk’. They are all drunks.
But worst than drunks they are terrible people. Lady Brett has sex with every main character. They use and abuse others. They toss people aside like disposable possessions. None of them display any empathy or even decency.
I suppose the elite that like this book find it thoughtful and edgy. But just as Mike tries to be edgy by being mean and rude to Cohn, so most of this book is just rude.
Why the narrator, Jake, was made to be impotent has me scratching my head. He certainly lacks self awareness. But at least he has a job. Most of these characters are unemployed bums.
I am at the point where I read books as a writer, looking for what the writer does and how she accomplishes things. The prose is nice and tight. Some of the descriptions are beautiful. A lot of the action they observe is great. But they just observe, they never engage. And I found I got sick of how ‘Swell’ everything was.
A while ago I re-read Hemingway’s short story ‘Hills like White Elephants’. It is a wonderful piece. But the man in that story could be one of the characters in this book. He probably is. And he sucks.

Review of ‘The Empathy Exams’ by Leslie Jamison

It is not often I don’t finish a book. If this had not been a NVCL book club book we reviewed as a group March 2nd, I would have dropped it.
I found the book a little bewildering. What exactly was the point? It wasn’t about empathy so much, as pain. Did the author want to share her pain, bare her soul? Well she didn’t. She shared a few times she was hurt. And shared the same experiences more than once. But I never felt empathy. Her writing didn’t work to do that, if it was the point.
The part I liked. The Immortal Horizon, about the Barkley Marathons. Not incidentally, the essay where Jamison most steps back and doesn’t find a way to make it about her.
Other essays I couldn’t understand. The Lost Boys, as much as I read it I couldn’t understand the facts of the case, why they were found innocent so much later. Like it wasn’t important.
The academic language. “I am just so tired of Sylvia Plath”. That stinks of ivory tower elites who are so much better than you and me. And Jamison exhibits a bit of that intellectual arrogance herself.
The foul language of the final essay. Blood, menstruation, wounds, abortions, self pity, Steven King’s ‘Plug it Up’. I can’t say I understand women any better for having read this.
And then I was asked ‘Why do you think she wrote this?’ To exercise some demons? To really try to understand empathy? To explore pain and sympathy? To tell us all about her personal experiences?
My thought was more cynical. This was an academic exercise. She told us many times she was at Harvard & Yale. Her career needed a book. She dusted off some old essays, and without even editing them to remove the repeats of stories and events, she pushed it out as a book. She is in that ‘Publish or Perish’ environment and this is what she pushed out.
A swing and a miss.

Review of Salman Rushdie’s the Satanic Verses

This is a tough book to read. It is an important book and so many people talk about it that I felt as a reader and a writer I needed to be able to say I have read it.
I am not sure that Magical Realism is my thing. And there is not doubt this book is blasphemous. It would not be published today. Parts of it I really liked and some of the characters I really liked, such as Allie Cone, and the Ayesha that leads the townspeople to Mecca. And there are some very funny parts, like the Jahalia whore house scenes.
But there are dozens of characters, and some that have the same name. Keeping them all straight is just too much work.
I can say I have read it, and understand parts of it too. But I will not be recommending it to any friends. Maybe to someone I don’t like at that much

The Writing Habit by David Huddle

I can imagine a Klondike miner calling out with joy at finding a big nugget of gold. For a writer this book is such a nugget.
I am working on a re-write of a larger project and it is hard. Hours spent thinking about word combinations, structures, plot points and metaphors and all the issues any re-write entails. It is hard and long and sometimes exhausting. So this book was a gift.
The Writing Habit gives a writer hints and tips, thoughts and processes, and most importanly to me, it gave me energy. It helped light the fire and get the wheels going again. On the weekend I finished reading Huddle’s book I completed more writing and re-writing than I had in a month.
The timing was perfect. The advice was specific and timely. It provided a shot in the arm when I needed it.
The only other book I have found that also helped in this way was ‘A Passion for Narrative’ by Jack Hodgins. The two books will be on my shelf forever.
The Writing Habit talks especially about that, how to make writing an integral, or THE integral part of your life. Not since I read Dorothea Brande’s ‘On Becoming a Writer’ have I seen such real world helpful advice. You must write, everyday, and you must make time for thinking and reading and working on your craft.
This is a wonderful book and one I will read again in the near future. And it also points to some source material that I am already trying to find, things like JD Salingers ‘For Esme with Love and Squalor’ or anything by Eudora Welty.
My one knock on the book is that it underates the importance of Story. If the story doesn’t engage the reader you are wasting your time. I think.
Highly recommended.

Review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ and her False Dichotomy

Nuance is dead. I am working on an idea that we need to become more able to disagree without being disagreeable. Can we have a difference of opinion without calling each other stupid or hateful names? Not sure we can.

So I come to Ms.Klein’s book ‘This Changes Everything’ with this thought in mind. I start by saying I think she is well intentioned. The slogans she passes off give way to a real concern for the planet, our society, and what we are leaving behind for our children. She means well.

I am not a climate change denier. Although I consider myself conservative, even Libertarian, I am not an ostrich hiding my head in the sand. I think that Climate Change and finding a solution to this problem will be the defining issue of our time. And a good book to read on the subject is “The Rough Guide to Climate Change” by Robert Henson.

We look back on history and we wonder: Did the Inca civilization see the collapse coming that took them down? Did the Mayas of South America see it coming? Did the leaders on Easter Island have some idea of their imminent collapse? Were the Romans aware that their society was in decline? Will we see the signs and be able to avert our collapse?

Climate Change could bring about a similar collapse to our entire world. Ms.Klein documents well the issues, the costs, the current political situation. That some many on the right of the political spectrum are in denial is disappointing to say the least.
But the failure in this book is not in describing Climate Change or calling for us to address it. The failure is that Ms.Klein creates a false dichotomy that there is a choice between addressing the Climate Change issue or continuing with Capitalism. How she makes that mental leap is impossible to follow. I think it is a supposition and position she brings to the effort. It was already decided before she started to write. Which is a shame.
The extreme left, including Ms.Klein and her husband Ari Lewis (who made a movie of the book at the same time), hate Capitalism. And hate is such an awful thing. It eats up the hater more than the hated. It clouds vision, twists judgment, impairs thinking, leads to lazy logic and makes rational discussion impossible.
Ms.Klein makes the mistake to think that only by abandoning our economic and political freedoms will be be able to solve climate change. She sees addressing climate change as an opportunity to address every social ill she can conceive of adding to her laundry list. It goes so far in the wrong direction I wonder if she really cares about addressing climate change?
Why would you try to load down addressing climate change with so much extra baggage and costs?
When we fought Polio, we fought polio. We didn’t try to change peoples religious beliefs.
When we see cholera outbreaks, we know that people need clean water. We don’t say they need a new political or economic order.
When we fought fascism and the Nazi scourge we didn’t abandon our freedoms to make the case we couldn’t win with free speech and economic liberty holding us back. These are the things we fought for.
Yet Ms.Klein would have us abandon Capitalism, free enterprise and most individual freedoms to address climate change. Which leads to understanding why.
Ms.Klein has a comment where she accuses her political opponents of ‘Arrogant Ignorance’. Yet reading her book, it is impossible to see that she has any understanding of economics, or even a basic understanding of budgeting and book keeping. She dismisses Free Trade agreements without even lip service to why the vast majority of economists know they are a good idea: Free trade lowers costs of goods and services to everyone.
She suggests that Western governments subsidize Oil and mineral extraction, when the exact opposite is obvious. When Oil and commodities fall governments all over the world are impacted by falling revenues. Governments are addicted to the money they take from Oil and gas taxes.
She means well. Climate change needs to be addressed. The way to address it is to reduce the amount of Carbon Dioxide we push into the atmosphere. Start with that truth. Start with half of the CO2 created is for transportation. Cars, Trucks, Trains, Ships and Air craft. How can we reduce this? Not even a hint in her book.
Steven Covey used to say ‘Start with the Big Rocks.’ That is a good approach. We need someone to start at the beginning and look at these big rocks. With a blank sheet of paper and no dogmatic preconceived solutions. This is a big problem people. We need to bring our best and brightest to bare on it. Our civilization depends on it.

Book Review of ‘The World Before Us’

I was a little worried starting this book. I read a few reviews where people didn’t like it or didn’t understand it. So I put off starting it for 3 weeks. And when I started, it was difficult at first. The writer used a lot of words I had no idea of the meaning of. And I don’t like having to open a dictionary every couple of pages. So I gave up on the new words and carried on. It didn’t seem to matter.
Another reason people gave for not liking the book was you didn’t find out what happened to some of the characters. Well, I think you do.
I have a hunch that what Hunter is doing is having us learn or see what an archivist goes through. As readers we need to put together all the little clues and bits of knowledge. It requires a real concentration and attention to detail. I haven’t kept notes while reading a novel since University, but I did while reading this book. And I think most readers will need to. To keep the characters, settings, relationships and time straight took 5 or 6 pages of notes while reading the novel. But it pays off. You start to see how it all holds together. It is like a giant jig saw puzzle, one of those with thousands of pieces. A challenge. Not an easy read, but fun when you start to realize what is going on.
Highly recommended.

Danny Aldham

Ordinary Grace

Review of Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
A huge best seller, with a first person child as the narrator, about a summer of sex, murder and coming of age. The parallels to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ are hard to miss.
Why do so many writers avoid first person? It becomes obvious too soon in this book. The main character, Frankie, cannot possibly know, be present or be privy to all of the events and conversations that happen. So a method of eavesdropping is conjured up. Frankie can listen to his parents talk through the vent from the kitchen to his bedroom, or he can listen to conversations in his fathers church office from the basement furnace vents that are disconnected.
When the next door neighbors, the Sweeny’s, talk to Frank’s father Nathan about sexual problems in their marriage, I wondered what was the point of this to the story? But it only set the stage for another eavesdropping that had tragic consequences.
Now, spoiler alert. I am going to give away the plot here.
I have two problems with this book. It is incredibly well written and the hooks to the story pulled me along as the author intended. Right from the start when there is some question as to how Bobby Cole died, we learn there are things beneath the surface here.
But my first issue is there were too many things I didn’t believe. When men try to commit suicide, they are almost always successful. Women, not so much. But Emil Brandt tried to commit suicide twice and failed. The police knew that Ariel Drum disappeared near the river but didn’t look for her body. Only Frankie happened to find it. Hard to believe. Emil had sex with Ariel, but only once? Lise was happy in the Mental Hospital? Karl confessed to Nathan he was gay? Doyle blew up a frog with a firecracker? That is something a mean kid would do. Morris happened to die. And Frankie’s infatuation with Edna Sweeney’s underwear or seeing Lise naked. I am not sure what they had to do with the story. I think every writer can assume that readers will suspend disbelief as they read a good book. And it is a good book. But I was jarred out of the story too often by things that didn’t quite ring true.

My second problem with the book is more thematic. I read this book as a book club selection expecting it was more mainstream fiction than the Crime / Who dunnit it is. I had no experience reading Krueger before but the book doesn’t start as I thought a crime book would. I was mistaken. So I had higher expectations. I expected characters I could feel for and that the main character or characters would grow and learn through the novel. There is not much of that. It is a fatalistic book. Nobody really acts, they are mostly acted upon. I want lead characters to engage, drive the action, and learn & grow through the novel. I didn’t get that.

Now there are lots of good things in the book. The look at a less than perfect marriage; Ruth is disappointed to be sure. The damage done to men in war; Most of the male characters had been in WWI, WWII or Korea and had all come out changed in some way. I wondered why there was no mention of the Vietnam war, which was just ramping up at that time. The concern that Frank or Jake might be drafted into that conflict as they come of age is not raised. Early understanding of Autistic people and our horrible treatment of Gay people in the early 60’s is noteworthy.

All in all , a good read, by an author who is trying to make the jump from Crime fiction to mainstream.

 

Danny Aldham

July 8, 2015