Some stories never get old: ‘Eligible’ by Curtis Sittenfeld [Review]

Some stories never get old: ‘Eligible’ by Curtis Sittenfeld [Review]

Goodreads rating: 4/5 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any novel based on ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen will succeed in winning over certain readers. Don’t get me wrong – there is definitely a spectrum of re-tellings. Some are good, some are bad, some are just ridiculous. But Austen did the world a favour when she created Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, and their story continues to captivate us as it gets told again and again (and again and again and again). But somehow I’m not sick of it – in fact, especially in the case of Curtis Sittenfeld’s re-telling, I kind of never want to stop reading it. Love the characters. Love the plot. LOVE Sittenfeld’s sense of humour and respect / appreciation for the story in her modernization.

In ‘Eligible’, the characters of Lizzy and Jane Bennett are bumped up in age, to make their mother’s distress over their lack of husbands a little more believable by today’s standards, but the basic conflict stays true to Austen’s original: a handsome bachelor moves to town with his equally attractive friend and the pressure is on for the single ladies to make a desirable match. In this scenario, the bachelor is literally The Bachelor – Chip Bingley moves to Cincinnati fresh from his stint as the star of a reality show called ‘Eligible’, where female contestants compete to be his bride. But the show was a bust – he came out still single, unable to make the ultimate choice when it came down to the season finale. He moves to town with his friend Darcy, a moody surgeon whose rude comments do not go unnoticed when he crosses paths with Lizzy, Jane and the rest of the Bennets at a neighbourhood BBQ. Jane and Chip begin to fall for each other, and Lizzy finds herself increasingly drawn to a man she knows isn’t right for her. Sexiness ensues.

This book is compulsively readable. It might be the fact that I was familiar with the story and therefore didn’t need to think too hard or stress too much over what would happen next, but something about the experience of reading it just completely relaxed me. It took me entirely out of my surroundings, to the point where I actually rode the subway past my stop. But beyond the familiar story, I think Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing is what really captured my attention as a reader – she possesses that rare talent of being brilliant without being ‘in-your-face’ brilliant. You can read this book for the sake of reading – you don’t need to step back and appreciate certain passages or certain descriptions for their language, you can just experience it and then later realize that you have been literally living in a world that Sittenfeld wrote. It’s impressive.

I also admire the choices she made in the narrative for what to change and what to keep. The skeleton of the story and all of the most essential pieces are there, which is so important, because only a fool would try and improve on the perfection of Jane Austen, but she also recognizes the necessity of updates for the modern reader. To set the story in today’s world requires changes in order to remain legitimate and relatable, and in those changes she reveals her skill as a storyteller. Without giving too much away, the character of Jasper captures a modern ‘type’ that Sex and the City viewers, not to mention women of the world in general, are all too familiar with. And the choice to split Lydia’s storyline off and introduce Ham into the mix was, in my opinion, extremely smart and much more satisfying than sticking to the original course of events.

On a technical level, I am really loving the recent trend towards short chapters. It is probably a product of our social media society, where our attention spans are shorter and we don’t have the patience to scan more than 140 characters before scrolling on, but I find it much easier to get pulled into a story that is split into concise chunks, rather than never-ending blocks of text. Ironically I find that I usually read more in one sitting when I can see the end of a chapter ahead of me – it makes it that much easier to say “just one more…” which inevitably turns into nine more, and then I’ve finished the book.

And on that note, I’ll wrap this up, but I would highly recommend this book to anyone in search of a light, funny, familiar love story. You won’t be disappointed.

And because my life is awesome, click below to see a video of me interviewing Curtis Sittenfeld:

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Also this:

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Met this author, LOVED this book: ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ by Chris Cleave [Review]

Met this author, LOVED this book: ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ by Chris Cleave [Review]

Goodreads rating: 4/5

I am aware of the fact that there are die-hard historical fiction fans out there, and that I am not one of them. This is not a genre I specifically gravitate toward, but I have occasionally stumbled upon something historical fiction-y that I really enjoy. The difference between me and the true, committed historical fiction fan is that I’m in it for the fiction. It doesn’t really matter to me whether a story is set during WWII or the early 19th century or 100 years in the future, as long as there are good characters and a compelling story, I am on board. Which is why I was 100% hooked on ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ by Chris Cleave.

The story follows three young people in London and begins the moment WWII is declared. Through each of their perspectives the reader experiences three very different reactions to the news: Mary, the privileged young socialite, is determined to find a way to get involved and disappointed to find the options limited by her gender and social status, left to find her own ways to contribute; Tom, an educator for whom the war presents an opportunity to advance his career by staying home while his peers enlist; and Tom’s best friend Alastair, a creative soul who feels himself drawn to life as a solider, never imagining how violent that life will turn out to be.

The story is not a structured plot – it’s more of a sweeping narrative that lets the reader watch relationships play out and see how each character’s decisions shape what happens next. What I loved most about it was the vividness of their personalities – I fell completely in love with them all. Mary and Tom’s attraction to each other was adorable and endearingly naive, so genuine and believable that it was easy to forget they were fictional characters. Laying the groundwork with their relationship made everything that followed much more intense, knowing that these two characters could experience such love and happiness but that the world would continue to crumble around them. Alistair and Tom’s friendship was similarly endearing – their shared sense of humour, their familiar way of interacting with each other, it all leads up to a split more permanent than they realize at the time.

As heartbreaking as it is to know that there isn’t a happy ending, the glowing moments before everything falls apart make for really wonderful reading. And the way one thing flows into the next, it’s easy to get swept up in the story and go along for the ride, even as it leads to dark moments that you wish you could save these lovely characters from. It captures a real and terrifying moment in history in a way that is sad, surprising, horrifying and thrilling all at the same time. The one thing I didn’t like was the ending, because as the book wraps up I really didn’t know how to feel. It wasn’t exactly a happy ending, but it was sad in a tentative, hopeful kind of way. It left the door open for something new, but it ended before the characters really decided to walk through it, which was frustrating for someone who just wanted to know that they ended up okay.

I hate having to sum up a story like this, because it’s impossible to definitively say what it’s about (which, let’s face it, is the case with most great stories). But if I had to, I’d say this book is about the false idea of courage. All of the characters are young and naive, and they all make choices that they think will lead them down a certain path. They do brave things, they do stupid things, they miscalculate and they stumble upon the right thing every once in a while, but in the end there is no glory or reward. Even the courageous choices are met with nothing but uncertainty and sometimes even shame. It’s not a story about being brave and being rewarded, but about living life and moving forward and surviving extreme circumstances, with the hope that you will make it on to whatever is next. That might sound a little bleak, but this book is not. It’s genuine, and lovely, and hopeful in unexpected ways. I loved it a lot.

Chris Cleave has shared some videos introducing his characters and his inspiration for the novel on his website.

Another book I’ve read by Chris Cleave is Little Bee, which I also loved.

Not to brag or anything, but I also interviewed Chris for the Random House Canada Facebook page, which was one of the best things I’ve ever had the chance to do at work. Video here.

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A Love Story with a Dark Side: ‘Fates and Furies’ by Lauren Groff [Review]

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Goodreads rating: 4/5 

I am the target audience for love stories and happy endings. I love them. I can be very easily won over by a satisfying conclusion in which everyone who is meant to be ends up together and all of the conflicts and challenges are resolved and tied up in a neat little bow. If I’m watching a movie or a TV series, that’s what I’m usually rooting for. But books are different. I’ll enjoy happy endings in books, but I enjoy it even more when a book offers something completely different, a story that I haven’t encountered before told in a way that is new and unique, and keeps me guessing. ‘Fates and Furies’ is the perfect example of that.

It starts like a typical love story: a happy couple are running down a beach – they are completely obsessed with each other, oblivious to the world around them with eyes only for each other. But the reader is soon instructed to shift our focus:

“[Suspend them there, in the mind’s eye: skinny, young, coming through dark toward warmth, flying over the cold sand and stone. We will return to them. For now, he’s the one we can’t look away from. He is the shining one.]”

From that moment we are led through the life story of Lotto, the boy who is told from day one that he is ‘special’, and who holds onto that fact through all of his future endeavours, dealing with the death of his father, being sent away to school, becoming estranged from his mother, his attempt and failure to become a successful actor, and his journey to fame as a brilliant playwright. Lotto experiences the world through a lens of privilege and entitlement, but somehow manages to remain endearing. We follow his story as he meets and falls in love with Mathilde, the woman who captures his heart and shapes his life in ways he never fully realizes, and they embark together on a perfect life. When the inevitable cracks begin to show, the narrative starts to fall apart, becoming fractured as we start to see glimpses of the problems in their marriage and the underlying tensions.

Halfway through, the story switches from ‘Fates’ to ‘Furies’, and the reader is introduced to Mathilde’s journey, which begins in a way that immediately shows us she is not the woman Lotto always assumed her to be. Without giving too much away, Lotto’s “perfect woman” has a dramatic backstory that turns out to be much darker than you’d expect.

What we end up with is a tale of compromise, manipulation and resentment. But still a love story.

The writing is great, but I think what I enjoyed most about this book is the storytelling. Lauren Groff has planned the perfect execution of the narrative: she builds up our expectations and assumptions, and then slowly starts to unravel it all, giving the reader the unique benefit of seeing things play out from multiple perspectives. The inter-weaving of Lotto’s plays is also a fascinating part of how the story is told, interrupting the plot to provide a glimpse into the product of his creativity, which provides insight into the type of writer (and person) he is, and what he is capable of. I’ve always been a fan of ‘stories within stories’, and this reminded me a bit of the type of thing John Irving often does when writing about writers.

The beauty of this book is that you think you’ve got it figured out, and that you know what you’re reading, but then the game changes. The first half of the book is good, I enjoyed it. But when the other shoe drops things get more interesting, forcing you to re-think and reevaluate what you know and what you have assumed so far. This is written cleverly and with a unique style that I really enjoyed reading.

Definitely recommend! (and so does Obama)

Here is author Lauren Groff talking to Charlie Rose about her writing process:

 

 

 

 

When you need something hopeful: ‘Little Bee’ by Chris Cleave [Review]

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Goodreads rating: 4/5

Late last year I got my hands on a book that isn’t out yet, and I LOVED it. I had been going through a bit of a reading slump. I was missing that feeling of literally not wanting to do anything else besides read, and it had been a while since a novel had really captured my imagination / attention. The book that broke me out of this slump was ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ by Chris Cleave, and I couldn’t shut up about it. But every time I would tell someone how much I loved it, they would ask me, ‘Ya, but have you read Little Bee?’. So I did. And now I can say with confidence that Chris Cleave is one of my favourite authors.

A young woman finds herself in an impossible situation: she leaves Nigeria, only to end up in a British immigration detention centre where she is held for two years. Upon her release, she has nowhere to go, and is left to make her way forward with only the few belongings she had on her when she arrived off the boat. Meanwhile, another woman faces her own challenges when she is visited at her job as a magazine editor by two police officers, who inform her that her husband has committed suicide. As the narrative switches between the Nigerian refugee who calls herself Little Bee and the struggling widow, Sarah, the stories collide to reveal a shared past: a terrible afternoon on a beach in Nigeria where a violent confrontation set both women on the path that would ultimately lead them to this unexpected reunion.

I was completely hooked from the first sentence: Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. 

The writing is simple, matter-of-fact, but also incredibly moving. It’s not an intricate story, but it layers on the narrative piece by piece with beautifully written descriptions. Little Bee might be one of my favourite narrators of all time. She is young, but wise, and her horrific past has helped her see the world in a way that most of the adults she encounters will never understand. The way she describes her experiences is simple and to-the-point, but so impactful and vivid that the words stay with you long after you put down the book.

The story is sad, and certain moments are definitely violent and terrible in a way that you won’t be able to forget, but it is also hopeful. Even as the tragedies build on top of each other and the characters experience extreme sadness and fear and regret, there is still hope. Sarah’s son Charlie is a four-year-old boy who refuses to wear anything other than a Batman costume, and the simple way he sees the world brings lightness into what could very easily have been a very dark book. He may not understand what is happening around him, but he can laugh and play with the other kids, because fear and complicated relationships and horrible pasts aren’t all that matters. In the end, there is also good in the world, and a future worth surviving for.

I have read a lot of sad books lately, and a lot of dark stories, because often those are the best ones. But it is refreshing to read something that balances light with dark, and gives you a reason to smile, even while you’re sobbing uncontrollably.

Sidenote: ‘Everyone Brave Is Forgiven’ was less hopeful, but equally beautiful and probably some of the best writing I’ve ever read. Review to come!

 

 

 

 

 

Paranormal World-Making Done Right: ‘Slade House’ by David Mitchell [Review]

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Goodreads rating: 4/5

I am a little bit obsessed with David Mitchell for the following reasons:

  1. He’s a genius. From what I can tell, his brain operates on a level way outside the realm of normal – it’s crazy.
  2. His writing is great. He takes his crazy genius story structures and ideas and then lays them out in beautiful, accessible engrossing prose like it’s as easy as spelling his name. I don’t know how he does it, but I love it.
  3. He seems like a genuinely nice, humble person.
  4. He is British and quite attractive.

And now I can also add the fact that he wrote ‘Slade House’ – a short read with a lot of depth that is a continuation of the world I fell in love with in ‘The Bone Clocks‘.

Slade House begins in 1979 with a young boy being dragged along by his mother to attend a fancy event at a rich lady’s extravagant home. As his mother chats with the hostess, Nathan is left to play with a mysterious young boy he encounters in the garden, but soon things start to feel a little strange as he becomes less and less clear on which of his experiences are real and which are taking place in his own mind. When he climbs a set of stairs, he is distracted by a painting on the wall which he realizes is a portrait of himself, and in that moment he reaches the point of no return. A similar fate befalls four other visitors to the house: in 1988 a police officer is lured there by a beautiful woman ‘in distress’, in 1997 a chubby girl gets tricked into staying a moment too long at a frat-house Halloween party, and in 2006 her older sister falls into a similar trap when she goes looking for answers nine years later. All of this is orchestrated by Norah and Jonah Grayer, twins who have mastered the trick of immortality, who play with the souls of mortals to feed their continued existence.

I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of paranormal fiction, but David Mitchell pulls it off. The Bone Clocks tells the full story of the power struggle between two strange sets of beings whose relationship to time is very different from humans. Slade House is a small glimpse of the world in which The Bone Clocks is set, providing a brief but satisfying snapshot of the universe of ‘Horologists’ and ‘Anchorites’ through the eyes of Norah and Jonah. In Slade House this world is never fully explained, but the hints and clues are there to match up the storylines between the two books, so if you know one you’ll be able to more fully experience and appreciate the other. It has been too many years since I read Cloud Atlas, but I’m told the same characters and overlapping narratives appear in that novel as well. It doesn’t matter where you start, but once you enter it, each of David Mitchell’s books will bring you deeper into the world he has created.

The thing that I find most brilliant about David Mitchell’s writing is that you can choose how you want to read it. Personally I love literary fiction and find complex storylines fascinating – I love the overlapping plots and subtle references to other narratives that link characters together in unexpected ways. But if that type of reading isn’t for you, you can also enjoy David Mitchell for just being a wonderful storyteller – for capturing your imagination and making you care about what happens to the people in his stories. His writing is simple and straightforward but also surprising and exciting, creating a sense of intense curiosity that will keep you flipping from page to page until you get to the end. It takes a lot of skill to be able to write on both levels simultaneously, and David Mitchell does it to perfection. I can’t wait to delve deeper into this world and see what else comes out of it.

Note: ‘Slade House’ actually started in the world of Twitter, which is also pretty cool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This book will break you: ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara [Review]

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Goodreads rating: 5/5

I can only name one book that has completely destroyed me. I have read a lot of books – some have made me cry, others have left me feeling emotionally drained. Some have changed the way I look at the world, others have opened my eyes to things I had never considered before. But only one book completely and utterly broke me, and that book is ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara.

Four young men leave college and move to New York, broke, ambitious and talented. Willem is a handsome actor who works as a waiter until he can find his break-out role; JB is an artist, whose wild lifestyle and sometimes cruel sense of humour leaves him feeling like an outsider among his friends; Malcolm is an architect who can’t decide whether to seek success in an established firm or explore more creative pursuits like his friends. And then there’s Jude, the brilliant boy with the mysterious past who all the others are drawn to in a way that turns their friendship into something deeper.

By far the most upsetting and haunting book I have ever read, the best word to describe it would be overwhelming. The writing is beautiful and the story builds slowly, so by the time you realize how unbearable it is, you’re already too captivated by the characters to put it down. Because the characters are the most interesting, genuine people I have ever encountered in fiction. I fell in love with all of them – even JB, who is kind of a jerk. They are so flawed but also incredibly heroic in the way they face the everyday challenges and encounters of being a young creative person living in a big city. They’re trying to figure out how exactly you they fit in the world and whether it’s possible to actually live the lives they think they want.

Their ambition and their talent puts them just beyond believability, but doesn’t quite take away from their reality. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that four young creative boys would all grow up to be rich, famous and successful, because that is what I want for them. I’m rooting for them all the way through.

But here’s the thing: after you fall in love with them, these characters will DESTROY YOU. As the truth about Jude’s past is slowly revealed, piece by piece, you start to realize what you’ve gotten yourself into and it is upsetting. And just when you think things have reached the absolute limit, that your heart could not break any more than it already has, this story keeps going. You’ll want to step away from it, but at this point it will be too late – you’re too invested, too curious, too completely committed to the story to put it down. Because when you love characters this much you never stop hoping that they’ll get a happy ending. You think, ‘maybe things will work out, if I just keep reading…’, and that is how this book will take over your life and then break you into a million little pieces.

If I haven’t scared you off, I’ll say this: despite how broken I am as a result of reading it, I love this book. It is rare that a reading experience will completely take over my life, but this one did. If you aren’t afraid of a good long cry, and want to meet four characters who will steal your heart and make you think of them as some of your own closest friends, then read it. Because even if you end up destroyed at the end, it’s a destruction that comes out of something pretty beautiful.

Also, Seth Meyers likes it:

 

 

 

On Writing, Storytelling & Heart-breaking: ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ by Cheryl Strayed [Review]

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GoodReads Rating: 4/5

Writing and storytelling are different things. Storytellers build interesting plots and surprising twists that make for a fantastic reading experience, and that is wonderful. But then there are the writers who maybe aren’t so caught up in the idea of crafting a beginning, middle, and end, but just have an unbelievable way with words. A writer can just keep going with sentence after sentence with no specific storyline in mind, just saying things and continuing to say them until they decide not to say anymore, and the result is something mind-blowingly beautiful. And that’s what Cheryl Strayed is.

Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of letters from ‘Dear Sugar’, an advice column originally published on The Rumpus.net. We now know that Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Torch, was the voice of ‘Sugar’, but at the time people were writing these letters her identity was anonymous. People came to Sugar with questions ranging from superficial to serious, from humorous to heartbreaking, and she always responded with sincerity and eloquence, often sharing personal stories, quirky anecdotes or difficult experiences she had survived in her own life to prove a point to the misguided or struggling followers who wrote to her.

One of my favourite insights:

Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It ca be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by se, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humour and loaded with promises and commitments that we may or may to want to keep. The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.”  (p.15)

She has this magnificent talent for being eloquent and vulgar at the same time – saying beautiful, profound things in a way that is conversational and messy, but also kind of perfect and always lovely.

The letters she responds to come from a wide range of people from all walks and stages of life – an older woman worried about showing her naked body to a new sexual partner after being off the market for most of her adult life, a young man feeling betrayed by his father who has recently left his mother for another woman, a high school freshman worried about her friend who is letting a boy cheat on his girlfriend with her, a woman facing her fertility deadline and wondering whether to keep waiting for the love of her life or put partnership on hold and have a baby on her own. The challenges people face are endless, and Sugar responds with tough love and insight that is brutally honest and usually pretty entertaining.

Even with the broad spectrum of topics, I think this book tends to be pigeon-holed as a bible for ‘twenty-something girls’ – and as a twenty-something girl I can see why. She seems to be able to see inside my head and know exactly how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. But I wonder if that’s true for everyone who reads this book, regardless of age or gender. Maybe us twenty-something girls are just the loudest about it.

I’ll say this: it gets dark. Real dark. It’s not the type of book you’ll want to take with you to the beach to half-read half-skim while you listen to something fun and upbeat on your iPod. It commands your full attention, and there are responses that will leave you pretty broken. I read ‘Beauty and the Beast’ on the subway, a story in which Sugar shares the experience of her friend who barely survived an explosion in his apartment when he was 25 and was left severely burned, with his nose, fingers and ears burnt down to almost nothing and his skin severely scarred. After the accident he became very wealthy and had a full and interesting life which he claimed to love, but he closed himself off to the idea of romantic love because of how he looked. Eventually he committed suicide without even leaving a note. The way Sugar tells this story and the sadness and tragedy of it has stuck with me. Her stories force you to look at things differently, and often it’s not something you can shake off after you close the book. She can be funny, but mostly she’s scary, in the sense that you won’t see life in quite the same way after reading her responses. My advice: spread out your reading of this book, because it is definitely a lot to take.

As this month’s #IndigoBookClub pick, Tiny Beautiful Things was featured in stores and @ChaptersIndigo hosted a Twitter chat with Cheryl, where she answered questions from fans online – as far as I can tell she is just as lovely and insightful now as she was when she was writing people letters as Sugar. Dear Sugar is also a podcast now.

And here’s a TEDTalk from Cheryl: