Fight Night – Miriam Toews

I have mixed feelings about Canadian writer Miriam Toews’ eighth novel Fight Night, which was a 2021 Giller prize finalist. On the one hand, it irked me and on the other hand, I could appreciate its charms.

Nine-year-old Swiv (although she certainly doesn’t seem like any nine-year-old that I’ve ever encountered), lives with her pregnant mother (the fetus has already been named Gord) and her grandmother, Elvira. Precocious doesn’t begin to describe Swiv. She’s been expelled from school and demonstrates no interest in going back. Instead her grandmother homeschools her; her lessons include things like suduko, Boggle, “How to dig a winter grave”, and letter writing. (The novel is actually Swiv’s letter to her absent father.)

Swiv’s mother is an actress who seems to always be in trouble with a stage manager or director. Elvira is the stabilizing influence and even she seems half crazy.

Grandma says fragments are the only truth. Fragments of what? I asked her. Exactly! she said. She asked me what my dream was last night. I told her I dreamt that I had to write a goodbye letter using the words one and blue. Na oba! Grandma said. That’ll be your assignment for today, Swivchen. She has a secret language.

Swiv recounts her families’ idiosyncrasies with a matter-of-factness that seems beyond her years. She is responsible for bathing her grandmother, and putting on her compression socks, for picking up the pills and conchigliette her grandmother drops on the floor yelling “Bombs away!” and, when the two of them travel to Fresno to see Elvira’s nephews, being her travel companion.

Elvira’s open-heartedness is contagious. She sees the dual nature of life, that it is both hilarious and devastating. “Do you know the story of Romeo and Juliet?” she asks Swiv. “Well, I mean in a nutshell. It was a tragedy. Do you know Shakespeare’s tragedies? People like to separate his plays into tragedies and comedies. Well, jeepers creepers! Aren’t they all one and the same.”

Toews mines her personal history here – as she has on past occasions – and it makes for fascinating reading, for sure, but maybe this is just a case of the right book/wrong time or maybe I was distracted while reading it. Fight Night worked for me in some ways. Swiv’s voice is singular. The way she relays the things she hears, her mimicry, charming. But the novel is written without quotation marks, and the paragraphs are often long with multiple speakers and I found it hard-slogging sometimes. Some things that happened at the end just seemed sort of over-the-top ridiculous and undermined that novel’s potential emotional impact. Or maybe tragicomedy is what Toews was after all along.

Life certainly can be ridiculous.

Nothing – Janne Teller

Translated from the Danish, Janne Teller’s award-winning YA novel Nothing is pretty dang bleak. When fourteen-year-old Pierre Anthon announces on the first day of school that “Nothing matters”, he sets off a chain reaction of events that runs the gamut from the childish to the horrific to the ridiculous.

Pierre Anthon and his hippie father live in a commune, so his classmates figure it makes sense for him to take the position that “It’s all a waste of time. […] Everything begins only to end. The moment you were born you begin to die. That’s how it is with everything.”

Pierre Anthon takes his belongings, leaves school and proceeds to climb the plum tree in front of his house. As his classmates pass by he slings hard plums and his dismal world view at them. His friends decide that they have no choice but to coax him out of the tree and the only way to do that is to prove that life is worth something.

The kids come up with a plan. They’ll create a sort of installation at the old saw mill. The will collect things that matter. At first, they ask their neighbours to make a contribution and the items start to accumulate: old crockery, a rose from a bridal bouquet, photographs. Then, feeling that they didn’t have enough skin in the game and that Pierre Anthon would see straight through them, they decided they needed to pony up and make a personal contribution to the cause. That’s when things start getting tricky.

Pierre Anthon’s view is decidedly nihilistic: religious and moral principles don’t matter, and life is meaningless. As the teens push each other to contribute things that are deeply personal, they cross more than one line. They soon lose sight of what they set out to do and their whole experiment becomes less about trying to help their friend see the value in life and more an exercise in horror.

Translation aside (and you know how I generally feel about them), Nothing is a surprisingly complex book. At first I thought it was going to be juvenile; the characters are barely teens and they sound young; the ideas and the themes in this novel, however, are anything but. The novel starts out quite innocently, but it goes down a very dark path, invites the reader to consider some equally dark ideas and you won’t come out the other end feeling even remotely hopeful about life.

Lies You Never Told Me – Jennifer Donaldson

Ohhh. This one got me.

Jennifer Donaldson’s YA mystery Lies You Never Told Me is a dual perspective narrative that should keep readers guessing until the end. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how Gabe’s story intertwined with Elyse’s.

Gabe and Sasha are their school’s power couple. Sasha is one of the Austin elite and Gabe is a Chicano skateboarder he knows Sasha’s parents don’t approve of even though he “grew up in the same bougie neighborhood [and] my mom’s family has been in the U.S. for generations. They’re old money. They could find any of a hundred reasons not to like me.”

But Gabe is actually a good guy. He’s a great big brother to his six-year-old sister, Vivi, who was born with Down syndrome. He does well enough in school, has a couple great friends and puts up with a lot from Sasha, who seems stuck up and high maintenance from the get go.

One night, leaving Sasha’s house on his skateboard, Gabe is hit by a car. The girl who finds him and calls 911 is a new girl at their school, Catherine, and Gabe is drawn to her in a way he can’t explain. When he can no longer deny his growing attraction to Catherine, he breaks up with Sasha, but she’s not having it. Sasha mounts a full on campaign to get Gabe back.

The other narrator is Elyse, a girl with her own troubles. Her mother is an addict and Elyse is just barely holding it together. She does her best to pay the bills and look after her mother, but she’s just fifteen and it’s hard.

When her best friend Brynn convinces her to try out for the school’s production of Romeo & Juliet, Elyse barely hesitates.

I can feel the change come over me as I recite the words. It always happens – or it happens when I’m focused, when I’ve found something in the role to love. My shoulders round forward, my mouth quirks upward into a wistful grin, and I slide into character with ease.

Elyse is convinced that Brynn is going to snag the lead, but when the new drama teacher, Mr. Hunter, awards the role of Juliet to Elyse, her life explodes with possibilities.

Donaldson skillfully weaves these two stories together, and even though none of the four main characters (Gabe, Sasha, Elyse and Catherine) necessarily interact with each other, your brain will work overtime trying to figure out what links them together. Lies You Never Told Me is a well-written YA mystery with lots of twists and characters you will like and loathe in equal measure.

If I Knew Then – Jann Arden

Jann Arden is a Canadian singer-songwriter, actress, writer, animal rights activist, vegan and all around kick-ass human being. I have been a fan of hers for at least thirty years, which is why when she made a cameo in the 60th birthday video my daughter, Mallory, made for me I was speechless. She sang a little of “Good Mother”, offered a book recommendation (The Overstory by Richard Powers) and was charming as all get out.

Her non-fiction book If I Knew Then is a memoir about aging and is written with Jann’s trademark honesty and humour. She calls a spade a spade and I appreciate that about her.

One morning a few months after I turned fifty, I remember stopping dead in the middle of my usual routine

[…]

Suddenly it was as though I was staring at the most beautiful map of the world. I saw all the places I had been, all the things I had done, all the strength and service my arms and legs and shoulders and feet had given me for so many years, even though I had put this body through such bullshit and abuse and neglect and shame and loathing. All of that crap.

Jann tells stories about her complicated relationship with her father (who died in 2015), her devotion to her mother (who died of Alzheimer’s disease, which Jann recounts in her book Feeding My Mother) and the personal mistakes she made on her way to becoming, as she puts it, a “crone.”

The Crone is remarkably wise and unapologetic. She is fierce and forward-thinking – someone who is at the pinnacle of her own belonging. Okay, I’m not entering the time of the Crone. I am a Crone. I am at the beginning of a new chapter in my life – a whole new book, really. And it’s one that’s going to read and unfold exactly the way I want it to.

If I Knew Then has lots to offer a woman of any age. Although Jann is talking about herself in her 50s, maybe a younger woman could use some of her hard-won wisdom. For instance, if only I had appreciated my body a little more when I was 30. I didn’t think I was skinny enough or fit enough back then, pre-kids, but now when I see pictures of myself from that era, I am whoa! I also had a complicated relationship with my alcoholic father and I adored my mother. I don’t think I ever appreciated how difficult it was to be a parent though until I was a parent myself. My parents were never young to me; they were always just my parents. Both are gone now, too, and there are so many things I wish I could ask them. And apologies I’d like to make.

Jann’s book gives you permission to acknowledge your mistakes, and to move beyond them. She stresses the point that it is our failures that make us better human beings, that failing is, in fact, “a necessity.” Sometimes we need to be reminded that true learning comes from not getting it right the first or fourteenth time around and that “Good things come out of bad things.”

Fans of Jann Arden will certainly enjoy If I Knew Then, but even if you’re not familiar with her, this book is an enjoyable, personal (but universal) examination of a life lived, wrinkles and all.

A peek at my bookshelves

Back when we were first looked down for Covid, I came across Shelf Absorption, a site that was looking for people to share their bookshelves and bookish thoughts. There was a questionnaire and an opportunity to send some pictures and it was the perfect distraction from all the craziness of those first few weeks of Covid anxiety. My contribution went live back on October 5th, and I’ve been meaning to post the link here since then.

If you are like me and you gravitate to other people’s bookshelves when you are in their homes, this site is like candy. Sadly, I think the owners are taking a little break, but there’s lots to keep you busy for a little while.

Here’s a little preview of what you’ll find from my featured spot.

The Ludic Reader on Shelf Absorption

The Cult on Fog Island – Mariette Lindstein

Cults are fascinating, aren’t they? I was a kid in the 1970s and there wasn’t anyone scarier than Charles Manson. I watched the whole documentary about Keith Raniere and NXIVM. I mean those were some intelligent people and they just got sucked into this crazy, perverted world. Jonestown. Children of God. Heaven’s Gate.

Mariette Lindstein was a member of Scientology for 25 years. She left in 2004. Her debut novel, The Cult on Fog Island, is the story of a 24-year-old Sofia who attends a conference on a Fog Island.

Life has been difficult for Sofia. She’s sort of at a crossroad and she isn’t really sure what to do with herself. She’s earned a degree in English literature, her toxic relationship with Ellis is over and now she doesn’t know what to do with herself. When she gets an unsolicited email inviting her to attend “A lecture on ViaTerra by Franz Oswald. For those who wish to walk the way of the earth”, she’s intrigued.

She and her best friend, Wilma, attend the lecture. Sofia’s spidey senses go off almost immediately but Oswald’s charm, charisma and imposing physical presence are soon impossible to ignore and Sofia “began to catch on to what he believed in. A sort of back-to-Mother-Earth philosophy where anything artificial was the root of all evil.” When Oswald offers Sofia the opportunity to build a library – no expense spared – for ViaTerra, it seems like a gift from the heavens.

Of course, things aren’t quite right on Fog Island; the prologue is about an attempted escape. But for a book about a cult, it’s pretty boring. I mean, it’s over 500 pages long and nothing really happens until about page 450. Until then, the book meanders through the day-to-day business of ViaTerra which includes Sofia’s “unwinding” (three days of eating, sleeping and walking around the mansion’s grounds), studying the group’s theses, four vague tenets (which at first make Sofia feel “disappointed and duped”) and basically being groomed by Oswald. When Sofia finally admits that something sinister is going on (even though the ferry captain told her on day one that the place was haunted), it still takes a hundred pages for her to make a move.

My main issue with The Cult on Fog Island is pacing. So much is crammed into the last 100 pages it felt sort of uneven. If the whole thing had been about 250 pages shorter, I might have been more inclined to care about Sofia. Lots of conveniences and moments where tension could have been ramped up and just weren’t. And again with the clunky dialogue, which I find is often a problem with translations.

Then, when I finished, I discovered that this is book one of a trilogy. Yeah, not going to be reading the rest.

This Is Our Story – Ashley Elston

I read a fair number of thrillers and mysteries. I love the propulsive nature of the plot, the twists and turns, and the hero/heroine in danger. It’s hard to write a thriller that keeps you guessing, unless the writer makes a complete 360 that leaves you shaking your head. Behind Her Eyes springs to mind. I love books with sinister underpinnings like Unspeakable Things or The Roanoke Girls.

Ashley Elston’s YA mystery This Is Our Story puts a lot of adult mysteries to shame, really. It’s the story of five best friends: Grant, Shep, Logan, Henry and John Michael. After a wild night of partying at John Michael’s father’s hunting lodge (these boys are all from wealthy families), Grant is dead.

One of us pulled the trigger, but we all played our own part in his death. They will find marks on Grant that don’t fit with an accidental shooting. They will find marks on us that shouldn’t be there either. The last twenty-four hours will have them talking about more than what happened during this early-morning hunt.

The remaining boys, known collectively as the River Point Boys, leave their fancy private school and enroll in the local public school, but Belle Terre, La is a small town where everyone knows everyone anyway.

Kate Marino attends this school and she is quietly devastated by Grant’s death as the two had been texting each other for weeks and had planned to meet at a party the night before Grant was killed. As part of her senior year, she’s interning at the District Attorney’s office, a job that mostly consists of boring filing, until her mother’s boss tasks her with taking photos, a skill she has honed during her time working for the school’s paper and yearbook.

The powers that be might have a vested interest sweeping this incident under the rug, but Kate is determined to get to the bottom of who killed her friend/potential more than friend. And then she discovers that maybe she didn’t know Grant at all.

I literally couldn’t put This Is Our Story down. Kate is a smart, mature narrator and she keeps digging through the clues, determined to get to the truth even when it seems like her personal safety might be at risk. The novel also uses an anonymous third person perspective – one of the River Point Boys – to give us some insight into what the group might be thinking. It’s impossible to work out which of the remaining four boys might be the culprit, though.

There are lots of twists and a few real surprises, too, and I took the book home with me so I could read the last 75 pages because I HAD TO KNOW.

This well-written, YA mystery is really awesome and I will certainly be looking for more books by this author.

Rosie & Skate – Beth Ann Bauman

Sisters Rosie, 15 and Skate, 16, share the narrative in Beth Ann Bauman’s YA novel Rosie & Skate. They live in a crumbling house on the Jersey Shore. Well, Rosie lives there with her cousin, Angie. Skate lives at her boyfriend’s house with his mother, Julia. The sisters’ father is currently in jail for committing petty crimes while under the influence. although Rosie insists that her father is “a nice drunk.”

Bauman’s novel follows the sisters as they navigate their relationship with their father (Rosie is hopeful and forgiving; Skate has given up on her father and doesn’t believe he will ever get better), and each other. Skate is clearly the more worldly of the two: her older boyfriend, Perry, is in his first year at Rutgers and Rosie hasn’t even been kissed. Over the course of a few weeks, though, each of the girls will encounter unforeseen challenges that will push them along the path to adulthood.

Rosie & Skate is one of those quiet books where not much happens, but it still feels packed. I suppose that’s because when you are a teenager everything feels momentous. Who is guiding these girls? Who can they turn to but each other when things go off the rails – as they so often have in their lives.

There are no bad actors in this novel, even Rosie and Skate’s dad is searching for answers as to why he can’t seem to stop drinking. Rosie and Skate have their own way of coping and they certainly make mistakes, but anyone who was ever a teenager will recognize themselves in some of the questionable decisions the sisters make.

Ultimately, though, Rosie & Skate is a hopeful book about family, particularly found family, and spending time with these sisters is time well-spent.

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle has been on my physical book shelf for at least twenty years. I have always meant to read it because it’s just one of those books that I felt like I should read. In her article “Why I Capture the Castle has gained a secret cult of book lovers”, Constance Grady writes “I Capture the Castle is that kind of book. It’s not quite famous, even among Smith’s works (her most famous title would be 101 Dalmatians), but for a certain kind of reader — mostly women, mostly bookish — it is perfect. Once you read it, you fall in love with it, and from then on you’re part of a secret club, self-selecting and wildly enthusiastic.” (Vox)

The novel’s narrator, 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, lives with her family (her father, his much younger second wife, Topaz; older sister, Rose; younger brother, Thomas, and Stephen, son of their deceased housekeeper) in a crumbling old castle in rural England. They leased the castle – crumbling though it was – when they weren’t quite so financially destitute. Cassandra’s father had written a successful book, Jacob Wrestling, a “mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry.” The book was very successful, “particularly in America, where he made a lot of money by lecturing on it, and he seemed likely to become a very important writer indeed.” Then he stopped writing and with no income, the family fell on hard times.

The novel takes the form of Cassandra’s journal, which she writes in a short hand that no one can read but her. In it she recounts encounters with people from the village, the Vicar and Miss Marcy, the local school teacher/librarian, chief among them. She talks about her relationships with her siblings and father and stepmother. She writes about food – or lack thereof. She struggles with the awareness that Stephen has developed feelings for her.

He grows vegetables for us and looks after the hens and does a thousand odd jobs – I can’t think how we should get on without him. He is eighteen now, very fair and noble looking but his expression is just a fraction daft. He has always been rather devoted to me; father calls him my swain.

The minutiae of Cassandra’s daily life is not as dull as you might think. It’s the 1930s and it’s wonderful to read about a much simpler time and place. The castle itself, though falling down and without modern conveniences, is as romantic as you might imagine. And things don’t stay bucolic for long, anyway. Simon and Neil Cotton, American grandsons of the deceased owner of the castle, arrive and shake things up for the Mortmains.

Dodie Smith is probably best known for writing 101 Dalmatians, and while everyone has certainly heard of that story, it feels lovely to now be among the special group of women who have spent time with Cassandra. She is intelligent, kind and self-deprecating and watching her negotiate her growing feelings for one of the Cotton brothers is sheer delight. I Capture the Castle is charming, beautifully written and well worth your time. Make a cup of tea, eat a scone and sink into its myriad pleasures. It will not disappoint.

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

Nora Seed, the protagonist of Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library, wants to die. She’s just been fired from her job at a music store, she is estranged from her brother, the only remaining member of her immediate family, and her cat has died. What has she got to live for, really? So she takes too many antidepressants and ends up – well, in the Midnight Library.

The librarian (who just happens to have been the librarian at Hazeldene School back when Nora was a kid) tells her

“Between life and death there is a library […] And within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To things how things would be different if you had made other choices…Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

There’s a bunch of mumbo-jumbo and quantum physics and philosophy and stuff about “sliders” (others, like Nora, who are dipping in and out of “lives less traveled”), but ultimately, Nora gets to choose new lives until she settles on a life she actually wants to live.

First, though, she has to tackle her Book of Regrets. That’s a brick of a book where “Every regret [she has] ever had, since the day [she was] born, is recorded.” All those regrets are bound to wear a person down, right?

I know people will lap The Midnight Library up like it’s the most perfect bowl of ice cream on the planet. And why not? It’s easy enough to read; the plot is straightforward despite the fact that Nora can cast off undesirable lives like unwanted coats. She eventually realizes what I could have told her in about thirty seconds: no life is perfect. The perfect life is the life – the one and only life – you’ve got. If only Nora had realized that, y’know, before she swallowed the pills.

There was no emotional punch for me. Nora was okay. The rest of the characters were okay. The writing was okay. It was all…okay. Well, perhaps a bit twee, really. I’d suggest that if you want to read something that really encourages you to consider the value of every day of your life, you read (or even better, watch) Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Our Town.