The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer

What does it mean to be a feminist? At its core, feminism is about equality, right, femalemeaning that women are afforded the same privileges as men: personal, economic, social, and political equality. It’s hard to look at the state of the world and think that we’re actually there, though.

Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Female Persuasion is the story of Greer  Kadetsky. When we meet Greer, she’s a freshman at Ryland College. She’s like many other naive college students – well, okay, she’s not naive exactly, but she hasn’t found her voice. At a college party, she’s inappropriately groped by the loathsome Darren Tinzler. She doesn’t know exactly how to cope with this until she meets super-famous feminist Faith Frank in the woman’s washroom after a lecture. Faith gives Greer permission to use her outside voice, but also warns her “forget him” because “There’s plenty more for you to do.”

This impromptu meeting fuels Greer because Faith is an icon, someone Greer looks up to and wants to emulate. After she graduates from college, she finds her way to NYC and a job with Greer at a foundation meant to left women up by way of symposiums and workshops. Or something. None of it was particularly interesting to me.

Strangely enough, the most interesting character in the novel is Cory Pinto, son of Portuguese immigrants and Greer’s boyfriend.  Cory doesn’t attend Ryland; he got into an Ivy League school. He is faithful (mostly) and kind and smart and way more interesting than Greer, who spends most of her time slavishly devoted to her own journey. When personal tragedy strikes close to home, it ultimately causes a rift between Cory and Greer. Any time spent with Cory, however, is time well spent.

Faith is, to me, a caricature. She’s meant to be all about the gals, but not every decision she makes would demonstrate care and concern for the sisters. I’m not saying that perfection is realistic, but when Faith and Greer finally part company, the way it happens is so  – well – ridiculous really. So much for having each other’s back.

The Female Persuasion  was easy to read. I didn’t dread my time with these characters, but the irony wasn’t lost on me that the most feminist character in the novel was a guy.

What Has Become of You – Jan Elizabeth Watson

I love books featuring English teachers because I am an English teacher. Vera Lundy is whathasthe protagonist of Jan Elizabeth’s compelling thriller What Has Become of You. She’s pushing forty and has just accepted a maternity leave position at a private school in Dorset, Maine. Although Vera is well educated – she earned her master’s degree at Princeton – she is also somewhat awkward, and although being at the front of a classroom doesn’t come naturally to her she has “come to appreciate certain aspects of teaching.”

Jensen Willard is in Vera’s first period class, Autobiographical Writing: Personal Connections. Before Vera has even begun to teach, she receives an email from the precocious Jensen, asking her if it’s okay if she uses her own personal copy of Catcher in the Rye. This first correspondence sets in motion a peculiar relationship between teacher and student. In her journal, Jensen reveals very personal things, and Vera is both flattered to be on the receiving end of such honest reflection, but  also, as time goes on, troubled.

What Has Become of You mines the teacher/student dynamic to great effect. I think all  teachers have had students to whom we feel a special bond. Things get tricky for Vera, though, because Jensen is not your average kid. She’s odd, doesn’t fit in with the other students, is a bit of a loner.  She reminds Vera of herself.

She herself had not enjoyed being that age. On the contrary, those had easily been the worst years of her life. They had been the years of being ostracized, of being heartbroken, of being hunted down.

Vera sees something of a kindred spirit in Jensen, but then life goes off the rails for Vera. One night, walking home through the park, she stumbles upon the body of another one of her students. The ensuing investigation, and Jensen’s subsequent disappearance, puts Vera in the cross-hairs.

What Has Become of You is a well-written  – I hesitate to say ‘thriller’ so I am just going to say mystery. Our narrators are wholly unreliable, the plot is intricate and, although it mines somewhat familiar territory, it still manages to be surprising.

I would definitely recommend it.

 

 

 

Long Way Down – Jason Reynolds

long-way-down_1_origIt’s hard to wrap my head around gun violence as it exists in the U.S. My dad had a couple hunting rifles when I was a kid, but I don’t recall ever seeing them. No one I know has a gun in their bedside drawer…just in case. When I wrote a review for This Is Where It Ends a few months back, I tracked down some  stats about school shootings in Canada versus the U.S. and the disparity between our two countries is staggering.

Award-winning author Jason Reynolds addresses the issue of gun violence in his novel Long Way Down. Written in verse, the novel follows the aftermath of a shooting in which the narrator, 15-year-old Will, struggles to come to terms with the shooting death of his older brother, Shawn.

“The Sadness/is just so hard/to explain,” Will tells us. “Imagine waking up/ and someone,/ a stranger,/ got you strapped down,/ got pliers shoved/ into your mouth,/ gripping a tooth/…and rips it out./ But the worst part,/ the absolute worst part,/ is the constant slipping/ of your tongue/ into the new empty space,/ where you know/ a tooth supposed to be/ but ain’t no more.”

Will has clearly grown up in a neighbourhood where gun violence is a way of life. When they hear a gun everyone “Did what we’ve all/ been trained to do.”  And after the shooting, there are yet more rules to follow: 1. No crying. 2. No snitching. 3. Get revenge.

That’s what Will is after and he knows where Shawn keeps his gun. He thinks he knows who shot his brother, too, and he is headed there when something astonishing happens.

“…I’m telling you,/ this story is true./ It happened to me./ Really.”

Will gets onto the elevator in his apartment building, and the elevator stops at every floor on the way down. At each stop,  Will is joined by a ghost, someone connected to him, someone whose life was also ended by a bullet. As the elevator descends, each spirit shares their story, compelling stories of lives cut short, accidental deaths, and the horrific consequences of choices made.

Just because I have no experience with guns, doesn’t mean I am not affected by gun violence. I am about as anti-gun as a person can be, but Reynolds’ novel goes far beyond that. It’s a philosophical book about the deep roots of violence, the tentacles (sorry, I am mixing my metaphors here) of which reach out into the community in ways that are probably impossible for a white middle-aged mom in Canada to understand.  All I know is that when I finished reading Long Way Down  I felt hollowed out.

Complacency is not an option. Reynolds’ novel should be required reading for everyone.

And the Trees Crept In – Dawn Kurtagich

When Silla and Nori arrive at La Baume, their mother’s ancestral home, they are tired, hungrytrees and afraid. They’ve run away from home and come to the only place they thought they might be safe. But La Baume is not safe.

“You must never, never go into Python Wood” their Aunt Cath tells them.

You need to hear this as well, Silla. A monster of sorts. He did terrible things. And then he returned to the woods. He’s still in there, waiting for young girls to go wandering so he can capture them. So he can tear them up and eat their flesh from their – “

Dawn Kurtagich’s YA novel And the Trees Crept In is a nightmarish tale of impending doom. Silla is just 14 when she and Nori, 4, arrive from London. They’ve run away from home, specifically from their father who is a violent drunk. La Baume seems magical, if a little dilapidated, at first. There was a garden, plenty of food and “It was paradise. It was almost a home.”

But Aunt Cath wasn’t joking about the woods or The Creeper Man, and soon the girls, particularly Silla, are feeling isolated. The post man stops coming, there’s news of an impending war, and then, after months of not seeing a living soul, Gowan appears.

And the Trees Crept In is a page-turning puzzle of a book. Kurtagich includes diary entries, pages ripped from books, lists, and odd typography. If you’ve read Kurtagich’s novel The Dead House you will be familiar with some of these literary bells and whistles. It makes for an immersive reading experience.

Life becomes increasingly more claustrophobic for Silla and Nori, particularly once Cath seems to suffer from some sort of breakdown and cloisters herself in the attic. There’s no food. A terrifying trip through the woods to the local village reveals boarded up businesses and houses. If not for Gowan arriving from somewhere  with apples, Silla and Nori would starve. Worse than that, though, there seems to be someone in the house with the girls, and even more horrifying, the trees seem to be closing in on them.

And the Trees Crept In is like a horrifying fairy tale. The boogey man is right outside their door, and there is no escape for the sisters. Even Gowan seems helpless. I changed my mind several times about what was happening, and I was wrong. When the narrative resolved itself, and I am happy to say that it’s a terrific ending, I felt utterly wrung out and 100% satisfied (although a little gutted, too.)

If you’re looking for a creepy, compelling, well-written read-past-your-bedtime book, I highly recommend this one.

 

 

The Perfect Nanny – Leila Slimani

nannyLeila Slimani’s novel The Perfect Nanny was one of The New York Times  Top 10 books of 2018. Hmmm. It was also the winner of the Goncourt Prize. (Yeah, I’d never heard of that one, either, but apparently it’s “a prize in French literature, given by the académie Goncourt to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. Wikipedia) To me, I thought it was going to be a quick little thriller with a pedigree that was perhaps a cut above. Because go into any bookstore these days and there are about a zillion thrillers out there. How are you supposed to know what’s good?

I’ll save you the trouble: not The Perfect Nanny.

Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, and Paul, her husband who is a music producer,  need someone to look after their two small children, Mila and Adam. They live in a small apartment in Paris and Myriam has recently decided to go back to work. They interview a few potential nannies, and then they meet Louise.

She must have magical powers to have transformed this stifling, cramped apartment into a calm, light-filled place. Louise has pushed back the walls. She has made the cupboards deeper, the drawers wider. She has let the sun in.

To Myriam, Louise is “a miracle worker.” Not only does she transform their living space, she “sews buttons back on to jackets…hems skirts…washes curtains…changes sheets…she is like Mary Poppins.”

She works her magic with the children, too and “When Myriam gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready. The children are calm and clean, not a hair out of place.”

But of course, not all is as perfect as it seems and we know that from The Perfect Nanny‘s opening line “The baby is dead.”

Slimani weaves Louise’s backstory throughout the novel, snippets of information about her dead husband, the horrible Jacques, her MIA daughter, Stephanie, other homes and families she has worked with. Simmering just below the surface, Louise is fragile. It seems she has buried all her own needs in service to others. She lives in a shithole; she has no friends; she has no money. Without someone else to look over, Louise is a non-person.

The Perfect Nanny has been compared to  Gone Girl  but I don’t think it’s an apt comparison. This book is a slow-moving, naval-gazing look at motherhood and surrogacy. It’s about how we treat people in subservient positions, about privilege. Yes, that opening line might make you think you’re about to read a thriller, but there’s never any question of whodunit and so all that remains is the why. At the end of the day, I didn’t care about any of these characters, so the why hardly mattered.

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was our May book club pick and it really moscowdivided our group. It’s the long-winded story of Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocratic Russian in Moscow, who is sentenced to house arrest for writing the long poem Where Is It Now? which is deemed by the authorities as “a call to action”. The tribunal determines that Rostov has “succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class – and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused.”

Instead of being executed, though, Rostov is sentenced to house arrest. Since he currently lives at the luxurious Metropol Hotel, that hardly seems like a hardship, but Rostov is told that if he “should ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, [he] will be shot.”

Turns out that Rostov will not be returning to his luxurious apartment on the third floor. He is moved to a small space in the attic, which was

“originally built to house the butlers and ladies’ maids of the Metropol’s guests; but when the practice of traveling with servants fell out of fashion, the unused rooms had been claimed by the caprices of casual urgency – therefore warehousing scraps of lumber, broken furniture, and other assorted debris.

Rostov, as is his nature, finds a way to make the best of his new circumstances. He coasts along over the next several decades, making friends with the hotels guests and employees with ease. That’s because, we are to understand, he is charming, self-effacing and genuine. People – most people anyway – gravitate towards him.

I was in the group of people who didn’t enjoy A Gentleman in Moscow. My friend, Michelle, chose the book and she thought it was the best book she’d read in the last decade.  She thought the novel was filled with meaningful observations about life; I thought the novel was an elliptical, superficial ride to nowhere. I kinda love that about literature, how it can mean different things to different people.

It’s necessarily character-driven because except for flashbacks to his childhood, Rostov is trapped in the Metropol. The novel depends on other characters to give the plot momentum. The characters are, therefore, suitably colourful: a precocious little girl, a college friend who visits, the seamstress and barber, the chef. There’s a lot of talk of food and wine.

For me, A Gentleman in Moscow is like a souffle. All show, no real substance.

When I Am Through With You – Stephanie Kuehn

throughwithuCharm & Strange  was my introduction to Stephanie Kuehn’s work and I have been a fan ever since. When I Am Through With You is her latest YA offering and it’s a layered and tense thriller.

The narrator of the story, Ben Gibson, is a high school senior.  From the very beginning, readers know that something has gone horribly wrong Ben’s life.

This isn’t meant to be a confession. Not in any spiritual sense of the word. Yes, I’m in jail at the moment. I imagine I’ll be here for a long time, considering. But I’m not writing this down for absolution and I’m not seeking forgiveness, not even from myself. Because I’m not sorry for what I did to Rose. I’m just not.

Rose is (was) Ben’s girlfriend. She chose him, not the other way around. She is an exotic combination of her French Peruvian heritage, a “girl with bright eyes and brown skin and very short hair.”

…Rose was my first everything. First kiss, first touch, first girl to see me naked and lustful without bursting into laughter (although she was the first to do that, too). We did more eventually. We did everything. Whatever she wanted, Rose dictated the rhyme and rhythm of our sexual awakening, and I loved that. I never had to make up my mind when I was with her.

Ben is an engaging narrator, even though the reader might consider him unreliable. Kuehn wisely keeps her cards close to her chest, unspooling Ben’s backstory carefully. Why does he suffer from debilitating migraines? Why does he feel like his life is on the road to nowhere? What happened to Rose?

Much of the action happens in the middle of the book. Ben is helping his teacher, Mr. Howe, lead a camping trip out in the wilderness. Rose and her twin Tomas, Duncan (the high school drug dealer), Clay ( a quiet , studious kid), Archie (the wild card), Avery (Ben’s childhood friend), and Shelby (volleyball goddess) are the other campers. It’s kind of like the Breakfast Club of orienteering. Out of their natural element (with the exception of the teacher, who isn’t really front and centre, but manages to be important nonetheless), alliances fray and a combination of bad luck, bad decisions and bad weather cause total chaos and panic.

When I Am Through With You wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I knew to expect great writing, and I knew that the characters would be smart and prickly – something I’ve come to expect from Kuehn. This book asks you to  consider the moral choices these characters make. Ben is unrepentant, but he is also sympathetic. I felt tremendously sorry for him throughout the novel. It’s not all introspection, though. There are some truly heart-racing moments in this novel, and its propulsive plot will keep you turning the pages.