Monthly Archives: August 2014

‘The Arsonist’ by Sue Miller

The ArsoniststarstarAlthough I would recommend this author, I would not recommend this particular one of hers. It was actually a bit boring, which is surprising because the setup of suspicious fires in a small town is a promising one. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the book particularly compelling or satisfying and it was a disappointing read.

The story takes place in small town USA, a close knit farming community where people both live year-round and also just come for the summer months. The author plays with the concept of “home” in quite a few ways. There is the tension between the ‘summer people’ and the year-rounders. The main character Frankie has just returned to the US from working in Africa, and is struggling with ‘re-entry’ as many overseas workers do. Her parents have just retired and are actually transitioning from being summer people to year-rounders, as they settle into the town permanently. Frankie’s father no longer feels at home in his own body since he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

So there is lots of confusion and questioning around the concept of “home” even as homes are physically being burned to the ground in the town…and oddly, only the summer homes are being hit.

Miller’s books are usually more thoughtful and intense. I would say she is similar to Anne Tyler in type and style of novel. I was surprised to be so unimpressed with this one, but that happens. If you have read this author, which one of hers did you like best? I have read four others, but it was before I started this blog and I can’t remember! 🙂

‘All My Puny Sorrows’ by Miriam Toews

All My Puny SorrowsstarstarstarstarMiriam Toews (pronounced taves) is an accomplished Canadian author. The context of her literary novels is mostly her strict conservative Mennonite upbringing, either in dealing with the effects in some way, or in fleeing from it. Previous novels of hers that I have enjoyed are A Complicated Kindness and The Flying Troutmans. She takes on serious topics but her darkly humorous style allows her to balance grief and hope in equal measure. This one deals with depression and suicide which was poignant because this week the media was so full of the news of Robin Williams and consecutive attention paid  to mental health issues. Yesterday CBC Cross Country Checkup dealt with the topic and I wanted to call in and say “Read this novel!”

This is the story of Elfrieda and Yolandi, two sisters who couldn’t be more different from each other. Elf is successful and beautiful, a gifted musician with a loving husband and everything to live for. Yoli is a mess. She is broke, divorced, and struggling to be a good single parent and  a good daughter to her mother. And yet it is Elfrieda who wants to die and Yolandi who is trying to keep her sister alive. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other,” p. 37.

Toews writes so beautifully. Though this book is about depression and suicide it is oddly not depressing, albeit very sad. She is a master of metaphor and uses it to huge advantage to convey complex emotions while keeping the story down to earth. It’s an honest insider’s look at how families and individuals suffer from clinical depression.

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesstarstarstarstarWhen the Man Booker Longlist came out, there was only one title I recognized because it was on my coffee table waiting to be read!  It was there because of a recommendation from a friend who had read it a few months ago (thanks Connie!).  I enjoyed it, and would love to ask the author how she thought of the idea for it and how she did her research. The topic was fascinating.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the book, it’s better that you don’t know. But there are plenty of excellent reviews worth reading afterwards, since they contain spoilers.

The Guardian
New York Times, Barbara Kingsolver
The Independent

I can say that the novel is about an unusual family, but what family isn’t? The author uses a witty and breezy style and a clever arrangement in the order of the story, beginning in the middle. You know that something terrible has happened and that Rosemary thinks it’s her fault. She hauntingly repeats “what you accomplish will never matter so much as where you fail.” She also continues to say that she never talks about her family, but then she draws the reader in with a second person narrative. The whole book feels like an intimate conversation as a result, as if you are the only one she can trust to help her sort it all out. And sort it out Fowler does. The ending is brilliant and satisfying. It’s a very readable literary novel for the Man Booker Prize. I hope it makes the shortlist.