Monthly Archives: June 2015

‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at NightstarstarstarstarstarKent Haruf is one of my all-time favourite authors. Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction are all spare yet quietly gripping. The power of ordinary lives speaks volumes. There’s nothing extra, nothing unnecessary in his writing–it is a beautiful simplicity that sings. A slim novel, Our Souls at Night, is Haruf’s last. He finished it literally just months before he died. Indeed it feels like a coda, a postscript, a last conversation late at night before dropping off to sleep.

Louis and Addie live down the street from each other. They were never close when they had spouses and families, but they knew of each other. But now alone, with their children gone and the nights feeling so lonely, they embark on a brave endeavour that brings both pleasure and difficulty to their lives. A moving story about love and growing old with grace and how the elderly can often be misunderstood and their needs dismissed by the younger generation.

This book is one of Chapters Indigo’s ‘Heather’s Picks‘ which is a list that I pay attention to because they are often my favourites too. Heather Reisman’s synopsis of Kent Haruf so perfectly captures everything I love about this author’s writing, that I will quote her here and leave nothing more to add:

“We sometimes need to be reminded that a little hope is a seed that can grow in unexpected, powerful ways, that shared stories are what make us human, and that it’s never too late to start a new chapter – a new adventure – no matter where we are in our lives. Our Souls at Night is the last novel from the late Kent Haruf – a beautiful, aching reminder of these essential truths, and a poignant end to a literary life spent exploring private heartaches and small tragedies in the fictional town of Holt Colorado. I’ve rarely read a book that can be heartbreaking and hopeful in the same moment, but that is the genius of Kent Haruf.”

‘The Farm’ by Tom Rob Smith

The FarmstarstarHyped in reviews and the media as one of the best thrillers ever, I settled in with what I thought would be a hugely entertaining and chilling read. But now I’m finished with it and feeling very conflicted. On the one hand I happily turned the pages and enjoyed the writing, the storyline, and the intriguing premise. On the other hand I was disappointed that the brilliant ending I had hoped for did not materialize. The book  just didn’t really go anywhere at all. Sure, there were answers to questions that were built up in the book, but in my opinion it was just not worth it. It feels like a lost opportunity of what could have been a great story in a beautiful setting: rural Sweden.

The narrator lives in London and receives urgent messages around the same time from both of his parents. From his Dad he hears: “Your mother…She’s not well…She’s been imagining things–terrible, terrible things.” But his Mum says, “Everything that man has told you is a lie. I’m not mad…I need the police…” The narrator has secrets himself, things he never told his parents about his private life after they left the UK to live on the farm in Sweden.

Even though I enjoyed the author’s writing style, as a reader I felt cheated that I had spent most of the book just listening carefully to his Mum’s narrative, only to have it sort of fizzle at the end. There was lots of set-up, with only a few hasty answers arriving after 300 pages when the son goes to Sweden himself to settle the matter. It all felt a bit ‘too little, too late’. And although it was scary to think about how it would feel to be at the centre of a conspiracy where no one believes you and you get set up for failure, it just all took too long and I began to care less and less about the outcome. Scandi crime is popular these days and I was really hoping I could recommend this one, but unfortunately I just can’t.

Looking at this trailer though, I think that movie makers might be able to do something amazing with it!

‘The Road to Character’ by David Brooks

The Road to Characterstarstarstar

 

Guest Post: Dirk Booy

In David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character, he argues that we all have two natures: our external nature and our internal nature. He calls these ‘Adam 1’ and ‘Adam 2’ respectively, based on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s book Lonely Man of Faith. ‘Adam 1’ focuses on career, money, status, fame, satisfaction etc., while ‘Adam 2′  on internal character, being good, honest, loving and gracious. Brooks’ reason for writing the book was, “to save my own soul” and to “follow the road to character”, or at least to study those who have ‘trodden it’ already.

The book is a series of chapter length stories of characters ranging from Saint Augustine to Doris Day or from General Marshall to Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot). In all these stories, we find that in spite of flaws and weaknesses each were able to demonstrate a high degree of moral character. Brooks, a NY Times columnist, uses each of these examples to communicate the need to confront what truly matters in the world and for each of us to ‘chart our own unique path’ to building character.

Although the book is full of religious undertones (we are ultimately saved by grace), Brooks leaves the path open to a ‘beautiful life’. It is more the journey from ‘defeat to recognition to redemption’ that ultimately leads to joy. The Road to Character is inspirational but in some sense unfulfilling. It is clearly a statement on western culture but fails to bring home the solution. The almost 300 p. book only spends 6 pages on 15 propositions towards a humility code. The reader is left feeling good about oneself but not yet done – perhaps that is why it is called the ‘road’ to character.

‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munro

Dear LifestarstarstarThis is likely Alice Munro’s last book of short stories. It includes a Finale of autobiographical memories. I haven’t read much Munro, not being much of a short story fan, but I’m sure I’ve read at least one other of her collections. I’m trying to read more short story because I want to appreciate it more, and the endeavour has been instructive. I love using short story as a “palette cleanser” between novels. I always read each story twice in a row and then search online for others’ comments about it, that way I learn more and realize things I’ve missed. (Goodreads is a good source to see what others have said–sort of like the “blind men and the elephant tale”–everyone describes something different so all together a range of truth and ideas is provided).

Compared to a novel, a short story is a nugget, a bullet, with all of the parts of a longer work condensed into a complete unit that packs a powerful punch. Though not my favourite, I can see the beauty and skill displayed by a short story writer like Munro. What I liked most about Dear Life was the ‘Finale’ where she talks more about her own life. The writing is looser reflections, less complete, and not quite so self-contained–a rare glimpse into Munro’s own childhood, but is it so rare? I think her personal life has already been hinted at through the themes in her short stories.

Blind Men and ElephantMunro is known worldwide for her brilliance as a writer of short stories. She has won, among many other awards, a Nobel Prize in Literature. And yet she tells everyday stories of people living everyday lives. I do like that about her writing, it is very approachable. Her characters are flawed and human and she loves to explore how one event can be the fulcrum around which someone’s life can turn on a dime. From her stories we discover that she is highly critical of men, often characterizing them as thoughtless, selfish, and unpredictable. The women are capable of great love, but are often powerless and weak. I suppose these may have been things she grew up with, or perhaps typical of her parents’ generation in small town Ontario. There really doesn’t need to be an answer. Like the blind men, we can all take away from the stories whatever we like, and enjoy our own observations and interpretations.

Are you a short story fan? Do you have any advice for short story reluctant readers like me? Do you have a favourite Alice Munro collection?

‘Ordinary Grace’ by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Gracestarstarstarstarstar“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

What an excellent novel, I loved it. It is a well written page turner with the best but toughest stuff of life mixed in…tragedy, grace, hope, wisdom, love, and redemption in full measures. I couldn’t put it down until I finished and then I put it down with great satisfaction. This is one not to miss.

The story is set in 1961, small town Minnesota, an unremarkable and typical mid-West kind of place you’d find anywhere–a river runs through it. It reminded me of a prairie town I once lived in. Two little boys who happen to be brothers as well as best friends, are no strangers to mischief, but are shocked by the death of a classmate. He was hit by a train, no one knows how it happened. The boys are thrust that summer, into a world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal and forced to grow up fast. As they try to understand a world that seems to be falling apart, they discover the terrible price of wisdom and the enduring grace of God.

William Kent Krueger is a new author for me (thanks for the recommendation Ina!) and I will certainly read more of his books. The writing style is thoughtfully structured, simple, calm, and strong. The logic of the plot is easy to follow and the characters are well drawn. Although I guessed the ending early on, it did not detract from the reading. Krueger has a mystery/crime series as well as one other stand-alone novel: here is a list.
Other Books by William Kent Krueger

‘Ru’ by Kim Thuy

RustarstarstarWinner of Canada Reads 2015 and the Governor General’s Literary Award, Ru is a short lyrical novel that reads like poetic prose. It is a novel, but is undoubtedly autobiographical, with Kim Thuy (pronounced “twee”) herself coming to Canada from Vietnam as one of the “boat people.” This is not so much a story from beginning to end, but a series of evocative memories. It is a slim novel, but an interesting snapshot; a graceful and positive glimpse into the immigrant experience, despite all of the adjustments to fleeing as a refugee and living in a new land. I read most of it on a bus trip from Toronto to Kitchener!

Ru, originally published in French, means lullaby and in French it is a small stream, but also signifies a flow of some kind like of tears, blood, or money. There is a flow in this book of emotion and feelings about very different cultures. Even though it says that it is a novel right on the cover, I first thought I was reading straight memoir, and then rather jarringly realized that it must be fiction. I found this a bit disruptive and I wonder why the author chose to write it that way. Perhaps fiction gave her greater license to add the experiences of others as well.

‘The Red Notebook’ by Antoine Laurain

The Red Notebookstarstarstarstar“He was about to commit a forbidden act. A transgression. For a man should never go through a woman’s handbag.”

Owner of “Le Cahier Rouge” bookstore, Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a street in Paris. He feels compelled to take it home to see if he can somehow return it to its owner. Of course the wallet is missing and the bag contains no phone or contact information, it was probably ditched by the thief who stole it.

Laurent is forced to make deductions from the things he finds in the handbag, including a small red notebook with handwritten thoughts and jottings that he reads for clues. This reveals a person that Laurent would very much like to meet, but without even a name to go on, how is he going to find one woman in a city of millions?

As original and charming as The President’s Hat, Antoine Laurain is an excellent storyteller. This is a short book, I finished it in two evenings. But it is rich with Parisian flavour and full of delicious literary whimsy. A very well written and satisfying little gem.