Category Archives: Four Star

‘How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem’ by Rod Dreher

This book demonstrates a wonderful thing in reading: how the right book can fall into your hands at the right time.

Rod Dreher is the New York Times bestselling author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, which I read not long ago. It was a sweet tribute to his sister who sadly died of cancer at an early age. Writing that book coincided with a return to his hometown, but that was not to be a happy ending to the story. Dresser spiralled into a depression that caused him to be completely out of sync with his family, his faith, and his health. Help came from an unexpected source: Dante’s Inferno. It was ‘divine timing’ with the Divine Comedy.

In a highly readable memoir, Dreher describes his journey back to health and restored relationship, especially with his father, in this companion volume to Ruthie Leming. If you have read one, you really ought to read the other.

No better words can describe the perspective in this book than with this quote from the author himself:
“This book is for believers who struggle to hold on to their faith when religious institutions have lost credibility. It’s a book for people who have lost faith in love, in other people, in the family, in politics, in their careers, and in the possibility of worldly success. Dante has been there too. He gets it. This is a book about sin, but not sin in the clichéd, pop-culture sense of rule breaking and naughtiness. In Dante, sin is the kind of thing that keeps us from flourishing and living up  to our fullest potential, and it’s also the kind of thing that savages marriages, turns neighbor against neighbor, destroys families, and ruins lives. And sin is not, at heart, a violation of a legalistic code, but rather a distortion of love. In Dante, sinners–and we are all sinners–are those who love the wrong things, or who love the right things in the wrong way. I had never thought about sin like that. This concept unlocked the door to a prison in which I had been living all my life. The cell opened from the inside, but I had not been able to see it.”

‘The Heart’ by Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor)

Driving back from an early morning surfing trip with two friends, Simon Limbres is involved in a fatal car accident on a deserted country road. In the next 24 hours, his heart will be transferred to a woman close to death. It’s a tragic tale told in ruminative prose. Every possible angle of the medical process of organ transplantation is explored in great depth, like a thorough documentary, and yet the wordy reflection also gives the book a contemplative feel.

The Heart is translated from the French. I’m not sure if the style of this book is typical in that language–I found it quite unique in English and my sense is that the translator did a very good job. The sentences are long (300 + words) with run-on phrasing. I wouldn’t recommend this emotional, stylistic book to everyone, but I found it quite beautiful. The pace is slow, read it when you have time to savour it; this is not a page turner in the traditional sense, although I was completely absorbed by it. The subject matter is heavy, so if you have lost a child yourself, this may be a difficult read. There is hope in the transplant but of course such a medical procedure always has a tragic side to it. I would have liked to experience more redemption in this novel, it felt a bit empty and left some loose ends, but it was a worthwhile reading experience all the same.

‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga

Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, by the scattered light of a preposterous chandelier, Balram tells us the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life—having nothing but his own wits to help him along.

This was a debut novel by this author, which immediately won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. It provides a darkly humorous perspective of India’s class struggle in a globalized world, examining issues of religion, caste, loyalty, family, corruption and poverty in India. It begs to be compared to another book about India which I read years ago called A Fine Balance by Canadian author Rohinton Mistry. Both books achieve the same insight but in very different ways.

This novel gets at some hard truths without judgement or sentimentality which I appreciated and I found it to be a hugely compelling and enjoyable story. It is upbeat, pithy, sharp and fast-paced. In contrast, Mistry’s book, though beautifully written, was quite heavy and depressing. Actually this one is just as depressing in what it reveals about India, but because I found it funny, it made it so very readable. Just like The Simpsons, whether you like it or hate it (and most people seem to be in one camp or the other), does get at uncomfortable truths using humour. Whether you enjoy that humour is, of course, a personal matter.  Here is an interesting article from The Guardian about this controversial novel and an interview with the author:

‘Young Jane Young’ by Gabrielle Zevin

This is the latest novel by Gabrielle Zevin who also wrote The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Do not be fooled by the seemingly light tone in Zevin’s books; they are full of humour and easy to read but have depth. This one digs down into politics, truth telling, and female empowerment. It felt very current. At first glance it seems to be just a tabloid Monica Lewinsky story, but then it morphs into something a lot more. Yes, the affair was consensual, but there was such an imbalance of power in the relationship that it took all hope of recovery for the woman away–name recognition alone would hound her for the rest of her days…

I really enjoyed this book. I loved the relationship between the mothers and daughters and was cheering for the main character who is quirky and strong. Against the odds, she seeks to find a meaningful life after mistakes have been made.

One image from the novel stuck with me and caused me to reflect as I drove along a windswept beach in New Zealand. Trees were bent away from the sea, their very shape altered by the relentless buffeting winds, forming them into unique reinvented examples of strength and resilience. Here is the quote: “When you think about it, isn’t a person just a structure built in reaction to the landscape and the weather?” Yes. Beautiful.

‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste Ng

“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly, a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never–could never–set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.”

When a book starts literally with a house on fire, you do sit up and pay attention! In the opening scene, three teenagers are sitting on a car, watching their family home burn down, while the youngest in the family has disappeared. She’s not still in the house, she’s suspected of lighting the fires. At that point I was hooked, and the novel kept me well entertained throughout a lot of airmiles on my way back from New Zealand–definitely a nice story to get completely lost in.

Celeste Ng seems to enjoy writing about dysfunctional families and she is definitely getting better at it. This one was well crafted, and a cut above the other one of hers that I read called Everything I Never Told You. I think her character development has improved and she has created a bit more suspense. I’ve noticed this title popping up on quite a few lists of favourite books of 2017 and I think it is not undeserved. This is a great one for book clubs with lots to discuss!

‘The Curiosity’ by Stephen Kiernan

Stephen P. Kiernan is an author of fiction and nonfiction. He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an award winning journalist. His books are beautifully written, this one is a literary thriller. The Curiosity was Kiernan’s  debut novel in 2013 and I also enjoyed another one of his called The Hummingbird earlier this year.

A team of scientists working on reanimating creatures from hard ice in the far North, stumble upon a man who has been frozen for a hundred years. Against all odds he is awakened in the present day and finds so many things have changed…and yet what hasn’t changed is that the greatest thing in life is still love.

The Curiosity features a scientific process called cryonics. The way the novel plays with the science and weaves it into the novel, reminded me of Michael Crichton’s books–scary and fascinating because it all sounds so plausible. The characters are unforgettable,  and the novel touches on all aspects of this type of scientific breakthrough–media, ethics, politics, protestors, greed, jealousy, but also focuses on humility, humanity, kindness and love.

Though I’m usually not too fussed about endings, I had a strong feeling after finishing this book that the author might have ended it differently. Wondering why he didn’t, I thought I would just ask him and I got the nicest reply. He was so gracious about my alternate ending suggestion, and took the time to thoughtfully answer my query. I was very impressed. Thanks for being available and willing to discuss, Stephen Kiernan. It’s what I love most about reading, talking about the book afterwards, and what a treat to have a conversation with the author himself!  The Baker’s Secret is next on my list and he said he thinks I’ll be happy with that ending! 🙂 He also said there’s one more book in the works which has a brilliant ending, so even more to look forward to!

 

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

 This is a beautiful heartfelt debut novel which at first glance seemed similar to The Rosie Project or Me Before You, but in the end was much more than a story about an unlikely romance. In fact the book is not about romance at all, which is why I really liked it. It’s an affecting book about deep human connection and how community and genuine compassion can heal, like in A Man Called Ove. Looking at a number of similar novels recently, I think publishers know that sad/funny/quirky characters are memorable and intriguing–Eleanor is no exception, though I hesitate to liken this novel to any other because it has its own strength and value. Thanks for the recommendation Laura, I loved this one!

Eleanor Oliphant struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she is thinking. She does her job well at work, chats with her Mother once a week, but on the weekends her companions are frozen pizza and a big bottle of vodka. However, if you ask her, Eleanor’s life is fine, just fine, completely fine, thank you very much. She doesn’t need anything else in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact. But everything changes when she meets Raymond, a bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. Together they rescue Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen unconscious on the street. The story takes unexpected turns and is entirely unpredictable.