BOOK REVIEW | A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
On the eve of Angolan independence an agoraphobic woman named Ludo bricks herself into her apartment for 30 years, living off vegetables and the pigeons she lures in with diamonds, burning her furniture and books to stay alive and writing her story on the apartment’s walls.
Almost as if we’re eavesdropping, the history of Angola unfolds through the stories of those she sees from her window. As the country goes through various political upheavals from colony to socialist republic to civil war to peace and capitalism, the world outside seeps into Ludo’s life through snippets on the radio, voices from next door, glimpses of someone peeing on a balcony, or a man fleeing his pursuers.

My thoughts:
This book is stunning; poetic and concise, with a bit of a magical feel. This is the story of Ludo, who shuts herself into her apartment by building a brick wall on the even of Angolan Independence. She will stay here for the next 30 years, struggling to survive. First, she uses up her stores, then she begins eating fruit from her terrace, eventually she turns to pigeons for sustenance – all the while burning books and furniture for warmth. Along the way, we are introduced to a variety of players in the Angolan war, as well as one unexpected character who changes the course for Ludo.

This story is told through narrative, prose, and Ludo’s journal entries. There are so many beautiful passages in this book but this one, taken from Ludo’s journal, resonated deeply with me:

I carve out verses
short
as prayers

words are
legions
of demons
expelled

I cut adverbs
pronouns

I spare my
wrists

This is a short and powerful read – a true work of art.

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BOOK REVIEW | The Sellout by Paul Beatty | Man Booker 2016 Shortlist Selection

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, it challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes, but when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

My thoughts:
I sit in a thickly padded chair that, not unlike this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks. 

I hated this book. I mean, I did initially. The entire first chapter was just too much for me: outrageous and over the top, and I couldn’t yet see it’s purpose. Who does Paul Beatty think he is? This book is ridiculous! After all, this is a story about a black man reinstating slavery to save his home town.

I continued reading, however, and then I got angry. When the narrator’s father dies at the hands of the police, I let out the long breath I had been holding. This book is so important and so relevant to what is going in America right now. I’m half black and a very proud Canadian, but I have black relatives living in American that I worry about. Whenever I turn on the news to see a young black man lying dead in the streets I think about my cousin, my uncle. Something must change.

While this book is mean to provoke, to engage, to enrage, it also contains moments of clarity and joy. These two quotes made me laugh out loud:

How come there aren’t any African-American mermaids?  Because black women hate to get their hair wet.

I’m so fucking tied of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown!

There isn’t much I can say about this The Sellout that hasn’t already been said, and it’s incredibly difficult to comment on satire, but this book worked for me. Paul Beatty has an MFA in creative writing and a MA in psychology, and I can feel the depth of his education in these pages. The Sellout is both wildly imaginative and incredibly smart.

If you’re struggling to get into this book, try it out on audio! The audio helped me get into it, and I picked up the book shortly after.

The 2016 Man Booker Shortlist

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The 2016 Man Booker shortlist has been announced!

I am excited to see two Canadian authors on this list (Madeline Thien and David Szalay, who is Canadian born), as well as a nice cross section of diversity. I’m surprised that The North Water didn’t make the shortlist, but I am very much looking forward to reading the 4 that I haven’t yet picked up. I will likely read His Bloody Project next, and may try out The Sellout on audio (I tried to read this a few months ago, but just couldn’t get into it).

Check out my review of Eileen 
Check out my review of Hot Milk 

Amazon links:
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
All That Man Is by David Szalay
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien

What book are you most excited about? Any predictions for the winner?

BOOK REVIEW | The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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4/5 stars

From the publisher: 
A beautiful, unsettling novel ion three acts, about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree. Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.

My thoughts: 
The Vegetarian tells a deeply disturbing story and explores many troubling topics though three succinct parts.

I laughed out loud during moments in part one as they reflected many of my own personal experiences with becoming vegetarian in the 90’s. Similar sentiments were often sent my way – it was bizarre to stop eating meat at that time. Thankfully my family was supportive, but that is not the case for Yeong-hye and we soon get a glimpse into the abuse she has suffered, and how this impacts her emotional well-being. Yeong-hye’s inward spiral progresses as parts two and three shift in narrative, continuing the story from the perspectives of her brother-in-law and sister.

I want to keep this spoiler free, so I won’t say much more. This book tackles topics such as physical abuse, animal abuse, rape, mental illness, and eating disorders. I’m amazed by the story Han Kang has crafted in under 200 pages.

BOOK REVIEW | Hot Milk by Deborah Levy | 2016 Man Booker Long List

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She is frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints, but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and her mother travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant–their very last chance–in the hope that he might cure her unpredictable limb paralysis.

But Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Sofia’s mother’s illness becomes increasingly baffling. Sofia’s role as detective–tracking her mother’s symptoms in an attempt to find the secret motivation for her pain–deepens as she discovers her own desires in this transient desert community.

“Hot Milk” is a profound exploration of the sting of sexuality, of unspoken female rage, of myth and modernity, the lure of hypochondria and big pharma, and, above all, the value of experimenting with life; of being curious, bewildered, and vitally alive to the world.

My thoughts:
This book is certainly not going to be for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. Levy has crafted a delicate story with a rich cultural landscape – it’s easy to get lost in this one. Sofia is both easy to admire and easy to dislike; ultimately, I am rooting for her happiness. As a fellow anthropologist, I can relate to her struggle to find her space in the world, as well as her affinity for analyzing those around her.

Oh, and the unruly curly hair, I can relate to that too.

This would make a great last minute summer read, or a winter read when you feel the need to get away.

BOOK REVIEW | My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout | 2016 Man Booker Long List

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2/5 stars

From the publisher:
Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable.

My thoughts:
I generally love books about the human condition, and have no problem at all with stories that are slow to build and are subtle in their intent. That said, something was missing for me with this one. It was so close to being a book I really loved! I wanted to see Lucy and her mother go just a little bit deeper, I was waiting for that breakthrough. There were some lovely moments, but it missed the mark for me. Strout definitely has amazing insights and I will probably pick up some of her other works soon.

BOOK REVIEW | Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh | 2016 Man Booker Long List

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

3/5 stars

From the publisher:
The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s caretaker in a home whose squalor is the talk of the neighborhood and a day job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, filled with its own quotidian horrors. Consumed by resentment and self-loathing, Eileen tempers her dreary days with perverse fantasies and dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, she fills her nights and weekends with shoplifting, stalking a buff prison guard named Randy, and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes. When the bright, beautiful, and cheery Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counselor at Moorehead, Eileen is enchanted and proves unable to resist what appears at first to be a miraculously budding friendship. In a Hitchcockian twist, her affection for Rebecca ultimately pulls her into complicity in a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings.

My thoughts:
Eileen, you strange little bird. This is the sort of book that makes you feel itchy while reading it, it’s just so vile. This is a quick and entertaining read, with a disturbing conclusion. I liked it, and will likely look for other books my Moshfegh in the future – no doubt her voice is unique!