What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Conversation with Friends, Sally Rooney; Penguin Random House, 2018

Conversations with Friends

This is one of those books that make me doubt my own taste, but in a good way? Maybe? It was so hype-y and I’m always so eye-roll-y about hype-y books. And I read the description and thought “I wouldn’t like this book.” And I read reviews and thought “Neh. Not for me.” And then I checked out the e-book one night on a whim–because it appeared toward the top of the “now available” list and two pages in I thought “It’s okay” and then fifty pages later, when I still hadn’t gone to sleep, I thought “Huh. Weird. I guess I really like this book.”
I’m not sure what it is about the book that works. Technically it should be boring. If you’ve ever sat in a coffeeshop and listened to other people–who aren’t you–chat with each other, you know that the very concept of conversations with friends (who aren’t you), is boring. Add to this the fact that there’s nothing in this book that is anywhere outside the realm of fairly normal human experience. Confusion about who you love, confusion about morality, lots of talking about politics, fights with friends, tension with parents . . . It’s all very quotidien. But I guess that what makes it work is the extremely well-constructed characterization.

So here’s the love, like, meh-factor breakdown:
I loved Bobbi and Frances–their friendship is complicated and golden and if you heard them chatting in a coffeeshop, you would listen, even though they were talking about people and ideas you didn’t know.
I liked the story of the affair–the tension–conversational and physical–was well-described; I find most sex in books boring, and this was one of the few that really portrayed the way in which sex is a kind of conversation, without verging into either unnecessary eroticism or pointedly boring flesh-shuffling.
I was very “meh” about the portrayal of Women Over Thirty. It wasn’t offensive exactly but I think it’s sort of … lame to paint them into a corner of catty, insecure caricatures, without self-consciously confronting the fact that the main characters who were interacting with them–as well as the author who was writing them–are very much in their twenties.
Young women writers, DO BETTER. There’s a lot more to us than being bitter about the “old age” of the mid-thirties.

Normal People, Salley Rooney; Penguin Random House, 2020

Normal People

I finished this one last night, also an e-book from the library. (Let’s take a moment! Thank you libraries and your e-book loaning services. You are saving us right now. Everyone, go do whatever you can to support your local libraries, even if it’s simply getting around to finally downloading Overdrive on your phone and using it!) Ahem. The same narrative features at work in Conversations with Friends are very much part of this book. Strong characters, psychological portrayals that are very deep but with a depth that is not pretentious, a will-they-won’t-they romantic plotline that lasts the entire book.
And yet again, I found myself surprised that I liked the book. But watching these two fairly demented adult children navigate this complex (but also completely normal) relationship was fascinating. In exactly the same way that our own relationships are fascinating.
Rooney further explores the theme of violence against women here in a way that is more explicit than in her first novel, mainly showing how abuse is a many-tentacled beast of a phenomenon that spreads outward beyond itself.
But the most interesting exploration is exactly what the title has promised…the question of what the hell a normal person is anyway, and how do you become one? Is it a precondition or an aspiration? A blessing or a curse?

I loved all the side characters and actually wished that we could have seen more of them.
I liked reliving the days of sorting through high school and college relationships. It’s a special time that no one would ever wish to live through again, but that is endlessly entertaining in its grossly overpsychologizing tendencies.
The ending gets a solid “meh!” from me but I shan’t spoil it for all of you.

Borne, Jeff VanderMeer; MCD, 2017

Borne
A novel by one of the New Weird’s most esteemed writers, Borne is set in a post-apocalyptic fever dream of a city, which has come under the control of biotechnology manufacturing outfit called simply the Company. Within this gruesome setting, patrolled on the one hand, by a flying bear the size of a department store and on the other hand by a woman named “The Magician” who plays leader to a host of biotechnologically engineered monster-children, live Rachel and Wick.
They scavenge for food and biotechnology, which they barter, and live in a warren of a crumbling apartment building named The Balcony Cliffs. One day, Rachel finds a strange creature while scavenging, which she names Borne, and which transforms from “glorified houseplant” to something like a pet to the equivalent of a small child, as Rachel teaches and grows to love Borne more deeply every day.
This poses a serious threat to her relationship with Wick, and much of the book is spent exploring the tension between these characters and what they mean in Rachel’s life, all while theorizing the extent that humans can have relationships with non-human beings.

I loved Rachel, what a wonder of a character. She was written with such heart and insight.
I liked Borne, who was a perfect portrayal of the kind of talking gelatinous goo that one could come to love as one’s own child.
I suppose all the violence was a bit “meh” for me, even though it was completely appropriate to the story and not overblown, whatsoever. Violence in books is just a personal “meh” of mine.

A Changed Man, Francine Prose; Harper Perennial, 2006

A Changed Man
Believe it or not, this is my first book by Francine Prose, though I’ve certainly read some of her essays and she’s been on my list for a while. My mom sent me this one recently as a some-holiday-or-other present, presumably because the book’s core message–which could be summed up as “even neo-Nazis have hearts…some of the time…probably”–is a message that a fairly conservative but deeply tolerant woman thinks her fairly liberal but intolerant-of-intolerance daughter needs to hear, in top-notch fictional writing form 😉
Also because it’s a very good book and my mother has impeccable taste in books.
But also I’m speculating and she will deny deny deny. (Love you, mom.)
The story centres around Vincent Nolan, who joins a hate group as a way of scoring a free couch to sleep on and a basic social support system, but then undergoes a drug-induced pseudo-change of heart at a rave in the woods, and proceeds to show up at a peace-promoting non-profit organization, offering his services as a sort of insider turncoat whose expertise in racially charged hatred might be helpful to their activities.
The title A Changed Man is something that, reading an interview with the author, seems to be intended seriously but I actually thought was fairly ironic. Throughout the book, changes of heart are half-baked at best. Most of what happens is that the characters’ situations change in ways that serve to exacerbate or diminish their basic traits. And that inherent personality becomes more or less clear to them, and more or less acceptable to their current way of living.
But really, much of the book (and the part that I know my mother loved, along with the humour) is about the “grey area” that people live within, which makes them really not one way, or another, just striving humans composed of individual reactions and choices to disparate situations and environments.

I LOVED the characterization. Man, oh man, Francine Prose writes some quality characters. The book is told through a small chorus of voices: Vincent, the neo-Nazi turned brotherly love enthusiast; Maslow Meyer, the Holocaust survivor who worries that his role as head of a major peace-promoting organization has become something of an office job; Bonnie, his faithful employee and a divorced mother of two; and Danny, her stoner son who believes that his constant anxiety is a mark of weakness.
I liked the tension between Bonnie and Vincent. It served the book well and I thought it wasn’t overblown, though it was perhaps not entirely believable. There was so much time spent speaking about how they were avoiding having ANY sort of feelings for each other–positive or negative–that it was a bit hard to tune in to their feelings when they were revealed.
The “meh” factor were simply a few threads that I would love to have seen tied up–what ever happened to Minna and why was she so upset with Maslow?–or paths that could have been walked down but were carefully avoided. For example, there seemed to have been a hint that cultish behaviour, and participation in ideology, are part of a primal human tendency and not a thing that, like, only weirdos or desperate people do. There’s a strange parallel between Vincent, who joins a group of neo-Nazis because he is angry about some things and he wants to have a reason and a community to put his anger into, and Bonnie, who has certain follow-the-leader-ish tendencies of her own, seen in her relationship to Maslow and the foundation to which she devotes her life. But that parallel seemed to start to ring at the beginning of the book and then never really come out.

Sea ice–a highway, hunting ground and home for Arctic Inuit
Our Ice is Vanishing, Shelley Wright; McGill-Queens, 2014

Our Ice is Vanishing
This is a wonderful, moving, and fascinating portrait of Inuit communities and the extreme changes to their way of life that are occurring as a result of climate change. Due to the phenomenon of Arctic amplification, the Arctic, as a region, is warming at a much higher pace than the rest of the world. And while we generally think of this as a place full of ice and snow, polar bears and walruses, it is in fact home to many communities of people who rely on sea ice as a their highway, hunting ground, and home. With the melting of the ice, this home has transformed from a place of harsh conditions but rich life, into a landscape of dwindling resources and dangerous unpredictability.
Beautifully captured by Shelley Wright, who spent years teaching at the Akitsiraq Law School, this exploration into climate change, Inuit culture, Arctic environmental policy, and the planet-wide effects of the earth’s warming is an essential read for Canadians. We in the south rarely confront the reality that we live in an Arctic nation.

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