This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell

Summary from Goodreads:

Meet Daniel Sullivan, a man with a complicated life. A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, he has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive ex-film star given to shooting at anyone who ventures up their driveway. He is also about to find out something about a woman he lost touch with twenty years ago, and this discovery will send him off-course, far away from wife and home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back? Maggie O’Farrell’s seventh novel is a dazzling, intimate epic about who we leave behind and who we become as we search for our place in the world.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this book, so hopefully writing this review will help me organise my thoughts. After reading the first two chapters of this book, I was intrigued by the story and decided to commit to finishing it, but I wasn’t totally hooked. By chapter four, I was quite enjoying the reading experience. At around page 200 I was engrossed in the story, but towards the end I found myself losing interest rapidly. Even now I don’t really know where I stand.

First, the good:

  1. Maggie O’Farrell is a quirky and engaging writer with a particular knack for creating complex, believable characters. She manages her large cast of characters effortlessly, moving between points of view, but returning regularly to the central couple, American linguist Daniel Sullivan and retired, reclusive French-English movie star Claudette Wells.
  2. Stylistically, the novel takes some audacious risks, most of which are pulled off very effectively. One section is given over to an illustrated auction catalogue of Claudette memorabilia purloined by a former personal assistant. O’Farrell inserts her own spoilers, telling us for instance that “in several years’ time Daniel will receive the news that his daughter has been killed in an accident”. Chapter headings skip around in an unpredictable fashion: “Lenny, Los Angeles, 1994”, for instance, or “Rosalind, Bolivia, 2015”. Lenny is the subject of the most fleeting cameo, and we do not actually meet Rosalind until page 418. While this might sound quite bizarre and confusing, I actually really enjoyed the chapters written in more experimental formats.
  3. O’Farrell writes with a wry sense of humour and ensures that the intricate and intimate details of dysfunctional families never get lost in the novel’s wide scope.
  4. I learnt a lot of new words reading this book. Note: I recommend reading this with a dictionary nearby.

Now for my criticisms:

  1. I thought the constant jumping between timelines was a bit too chaotic. Now I don’t mind stories that hop between past and present, and I don’t mind stories where each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character (I thought this was done extremely well in Homegoing for example), but this – this was way too disjointed for my taste. There were just too many characters, too many timelines, and too many details to take in.
  2. The novel struggles to maintain its credibility at times.
  3. My biggest problem with this book is that I struggled to engage with the plot and the characters. While I can appreciate O’Farrell’s skill in exploring the nuances of human relationships and her eye for detail, I ultimately just didn’t care enough about the characters to remain interested for 496 pages.

While I do have my criticisms, I nonetheless thought that This Must Be The Place was a quirky, well-written book and I would definitely be interested in reading more of Maggie O’Farrell’s work in the future. Recommended.

Have you read This Must Be The Place? Or any of Maggie O’Farrell’s other novels? Do you have any recommendations? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Summary from Goodreads:

Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

I am stunned that this is a debut novel. Amazed. Wowed. Flabbergasted. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is one of the best debuts – actually, one of the best novels – that I have read all year and it is deserving of all the hype that it has been receiving. Wildly ambitious in premise and elegant in execution, Homegoing is my favourite kind of novel and reading it reminded me why I fell in love with books in the first place.

The novel is laid out as a collection of linked stories (think Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad). Two sisters are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana; the first is married off to an English slave trader, the second is forced into slavery. Each subsequent chapter is narrated from the perspective of a descendant of either sister, alternating through the generations all the way up to the present day. As the narrative unfolds, the characters’ lives also trace the evolution of the slave trade and its domino effect on future generations. This format allows Gyasi to construct a panoramic view of history by tackling multiple aspects of slavery, including Africa’s complicity within it.

At first, this constant shifting of perspective was a little jarring, but I soon grew to appreciate it. My only complaint is that I wanted to read even more about each of the individual characters. As for the prose itself, I found it to be dynamic, compelling and charged with a fierce emotional intensity. Despite the fact that Gyasi covers a period of 250 years in roughly 300 pages, I did not find the novel to be overstuffed, which is a pretty mean feat in my opinion. Like all novels about slavery, it is incredibly difficult and distressing to read at times, but there are moments of joy to be found as well. This is a book that demands to be read quickly, but remembered for a long time afterwards. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Homegoing? What did you think of it? I would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman

Summary from Goodreads:

Combined for the first time here are Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and Maus II – the complete story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. By addressing the horror of the Holocaust through cartoons, the author captures the everyday reality of fear and is able to explore the guilt, relief and extraordinary sensation of survival – and how the children of survivors are in their own way affected by the trials of their parents. A contemporary classic of immeasurable significance.

I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to get around to this book. It has been recommended to me so many times by so many different people, but for some reason I kept putting it off. To be honest, I have always been a little bit apprehensive (and very ignorant) about graphic novels. I know there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but there is also a lot of not-so-good stuff out there and I guess I never really knew where to start. Anyway, I finally got around to reading this book and it totally shattered all of my previous misconceptions and prejudices about graphic novels. Seriously, if you (like me) have never really gotten into graphic novels, give this one a shot. Please. You won’t regret it.

In many ways, this book stands squarely in the comics tradition, observing many of the conventions of the form. At face value, it is a story about anthropomorphically depicted animals, told sequentially in a series of square panels six to a page, containing speech balloons and voice-over captions in which all the lettering is in capitals, with onomatopoeic sound-effects to represent rifle-fire, and so on. So it looks very like a comic.

But it is so much more than that. This is a book has a profound and unfailing strangeness, which makes it difficult to classify as a belonging to any one particular genre. Part of this is due to the depiction of Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, and so forth. This is a very a risky artistic strategy, as it implies a form of essentialism that many readers will find suspect. Cats kill mice because they are cats, and that’s what cats do. But is it in the nature of Germans, as Germans, to kill Jews?

This question hangs over the whole work, and is never answered directly. Instead we are reminded by the plot itself that this classification into different species was precisely how the human race was then regarded by those who had the power to order things; and the question is finally dispelled by the gradual gentle insistence that these characters might look like mice, or cats, or pigs, but what they are is people. They have the complexity and the surprisingness of human beings, and human beings are capable of anything.

As for the writing style, it is deceptively simple. When putting together this work, Spiegelman experimented with many different approaches and each page underwent multiple re-writes as he strove for clarity and fluidity. He tells the story dispassionately and honestly without any knowing winks to comics-literate readers. There is no glorification of war or survival. There is no glamorising of his father’s story. Rather, what emerges is a truthful and unsentimental portrait of how one man – one resourceful, irritating, cantankerous, and very human man – managed to survive one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century.

What I found most surprising about this book is that it has several genuinely funny moments. One wouldn’t expect humour given the subject matter, but it is there, often wry and situational. This book will make you laugh out loud, and the next minute you’ll find yourself sickened by the terrifying cruelty that humans are capable of and wanting to bawl your eyes out. And then the next minute you’ll be reminded of the extraordinary kindness that humans are capable of. And then you’ll giggle again, and you’ll think to yourself “is it wrong that I’m laughing at a Holocaust survivor?”. And then you’ll assume a very serious expression. And then you’ll finish this book with your heart both broken and whole. And then you will recommend this book to everyone you come across, whether they’re a fan of comics or not.

Have you ever read The Complete Maus? What did you think of it? Are you a fan of graphic novels? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Les fiancés de l’hiver – Christelle Dabos

NOTE: So, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether I should review foreign language books that have not been translated into English on this blog and I’ve decided to do it. This blog (as happy as I am that people are reading it and commenting on my posts) is first and foremost a way for me to keep track of all of the books I read and to crystallise my thoughts on them. Foreign language titles make up a significant proportion of the books I read, yet they have been very neglected on this blog. Here goes my effort to change this! I’ve decided to write this review in French because it is a French book that is unlikely to be translated into English and I just don’t really see the point in rambling about it in English. My apologies to those of you who don’t speak French!

Résumé du livre:

Sous son écharpe élimée et ses lunettes de myope, Ophélie cache des dons singuliers : elle peut lire le passé des objets et traverser les miroirs. Elle vit paisiblement sur l’Arche d’Anima quand on la fiance à Thorn, du puissant clan des Dragons. La jeune fille doit quitter sa famille et le suivre à la Citacielle, capitale flottante du Pôle. À quelle fin a-t-elle été choisie ? Pourquoi doit-elle dissimuler sa véritable identité ? Sans le savoir, Ophélie devient le jouet d’un complot mortel.

Après avoir entendu d’excellents commentaires des Fiancés de l’Hiver – j’ai l’impression que tout le monde a eu un coup de coeur pour ce roman – j’en attendais beaucoup. Malheureusement, je suis ressortie de cette lecture extrêmement mitigée et triste d’avoir trouvé tant de problèmes à ce roman, alors que la plupart des autres lecteurs ne les ont pas perçus ainsi.

Ceci dit, si j’avais vraiment tout détesté, j’aurais abandonné cette lecture et alors, je vais commencer tout de même par le positif. Tout d’abord, j’ai trouvé que l’univers était très intéressant et m’a enchanté dès les premières pages. En particulier, j’ai beacoup aimé l’atmosphère du Pôle. De plus, le début et la fin de l’histoire étaient intéressants et captivants. Cependant, mis à part le début et la fin, j’ai trouvé que le roman était extrêmement lent, et je ne parvenais pas à m’intéresser à ce qui se passait. Au milieu de ce livre, il y avait donc un grand passage à vide (d’environ 400 pages) et je me suis forcée à lire. Tout de même, la fin était bonne et m’a donné envie de lire le deuxième tome (ok, pas vraiment, mais bon).

Et maintenant pour le négatif.

  1. J’ai trouvé que les personnages étaient tous caricaturaux. À mon avis, Ophélie n’a que très peu de personnalité, et elle est caractérisée de manière très enfantine tout au long du roman. Je ne sais pas si cela vient de sa “personnalité” (encore fût-il qu’elle en ait une) ou du style de l’écriture, mais je n’ai jamais eu l’impression de suivre les aventures d’une jeune fille. Son extrême naïveté et sa propension à subir ce qui lui arrive m’a profondément agacée, même si elle “résiste” à sa manière. Alors d’accord, elle a légèrement évolué en fin d’histoire, mais franchement, pas assez pour que cela n’ait un impact vraiment positif. De plus, toutes les femmes dans ce livre (mis à part Ophélie et sa tante) sont présentées comme des garces (je cite) ou des frivoles sans aucun intérêt. Beurk.
  2. Je déteste que Christelle Dabos présente toutes les femmes sauf l’héroïne et sa tante comme des adultères, en essayant de montrer à quel point Ophélie est “pure”. S’il y a quelque chose que je déteste, c’est quand on me force à apprécier une héroïne en essayant de me faire croire que sa “pureté” équivaut à ce qu’une femme se doit d’être. Non, juste NON.
  3. Quant au personnage de Thorn, ténébreux, indifférent, j’aurai franchement pu faire sans… Je comprends tout à fait qu’il a eu une vie difficile, mais je ne vois pas comment je suis supposée de l’apprécier. La partie la plus drôle reste le moment où il dit à Ophélie qu’il commence à « s’habituer à elle » et qu’elle interprète ceci comme une déclaration de son amour pour elle. MAIS SUR QUELLE PLANÈTE VIT-ELLE? Ce n’est pas de l’amour et tout ça me donne envie de vomir.

En bref, Les Fiancés de l’Hiver était une grande déception pour moi. Une héroïne qui s’oublie facilement, un monde sexiste, un personnage masculin insupportable et une intrigue qui avance à une vitesse d’escargot – tout cela m’a énnervé énormément. Cependant, ce livre avait tant, tant de potentiel et c’est cela qui me rend vraiment triste. Les animistes, le Pole, tout était là pour nous envoûter dans une histoire fantastique, mais le résultat n’était pas à la hauteur de mes espérances. 

Avez-vous lu ce roman ? Qu’en avez-vous pensé ? A votre avis, devrais-je persévérer et lire Les Disparus du Clairdelune

~Anna

The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

Summary from Goodreads:

For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason! Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams…

Do you ever read a book and just wish that you had discovered it at a particular point in your life? Well, I so wish that I had read this book when I was a little human. I picked this one up because my good friend told me that it is the book that got her into reading (she is probably the most prolific reader I know and you can read all of her musings about books here), and I totally understand why. It’s basically a very punny love letter to the English language and the joys of reading and learning!

If you, like me, think that puns are the highest form of wit, then this is the book for you. In the magical world that Milo enters, we find markets where words are sold and mines full of numbers. We discover that Conclusions is an island that’s easy to jump to but hard to escape, that eating subtraction stew just makes you hungrier, and that to reach the Kingdom of Wisdom you must scale the Mountains of Ignorance. 10/10 for whip-smart wordplay.

A lot of people compare this book to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which I can understand to an extent. Both books are highly imaginative, full of obsessives, and ought to go over children’s heads, but don’t. However, at least in my opinion, there is one big difference between them. The more you think about Alice in Wonderland, the more morbid and perverse it becomes. The Phantom Tollbooth on the other hand is a book filled with charm and joy that nonetheless carries an important message. It calls on us to rise to the challenge of the world by paying proper attention to its wonder and difficulty. As Princess Reason says, “whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer”.

The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic that will be read many many times and while I didn’t get to read it as a little human, I sure loved it as a slightly bigger one.

DISCLAIMER: “RESULTS ARE NOT GUARANTEED, BUT IF NOT PERFECTLY SATISFIED, YOUR WASTED TIME WILL BE REFUNDED.”

Have you read The Phantom Tollbooth? What did you think of it? Did you love it as much as I did? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Summary from Goodreads:

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Ugh, this book made me cry like a little baby. What is up with me choosing really sad books at the moment? First Lincoln in the Bardo and now this! I think I definitely need something light and funny to read after the heartbreaking, ugly-cry-inducing, I-want-to-hug-my-mom kind of book that is A Monster Calls. 

It is a middle grade children’s book, yes. And if I had read it as a child, I probably would have loved it. It’s got monsters, nightmares, loveable characters, scary grandmothers, and thirteen-year-old bullies – you know, the whole shebang. Little me would have loved that. But it is not just a children’s book. A Monster Calls is a book that can be read and loved by all.

Well-written and compelling, this is a book about grief, loss, and love that will resonate with readers of all ages. While Conor does confront his demons more literally than most, there is nothing didactic or forced about this. The writing is intelligent and beautifully simple, the characters are well-developed, and the whole time I was reading this, I just wanted to hug little Conor. After the first chapter, I could already feel the tears coming and by the end of the book, well, they definitely spilled.

While this book is incredibly sad, more than anything else, I felt a great deal of love while reading this. Love for Conor and his family, love for my own family and friends, and love for everyone who has ever experienced a profound loss. This is such a beautiful book, and one that will stay with me for a long time. In just 215 pages, this book will break your heart and piece it back together again, so that you can go and be present in the world as a wiser, more loving human being.

Just a little note about the illustrations: 

While the words themselves are powerful, they are complemented perfectly by Jim Kay’s magnificent and wildly expressive illustrations. If you do decide to read this book (please do), I would highly recommend getting your hands on the illustrated edition. If you’d like to learn more about Jim Kay and his work, you can find his website here.

And another little one about the story: 

The story behind this book makes it even more poignant. Siobhan Dowd, the award-winning author of numerous young adult novels, came up with the original idea and the characters, but died of breast cancer before she could put pen to paper. Patrick Ness was asked to write the book based on her idea, and he succeeded in achieving a work of fiction that both transcends its genre and painfully wrenches your heart.

Have you read A Monster Calls? What did you think of it? And most importantly, can you please recommend a book that won’t make me bawl my eyes out? 

~Anna

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

Summary from Goodreads:

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

To be honest, I haven’t been desperately waiting for Saunders to finally produce a novel – especially not when presented with such outstanding short story collections such as Tenth of December and Pastoralia – but even if I had been, I would never have expected something as gripping, moving, or as flat-out strange as Lincoln In the Bardo.

The structure of the book is very unusual (I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Saunders), comprising of a series of different sources – some historical accounts of the night, some invented historical accounts of the night, and some accounts from ghosts that Willie becomes acquainted with over the course of the night. At first, this took some getting used to, but soon I was totally absorbed in the story and attached to all of the weird and wonderful characters.

As always, Saunders’ skill is in the punctuating of the fun, fantastical elements of his narrative with the sobering awfulness of reality. While some of the ghostly elements sound absurdly heightened – we meet ghosts covered in eyes, three sprit-bachelors who sweep through the skies trailing hats, and a host of other bizzare characters – what ultimately emerges is a moving portrait of grief over the loss of a child. Word of warning: this book is definitely a tearjerker (especially the ending, oh my god), but don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It is also hilarious and surreal and touching and honest and ugh, I’m running out of adjectives to describe this book. Just read it.

My only criticism of this book (and well, it’s not even really a criticism) is that Saunders is actually too good at what he does. While most authors require 300+ pages to make a character seem real and well-rounded, Saunders needs just ten. Or even less. The whole time I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but think that it could have been condensed into one story and I would have felt the same way about it.

Overall, I thought this book was an absolute delight. It requires some patience, a willingness to embrace the unusual, and a bit of imagination, but it is oh so worth it. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? Or any of George Saunders’ other books? What did you think? I would love to hear your opinions. 🙂 

~Anna