Sunday, May 8, 2011


I had my eye on Freedom by Jonathan Franzen for quite some time, but I didn't know if I would be able to finish it in seven days so I kept putting it off. Then at work we had our annual Secret Santa, and after a week of chocolates and cards, I received this hefty book on the final day. Without the pressure of reading beginning to end in one week, I had no excuse not to dive right in. Franzen has artfully fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.

Freedom is a wrenching, funny, and forgiving portrait of a Midwestern family. Patty and Walter Berglund find each other early: a pretty jock, focused on the court and a little lost off it, and a stolid budding lawyer, besotted with her and almost burdened by his integrity. They make a family and a life together, and, over time, slowly lose track of each other.

The Berglund's were the new pioneers of old St. Paul, the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter's dreams. Together with Walter, environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man, she was doing her small part to build a better world.

But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz, out rocker and Walter's college best friend and rival, still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become "a very different kind of neighbor," an implacable fury coming unhinged before the street's attentive eyes?

Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic story of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom's characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time

"The awful thing about life is this:" says Octave to the Marquis in Renoir's Rules of the Game. "Everyone has his reasons." That could be a motto for novelists as well, few more so than Jonathan Franzen, who seems less concerned with creating merely likeable characters than ones who are fully alive, in all their self-justifying complexity. Their stories align at times with Big Issues--among them mountaintop removal, war profiteering, and rock'n'roll--and in some ways can't be separated from them, but what you remember most are the characters, whom you grow to love the way families often love each other: not for their charm or goodness, but because they have their reasons, and you know them.

A Red Herring Without Mustard

After reading the first two Flavia de Luce adventures in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and The Weed that Strings the Hangman's bag, I was thrilled when I noticed the third instalment, A Red Herring Without Mustard on the new releases shelf. This book is a splendid romp through 1950s England led by the world’s smartest and most incorrigible preteen. Flavia de Luce remains irresistibly appealing and continues to charm us.

In the third installment of this bestselling, award-winning, sister-poisoning, bicycle-riding, murder-investigating, and utterly captivating series, Flavia de Luce must draw upon Gypsy lore and her encyclopaedic knowledge of poisons to prevent a grave miscarriage of justice.

“You frighten me,” the old Gypsy woman says. “Never have I seen my crystal ball so filled with darkness.” So begins eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce’s third adventure through the charming but deceptively dark byways of the village of Bishop’s Lacey. The fortune teller also claims to see a woman who is lost and needs help to get home—and Flavia knows it must be her mother Harriet, who died when Flavia was less than a year old. The Gypsy’s vision opens up old wounds for our precocious yet haunted heroine, and sets her mind racing in search of what it could mean.

When Flavia later goes to visit the Gypsy at her encampment, she certainly doesn’t expect to find the poor old woman lying near death in her caravan, bludgeoned in the wee hours. Was it an act of retribution by those who thought that the woman had abducted a local child years before? Certainly Flavia understands the bliss of settling scores; revenge is a delightful pastime when one has two odious older sisters. But how can she prove this crime is connected to the missing baby? Did it have something to do with the weird sect who met at the river to practice their secret rites?

While still pondering the possibilities, Flavia stumbles upon a corpse—that of a notorious layabout and bully she had only recently caught prowling about Buckshaw. The body hangs from a statue of Poseidon in Flavia’s very own backyard, and our unflappable sleuth knows it’s up to her to figure out the significance. Pedalling her faithful bicycle, Gladys, across the countryside in search of clues to both crimes, Flavia uncovers secrets both long-buried and freshly stowed—the dodgy dealings of a local ironworks, the truth behind the Hobblers’ secret meetings, her own ancestor’s ambitious plans—all the while exhausting the patience of Inspector Hewitt. But it’s not long before the evidence starts falling into place, and Flavia must take drastic action to prevent another violent attack.

But who better to sum up the plot than Flavia herself? “It was all so confoundedly complicated: the attack upon Fenella, the gruesome death of Brookie Harewood, the sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance of Porcelain, Harriet’s firedogs turning up in not one but three locations, the strange antique shop of the abominable Pettibones, Miss Mountjoy and the Hobblers, Vanetta Harewood’s long-lost portrait of Harriet, and underneath it all, like the rumble of a stuck organ pipe, the constant drone of Father’s looming bankruptcy.

Barrelling along on her bicycle through the leafy, sun-dappled lanes near her home in the English countryside, Flavia de Luce rides out of the pages of Alan Bradley’s new mystery and straight into our hearts. She’s got all the attributes that you’d expect to find in a middle-aged amateur sleuth: a solid network of connected villagers who pass on trivial bits of information that turn out to be important, an insatiable curiosity, a determination to see wrongs put right and an unwillingness to stay out of things that are really none of her business. Except she’s 11. And in this remarkably self-possessed girl, Alan Bradley has created one of the most endearing protagonists the traditional mystery genre, typified by the works of Agatha Christie, has seen in a very long time.

As satisfying as the mystery is, the multiple award-winning Bradley offers more. At this point in his series, he allows Flavia to reveal her insecurities and frailties so readers who found her insufferably precocious in the first book, with her vast knowledge of chemistry and just about everything else, may warm to her in this one. Despite the hard-shell appearance of her disdain for her sisters, she is deeply hurt by their cruel taunts, and as she grieves the aching, unbearable loss of her mother, Harriet, who died when Flavia was a baby, she exposes the depth of a wound that will never heal. There is almost an allegorical, fairy-tale quality to her life – the mean older sisters, the father trying to raise three demanding, idiosyncratic daughters on his own. The only thing missing is the wicked stepmother.

The book is beautifully written, with fully fleshed characters, even the minor ones such as odd-job man Dogger and Mrs. Mullet, who rules in the kitchen. The descriptions are vivid and lyrical: “Now, almost two weeks into the harvest, most of the countryside had traded its intense summer green for a paler, grayish shade, as if Mother Nature had nodded off a little, and let the colours leak away.”

The title turns out to be a sly play on words. We know the importance of the red herring in a mystery story as a literary device to distract the reader from what’s important or to point her in a different direction. But it can also mean an extremely strong-smelling fish, and the heavy odour of fish in this story is a real clue, not a red herring.

Happy Ever After

A couple summer ago I started reading the Bridal Quartet series. I was looking for an easy "summer read" and soon fell in love with the characters and concept behind the story. Following four driven, and independent women, their seamless wedding planning business, and their journeys to find their own one true loves, these books pretty much capture every girls dream. Norah Roberts recently completed the series with Happy Ever After, tailing the last of the four best friends.

As wedding planner for Vows, Parker Brown manages to make every wedding the perfect day for her clients. From demanding brides to feuding guests to last-minute menu changes, Parker can handle anything and anyone with aplomb. Nothing and no one rattles her, until Malcomb Kavanaugh unexpectedly kisses her one day after helping her fix a flat tire. At first, Parker dismisses the kiss as just another twist to Malcomb’s always flirtatious nature, but as it turns out, the sexy auto mechanic really is interested in starting something with Parker. Somehow, though, the whole idea of a serious romantic relationship with Malcomb is enough to rattle her. Roberts, the reigning Queen of Romance, brings her Bride Quartet series to a splendidly satisfying conclusion with another deliciously sexy and delightfully humorous contemporary romance that perfectly celebrates the importance of love, friendship, and family in any woman’s life.

When God Was a Rabbit

I always enjoy Heather's Picks, the CEO of Chapters and Indigo's personal favourites. So this week while browsing for a new book, I went to the table that holds her most recent picks and noticed one that I had not seen before. This weeks fabulously quirky novel, When God Was a Rabbit, written by Sarah Winman was a genuinely captivating read. It was at times laugh-out-loud funny, at others gut-wrenchingly sad, this book is peppered with unique and complex characters who are so original, well-observed and believable that you'll be completely absorbed into their world. It is a story of siblings, friendship, secrets and love, told with sadness and humour. It perfectly captures the hazy, magical nature of youth and all its mysteries, against a backdrop of real-life events.

On the brink of adolescence, Elly observes the world with both a childish sense of wonder and the unflinching, no-nonsense perspective of a young person. Her world is shaped by those who inhabit it: her loving but maddeningly distractible parents; a best friend who smells of chips and knows exotic words like 'slag'; an ageing fop who tapdances his way into her home, a Shirley Bassey impersonator who trails close behind; lastly, of course, a rabbit called God. In a childhood peppered with moments both ordinary and extraordinary, Elly's one constant is her brother Joe.

Twenty years on, Elly and Joe are fully grown and as close as they ever were. Until, that is, one bright morning and a single, earth-shattering event that threatens to destroy their bond for ever.

Spanning four decades and moving between suburban Essex, the wild coast of Cornwall and the streets of New York, this is a story about childhood, eccentricity, the darker side of love and sex, the pull and power of family ties, loss and life. More than anything, it's a story about love in all its forms.

Just a little over half way through this book, we are brought to the morning of 9/11. This may sound bad, but I started to loose interest. I couldn't see how this storyline could be different from the countless others on this topic. However, being a person who cannot not finish a book, I continued turning the pages, and I am so glad that I did. As the events of 9/11 came into focus, Winman handled it in a refreshing and unpredictable way. The plot continued to be compelling throughout; rendered with an appealing frankness, precision and emotional acuity.

I think what I liked most about this novel is that it was a rollicking family story - in which we get to know a fairly large cast of eccentric and unconventional characters and follow them through some tricky decades. It is recognizably true and heart-breaking in equal measure. Winman's narrative voice is beautifully true, with a child's unsentimental clarity which maintains its energy; and even at her most precocious, Elly never wears out her welcome.

Before I Fall

A few weeks ago I had been asking people for suggestions of books to read, and one of my friends had mention Before I Fall, written by Lauren Oliver, which became this weeks read. To be honest at first I was not very interested in this book, hence me putting it off for several weeks, but the guilt of my friend asking me every few days if I had started was more than I could handle. Before I fall is a story starring a popular high school girl. Now I wasn't much of a fan of high school girls when I was in high school, so to dedicate a week of my life to read about them, was almost more than I was willing to do, but this book surprised me. Before I Fall is smart, complex, and heartbreakingly beautiful. Lauren Oliver has written an extraordinary debut novel about what it means to live—and die.

What if you had only one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life? Samantha Kingston has it all: the world's most crush-worthy boyfriend, three amazing best friends, and first pick of everything at Thomas Jefferson High—from the best table in the cafeteria to the choicest parking spot. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it turns out to be her last. Then she gets a second chance. Seven chances, in fact. Reliving her last day during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death—and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.

Admittedly this book started out a little slow, but as Oliver, in a raw, emotional, and, at times, beautiful voice, explored the power we have to affect the people around us in this intensely believable first novel, I was drawn in and eagerly awaited to what Samantha would learn, and how she would deal with her situation.

What The Dog Saw

Throughout this year I have read all three of Malcolm Gladwell's books, and in each he has settling me onto a cushion of received ideas, then yanked it out from under me, challenging me to think deeper and more abstractly, and providing me with a lot of information I didn't even know that I was interested in. Why are there dozens of varieties of mustard-but only one variety of ketchup? What do football players teach us about how to hire teachers? What does hair dye tell us about the history of the 20th century? In the past decade, Malcolm Gladwell has written three books that have radically changed how we understand our world and ourselves: The Tipping Point; Blink; and Outliers. Now, in What the Dog Saw, he brings together, for the first time, the best of his writing from The New Yorker over the same period.

What The Dog Saw presents nineteen brilliantly researched and provocative essays that exhibit the curiosity his readers love, each with a graceful narrative that leads to a thought-provoking analysis. The explorations here delve into subjects as varied as why some people choke while others panic; how changes meant to make a situation safer — like childproof lids on medicine — don't help because people often compensate with more reckless behavior; and the idea that genius is inextricably tied up with precocity.

"You don't start at the top if you want to find the story. You start in the middle, because it's the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world," writes Gladwell in the preface to What The Dog Saw. In each piece, he offers a glimpse into the minds of a startling array of fascinating characters. "We want to know what it feels like to be a doctor," he insists, rather than what doctors do every day, because "Curiosity about the interior life of other people's day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses." Like no other writer today, Gladwell satisfies this impulse brilliantly, energizing and challenging his readers.

What The Dog Saw is organized thematically into three categories:

Part One contains stories about what Gladwell calls "minor geniuses," people like Ron Popeil, the pitchman who by himself conceived, created, and sold the Showtime rotisserie oven to millions on TV, breaking every rule of the modern economy.

Part Two demonstrates theories, or ways of organizing experience. For example, "Million-Dollar Murray" explores the problem of homelessness — how to solve it, and whether solving it for the most extreme and costly cases makes sense as policy. In this particular piece, Gladwell looks at a controversial program that gives the chronic homeless the keys to their own apartments and access to special services while keeping less extreme cases on the street to manage on their own.

In Part Three, Gladwell examines the predictions we make about people. "How do we know whether someone is bad, or smart, or capable of doing something really well?" he asks. He writes about how educators evaluate young teachers, how the FBI profiles criminals, how job interviewers form snap judgments. He is candid in his skepticism about these methods but fascinated by the various attempts to measure talent or personality.

The themes of the collection are a good way to characterize Gladwell himself: a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.

"Good writing," Gladwell says in his preface, "does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head." What the Dog Saw is yet another example of the buoyant spirit and unflagging curiosity that have made Malcolm Gladwell our most brilliant investigator of the hidden extraordinary. The book is an invaluable gift for his existing fans, and the ideal introduction for new readers.