HOW TO ESCAPE A SIBLING’S SHADOW: Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

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U.S. Book Cover

Vanessa and Her Sister
by Priya Parmar
Ballantine Books, December 30, 2014.
Doubleday Canada, January 20, 2015.
368 pages, 25.00$ (USA) 29.95$ (Canada)

 

The mythology surrounding Virginia Woolf still possesses us a century after she wrote her first novel. Woolf had a severe nervous breakdown, as a young woman, after the death of her father. For the rest of her life, she had tempestuous moods and couldn’t rid herself of her demons. What was it like for her loved ones to live with such an ingenious, yet tortured, writer? Priya Parmar explores this question in her new novel Vanessa And Her Sister.

The narrative is made up almost exclusively of fictional journal entries by Virginia’s older sister, Vanessa Bell. The entries cover nearly a decade of the Stephen sisters’ lives, from August 1905 to December 1912. It is a time when Virginia and Vanessa come of age, find their artistic voices, and make life-changing choices.

Vanessa’s written words give us glimpses of her awe, worry, and intimidation toward her sister’s talent:

“Writing is Virginia’s engine. She thrums with purpose when she writes. Her scattershot joy and frantic distraction refocus, and she funnels into her purest form. Her center holds until the piece is over, and she comes apart again.”

Vanessa_Cover_Canadian

Canadian Book Cover

Over time, Vanessa embraces her own strength and finds confidence as a Post-Impressionist painter. She’s the unwavering sister who tends to the needs of the family, of Virginia in particular. She walks on eggshells around Virginia, who demands her attention and love. Always.

A few letters, telegrams, and postcards from their circle of friends —a close-knit group of artists, writers, and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Set— add other perspectives to the sisters’ story. I particularly liked the portrayal of writer Lytton Strachey whose flowery, lively letters to Virginia’s future husband gave us a keener understanding of the lesser-known Stephen sister:

“Vanessa is an ocean of majestic calm even if she does not know it. Virginia envies her sister’s deeply anchored moorings. Nessa is powered by some internal metronome that keeps perfect time, while the rest of us seem to flounder about in a state of breathless pitching exaggeration, carried by momentum rather than purpose.”

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I read the Kindle edition. Although gorgeous, the font of some of the letters and telegrams were small and more difficult to read.

At times, Vanessa’s narrative becomes overwhelmed with intricate dialogue and historical explanations (like: “unmarried ladies like Irene have their breakfast in the dining room”).  In such instances, we lose the feel of reading an old, intimate journal. When immersed in an epistolary novel, the readers should always feel like they are sneaking glimpses into real documents. I felt pulled out of the story when the journal entries no longer felt authentic.

Overall, I enjoyed Vanessa and Her Sister. The love and conflict felt real, and Parmar brought a past era to life. The reading experience made me even more curious about Vanessa Bell and her art. I now look forward to the three-part BBC series Life in Squares about the two sisters, to air in 2015.

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

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BBT’s Top 5 Novels of 2014

Although there are still several novels published in 2014 on my TBR list (I blame it on my heavy college workload, tee hee.), I did manage to read and enjoy several awesome books this year. Below are excerpts from BBT reviews. They are my top five books of 2014 (in no particular order). Click on the link to read the full reviews.

 

Sweetland_CoverSweetland by Michael Crummey
Random House of Canada
Available August 19, 2014
320 pages, $32.00

Michael Crummey brings an isolated, austere landscape and its unforgettable inhabitants to life in his latest novel Sweetland. He paints the harsh life of the East Coast with frank simplicity. Never over-the-top.

 

MuseumCover2The Museum of Extraordinary Things
By Alice Hoffman
Scribner, 2014.
384 pages, $32,00.

It’s an enchanting story with a pace as steady and stirring as the Hudson River snaking its way into the plot. I was swept full-force into the story. Hoffman’s choice of narrators, her weaving of past and present narratives, and her colourful language drew me in. So did her captivating setting —New York City in the early 1900s.

 

TheWorldBeforeUsColourThe World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter
Random House of Canada Limited

September 9, 2014

432 pages, $29.95

I was enchanted by Aislinn Hunter’s novel, a gorgeous, complex story pulsing with life. The novel explores how time, memory, and imaginings can shape a person’s narrative and identity. The reader flutters in and out of the past alongside a whirlwind of characters —most of them spirits who have lost their selfhood.

 

TheBees_PhotoThe Bees by Laline Paull
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2014
340 pages, $21.99

In Paull’s riveting, epic tale, bees put their lives on the line to protect the Queen and the beehive. The author creates an entire world revolving around these fascinating insects to mirror societal hierarchies and environmental crises. Still, there is a significant difference between Laline Paull’s novel with those of Richard Adams and G. R. R. Martin: her story evokes the divine feminine. The undercurrents of maternal love, sisterhood, and a Mother God heighten the flow of the story at every moment.

 

MonsterWifeThe Monster’s Wife by Kate Horsley
Barbican Press, 266 pages.
25.00$, August 28, 2014

In The Monster’s Wife, first-time novelist Kate Horsley honours the gothic tradition of Mary Shelley while maintaining a fresh, unique voice. Some describe this book as a sequel to Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. I view this new book as an ingenious spin-off revamping a short period of the classic tale. It takes place after Victor Frankenstein makes a pact with his ‘creature’ to play God once again —to make a wife for the creature. Victor settles in the Orkney Islands for a bout of manic, promised work. Its dark, moody atmosphere lends well to the harsh landscape of the islands and the unravelling plot. With its vibrant imagery and meticulous details, The Monster’s Wife will have a firm grip on you from the start.

 

What were your top five reads of 2014? I hope you crack open the books on my list if you haven’t already. I’m certain you will love them just as much as I did.

Thank you for reading my book reviews, blogger friends. Happy Holidays!

AN EXAMINATION OF COLLECTIVE GUILT: J by Howard Jacobson


J: a Novel by Howard Jacobson
Howard-Jacobson-J-cover Crown Publishing, 2014.
352 pages, 25.00$

Howard Jacobson creates a dystopian, near-future society in his latest novel, J. Instead of focusing on the destruction of the environment or on technological advancements, he zooms in on the dark side of humanity. In fact, Howard’s description of this world remains intentionally vague, so the reader can focus on the main theme of collective guilt.

The author molds his protagonist Kevern Cohen as a sympathetic man plagued with paranoia (manifested through OCD tendencies). We like this quirky recluse who claims “that his dissatisfactions were no bigger than most men’s—loneliness and sense lost direction (or was it a sense of never having had direction?)—of early-onset middle age.” Even though he tries to remain unnoticed, we sense that Kevern is different and somehow linked to the nebulous events that unfolded in the late 2010s: WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.

We cheer him on when a mysterious stranger unites him with Ailinn Solomons, “a fine-looking girl, delicately strung, easy to hurt despite the dangerous thicket of hair.” We watch their delicate, intense relationship blossom. Jacobson’s keen observations about the interactions of men and women during the early days of coupling lures us deeper into the characters’ lives. After all, “when the love thing is upon you there’s no one who can break you up.” Is there truly no one or nothing that can tear them apart?

The secret that link the characters to WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED always looms at the back of our minds. There is a larger force at work in this story.  Readers may become annoyed with the continuous circular motion that keeps bringing us back to this obscure incident, a seemingly modern-day Holocaust. Several matters are implied in J but never spelled out. Still, scenes unfold in an unsurprising way. After such an introspective, character-driven first part, the second half of the book was anticlimactic and unsatisfying. While Jacobson makes us ponder how we repeat our past, wicked actions even though we try to suppress them, the story feels stiff. It lacks heart, in the end.

*I received an ARC  in exchange for an honest review.*

A Family Unravels: My October by Claire Holden Rothman

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            My October by Claire Holden Rothman
            Penguin Canada, 2014.
            352 pages, $22.95

Claire Holden Rothman’s sophomore novel, My October, has received a whirlwind of merited attention. It was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Although the novel examines how the October Crisis of 1970 still resonates in the lives of the Québécois, its main focus explores how cultural identity can impact relationships. The story revolves around three unravelling protagonists: venerated novelist and nationalist Luc Lévesque, his dejected wife Hannah, and their troubled teenage son Hugo. They all struggle to connect with each other while their family comes undone.

Luc Lévesque walks away from the burdens of family life in October 2001. He moves into the run-down, wedge house that figures prominently in Gabrielle Roy’s French-Canadian classic—Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute). Those of us who cherish that beloved novel may find “the wooden structure tapering at one end like a boat’s hull, ‘twisted, as if to brace itself against life’s shocks’” to be a fitting home for Luc. He’s a washed-up man, having a mid-life crisis, heading off course at alarming speed.

Worries plague Hannah Lévesque during this tense autumn. Being the daughter of Alfred Stein—viewed by separatists as an infamous anglophone prosecutor during the October Crisis—has never been easy. The father-daughter relationship becomes more difficult after Stein suffers a stroke that renders him unable to speak. While Hannah is caring for her father, her disgruntled husband moves out. It becomes impossible for her to concentrate on her work or routine tasks. Our hearts ache when she worries about Hugo, who “was a black hole, singular and unknowable, into which she was pouring her darkest, most inarticulate fears.”

Hugo causes a stir after being suspended for carrying a handgun to school. The rebellious teen rejects his overbearing, famous father. In fact, he renounces Luc’s native tongue, culture, and beliefs by speaking English and adopting Hannah’s maiden name. Hugo manifests a desperate need to learn about past events that divided his father and maternal grandfather. Alongside Hugo, we revisit the role of the separatist terrorist group Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) in the 1970 kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross.

Certain plot elements in this family saga are hard to swallow, the most obvious being the improbability of Luc—a dur de dur separatist—marrying an anglophone woman who happens to be the daughter of the man responsible for prosecuting his friends. Other weak plot elements figure in the over-the-top epilogue, which may disappoint readers. Perhaps the author tried to tackle too many topics to create a tangible tension. Still, we can overlook such details (especially if we skip the epilogue) because Claire Holden Rothman creates a convincing voice for the Québécois. She captures the malaise of Francophone characters coping in a post-referendum and post-9/11 time with astute accuracy.

Like the much-loved characters in Bonheur d’occasion, Luc, Hannah, and Hugo face solitude and despair. Readers will surely brace themselves amid the turbulence to find out how the Lévesque family pull through—or apart.

COMING OF AGE IN A TIME OF UNREST: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

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The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
by Heather O’Neill
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
403 pages, $29.99

 

As a French-Canadian, I thought that reading The Girl Who Was Saturday Night would drive me nuts. At times it did. But my frustration had nothing to do with with cultural appropriation of voice or language issue (The characters speak in French, yet the book is written in English.) Heather O’Neill captures a people, a time, and a culture with vivid accuracy. The Québécois and the separatist ideal she relates are real to me. She invents wild yet believable characters —twins Nouschka and Nicholas Tremblay in particular— and weaves a harrowing coming-of-age plot.  When Nouschka untangles herself from her brother and his increasingly impulsive, destructive ideas and moves out of her childhood home, the world is full of uncertainties. The writer creates a mood that took me back to 1995 when I too was a 20-year-old wild child (like Nouschka), living with the looming and scary Quebec referendum (not every French-speaking Canadian supported the “oui” vote) on the horizon. Well done, O’Neill, well done.

See, I simply have a love-hate relationship with her style. Everything that is so good and so right about her storytelling gets eclipsed by an over-abundance of quirky imagery, metaphors, and similes. They appear on every page. Granted some result in brilliant passages, like this one:

“Love is like this small room where a child brings you to show you all their treasures. First the child shows you all the new toys that are bright and shiny and top of the line. But then she shows you all the stuff that he ended up at the bottom of the trunk. There are dolls with eyes that wobble, hair that is falling out of their heads, and dirt behind their ears… It has been so long since they have been held or anyone has told them that they are lovely. They lie at the bottom of the toy chest, hidden and ashamed. You are either going to be disgusted by them, or you are going to be so filled with love for them that your heart almost breaks.”

That is how Nouschka sees the world. Her first-person account is coloured with childhood-themed imaginings tainted by adult realities. These touches reflect the protagonist well as she struggles to leave her past and her childhood behind.

But at other times, I find these touches distracting. They are so numerous and far-reaching that they often take me out of the story. For instance, O’Neill adds random cats into the narrative —cats that come in and out of the Tremblay home—  to mirror the characters’ wild, bohemian lifestyle. Cool idea, but the story is over-wrought with similes like this:

Nouschka crawled into her apartment, through the window, “while a cat with beige spots that [she]’d never seen before tip-toed off the bed and down the hallway, like a naked girl heading to the bathroom after she’d had sex in an unfamiliar apartment.”

Nicolas sprawls on the couch while a “calico cat was sleeping on its back, like a girl in grey stockings with her skirt pulled up over her hips.”

O’Neill does the same with roses. Perhaps she adds rose imagery to everything —like sheets, tattoos, toilet paper, wallpaper— because it’s a symbol of the separatist movement. Perhaps it’s reminiscent of a fitting, well-known French song about dreamers: “La vie en rose” by Édith Piaf. It’s just too rich at times.

I find these tricks work best when they are more subtle and less frequent. I realise that these very details make readers fall in love with Heather O’Neill’s novels. When I start anticipating upcoming similes, I get pulled out of the narrative. That’s unfortunate, especially when otherwise fascinated by the unravelling of Nouschka and the eccentric Tremblay family.

For a more plot-focused review of this 2014 Giller shortlisted novel, check out Reeder Reads. For another French-Canadian’s take on the novel, check out Sylvie’s World is a Library.

THE LURE OF EAST AFRICA : And Home Was Kariakoo by M. G. Vassanji

KariakooAnd Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa
By M. G. Vassanji
Doubleday Canada, October 2014.
400 pages, 32,95$.

 

The only Canadian novelist to have won the Giller Prize twice —for The Book of Secret in 1994 and The in-Between World of Vikram Lall in 2003— is none other M. G. Vassanji. He also won the Governor General’ s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for A Place Within (2009). Such recognition is warranted, for Vassanji writes both fiction and non-fiction with an inquisitive, lyrical style and a knack for storytelling. It is no surprise that his latest memoir And Home Was Kariakoo also captivates its readers with sharp insight and poetic descriptions of his homeland.

In this book, Vassanji revisits his childhood home: East Africa. At times, the book feels like a travelogue, for the authors tells us about his trek across Tanzania and Kenya. But unlike other travel writers (like Paul Theroux) who like to point out the dark side of Africa, Vassanji expresses awe for this land and its people:

“What makes this primitiveness, this forbidding solitude of the jungle so wrenchingly attractive from a distance? There is in this stillness a certain spirituality, a welcome loneliness that I’ve often treasured in my travels, in which there seems to be only the universe and I an endless moment devoid of fear or death.”

At other time, this work reads like a history book. Vassanji’s work informs us on the colonization and of these countries by European, Indian, and Asian immigrants. He maps out unfamiliar events that helped shape these countries, and thus dispels several Western myths. He also entertains us by telling us about his adventures with befriended locals and expatriates in various African cities and the changed landmarks he revisits.

This book offers a fresh, in-depth look at a society often misunderstood by Westerners. And Home Was Kariakoo delves into the world that helped make M. G. Vassanji the sensitive, seasoned man he is today.

*I received an ARC  in exchange for an honest review.*

WHIMS AND PHILOSOPHIES OF A SENSUIST: Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses

NaturalHistorySensesCoverA Natural History of the Senses
By Diane Ackerman
Vintage Books, 1991.
331 pages, $18.95

The mere sight of cobalt blue glass pebbles can not only elicit a memory of a jar’s mesmerizing translucency in the sunlight, but also the tingly eucalyptus scent its cleansing cream left on my mother’s soft cheek.

Diane Ackerman’s best-seller A Natural History of the Senses explores such occurrences with the sharp observations of a scholar and the melodic prose of a poet. She identifies with the term ‘sensuist as a person who “rejoices in the sensory experiences” in her pursuit to understand “the sensory idioms we use to speak of the world”. The book is skillfully structured in six evocative parts: smell, touch, taste, hearing, vision, and synesthesia. The writer claims that “both science and art have a habit of waking us up, turning on all the lights, grabbing us by the collar and saying Would you please pay attention”! After its release in 1990, this book rightfully received much acclaim for Ackerman’s innovative combination of both disciplines. She melds the complexities of popular science with the splendours of art —in her study of the five senses— as perfumer Sophia Grosjman blends the essences of roses and musk to create iconic fragrances.

Her diverse experiences and observations —such as massaging babies in a Miami preemie ward, taking flying lesson in upstate New York, and tagging monarch butterflies in the Californian coast— help her gain unique insights about the sensations that shape our world. Ackerman knows her subject thoroughly. She agrees with zoologist Desmond Morris’ theory on the origins of French kissing stemming from the “ancient comfort of parental mouth-feeding”. She stands behind the countershading theory of naturalist Abbott Thayer who was passionate about the camouflage of animals. She even appreciates Epicurus’ indulgence in the lavish lifestyle of wealthy Romans. Such wide-reaching anecdotes abound in this work.

The writer has an excellent grasp of prose, which she infuses with luscious metaphors and language. For instance, she describes the sense of smell as “[detonating] softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.” Such eloquence is the mark of a seasoned poet. Before the publication of this book, Ackerman had previously written four books of poetry, including Lady Faustus. She also shares her own poem entitled Whales Songs, in which the “sleek black troubadours” of the sea “beat against the wailing wall of water”. One is swayed by the lull of her words like a babe softly rocked in her mother’s arms.

Ackerman has a tendency to go off on a tangent during a discourse. Her digressions are usually fluid and pertinent, like mentioning the lines on an ape’s hand and the Catholics’ view of stigmata when recounting a palm reading at a psychics’ convention. She also tends to enumerate many examples while making a point. For instance, she explains the countless ways ‘nice girls’ like her kissed in the sixties, from kissing “torridly, with tongues like hot pokers” to kissing their “pillows at night, pretending they were mates”. Tangents are rampant and examples are abundant among the pages of this book. This quirk may turn off some readers, especially those of the left-brained variety.

That said, A Natural History of the Senses should not be read in one sitting, but rather savoured and spread over a lingering stretch of time. This book has wide appeal and should be a staple on the bookshelf of people who are sensuists at heart. Its pages should be revisited time after time to help keep the senses finely tuned.