I loved this book so much the first time I read it, I returned to page one to start over immediately those many years ago. The Shipping News is just as lovely the third time around.
There are so many reasons why I love this book. The Shipping News was the first book that I’d ever read set in Newfoundland — the place where my mother was born and raised — a place she fled as soon as she could, to find security and prosperity elsewhere in Canada.
The landscape and the sea and the weather are characters in this book set in a climate that’s harsh, cold, and fickle. The weather changes from fine to menacing to life threatening in an instant. The sea, as Proulx so beautifully describes it, is like Newfoundland’s blood and beating heart in one:
The long horizon, the lunging, clotted sea like a swinging door opening, closing, opening.
The quirky characters, with names like “Tert Card” and “Wavey Prowse” and the dialogue rendered in thick, Newfoundland vernacular rings true to my ear. In the presence of relatives, I’ve heard plenty of lilty, euphemism-laden, hard-accented English, spoken at such a swift cadence I’d have to translate for friends baffled by speed and slang. Proulx gets it right: “Oh yis, I sees him afore. In ‘ere the odder day wit’ Billy. ”
When we meet R.G. Quoyle, he’s unmoored, adrift, and bereft at the death of his philandering wife, Petal. He’s nothing like his father Guy Quoyle, an incestuous molester. It is Quoyle’s Aunt, Agnis Hamm, (Guy’s sister) who pries Quoyle out of his doldrums, insisting they try for a fresh start and return to the house of the Quoyles in Newfoundland.
The house is dilapidated and desecrated, tied down not only by the wire that lashes it to the rock, but by the spectres of the past — the molestuous crimes that took place under its eaves and stories of the “wracker” Quoyles — ancestors who too, lived to inflict pain and misery on others by luring boats on to the rocky shore to murder the occupants and pillage their cargo. I love the fact that it is the weather — a violent storm — that bursts the wire cables and demolishes the house, releasing R.G. and Agnis from the burdens of the past — allowing them both that fresh start in their lives.
Above all, this is a book about hope: about overcoming, about uprooting ourselves from suffering and misery and making change. It’s about that feeling of potential, that sense of belonging and camaraderie we feel when crowded with family and friends into a lively kitchen. It’s about the simple comforts of warm homemade bread, bakeapple jam, and tea — prophylactics to the ever-present damp and cold, and to whatever it is that ails you.
November and December, 2014
My friend Joe Boydston recommended this book to me. I attended one of his running clinics at the Automattic Grand Meetup in Park City, Utah in September. In a short hour, Joe changed the way I approach my training and after applying his tips to my runs, I’ve been given a whole new lease on an activity I’ve been doing off and on for over 20 years. I knew I had to read this book.
Born To Run is one part adventure story, one part science, one part anthropology, and one part sheer guts. As an oft-injured runner, McDougall opens the book lamenting another injury. He’s trying to figure out what he’s doing wrong in an activity that’s natural to all humans.
Conventional science says that running is guaranteed to tear our bodies down over time with the repetitive pounding, yet by investigating science, history, and anthropology, McDougall discovers that the human body — with it’s upright form maximized for air intake, springy, rubber-band-like tendons geared to storing and returning energy repeatedly over long durations, and our well-muscled buttocks — has evolved into a running machine, dispelling the myth that as runners, we’re slowly ruining our bodies over time.
McDougall posits that we get injured because we use high-tech running shoes as a crutch, and that these cushy shoes create more running injuries than they cure. The book talks of the foot as a marvel of evolutionary engineering that we as a society have allowed to let languish in shoes, essentially weakening our foundation, causing supination, and over pronation — the very form problems shoes, braces, and orthotics are meant to cure. Strengthen the foot, and improve your running form, says McDougall.
The anthropological study of the evolution of The Running Man is accompanied narratively by stories of The Tarahumara, a race of Indians in the remote Mexican Copper Canyons, who run ultra marathons in the mountains for the fun of it. The culmination of the book is an epic 50-‘mile ultra marathon in the Carrabancas pitting ultra-marathoner extraordinaire Scott Jurek against some eccentric and somewhat crazy American athletes and a group of Tarahumarans — a race arranged by a running-crazed drifter called Caballo Blanco.
The pacing of the book is excellent — it’s difficult to put down and it’s a very enjoyable read. One thing that struck me is that the book opens with McDougall’s running injury, and ends as he completes the Carrabancan ultra. The reader gets occasional advice on the way he revises his form –(easy, light), back straight, head up, knees up, short strides at a cadence of 180 steps per minute — though I would have loved to know more about his personal recovery and how these principles changed his approach to running.
In the final 150 pages of The Fires of Heaven — book five of the Wheel of Time series — Robert Jordan hits his storytelling stride.
While this book — like all the others — covers a lengthy, often tedious journey to an epic battle, the battles were worth the time I spent reading the book. Bossy hypocrite Nynaeve squares off against dark wench Moghedien not once but twice. Rand defeats Rhavin in a balefire duel and finally learns that his well-meaning yet chivalrous unwillingness to put women in danger has cost him one close ally as Moiraine sacrifices herself against Lanfear.
While all of the characters (even Nynaeve) evolve and grow within the scope of this book, the ever-present stereotypical Women! Who can understand them?!? / Men! They’re all wool-headed fools! idiocy detracts from and cheapens what could become a much deeper narrative about men and women and relationships.
Perrin Aybara makes no appearance in book five. What’s going on in the Two Rivers? On to book six to find out.
September and October, 2014
The Shadow Rising, book four of The Wheel of Time series, is another long, tedious, lead-up to an eventual clash with members of The Forsaken — the minions of the Dark Lord, though at least this time, Rand doesn’t get all the fighting fun. Nynaeve helps out by capturing and almost stilling Moghedien. Interestingly, the Dark One makes no appearance in this book.
Perrin Aybara’s storyline gets serious attention and he becomes a hero in his own right, rallying the Two Rivers farm community to vanquish seemingly impossible Trolloc odds, with a little help from his new wife, Faile.
I enjoyed the interesting similarities between Aiel women going to Rhuidean to become a “wise woman” — entering three rings — which resembles the ceremony to become an Accepted in the order of the Aes Sedai. I sense that Aiel and Aes Sedai are linked in some way, deeper than the Aiel subservience to Aes Sedai the book depicts.
Perrin isn’t the only character that sees some growth in the novel. Bossy biddy Nynaeve manages to overcome prejudice in seeing a former enemy — Eaginin, a member of the channeling slavers, the Seanchan — become an ally, if not a friend.
The book is over twenty years old, but sometimes the predictability of the patriarchy gets tiresome: Rand is going to need to get over the fact that he may need to kill a woman (Lanfear) if he wants to remain the Dragon Reborn, for long.
Speaking of Lanfear, her appearance at the end of the book is ham-fisted and abrupt. She appears out of nowhere, without foreshadow of any kind. As a reader, it left me scratching my head. Jordan, you had 900 pages to clue us into the fact that she’d appear in the final battle.
Books one through four all feel overly long and all the novels’ pacing flags at times. They feel like a great warm-up to something more interesting just about to happen.
After reading The Shadow Rising questions remain: why did Moraine go into Rhuidean? Why do only women need to strip naked to enter Rhuidean while men entering Rhuidean get to wear their clothes? Will Nynaeve ever stop yanking on her braid and being a bossy toad?
Why am I reading on, despite the tedium? I guess I’m hooked. I want to know whether Elayne becomes Queen of Andor. I want to know precisely how powerful Egwene becomes as an Aes Sedai. I want to know if Nynaeve ever marries Lan and eventually becomes Amyrlin Seat. I want to know whether Perrin fathers a litter of wolf puppies with Faile. I want to know whether Rand vanquishes the Dark One.
July and August, 2014
The Dragon Reborn is book three of the Wheel of Time series. In book three, Rand appears only briefly as the book follows Egwene, Elayne, and Nynaeve’s storyline as Aes Sedai, interspersed with chapters from Perrin’s and Mat’s point of views. As a reader it was disappointing not only to know what would happen at the end of the book before reading it (Rand goes another round vs. B’alzamon. Who knew?) but also to find out the epic battle you’ve been waiting 600 pages for is short, perfunctory, and unsatisfying. It’s almost as if Robert Jordan became bored while writing the book. There’s almost no denouément whatsoever.
I’m currently reading book four, The Shadow Rising though not sure if I’ll continue reading the series beyond that.
The first half of The Great Hunt (book two of the Wheel of Time) series, suffers from the same tedium as The Eye of the World. The last third of the book is action-packed and nearly impossible to put down. Getting there is a bit of a slog, at times.
What intrigued me most were some very cool scenes that mirror the superposition principle of quantum physics. As Rand moves through the Portal Stone to Toman Head, he experiences the many variations of the path his life could have taken: with Egwene, without Egwene, honouring his position as the Dragon Reborn or rejecting it.
The sul’dam and the damane were compelling, yet revolting and bizarre at the same time. This idea of magical slavery was so brutal and cruel that as a reader, you want to see the Seanchan come back somewhere in the series so that you can see their empire destroyed.
The visit to Stedding Tsofu late in the book reveals more about Ogier life and culture — some of the most interesting scenes in the book.
Character development has improved in The Great Hunt, though the fact that some characters can survive battles and slavery and remain so innocent is baffling and annoying at the same time.
May and June, 2014
The Eye of the World is book one of the thirteen-book Wheel of Time series. I bought this book over a year ago and it took me a long time to start reading it. I began the book, telling myself that I could stop at any time and abandon not only book one, but the idea of reading the whole series.
The story starts slowly, focusing on Rand Al’Thor and a few friends from Emond’s Field: Mat, Perrin, and Egwene, and two strangers (Moraine Sedai and her Warder Lan Mandragoran) who come to town around the feast day, Bel Tine. Implausibly, these strangers convince Rand and his gang to leave the Two Rivers area in a bid to end the recent and unprecedented Trolloc attacks on their village. (This is a place they’ve barely left their entire lives. It’s all they know, and these intriguing strangers convince them to leave on a moment’s notice. Hmm…)
The middle of the book is repetitive to the point of tedious, where (of course) the fleeing group gets separated into smaller groups. The story mainly follows Rand and Mat, who get attacked by Darkfriends in various guises in every stop they make.
This long middle section reminded me of Scooby Doo where meddling kids are repeatedly attacked only to foil the evil forces. The book is over 800 pages and it covers this one lengthy and perilous journey. I was almost ready to abandon the book when the action began in the last couple hundred pages. Additionally, Loial the Ogier‘s appearance added a much needed element of intrigue. (Who doesn’t love a thinking being who adores books?)
My other major qualm with the writing is the golly-shucks-hayseed innocence to the interior monologue of some of the characters, notably, Rand, Perrin, and Egwene. Greater character development would make them feel less wooden. They’re young adults, though they think like children. Sometimes this book felt like a YA novel.
The action in this book hooked me enough to read to the end. I enjoyed learning about the world and about the various inhabitants, dark forces, and magical beings enough to start book two: The Great Hunt. Two hundred pages in, it’s moving slowly as well. Will I read book three? The jury is out.
May and June, 2014
Henry Hayward is the Minister Without Portfolio — a man free of the entanglements of a significant relationship and children, after having been left by his girlfriend Nora, because she wants to live a dangerous life.
What Nora doesn’t know or fails to notice is that living a dangerous life doesn’t mean putting your life in physical danger. It means being vulnerable — truly being in love with and loving someone — no matter what, overlooking and absolving the messy awkwardness inherent in relationships to build something worthy — a happy life together.
Together, Henry and Martha live the most dangerous of lives — trying to make a life together despite the looming ghost of Tender Morris — trying to build a family with Tender’s unborn child on the way, rebuilding a ramshackle home, literally from the ground up.
February and March, 2014
The Wise Man’s Fear is book two in Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicles. I enjoyed this book very much. As I approached the end — as 1285 pages in the story of Kvothe began to draw to a close — I lamented the dwindling number of pages remaining.
As in the first novel, The Name of the Wind, I struggled with Denna as a character. I find her motives vague and her constant disappearances frustrating.
After 2000+ pages of The Kingkiller Chronicles, I still only have a superficial understanding of her. I want to like her; I really do. As a reader, you learn very little about her in this book. She remains an enigma wrapped in a mystery.
Rothfuss starts to reveal more about her character during a passage in which Kvothe follows Denna into an unsavoury part of town at night. In the end, the mystery and frustration around her deepens because that night ends, and we never find out anything further about that scene. Without knowing anything about Denna’s backstory (a chapter or two in the book told from her perspective might have been helpful) you question Kvothe’s judgement as he continues to flail at a relationship with her, only to be repeatedly rebuffed with Denna’s familiar and frustrating refrain, “you’re just like all the other nasty men in my life.” Sometimes you wish that she’d disappear for good.
Despite Denna, I’m looking forward to book three, which is due out sometime in 2015.
February and March 2014
February is a novel set after the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank in a violent storm 300 km off the coast of Newfoundland on February 15th, 1982.
Cal O’Mara is a fictional victim of the rig sinking. February follows his widow Helen as she raises their four children and as the shape of her grief evolves from the sharp, stabbing pain and shock of sudden loss into the ache of long-term absence over the ensuing 25 years.
Moore’s is a distinct voice. Devoid of dialogue, she uses ordinary yet evocative language that’s spare, yet rich in description. I read Caught last fall, and fell immediately into Moore’s cadence, reminiscent of the gentle lilt of of a Newfoundland accent.
This book does an amazing job of exploring grief through Helen’s eyes without ever devolving into the maudlin. Cal appears in the book only through Helen’s memories of their wedding night and their first ten years of marriage, so many of which are the ordinary stuff of a simple, loving, domestic existence — the struggles to raise three children born in quick succession, pleasures like found kites and paperback books read in companionable silence.
Even though you never meet him first-hand, Moore’s brilliance is that Cal isn’t a tragic figure — he’s fully formed and as a reader you can’t help but empathize with the magnitude of Helen’s loss.
Highly recommended and worth your time.
The African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. In Anthony Marra’s magnificent novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, it takes a village to save a child from Federal assassination during the second Chechen war.
The book opens with Akmed, a failed physician, and an eight-year-old girl, Havaa, overlooking the smouldering remains of her modest home, burned to the ground the previous night by the Feds, who abduct her father to a torture camp called the Landfill.
Man and girl, Akhmed and Havaa become a family forged by fire — made but not chosen. Knowing the Feds will return for Havaa, Akhmed takes her 11 kilometres to the safest place he knows, to Hospital Number 6 in Volchansk. There Akhmed appeals to Sonja to harbour Havaa in exchange for his labour. Sonja, a brilliant prodigal surgeon, abandoned London to return to Volchansk at the start of the first Chechen war in a bid to find her sister Natasha, the only living member of her family.
This is a beautiful book that explores families made but not chosen: from Akhmed and Havaa, to Sonja and Natasha, two sisters — one brilliant, one beautiful — who struggle to express love for one another, to six formerly domestic, now feral dogs whose pack leader, Khassan, is a taciturn former university professor and father of the local informer.
This is a community of people “whittled by the deprivations” of war, corroded by betrayal, guilt, guilt by association, and shame, yet somehow humanity survives. This book is definitely worth your time. Be prepared for your soul to be touched, for your own humanity to be forever altered on reading it.
I’m grateful to my friend Erik Westra for recommending I read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I read it twice, back-to-back, savouring the story told in plain, yet beautiful language. It’s a masterpiece of a novel I will never forget.
January and February, 2014
The Muirwood Trilogy by Jeff Wheeler
- The Wretched of Muirwood
- The Scourge of Muirwood
- The Blight of Muirwood
A fun, satisfying, epic fantasy trilogy featuring a strong young female protagonist in Lia Cook/Hunter, who is based on Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn, the lost princess of Wales.
I wasn’t completely sure until after I got well into book one that this was a Y/A series. Chock full of interesting magic through a force called the Medium that both good and evil characters can harness, this was an orphan-girl-makes good tale set in a fictional medieval land.
While book one The Wretched of Muirwood, is a bit of a slow start, the story moves more quickly in book two, The Scourge of Muirwood, and book three, The Blight of Muirwood. In fact, book three feels like it could have been a lot longer, given that dénouement for the final volume and the full series seems crammed into the last 30 pages.
I’d love to see this series carried into an adult novel which would be able to delve more deeply into the nuances of the characters and what happens to Colvin, Lia, and their future generations. In the Author’s Note to The Blight of Muirwood, Jeff Wheeler reports the next instalment begins in a novella called Maia, which is available to read online.