Winter + Spring 2017 Reads

I’ve had some pretty memorable reading experiences in the last four months. Here’s a roundup of a few of them.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

I’ve only just started Smith’s newest novel and I’m already liking it a lot. Lately, her short stories and essays have been appearing more widely than ever. So while, perhaps, I’m just more familiar with her authorial voice, I think there’s also a new kind of warm and welcoming tone coming through in her prose. Meaning: it’s less overtly stylistic and she seems more surefooted in building her characters, which are qualities I felt weren’t as strong in NW. I still have yet to read Smith’s first big success, White Teeth, but it’ll have to go on the reading pile soon.

The Time in Between by David Bergen 

I remember reading this when it first came out in 2006. That cover image was pretty inescapable if you visited a book store or library 10 years ago. I decided to revisit it just before I started my current fiction writing mentorship with the author (through Humber College). The narrative stands up pretty well, with a healthy blend of adventure, mystery and Canadian pastoral. That opening prologue is really evocative and provides a solid hook. And while there’s a bit of that familiar Canadian melancholy throughout, Bergen does solid work in keeping the here-and-now story going along at a decent clip.

The Return by Hisham Matar 

I kept hearing about this memoir through various New York-based literary media, so when a copy fell into my hands I was primed for the experience. Matar’s book focuses on the author seeking answers for his father’s disappearance in Gaddafi-era Libya. The reviews prepped me for all the relevant political echoes, but I was more pleased with the expressiveness of Matar’s writing style. While it’s a dark story at times, I was really taken with the storytelling and sentence-level craft of The Return.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I haven’t really kept my writer crush on Saunders a secret. When his first novel was announced last year, I had a fist of money waiting for it. As with Matar’s work, a lot of reviews have strained to make a connection between Lincoln as portrayed here with our current political scene. But that misses so much of the fun in Saunders’ writing. This is fundamentally a ghost story, or rather, a human story told by ghosts. I was partly expecting Saunders to venture off into “serious literature” territory but was relieved by the playful ingenuity here – the same quality that makes reading his short stories so much fun.

After James by Michael Helm 

My previous desk space at NOW Magazine abutted Susan G. Cole’s. As NOW’s recently retired Sr. Entertainment Editor and Books section champion, she heartily endorsed Helm’s book as the best published in Canada last year. I agree with her on the first third of After James, which marries some incredible prose with a solid first act mystery. But Helm doesn’t carry through that momentum, opting instead for additional (and less compelling) mysteries that didn’t satisfy me in the end.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara 

Definitely one of the more disappointing books I’ve read in the last while. I struggled with the shallowness of the character portrayals in the first 100 pages or so, and then found little to enjoy once some semblance of plot started to murmur another 150 pages later. One of the things that bothered me most was the bloated quality in the prose, which overused a lot of the same turns of phrase and could have used an editor with a more ruthless eye.

All That Is by James Salter 

Salter is one of those writers I had heard about but never experienced. A Sport and a Pastime is the book I’d seen mentioned the most – due to its literary smuttiness, I suppose. I took on All That Is because of its simple (albeit well-worn) American premise: young middle-class man goes to war and comes home only to struggle with normal life as he ages. There are no clichés here, though. Reading Salter’s prose is reminiscent of a specific type of mid-century novel, but the real interest here isn’t his portrayal of a man’s life as he falls in love over and over; it’s in how the author manages to convey an elegant summary of those intimate failures, while also suggesting that there’s something oddly hopeful in their inevitability.

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