Dan's Bookshelf — Fiction
Updated: May 20, 2021
A (very) incomplete collection of books I've read and enjoyed. I am working on populating this list as I continue reading my way through the pandemic as well as going back and adding books retroactively, as I am able. You can check out my bookshelf for non-fiction here.
by Paul Beatty
Read on 7 May 2021
I recognize that this novel is a brilliant piece of writing but I didn't particularly like it. It's entirely possible that is because I did not fully understand it or am not equipped to appreciate it. I powered through to a point where I wanted to find out how it ends and so I ended up finishing the book. I definitely had to resist the temptation to abandon it in the first 50-75 pages. On the surface, it's at least compelling: a Black American re-institutes segregation. If nothing else, I was fascinated to see how Beatty set that up. However, I had two major problems with the novel, which are intertwined: 1) In a long, satirical piece, it is very difficult to keep track of the goalposts. What is meant to be satirical, what is meant to be genuine, how am I supposed to react, and what is the point? It was the same reason why I stopped watching the Colbert Report; he's funny and it's a good construct but after a while, it's just exhausting and I have other things to do. 2) There is so much of, what Jim Shepard called, "furniture moving" at the beginning of the novel that I was bored long before we got to the meat of the story. When you combine those two issues, it's not necessarily a book that I would read again. Would this have been better as a 150-page novella, as compared to a 300-page novel? Having said that, a different reader may view those as strengths; perhaps I'm not qualified to fully appreciate the novel on its merits.
Having said all of that, the novel does have some incredible passages, which is probably what kept me hanging on and I will include this one here because... *whew* it's something else:
I'm high as hell, but not high enough not to know that race is hard to "talk about" because it's hard to talk about. The prevalence of child abuse in this country is hard to talk about, too, but you never hear people complaining about it. They just don't talk about it. And when's the last time you had a calm, measured conversation about the joys of consensual incest? Sometimes things are simply difficult to discuss, but I actually think the country does a decent job of addressing race, and when folks say, "Why can't we talk about race more honestly?" What they really mean is "Why can't you n---ers be reasonable?" or "Fuck you,. white boy. If I said what I really wanted to say, I'd get fired even faster than you'd fire me if race were any easier to talk about." And by race we mean "n---ers" because no one of any persuasion seems to have any difficulty talking out-of-pocket shit about Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and America's newest race, the Celebrity."
by Roddy Doyle
Read on 18 November 2015
I originally read this novel for an undergraduate class on subcultures and belonging. It's a terrifically-easy read; plenty of plot, plenty of music, and not a lot of depth. The basic premise is a group of working-class young men on the north side of Dublin who decide to start a band that will play American soul music. On its most basic level, it's just a fun read, if you enjoy that sort of music.
There is some thematic depth to the novel but first, I want to make a note about the typography, which adds an interesting element to the reader's experience. The unusual typography primarily facilitates the onomatopoeia of the singers and the heavy instrumentation of soul music. A secondary effect is that it makes the dialogue appear more disorganized and naturally-flowing, which lends itself to the type of story Doyle is telling; an organically-evolving conception of self in the minds of the characters.
On a thematic level, if you want to read a little more deeply into the text, the novel is also about how people (particularly young people, particularly young men) construct identity and how they choose to borrow bits and pieces from elsewhere when it suits them. At the second meeting of the group, Jimmy puts on James Brown's "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine" and the rest of the group immediately buys in. As far as they're concerned, this is their music, just as much as it is Black America's music. They are completely committed to the music, until the band falls apart; at which point, they pick up country-rock music and begin the same process all over again.
The whole thing is pleasantly absurd; being Irish and working class is simply not the same as being Black and American (especially not James Brown, born in South Carolina in 1933). At one point, Jimmy actually says "the Irish are the n---ers of Europe... Dubliners are the n---ers of Ireland [and] northside Dubliners are the n---ers of Dublin". However absurd that seems on it's face, I saw it happen with my own eyes: Chinese-immigrant kids (rich ones, at that) at my high school listening to 50 Cent and calling each other the n-word. Like with my classmates, soul matters to The Commitments because of the "other-ness" of the music. They feel as though they lack identity, so they are looking for something onto which to attach themselves.
Notably, Outspan and Derek originally want to start a synth-pop group and emulate Depeche Mode. At the time this novel is set, Depeche Mode is already charting in the top five and is less than a decade from their peak success. Jimmy quickly talks them out of it because what they really want is to be different; to not end up "like those tossers back there". So Jimmy sells them on soul music because it's an opportunity to have something that is just for themselves (within the small world of north side Dublin). So when the group falls apart and everyone is done with soul music, they pick up the next thing just as easily.
by Elizabeth Nunez
Read on 10 November 2020
The richness of this novel is the perfect illustration of why I consider The Tempest to be one of Shakespeare's least-compelling works. This isn't Shakespeare's fault, per se, and perhaps, if I had watched the original production in 1611, I would've enjoyed it more. However, with the benefit of a historical lens, Shakespeare is writing about a colony without any real understanding of how colonialism works. Where MacBeth shows Shakespeare's understanding of the lure that royal power has over a person, The Tempest lacks that context.
Fortunately, Nunez steps into the void left by Shakespeare. Prospero's Daughter is a captivating narrative that occurs at the intersection of class, sexism, and race against the backdrop of pre-independence Trinidad.
The island of Chachacare, off Trinidad, is her chosen colonial setting where "any Englishman can become a lord" by virtue of their skin colour. In true post-colonial fashion, Nunez hands the narrative to the Trinidadian characters of Ariana (Ariel) and Carlos (Caliban), as well as Virginia (Miranda). In The Tempest, Ariel (196 lines), Caliban (178 lines), and Miranda (153 lines) are minor characters in comparison to Prospero (656 lines). In Nunez's narrative, Prospero is relegated to the background, attempting to exert control over that which he cannot; ultimately, rendered powerless by the "lesser" characters who reclaim their narrative.
Also of note is how Nunez imbues the land of Chachacare with significance. The island on which The Tempest is set is insignificant; merely a platform for the story. For centuries, colonizers have viewed the land they take over in this way: it has no significance other than the value they can extract from it. Nunez uses Carlos' relationship to the land to expose the foolishness of this view and draw the reader into the lush paradise of Trinidad.
Big Mouth & Ugly Girl
by Joyce Carol Oates
Read on 14 December 2019
I read this book so I could teach it to my Grade 10 ELA class. It's definitely a young-adult novel but it is a great read and would recommend to an adult looking for an easy read.
Reasons to love this novel:
Ursula, the powerful and engaging female protagonist
Matt, the less engaging male protagonist who knows how to yield the stage to a superior character in Ursula.
The narrative shifts that allow the reader to inhabit the minds of both characters.
The manner in which the emotional struggles of the teenaged protagonists are laid bare in uncomplicated, yet evocative language.
Oates' clear, direct prose that is easy to follow without being simplistic.
Minor (minor!) criticisms:
In the year 2020, the characters' use of email feels dated. However, the function of email in the novel could easily be replaced by a more modern form of communication, so while outdated, it doesn't really take away from the story.
The third act twist felt like a bit much (not unbelievable, just unnecessary). However, it does provide the opportunity for Ursula to move fully develop as a character, so I am okay with that.
The storylines do tie up quite neatly at the end. However, given the intended audience (I teach it with Grade 10s), I understand the desire for an emotionally-satisfying ending. As an adult reader, it can feel a little bit simplistic.
In the Skin of a Lion
by Michael Ondaatje
Read on 22 October 2020
In her review of this novel for The Guardian, Anne Enright says that novels like this should come with a disclaimer to young writers: "Don't try this on your own". Her quip reminded me of another cliche that I think applies to this novel: Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.
I feel compelled to insert a disclaimer that I really enjoy Michael Ondaatje and his work. I teach both Running in the Family and the English Patient with my high school English Language Arts classes. Having said that, I didn't love this novel. I'm not entirely sure why this is the case: the meta-narrative of the story is certainly socialist in nature and it's a retelling of Canadian history, so it should check my boxes, and yet... it doesn't do it for me.
One of Ondaatje's particular strengths is constructing these hazy, dreamlike narratives that draw the reader into the story in the first half of the novel. I love that about his work. The question is always whether or not he can successfully tie the threads together in the second half. From a literal perspective, he certainly wraps everything up but I don't think it works.
So, why doesn't it work? This novel is both a fictional story but also a history of labour in Toronto; a gritty look at what had to be sacrificed by the working class in order to turn this city into a reality. The city of Toronto, one of the supposed jewels of modern Canada, is literally built on the backs of poor immigrant workers. This novel tries to do justice to their stories and therein lies the challenge. The meta-narrative of the novel is about how the machinery of capitalism will grind people up and spit them out. The system will sell them on the idea of something better (stability, wealth, or otherwise) until they have nothing left to give. The conflict is entirely between the characters and the system, which cannot be beaten. It doesn't matter if Clara goes back to Ambrose, it doesn't matter if Ambrose kills Patrick, or if Patrick dies in his attempt to swim into the waterworks. There is very little conflict between characters in the novel and what does exist is seemingly insignificant, which gives the reader little to invest in. The system cannot be beaten. We know this both historically and rhetorically; the novel makes that very clear.
At some point, I will try to read this novel again and see if I have a different perspective on it. I think it is a valuable piece of cultural history; a Canadian narrative, written about an immigrant, about immigrants. I just didn't enjoy it all that much.
The Stars and the Blackness Between Them
by Junauda Petrus
Read on 9 October 2020
In general, I prefer to avoid magical realism however, I picked this book up because of the Trini connection and I'm glad I did. This is ostensibly a young adult novel but it works for older audiences because there's so much going on in the story that requires context and maturity to understand.
POV: Petrus writes in a well-organized double-first-person narrative from two, very different but equally-likeable protagonists. Audre's parts are written in her Trini dialect, which I appreciated because dialect still does not get enough positive representation in literature. Of course, I am partial to the Trini dialect and unapologetically biased.
Culture: Petrus does well to situate the position of Black women in America as inherently political, without that overwhelming the narrative of the story and the plot development. The characters are allowed to drive the story but the politics never disappears (as is the case with Black women in America).
Magical realism: If you want a story to be nicely wrapped up by the end in a very literal fashion, this is not the novel for you. Magical realism begins to dominate the narrative in the last 1/3 of the book as the story reaches its climax. However, I think it is an apt choice for this story because as a child/teenager, this is how we view the world. We are more open to seeing magical or spiritual qualities in our every day life. Some of us lose that as we age and others carry it forever; however, for the two protagonists, the possibility of magic carries them through the narrative and I am happy to go on that journey with them.
The World to Come
by Jim Shepard
Read on 14 March 2018
Reading Jim Shepard makes me both feel better about my own life while simultaneously certain that my worst failings are bound to be exposed at any moment. It's a fine line to walk but Shepard walks it well. I always pull some of Shepard's short stories for my English 12 courses. His works are phenomenally well-researched and on top of these facts, he paints characters that are wretched, often unlikable, but always compelling.
For people who have never read Shepard before, it's worth noting that the main character in every instalment of this collection is doomed in one way or another. The stories are short, which keeps the reader from becoming too weary. As I'm reading, I'm bargaining with Shepard for an outcome that isn't perfect but would be less tragic than the one towards which I know the story is headed. There is definitely a beauty to Shepard's writing: as humans, we try; even when we know we'll ultimately fail.
Favourite story: This is my favourite collection of his, so this is a tough call and I'm still going to cheap out: "Cretan Love Song" is only 1 1/2 pages long so, although it is my favourite from the collection, I feel like I get a second choice, which would be "Wall to Wall Counselling" because, unlike so many of Shepard's narrators, this character isn't fundamentally flawed. However, she speaks to the reader because she is mired in the same mud we often find ourselves in and, when the dust settles, there's nothing to do except keep going.
Like You'd Understand, Anyway
by Jim Shepard
Read on 20 December 2020
I won't reiterate the reasons why I love Jim Shepard's work because you can read that all in the previous blurb. This is a collection of stories about eleven individuals (ten men and one woman) who are trapped; some of them have trapped themselves, others are trapped by circumstance. These characters attempt to exert their agency, confident they can affect the outcome of the events that are shaping their lives, only to be proven so very wrong. Or, in some cases, they are putting off exerting their agency, knowing that any decision they make will be the wrong one, and hoping that things work out for the best. Irrespective of their approach, we end in the same place.
Favourite story: This is another tough decision but I'd have to go with "Eros 7" because it feels accidentally feminist in the best way. Shepard fictionalizes the training of Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, the first (and youngest) woman to have flown in space and the only woman to undertake a solo space mission. Tereshkova does everything that is asked of her, in the hopes of achieving the level of agency that we associate with success. She fulfills the wildest dreams of not only her superiors but also the Soviet state, and science as a discipline and yet, she is still trapped in the same machinery as everyone else. A machinery that will cradle you as long as you are useful but toss you aside if you dare to disturb its pistons.
You Think That's Bad
by Jim Shepard
Read on 4 August 2019
This is another collection of Shepard stories that elevate ordinary voices as they endeavour to accomplish something, held by the belief that they can be extraordinary. If you know Shepard, you know it's unlikely to work out for them. But it feels better knowing how much they believe in themselves.
Favourite story: "The Netherlands Lives With Water" is definitely my first choice out of this collection. As a student of history, I often come across accounts of individuals who happened to stand at the centre of an implosion of epic proportions and, more often than not, in the final moments before the walls come down, they are going about their business, as though the situation is entirely under control. When I read these accounts, I always think to myself, 'they must know they're doomed, why are they just standing there?' "The Netherlands Lives With Water" is one such story and the first time I've really thought that, if I were in such a situation, I would probably do the exact same thing.
by Zadie Smith
Read on 20 May 2021
I read this book immediately after reading Paul Beatty's The Sellout and, purely by coincidence, these books fell into a similar category: they are good, even brilliant, and I didn't much care for them. My principle critique of White Teeth is not a new one; it seems many critics have made it and even Zadie Smith herself acknowledged it: it's too goddamn long. The story spans 537 pages and it easily could've been 300. That is not to take away from the unquestionably excellent and admirably ambitious story: tracing the Smith and Iqbal families from the fathers' experience in the Second World War to the adulthood of their second-generation children in London and all the messy cultural clashes that occur along the way. That is why I picked it up; I wanted that story. I also appreciate the structure, moving from character to character through time and Smith chooses excellent moments to make those narrative jumps.
The fact that the novel is far too long draws unfair attention to other aspects of the novel, which I then viewed as flaws. For example, Samad and Archie, to whom the bulk of the first 200 pages is dedicated are stock characters. Samad, the Bengali Muslim immigrant to England, caught between his perception of himself and his culture and his own shortcomings. Archie, the repressed Englishman, who, having been saved from suicide, commits to a thoroughly mediocre and unhappy third act. I do not care about these two men, certainly not to the tune of 200 pages.
There's nothing wrong with Smith's portrayal of the fathers, because the interesting aspects of the novel are the children and the intergenerational tensions. So, the "solution" would not be to make the fathers more interesting because they don't need to be. While critiques of White Teeth focus on the ending, which has been fairly described as "too cute by half", I would actually say the place to start would be to take the first 200 pages and cut it down to 50 pages. Or, perhaps this is really two novels; one about Archie and Samad and one about Irie, Magid, and Millat. Either way, I am glad I read this novel and it is quite brilliant but I doubt I'll be reading it again or teaching it. There are too many flaws with the narrative.
p.s. Two loose thoughts:
Samad's affair is totally improbable. He's a total sad sack. The only thing less attractive than his physical appearance is his personality and self-loathing. Poppy Burt-Jones is described as being young and reasonably attractive and it is wholly inexplicable as to why she is interested in a purely sexual relationship with him. I get the affair from the narrative perspective but it just seems ridiculous. By contrast, both Clara's decision to marry Archie and Joyce Chalfen's obsession with Millat is perfectly clear.
The novel is surprisingly funny at times. A moment that caught me by surprise (because I was getting bored) was when Irie says, about Millat: "Joyce, he hasn't got a disorder, he's just a Muslim. There are one billion of them. They can't all have ADD." I laughed out loud, which was nice.
by Richard Wagamese
21 October 2019
This was a phenomenal book that I read in preparation for teaching it with my Grade 12 English class and I'm so glad I did. The only possible criticism of this book is that it builds very slowly; things don't really start "happening" until around chapter nine or ten. Personally, I wouldn't consider that to be a negative but it might turn some people off. In that time, Wagamese builds two incredibly complex characters, in Franklin and Bunky, along with one very flat character in Eldon. I suspected that there was more to Eldon than Wagamese originally lets on (because otherwise, what's the point of the story?) and Wagamese doesn't disappoint; peeling back the layers on Eldon throughout the second half of the novel.
I always appreciate a novel that works on multiple levels. You don't have to know anything about the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada to appreciate this novel; the writing stands on its own and provides the reader with rich scenery and characters that take the reader through a compelling story. However, knowing the history of Canada, this novel is also about how Indigenous peoples were set up to fail. How Indigenous peoples were pushed to scratch out an existence at the margins of society only to be further maligned when they failed. In this case, even when Eldon does exactly what is expected of him, he never has what he needs to succeed. If not for Bunky, Franklin would have gone the same way.
In order to properly teach a novel, you have to truly study it yourself and I quite enjoyed my conversations with students on unconventional family units, PDST/intergenerational trauma, transformative relationships, spirituality, racism, and substance abuse.