The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht

tigerIt is not often that I feel the simultaneous urge to both read a book at a voracious pace and discontinue reading it altogether. The Tiger’s Wife may be the first. This seeming paradox was achieved by Obreht’s beautiful writing and the intriguing story she creates, coupled with the intense and disturbing violence riddled throughout the novel. I actually had to skim a few sections – something I can’t recall ever doing in a novel. Luckily Obreht’s main character, Natalia, was someone I connected with immediately. Natalia is a young doctor, trying to inoculate young children in a war-torn region. The story takes place in an unnamed country in the Balkans, but through the various descriptions and invented place-names, images of Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo come to mind. I liked that Obreht chose a fictional place for her novel; there was never any pressure to read up on the history, culture, geography of the place, since it didn’t exist (I often feel this urge when I’m reading about a place I’m not familiar with). All you need is a passing knowledge of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and actually, you could probably get away with not knowing anything at all.The main crux of the story is that Natalia’s grandfather turns up dead in a remote town and no one knows how he got there or why he was there in the first place. About a third of the book centres around Natalia trying to figure out this mystery; the other two-thirds are comprised mainly of Natalia recalling some of the stories her grandfather often told her. I’m not one for a story-within-a-story. Normally I find it a fairly annoying format. However the two major stories, that of The Deathless Man and The Tiger’s Wife, are so interesting and wrapped in a good layer of magical realism, that I became completely absorbed in them. Obreht manages to create a very dark world but also one that is mystical and bordering on the absurd. It’s hauntingly beautiful. Except for the violence. It’s hard to ignore the violence. As a vegetarian I didn’t particularly enjoy the graphic descriptions of animals being butchered and their bodies cut apart. But the worst by far were the terribly brutal scenes of a young deaf-mute girl being beaten by her husband. I could only get through it by skimming. I guess the violence – both animal and human – are meant to represent the savageness of war and what years of conflict can do to a people. I appreciate the point of the violence, I just didn’t enjoy reading it. However if you can make it past those difficult sections, you are rewarded with a well-crafted story and very high-quality writing.

As an aside, Obreht was only 25 years old when this novel was published. It’s astonishing that a 25-year-old could write something so sophisticated, dark, and teeming with wisdom. I don’t know who to be more jealous of: Téa Obreht or Eleanor Catton. Sigh.


Delancey, by Molly Wizenberg

delanceyBefore we had a baby, my husband and I would throw dinner parties on a regular basis. Sometimes these were small affairs, with just one other couple, but once a month we’d have a group of ten friends over for dinner and a movie. On these occasions we’d spend most of the day shopping, preparing, and cooking, and most of the next morning cleaning up the disastrous mess that we were too lazy to deal with the night before.  While fun and rewarding, the amount of effort required to prepare a homemade meal for even a small group of friends is significant. For this reason, I’ve been fascinated with restaurant culture, in particular the sheer amount of work it takes to not only serve presentable and delicious dishes but to keep the restaurant to a high standard of cleanliness (certainly higher than my own kitchen!). I’ve not read many books about restaurants but it was with much excitement that I received an unexpected package at my door a few weeks ago, containing the book Delancey: a gift from my friend Lindsey. A few years ago, Lindsey introduced me to Molly Wizenberg, via her first book, A Homemade Life. It’s a collection of recipes and their related stories and inspirations, which was a surprisingly engaging format. I became a wee bit obsessed with Molly after I finished it and as I discovered the extension of the book: her wonderful blog, Orangette. I felt I could really relate to Molly and I could see a bit of myself in her (notably her disillusionment with her PhD).

But back to Delancey. The book chronicles the conceptualization and development of Molly and her husband’s pizza restaurant, Delancey. As I mentioned earlier, I think owning and operating a restaurant must be among the most demanding jobs out there. I was eager for a first-hand account from someone I could relate to (ie. not a celebrity chef like Anthony Bourdain). Disappointingly, the first few chapters of the book I found rather dry and impersonal: a step-by-step description of how the idea for the restaurant came to Brandon, Molly’s husband. While there were moments of interest, like a description of how Brandon developed his pizza dough, things didn’t get much more interesting until the midway point, when Molly finally acknowledges out loud to Brandon that she doesn’t want this restaurant. Up until this point, she’d been operating on the assumption that Delancey was another of Brandon’s many pie-in-the-sky ideas that would not actually materialize in the real world. Once they sign a lease on a space though, Molly must confront the fact that Delancey might actually come to exist sometime in the near future and, to put it mildly, she freaks out. This is the story I wanted to read about. How does a young couple, with very little restaurant experience, navigate the many overwhelming challenges involved in opening their own restaurant while keeping their marriage intact? From reading Orangette you do get the impression that Molly and Brandon are a bit of a super-couple who can open not one but two restaurants (since the writing of Delancey, Molly and Brandon have opened a bar next door) and raise a child (June was born in 2012). However reading the latter half of Delancey you realize, with relief, that Molly and Brandon are indeed human and struggle through exhaustion, multiple problems, and related marital strife in getting Delancey off the ground. The book cements my inclination that I could not (and indeed should not) own, operate, or indeed, even work in, a restaurant.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out A Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

window2This novel, whose title I’ll shorten to The 1oo-Year-Old Man, is perhaps hardly worth reviewing here as it’s become enormously popular since it was released in 2009. I suspect most of my readers have either at least heard of it or read it themselves. The story is absurd. In the opening pages, 100-year-old Allan Karlsson climbs out of his window at his seniors’ residence, having decided he wants to live a bit longer but not in the confines of the boring and dictatorial home. What ensues is a wild adventure, interspersed with a chronological narrative detailing Allan’s even wilder adventures from his youth. Imagine the film Forrest Gump if Forrest was extremely intelligent and by happenstance got to meet most of the world’s most famous or notorious leaders between the years 1930-2000.It’s entertaining if you forgo rationality. Like I said, it’s absurd.

Despite the novel’s popularity, I suspect this is not a book for everyone. The prose is very matter-of-fact, almost as if you’re reading a journalist’s account of the story, and as a result the characters feel very two dimensional. An example (pulled at random): “In the distance stood a hot-dog stand. Julius promised Allan that if he made it to the hot-dog stand, then Julius would treat him – he could afford it – and then he would find a solution to the transport problem. Allan replied that never in his life had he complained over a bit of discomfort, and that he wasn’t going to start now, but that a hot-dog would hit the spot.” Much of the book is written in this fashion, with actual dialogue being replaced with an arm’s length account of the conversation instead. Admittedly it takes some getting used to, but I found this style of writing refreshingly different. While the characters do feel lifted from the pages of a comic in their fantasticality, I still found the story engrossing. I have heard complaints that the book is too political (Allan meets famous leaders from Stalin to Mao Tse-tung) but I certainly was not bothered by the (pretty tame) political themes of the book. Although I wouldn’t go out of my way to read anything else by Jonasson, the 100-Year-Old Man is definitely a memorable read!

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

rosieThe Rosie Project is a sweet, funny, fairly predictable, yet somehow clever story. The protagonist in this first-person narrative is Don Tillman, a genetics professor, who is clearly extremely intelligent but suffers from odd behaviours and an inability to interact with other people in a ‘normal’ way. As a result he has only two living friends and has never had a girlfriend. To remedy this latter problem, Don embarks on a quest he calls the Wife Project, which involves potential candidates filling out an extensive questionnaire, in an effort to filter out anyone who would be incompatible with Don’s curious behaviours and lifestyle. In the course of this project, a woman named Rosie shows up one day in Don’s office, who Don assumes is an applicant for the Wife Project. One thing leads to another and Don ends up spearheading the Father Project, an attempt to discover the identity of Rosie’s biological father.

The first-person narrative of this story is really what elevates it above the level of silly romantic comedy. Don’s social ineptitudes are quite funny and he often finds himself in tricky but amusing situations. It becomes clear fairly early on that he probably lands somewhere on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum or at least has a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel until the last three chapters, which unfold in a very predictable way. Still, I enjoyed it so much that I decided to see what else Mr. Simsion has written. To my surprise I discovered that The Rosie Project is his first and only novel. The other publications to his credit are all peer-reviewed publications; Simsion has a PhD in data modelling. From the acknowledgement section I read that Simsion wrote The Rosie Project as part of a novel-writing course he was taking and that it actually started out as a screenplay. I also learned (thank you, Wikipedia) that Simsion won an award for the book – the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award – and that he has earned $1.8 million after the rights to it were sold internationally. Since then the book has been optioned to Sony Entertainment and has been published in over 30 languages! This guy fascinates me. He’s got a PhD in a very technical subject area, yet decides one day to write a lighthearted, comedic novel that ends up being a bestseller and a film! I am filled with envy. Soon as I finish this post I’m looking up novel-writing courses at my local fine arts college.

The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

vacancyI am a huge Harry Potter fan; the kind who wept upon finishing the final book in the series – it felt truly like the end of an era. When Rowling came out with her next project after Harry Potter, an adult novel, I wasn’t terribly interested. I loved Harry Potter for the imaginative new world that Rowling had created coupled with an amazing sense of suspense! I never thought the writing itself was that great and figured an adult novel wouldn’t have that imaginative quality to it. So why did I pick it up at all? I had just finished one rather disturbing novel and half-read two others that I put down because they were either too sad (The Goldfinch) or too boring (The Blind Assassin). Essentially I was keen to read a piece of fluff and I was somewhat curious as to what Rowling would write for an adult audience. Well I certainly got my piece of fluff. The novel chronicles the goings-on in Pagford, a small British town, after the sudden death of the universally loved local councillor, Barry Fairbrother. Before he died, Barry was instrumental in the struggle to keep ‘The Fields’ in Pagford, the poorest area of town where those on social assistance live government housing. While Barry is portrayed as kind and compassionate, his death reveals that he was an anomaly among local residents and his fellow councillors. The novel features about ten or so different characters, rotating perspectives to reveal their relationship to Barry, their views on The Fields controversy, and the mini-drama that is their individual lives. It is a long, meandering read. There were times when I stopped to try to ascertain the point of it all. While the decision on what would happen to The Fields was clearly the apex of the story, it was unclear as to why Rowling required 503 pages to get there. Midway through I decided to stop being frustrated by this and instead read the novel like I would watch a soap opera: with a detached, vague interest in what happens to the various characters. I’m not sure if it was Rowling’s intention that the reader dislike every character (with the notable exception of Krystal Weedon), but if so, then it was a job well done. I heaved a sigh of relief when I finally reached the end. While I did not enjoy the novel very much, it certainly strengthened my resolve to never live in a small town.

Best Banana Bread

I have been making this banana bread for years. It is foolproof, very delicious, and reasonably healthy. And it is super easy! Everything goes in one bowl and you can whip it up in under 10 minutes. I can’t be bothered to take a photo of the loaf I baked this morning. Yes, having a newborn makes you that tired. All my dear readers, you know what banana bread looks like, right?

Add all the following ingredients in one bowl:

½ cup applesauce  (try to get unsweetened; if using sweetened, reduce the amount of sugar added)
1/2-1 cup demerera sugar (or half and half white and demerara)
1½ cups flour (I can use 1 cup all-purpose, ½ whole wheat)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
3 ripe bananas (or two really big ones)

That’s it! Mix it all up and bake in a greased loaf pan for an hour at 325. If you want a dessert bread (which of course, you do), add about 1/3-1/2 a bag of chocolate chips.

The Dinner, by Herman Koch

dinnerAt the rate I am devouring novels these days, I have become a bit less particular about how I select what I read. [This has back-fired twice now, with The Goldfinch (way too sad) and The Blind Assassin (way too boring and pointless)]. One day over the Christmas holidays my mom mentioned to me in passing that The Dinner was rather a good novel. This off-hand statement somehow stuck in my brain when I went to make my next Kobo purchase. Knowing absolutely nothing about the novel beforehand (and completely ignoring its accompanying description as ‘a psychological thriller’), I was somewhat surprised to discover that what I thought would be a silly and fun romp exploring marital relations in a satirical way, was in fact a very dark tale indeed.  The book begins light-heartedly enough, with two brothers and their wives sitting down to dinner at a fancy restaurant. The characters were quirky and the writing was just on the edge of comical and so just as I was settling in for a wholesome bit of fluffy reading, the story took a very dark turn. I won’t reveal what this dark turn is, because it is alluded to right at the very beginning and makes for a very exciting read as you flip the pages to discover what’s happened. If I had been in almost any other frame of mind than the one I was actually in when I read this novel, I think I would give it a very high rating. However it so happened that I started this book at the same time as my husband and I decided to start sleep-training our 3.5-month-old baby and let’s just say that letting your baby cry and cry while reading a disturbing novel puts certain thoughts in your head, such as, ‘If I let the baby cry for one more minute, he’s almost certainly going to become an axe murderer’. As you might imagine, this can instil a certain amount of anxiety in a new mother, however ridiculous these thoughts might be. So…while The Dinner is very well written and a total page-turner, if you are a nutter like me, I’d perhaps avoid reading it until such a time when you have your wits about you.

(PS: in doing a google search for an image of the cover of the book to post here, I have just discovered that the novel is set to be made into a film, directed by Cate Blanchett. Not sure I’ll see it!)