Armchair BEA: Introduction

Welcome, Armchair BEA participants! I decided to register at the last minute. I’m looking forward to expanding my circle and connecting with more book bloggers 🙂

  1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging? Where in the world are you blogging from? 
    •  My name is Reno. I’m a Canadian in my early 20s. I’m presently finishing up a BA in English with a specialization in young people’s texts and cultures. I’m blogging from Canada now, but in a few months I will be blogging from Japan! I have been blogging in one form or another since 2006. I initially used my blog as a daily journal. I began blogging about books, music and writing under the Falling Letters name in fall 2010. I rebooted Falling Letters in April as a book blog.
  2. What genre do you read the most? 
    • Although Tolkien wrote my favourite books, my favourite genre is not fantasy but something closer to magical realism.  I like stories that have a touch of the unusual about them and are hard to classify. Think authors like Helen Oyeyemi, Jose Saramago, and Neil Gaiman.
  3. Spread the love by naming your favorite blogs/bloggers (doesn’t necessarily have to be book blogs/bloggers).  These are just a handful of the book blogs I’m enjoying at the moment!
  4. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what 3 books would you bring? Why? What 3 non-book items would you bring? Why? Assuming I’m not concerned about survival…if I could read, write and listen to music while lounging on my favourite pillow I would be a very happy person!
    • Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami – one of my favourite books, a really lovely story, I think you can find something new in it on every reading
    • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – possibly my all-time favourite book, I can read it back to back to back and never get tired of it
    • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – see above!
    • Comfy pillow
    • Notebooks, pens and pencils (I’m counting ‘writing supplies ‘as one item)
    • Solar-powered music player
  5.  What book would you love to see as a movie? 
    •  Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke. I know they’ve already made an Inkheart movie and although I was happy Brendan Fraser was cast as Mo, the movie was absolutely terrible. I think Inkdeath would make a beautiful, thrilling movie if done well.

Please link your blog in the comments so I can check it out! I’m not sure how much I’ll participate in this event here on my own blog, but I’m excited to use this opportunity to explore book blogs I might not have found otherwise.

Review: The One & Only by Emily Giffin


Author: Emily Giffin
Title: The One & Only
Format/Source: Paperback/ARC
Published: May 2014
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Chick lit
Why I Read:Won through GoodReads First Reads (unfamiliar with Giffin; description had potential)
Read If You’re: In need of some football-themed chick lit and can overlook awful handling of rape
Rating:  ★★ [ratings guide]
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through GoodReads First Reads in exchange for my honest review.
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

I read this book in one sitting. I haven’t done that for a very long time. Normally, I would take that as an indication that a book is good. I think that’s why I initially rated it three stars on GoodReads – “If I read 400 pages in one evening, it must be good on some level!”. Upon reflection, I think it was more like “I can’t look away from this drama unfolding before me”. Full disclosure: I didn’t realize this novel would be chick lit. From the description on GoodReads, it sounded like it had potential to be an intriguing character study (along the lines of The Casual Vacancy). I hadn’t read anything by Emily Giffin and chick lit is not my usual fare. I may read one or two such novels every few years when I want something very fun and light. This book is ‘chick lit’, I think, but unlike any I’ve read before.

I liked the beginning of the book. I like the use of a funeral as a framing device, allowing the reader to be introduced as they react to death. I liked the friendship between Lucy and Shea (hands up if you’d rather have read Lucy’s perspective). Their relationship was realistic and pure, not one-sided, not too catty. When crap hits the fan, I was pleased that Shea makes the right choice.

The book description refers to an unexpected tragedy leading to a sudden upheaval. That tragedy (the funeral) is revealed on the first page, so it’s not nearly as dramatic as the description makes it out. Shea decides she needs to improve her life. The book is probably longer than it could be. I found the second quarter (between Shea deciding she needs to improve her life and those decisions actually panning out) a bit drawn out, but it’s an easy read so I blazed through the slow parts. Shea spectacularly transforms her life with none of the expected drawbacks, which was difficult for me to accept (details discussed below the spoiler cut). Having Shea drunk dial twice as a plot mechanism also irked me. Both times it felt awkward and unrealistic, a poor way to push the story forward. Once I might have forgiven, but twice felt silly.

Beyond the sometimes unbelievable and sometimes slow plot, two aspects of this book disturbed me, both of which could be considered spoilers. For those of you who wish to avoid more specific spoilers, suffice to say there is an uncomfortable romantic relationship at the heart of the book and terrible handling of a character accused of rape.

Please noteThe remainder of this review contains spoilers. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

Back to Shea’s life transformation – she breaks up with her dull boyfriend to no consequence, quickly starts dating hot Dallas Cowboys quarterback without a hitch (I think they knew each other through college), and lands her dream job, virtually without issue. How her job plays out throughout the novel was the most unrealistic for me. A tough, old-school newspaper editor hires her to report on her own beloved team, even after he goes on and on about being unbiased in reporting. This felt like the author was attempting to manufacture conflict. I couldn’t believe that Shea would actually find herself in such a job. I expected her to get the reporting job, but not for her own team. Talk about too good to be true. In the end, there’s little consequence in anything related to the job. The controversy that could have been stirred up there dies a slow death and isn’t really resolved.

I don’t know what to make of Coach Carr and Shea. The age difference is not a problem for me. The relationship becomes uncomfortable when you factor in…

  1. Carr’s wife has just died
  2. He’s Shea’s best friend’s dad
  3. He served as substitute father figure to Shea
  4. Shea hero-worships him to an obsessive extent (I think this hero-worship was supposed to recognized as ‘love’ when Shea finally admits it, but this is unclear) 

Carr felt more like a father figure to me so the romance has undertones of creepiness, even if Shea and Carr are very cute with each other. If you removed the four factors above, I think it could have developed into a sweet, sexy relationship, something a little different, but then I guess it wouldn’t have been worth writing about because there wouldn’t be any conflict. Lucy’s initial reaction was believable, but her about-face at the end of the novel was not. I guess that’s what one has to expect in this genre.

Far more disturbing than Carr and Shea’s relationship is the handling of rape accusations against Ryan. At first I thought maybe Giffin was just writing how the scenario unfortunately might have played out in the real, but the conclusions Shea draws about Ryan – that he’s incapable of rape, that he just needs counselling – are unacceptable in today’s climate, especially in a genre that caters to women! I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Carr and Shea dismiss the girl who brought forward the accusation because she’s known as something of a troublemaker. That’s an awful message to send. I was glad Shea was upset when she realized Carr did nothing many years ago when a young woman told him Ryan had raped her, but when she comes to same conclusion as Carr (that Ryan couldn’t have done it) especially AFTER he physically assaulted her – I was furious. She thinks he’s a great guy who has a few problems that just need to be sorted out. Disgusting.

The Bottom Line: I don’t know how much football-themed chick lit there is, so this book could be filling a niche. The relationship between [redacted] and the responses to rape allegations could easily be enough to put off some readers, myself included.

Review: The War on Science by Chris Turner

Author: Chris Turner 
Title: The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Willful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada
Format/Source: Paperback/Library
Published: March 2014
Publisher: Greystone Books
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Popular non-fiction
Why I Read: To learn more about scientific research in Canada + Harper’s treatment of Canadian scientists
Read If You’re: Canadian, invested in science, or interested in science+politics
Quote: See below
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads | Chapters | Amazon 

In The War on Science, Chris Turner explores the relationship between scientific research and the Canadian government, focusing on the dismal role of science in the Harper government. The sensationalist title summarizes the book well. If you think Canada is a good example of an environmental steward – think again. The federal government has been viciously cutting funding of scientific research, research meant to inform government policy. The reason for this cutting, Turner argues, is that the research would tell the government to stop doing what they’re doing, which they do not want to hear. Written in a highly accessible and passionate style and coming in at just 134 pages (remainder is chronology and bibliography), this book is likely meant to appeal to the uninitiated. In that regard, The War on Science is a good introduction to those unfamiliar with how the Canadian government presently manages and responds to scientific research.  For myself, this was a topic I wanted to learn more about. Turner covered some events about which I already knew (ex. scientists’ protest on Parliament Hill, funding to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory cut for a year), but he also provided more history and context for those events so I learnt what prompted them and what they imply.

This is one of those books where it will be easier for me to write about its weaknesses, because this book has just one great strength, albeit one that makes up for all shortcomings. That strength lies in the subject matter. I’m glad this book exists – a published, non-academic book that has the potential to be read by a lot of people. I think many Canadians would be incensed by Harper’s treatment of scientists and scientific research if they understood what was happening. This could be the book to spread that awareness. There are a lot of great quips that summarize the bulk of this work, when Turner really hits the nail on the head. Here’s a sampling:

“To accelerate the exploitation of Canada’s resource wealth – that’s the explicit part. To eliminate its ability to see the cost of this policy – that’s the implicit part” (46).

“Instead of freeing scientists to establish the best methods to conserve natural resources, the government has crippled their ability to gather and disseminate the data demonstrating the consequences of policy decisions” (67). 

“This is the essence of the new culture of government under Stephen Harper. The purpose of research – of science generally – is to create economic opportunities for industry, and the purpose of government is to assist in that process in whatever way it can” (112).

However, those quips also embody the weaker side of this book. My biggest disappointment is that the book is largely undeveloped. The quotes above get to the heart of the book, but there isn’t a lot backing them. As I described above, it’s probably meant to be an introduction to the subject to get people worked up about the issue, but I would have loved to see more analysis, evidence, backing, explaining of why science is important and how it relates to government policy. This is what the entire book is about, but it’s too too short to really do the argument justice. Turner largely relays what’s happened so far and saying “This is terrible!” without fleshing out why too much. He relies heavily on the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) as an example of a science project doing something good then being cut. A lot of the examples are explained generally or vaguely, and there is a lot of repetition. For example, he argues multiple times that “the same budget gave Revenue Canada $8 million to audit environmental groups believed to be backed by deep-pocketed foreign radicals – a sum that could have…” (101) done this or that. In other areas Turner adopts an almost melodramatic tone (see, for example, his framing Northern Gateway Pipeline on page 93), which could make it easy for detractors to dismantle his argument. I agree with Turner’s message – that the Harper government is doing an immense disservice to Canadians and the Canadian environment by dismissing scientific research – but by the end of the book I was less-than-impressed with its overall tone.

The Bottom Line: It’s easier to pick on the weaknesses of this book, but really, The War on Science is a good introduction for people who are unfamiliar with what’s been going in Canadian government with regards to science. It is by no means an exhaustive book, and I don’t think it’ll change the minds of anyone who supports the Harper government’s treatment of science, but I recommend it because it’s an easy read tackling an important subject. 

Response: Literary Pilgrimages

A few weeks ago, James of James Reads Books posted a Sunday Salon about literary pilgrimages. James defines literary pilgrimage as a “trip taken specifically for book related reasons” that “involves staying away from home at least one night”. I left a comment about my own journeys, but I’d like to share more here.

New York City

In May 2012 I took a short trip with my aunt and uncle to New York City. I didn’t consider the trip a literary pilgrimage at the time, though it does fit the definition as the primary purpose of the trip was to visit the 5th Avenue library along with a number of bookstores. This was the first really spectacluar library I ever visited. My favourite bookstore was a children’s booktore, Books of Wonder, home to a wide selection of new books, rare books, signed books, and other related paraphernalia. Visiting McNally Jackson was a neat experience, as my city is home to the flagship McNally Robinson. I also thought the Scholastic Store was a lot of fun – younger me would have spent the whole day there. Walking past the big publishing houses gave me a bit of tingle, thinking about what goes on inside those buildings (the romanticized bit, where wonderful stories are coming together to be shared with the world). Even though the trip lasted only four days and I was ill the whole time (which meant I didn’t manage do everything I wanted to), I did visit the sites I wanted to see most. New York is one of the few cities I definitely intend to visit again in the future. 

Oxford

Last August I visited Oxford. Unlike New York, I considered the trip a literary pilgrimage from its conception. The primary purpose was to do some Tolkien-related site-seeing (including visiting his grave – I never visit graves, but this was important to me), and to do other children’s literature related site-seeing. I do realize that Tolkien would likely have thought this sort of ‘tourism’ absurd. For my part, I will say the experience of visiting locations is, for me, less about knowing the author and more about knowing the place that gave birth to these stories. I also wanted to pay my respects, as I believe Tolkien accomplished an incredible feat in the creation of his mythology, which has come to be deeply important to me. This website offers a 360° virtual tour of a number of Oxford locations important to Tolkien.

On the morning of my first full day in the city, I visited Blackwell‘s Art and Poster Shop, In the Music shop, and the Norrington Room (click for another incredible 360° view!). I have to agree with their self-description as “one of the finest bookshops in the world”. I spent an hour browsing just in the Norrington Room – so many niche academic books I would never find elsewhere! And there were still three more floors to explore. I returned to the store every day during my stay, increasing my TBR list by ~20%. After lunch, I took a 2.5 hour river cruise down the Thames. I’m certainly not the target audience of this company, but they offered what I was looking for and I had a very nice time, chatting with an elderly woman and the boat operator.  In the afternoon, I visited Tolkien’s home on Northmoor Road and his grave.  Looking back, I can’t believe I did all this in one day! 

I decided to walk to Wolvercote Cemetery, stopping by Tolkien’s house at 20 Northmoor Road on the way. The man at the hostel, whom I asked for bus directions, thought I was crazy when I told him I would just walk, but I knew it wouldn’t take me more than an hour and I love to walk through a beautiful city. As I began my walk, I felt a bit unprepared. I realized I wanted to bring something so I stopped in a flower shop along the way and picked up a little jar of flowers. Shortly after I left the shop, it began to rain heavily. I nearly made it to Tolkien’s house, but the rain was strong and I didn’t want my flowers to get too damaged so I stopped just on the streetcorner for a bit under a tree, then continued when the rain lightened.

  I paused just for a moment outside his house. It’s in a quiet residential area, and people still live in the home. I felt an odd, un-recreatable sensation – if you’ve visited a place you’ve only seen in photographs or met someone you’ve only seen on television, I think you’ll know what I mean.
I spent nearly an hour and a half here, sitting on a nearby bench, alone with my thoughts, then listening to audio recordings of Tolkien reading LotR, and finally reading The Hobbit to myself. I left a small note. This was the closest I could come to saying thank-you to Tolkien. Again, it’s hard to describe what this meant to me or how I felt, but I’m so grateful that I had this opportunity. When I left, another girl who reminded me of myself approached the grave. I found this very uplifting, a reminder that I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Left: The Eagle and Child pub (AKA the Bird and Baby), where the Inklings often met to share their works. Right: Tolkien’s last home in Oxford, near Merton College.
 

I wanted to take the City of Oxford’s Tolkien walking tour, but that wasn’t offered when I was there, so I took the general tour University and City tour. Happily, Exeter College – where Tolkien completed his undergrad – was a part of this tour. Above are photos of Exeter’s dining hall and a bronze bust of Tolkien, sculpted by his daughter-in-law, in Exter’s chapel.

Afterwards, I headed back to the Bodleian Library for another tour. Again, I would have loved to take the extended tour including the reading rooms, but it wasn’t offered when I was there. I did the standard tour, which still included some fantastic sights! Don’t skip this one if you’re a library lover (or a fan of the Harry Potter films – even I recognized some of the locations). The Magical Books exhibit on at the Bodleian at the time more than made up for anything I felt I missed out on. Including numerous pieces of original Tolkien artwork from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the exhibit “takes as its theme the work of some of the foremost modern exponents of children’s fantasy literature”. His works spellbound me – being able to view them up close and in person was just as moving an experience as visiting his graveside was. It is hard to describe this feeling without sounding fanatical – again, for me, it goes deeper than thinking “Whoa, Tolkien touched this!”. Hmm…it’s the notion that many years ago he created those works, that he saw them from where I saw them, and that he looked at them and thought of how they represented his stories many years ago, as I do so now. Well, I don’t know. Maybe in the end I am just a bit fanatical (please forgive me, Professor Tolkien). If you know what I’m trying to describe, please help me out in the comments!

 
 On my final day in Oxford, I spent a lot of time walking around the University Parks. Above are photos of Tolkien’s bench and two trees planted to represent the Trees of Light from The Silmarillion, installed by the Tolkien Society and the Mythopoeic Society in 1992. Telperion is a silver-leaved maple and Laurelin is a false acacia.

Visiting Oxford was my great literary pilgrimage. I would love to live there someday. I hope to take a literary pilgrimage to Paris in the future, to feed my presently-dormant interest in the Lost Generation and begin to explore French literature. Have you ever taken a literary pilgrimage, or made a special book-related trip? Do you have any plans for one? Please share!

Review: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus

Author: Jeff Backhaus
Title: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister
 Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: January 2013 
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 
Length: 246 pages 
Genre: Contemporary fiction 
Why I Read: Library browsing
Read If You’re: Looking for a character-driven, melancholic story; interested in hikikomori  
Quote: “Kindred spirits groping in the dark for each other, blind, pure, nameless feelings intertwined” (239)
Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide]  
Links: GoodReads | IndieBound | Chapters | Amazon

Hikikomori: Japanese, literally “pulling inward, being confined”, refers to the phenomenon of reclusive adolescents or adults who withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement (Wiki)

I added Hikikomori and the Rental Sister to my TBR list after stumbling across the book at the library. I can’t recall why I initially added it, but I picked it up this month expecting a darkly humorous tale. The story’s immediate poignancy prompted me to reread the back description – I wonder how I ever expected a black comedy!

Yet she stays, yet she comes down the hall, yet she believes in me. She thinks I’m the same man she married. And maybe I am, and maybe that’s the problem, that I always have been this man and always will be. (14)

Thomas, an American hikikomori, has been living in his bedroom for three years, a behavior prompted by the death of his son. Silke, Thomas’ wife, hires a young Japanese woman, Megumi, as a last resort to bring Thomas out of his hikikomori state. Megumi has experience with hikikomori, as her younger brother was one. The narration alternates between Megumi and Thomas, with Megumi’s narration being in third person and Thomas’ in first person. The hikikomori concept does not function merely as a gimmick. Backhaus uses the condition to explore the more universal conditions of love and grief. The book focuses on the relationships between Thomas, Silke and Megumi, and how those relationships are shaped by their experiences with grief and their love (or lack of love) for one another. I enjoy books in which character relationships really carry the story. I also like Backhaus’ prose – clean, succinct, certainly contemporary but not too stylized. Some compare him to Murakami or Ishiguro, I would say Backhaus falls between the two. He infuses both the plot and the prose with melancholic sadness, but that sadness does not engulf in the story. The characters find healing in their own ways.

I did not come inside one day, shut the door, and never decide to come out. I needed a day to grieve. Then a week. A month. Tired, I took a nap. When I woke it was dark. The walls were high. There was no way out. (34)

I particularly like that Megumi is a fully developed character, and that the reader learns as much about her as they do about Thomas. She helps Thomas and he helps her. She has her own motivations beyond Thomas. She’s not just a device to swoop in and transform Thomas’ life – or is she?

Please Note: The next paragraph discusses to what extent Megumi’s character is problematic, thus necessitating spoilers. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

Megumi does have as much of a story as Thomas does. The reader hears from her perspective, learns her back story and comes to understand her as a whole character, rather than merely a device in Thomas’ story. However, if you look at her role in the book: she enters Thomas’ life, quickly engages in a sexual relationship with him, thereby rescuing him from his hikikomori state, and then returns back to Japan, allowing Thomas to return to his old life. Although Backhaus develops Megumi’s character, she still functions as a device to rescue to Thomas. When I first finished the book, I thought Megumi and Thomas’ roles in each others lives were balanced, but now I find that harder to argue. Additionally, Megumi is a young, sexy, Japanese woman written by a white man. Such a character could easily go wrong, and I still think Megumi could have been written a lot worse than she was. But the nature of the plot still subjects her to some Orientalism, no matter how much I tried to explain it away to myself in an attempt to justify my liking of this book. The Japanese woman rescues the American man, due to her Japanese-ness. I liked Megumi. She felt like a real person to me. The story felt real to me, I believed it could happen. Yet by making Megumi the white man’s saviour, Backhaus reduces her character to ‘the Other’, the fantasized woman from a land far away. If you’ve read the book, please share your thoughts on Megumi – this was a difficult paragraph for me to sort out and I’m sure my opinion of the book could benefit from mutual discussion. 

The Bottom Line: Backhaus explores the relationships between love and grief in this quiet, flowing tale. The story stood out to me in its balance of perspectives and its contemporary prose, but Megumi’s role in the story remains problematic. I would like to read more by this author – hopefully he grows in his portrayal of race.