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. 

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.

Review: The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill

Author: Susan Hill
Title: The Man in the Picture
Format/Source: Hardcover/library
Published: October 2007
Publisher: Profile Books
Length: 145 pages
Genre: Gothic ghost story
Why I Read: Enjoyed The Woman in Black ; in the mood for a similar story
Read If You’re: Looking for a quick and easy, chilling (if not frightening) read
Quote: “I disliked the picture – it repelled me, made me shudder. But it was just a picture. We could hang it in some distant corner of our house, or even leave it wrapped and put it away” (78).
Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads | Chapters | Amazon

Please note: This review contains comparison to The Woman In Black and some vague spoilers for both books.

I did not find The Man in the Picture as frightening as the Woman in Black. There was only one chapter (Chapter 4) that really spooked me, and that was because I was so caught up in thoughts of what might happen next. I suppose that is the definition of suspense! But, scenes from The Woman in Black made my skin tingle because of what actually happened in the story, and not potential scenarios I concocted in my own mind. Although I did not experience much fear, I found the idea of being trapped in the painting uncomfortable and horrific.

I anticipated a similar ending to The Woman in Black. Of course, once I read the ending I thought “Oh, how did I not predict that earlier!” Perhaps I would have guessed the conclusion had I put some thought towards it, but a well-written story allows me to become totally absorbed so my mind does not move ahead of what’s happening on the page in front of it. Hill handles the shift in perspective very well. I did not anticipate such a shift and it fits with the mood of the story.

The Bottom Line: I’ve been working on this review for days because I could not think of what to write. Really, all you need to know is that this is a quick read, nothing too developed or in-debth, a nice little ghost story that will not wow you unexpectedly. The story has a chilling sombre tone. The Man in the Picture may not frighten you but it may unsettle you.

Review: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

Author: Naoki Higashida
Title: The Reason I Jump
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: August 2013
Publisher: Random House
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Non-fiction question and answer
Why I Read: Saw it at the bookstore, thought it would be interesting 
Read If You’re: Interested in learning about autism from a person with autism’s perspective
Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReadsChapters | Amazon 

There seems to be a lot of suspicion surrounding this book as to whether it could actually have been written by a 13 year old with autism, or how much David Mitchell embellished the translation. I approached the book with some skepticism, but now that I’ve read I don’t think there’s any reason to be suspect of Higashida’s writing. Yes, I think there /could/ be some embellishment but I also think that it’s not unreasonable to believe a thirteen year old wrote this text. Now, controversy aside…

I found this book very heartbreaking at times. Many times Higashida writes about how he knows he can make situations difficult for people and how he hates himself for it, but he still very much wishes for people not to give up on him. This must be a terrible feeling for someone who cannot communicate with others in the generally expected and accepted ways. Yes, it can be difficult for a non-autistic person to engage with an autistic person – but it is important to recognize the person with autism is very much a person, just like someone without autism!

The above paragraph brings me to another point – how Higashida addresses his audience. He uses the plural you, presumably to address an audience of non-autistic people who have many questions about what it’s like to have autism. I’m not sure if there’s a better way to address these questions, given the nature of the book. but sometimes it does feel a bit presumptuous of him to make statements like “One of the biggest misunderstandings you have about us is your belief that our feelings aren’t as subtle and complex as yours.” (109) He also uses ‘we’ to speak for all autistic people which I think is more problematic than how he addresses his audience. Overall, his pronoun use is a relatively minor issue with the book, and it may possibly just be attributed to his age or his editor or something but it is a noticeable aspect of the narration that might bother some people more than most.p

The Bottom Line: Definitely check this book out if you any interest in what it might be like to have autism – but remember that it’s just one teen’s account.