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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review of AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

4 Stars
An elderly man with terminal cancer tells the story of his aunt, Sarat Chestnut, and her involvement in the Second American Civil War (2074 – 2095).  We see how she, a young girl with a relatively happy childhood, is radicalized and becomes a terrorist fighting Northerners after her family ends up in a camp for Southern refugees.  Interspersed with her narrative are primary sources (academic studies, government reports, military documents) that flesh out the background.

By the time the war begins, the United States has experienced an environmental catastrophe.  Because of global warming, the oceans have risen dramatically and forced people to move inland.  A man-made plague has quarantined South Carolina.  The civil war erupts because the government has passed a Sustainable Futures Act which prohibits the extraction and use of fossil fuels.  Longstanding political divisions worsen, and Southerners in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia rebel against this law and secede.  The fighting, with each side making incursions, makes refugees of even more people.  On Reunification Day, a day to mark the end of the war, a biological agent is released which results in a plague that takes over 100 million lives. 

These events are the background because the novel focuses on Sarat:  “This isn’t a story about war.  It’s about ruin.”  She is an intelligent and independent child, but family tragedies, violent reprisals, and even the boredom of the camp make her ripe for recruitment.  Provided with training and weapons, she is changed into a terrorist:  “For Sarat Chestnut, the calculus was simple:  the enemy had violated her people, and for that she would violate the enemy.  There could be no other way, she knew it.  Blood can never be unspilled.”  Her anger is emphasized again and again:  “Rage wrapped itself around her like a tourniquet, keeping her alive even as it condemned a part of her to atrophy.”  By the end, though the reader will not condone her activities, he/she will certainly understand how she became an angry young woman full of hatred and capable of violence. 

The book asks readers to put themselves in the position of displaced persons:  “the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language.  Its native speakers occupied different ends of the world, and the prayers they recited were not the same and the empty superstitions to which they clung so dearly were not the same – and yet they were.  War broke them the same way, made them scared and angry and vengeful the same way.  In times of peace and good fortune they were nothing alike, but stripped of these things they were kin.  The universal slogan of war, she’d learned, was simple:  If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”

The book is not flawless.  The premise for the civil war is weak:  would a war break out because of a dispute over the use of fossil fuels?  (Though there is a nod to a contemporary nation divided by ideology:  the word Red is shorthand for the South, a term that has “something to do with who voted for the old Republican Party back when it was all still one country.”)  The science is questionable:  would all of Florida be inundated by rising ocean levels?  Would drones go rogue because a server farm is destroyed?  There are coincidences that do not ring true:  Sarat’s repeated meetings with a friend are very improbable.  There are the things that don’t change:  one hundred years in the future, people will still watch television?   And there are things that aren’t mentioned:  in fifty years, race issues have been resolved? 

To increase the book’s plausibility, the author makes reference to issues which have parallels in our world.  The U.S. is currently involved in foreign conflicts; in the novel, foreign powers become involved in the American civil war because of their own agendas.  A representative of a pan-Arab empire, which has emerged and wants to become the new superpower, admits that Americans cannot be allowed to kill themselves in peace: “’we intend  . . . to be the most powerful empire in the world.  For that to happen, other empires must fail. . . . Everyone fights an American war.’”  Refugees are often unwelcome in parts of our world; in the next century of the novel, refugees are often disliked.  One man who was a refugee years earlier protests the arrival of newer refugees:  “Nativism being a pyramid scheme, I found myself contemptuous of the refugees’ presence in a city already overwhelmed.   At the foot of the docks, we yelled at them to go home, even though we knew home to be a pestilence field.  We carried signs calling them terrorists and criminals and we vandalized the homes that would take them in.  It made me feel good to do it, it made me feel rooted:  their unbelonging was proof of my belonging.”  (I love the twist to the refugee crisis:  “’If you ever stand anywhere on this shore, say in New Algiers, you’ll see fleets of ragged little boats headed southward from the European shore . . .  Boats full of migrants from the old Union countries, looking for better lives.’”)  Certainly, the climate change deniers of today are like the people in the novel who refuse to give up their vehicles powered by the remains of “ancient lizards.”  There are power struggles among various rebel groups, the types of struggles that can be found in the Middle East today.  There is even passing reference to antibiotic drug resistance:  “’there used to be drugs that could have fixed her right up, but everybody used them too much and they didn’t work anymore.’”

Though not without its faults, this book is worth reading.  It is thought-provoking, providing a new perspective on refugees, and emphasizes the need to take care of these people.  If we do nothing, we had best hope that “even someone hell-bent on revenge might find a temporary capacity for kindness.”  The book will leave you thinking, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” 

Monday, March 12, 2018


4 Stars
Thirty-year-old Eleanor Oliphant lives a strictly regimented and isolated life.  During the week she works as an accounting clerk; on weekends, she drinks two bottles of vodka and speaks to no one.  She has had the same job for nine years, since she graduated from university, and in the dozen years she has lived in her apartment, she has not had any real guests:  “It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination.”  In fact, her only interaction outside of work is a weekly conversation with her mother:  “When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes [to my plant], if only for proof of life.”  Things change when she and Raymond, a new colleague, help an elderly man; slowly, she gets drawn into the wider world.  As her external world opens up, so does her inner world; she slowly decides to confront the childhood trauma that left her emotionally and physically scarred.

Eleanor stands out as odd.  She dresses unfashionably (“flat, black, comfortable [shoes] with the Velcro fastenings”) and speaks very formally, without colloquialisms.  Her extensive vocabulary is impressive but her forthrightness can give offense.  Though intelligent, she cannot read social cues.  For example, she learns that she needs to bring a gift when invited to a party; not knowing what to give a man for his birthday, she gives him a half bottle of vodka and a packet of cheese slices since “All men like cheese.”  When the man opens his present, “He looked at each item in turn with an expression that I found hard to read, but I quickly eliminated ‘boredom’ and ‘indifference.’  I felt happy; it was a nice feeling, giving someone a gift, the kind of unique, thoughtful present that he wouldn’t have received from anyone else.”

Eleanor tends to be very judgmental, not realizing that she has the very traits she criticizes in others.  For instance, she “unraveled the string on my mittens from my sleeve” yet sneers at Raymond for wearing a duffle coat:  “A duffle coat!  Surely they were the preserve of children and small bears?”  She bluntly tells a woman, “’You don’t look like a social worker’” but when the woman doesn’t know how to respond, Eleanor says, “In every walk of life, I encounter people with underdeveloped social skills with alarming frequency.  Why is it that client-facing jobs hold such allure for misanthropes?”  She spends twenty minutes explaining the benefits of a travel pass to Raymond but when he shows lack of interest, she concludes, “He is a spectacularly unsophisticated conversationalist.” 

There is so much humour in Eleanor’s lack of knowledge about social conventions.  I loved her reaction to singing and dancing to the Y.M.C.A. song:  “Arms in the air, mimicking the letters – what a marvelous idea!  Who knew that dancing could be so logical?  During the next free-form jiggling section, I started to wonder why the band was singing about . . . a gender- and faith-based youth organization.” 

But there is also truth to her observations.  Once she starts taking pains with her appearance, she observes, “Being feminine apparently meant taking an eternity to do anything, and involved quite a bit of advanced planning.  I couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to hike to the source of the Nile, or to climb up a ladder to investigate a malfunction inside a particle accelerator, wearing kitten heels and ten denier tights.”  She also wonders, “Did men ever look in the mirror, I wondered, and find themselves wanting in deeply fundamental ways?  When they opened a newspaper or watched a film, were they presented with nothing but exceptionally handsome young men, and did this make them feel intimidated, inferior, because they were not as young, not as handsome?  Did they then read newspaper articles ridiculing those same handsome men if they gained weight or wore something unflattering?” 

There is also a great deal of sadness in the book.  Eleanor was raised in foster care and describes her experience as fine:  “’Being fostered was . . . fine.  Being in residential care was . . . fine.  No one abused me, I had food and drink, clean clothes and a roof over my head.’”  When asked if her emotional needs had been met, Eleanor is “completely taken aback” and says, “’But I don’t have any emotional needs.’”  Another time, she admits, “There are scars on my heart, just as thick, as disfiguring as those on my face.  I know they’re there.  I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out.  I hope.”  Having a mother who can only be described as abusive, Eleanor is astounded to hear a man say he hopes his children find happiness:  “Was that what people wanted for their children, for them to be happy?  It certainly sounded plausible.”  Throughout, we are reminded that she is like the donated furniture in her apartment:  “unloved, unwanted, irreparably damaged.”

The book emphasizes the human need for contact.  When Eleanor makes a friend, “a genuine, caring friend,” she feels she has been saved.  The importance of kindness is also stressed.  When Eleanor does a kind deed, she is amazed:  “I would never have suspected that small deeds could elicit such genuine, generous responses.”  Her kindness to a stranger is in fact what begins her own transformation.

I understand why this book won the Costa Debut Novel Award.  It will leave you cheering for Eleanor as she finds herself.  At the beginning she has a “tiny voice” but she learns that her own voice “was actually quite sensible and rational” and decides, “I was getting to quite like my own voice, my own thoughts.  I wanted more of them.  They made me feel good, calm even.  They made me feel like me.”   The book will also leave you wanting a sequel. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

2018 Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist

Today, on International Women’s Day, the longlist for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced.

The Women's Prize for Fiction, previously known as the Orange Prize for Fiction and Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, is one of the United Kingdom's most prestigious literary prizes.   It is awarded annually to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom in the preceding year.

There are sixteen titles:
H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman  (My review will be posted on March 12.)
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

The three I’ve read I really enjoyed so I definitely hope to read some more of these before the winner is announced on June 6.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review of RESERVOIR 13 by Jon McGregor

4 Stars
This book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Costa Novel Award, but it took me a while to get to reading it.  When my copy arrived and I saw the lengthy, chunky paragraphs unbroken by direct dialogue, I put it aside.  When I did start reading it, I wasn’t sure it was a book for me, but it grew on me and I ended up fascinated.

A thirteen-year-old named Rebecca Shaw goes missing while on a family New Year’s holiday in an unnamed village in the Derbyshire Peak District of England.  A search and investigation follow, but initially nothing is learned about what could have happened to her.  The focus of the book then turns to life in the village in the aftermath of the disappearance; the book becomes a kind of chronicle of the lives of the inhabitants over 13 years. 

“It went on like this.  This was how it went on.”  These two sentences from the book are a good summary of the plot, if the definite article is replaced by “life.”  Each of the chapters, after the first one, begins in the same way (“At midnight when the year turned . . .”) and then proceeds to describe the ordinary events in the lives of the ordinary people who make the village their home.  There are births and deaths, marriages and divorces, triumphs and tragedies, devotion and disloyalty, kindness and cruelty.

There is a large cast of characters; we meet shopkeepers, farmers, teachers, the school caretaker, a potter, the vicar, teenagers, a yoga instructor, etc.  At first, it is difficult to remember who is who and how the various characters are connected, but because characters reappear so often, any confusion dissipates.  We don’t know everything about everyone but we know enough about each one that their major traits and concerns are remembered. 

The events chronicled are often mundane:  Cathy walks her neighbour’s dog, the reservoirs are inspected regularly, Irene struggles with her special needs son, teenagers write exams and leave for university, a mother is torn between wanting to pursue a career and taking care of her twin sons, shopkeepers struggle because of a lack of business.  Some events are obviously traumatic for those involved but these are given no special treatment; in fact; they are often mentioned in an unemotional, flat tone in a sole simple sentence.  There are sentences like, “Martin and Ruth Fowler separated” and “Jackson had a stroke and was taken to the hospital” and “on the local news there was a report of a man in court on child-pornography charges.”  These life-changing events are given no more prominence than the rhythms of nature:  “The bees stumbled fatly between the flowers and the slugs gorged” and “The first fieldfares were seen, gathered on a single hawthorn and chattering into the wind” and “There was weather and the days began to shorten.” 

The message is that life goes on.  Regardless of what happens, time does not stop:  “The clocks went back and the nights overtook the short days” and “The clocks went forward and the evenings opened out.”  The rhythms of life continue for both humans and animals:  birds migrate and return, the community celebrates its annual festivals, crops are planted and harvested, animals mate and give birth just as the humans do.  Rebecca fades from memory though she is not ever totally forgotten – that is the fate of all of us.  In our absence, life will go on for people and for nature. 

Despite its repetitive structure, there is suspense in the novel.  Rebecca’s disappearance is remembered by the reader so some activities raise expectations.  When the weeds are cut away in the river, will her body be found?  Will the structural inspection of a reservoir yield information about her fate?  Does the secretive school caretaker’s resistance to having the boilerhouse demolished have anything to do with the case?  Will the walkers exploring the area make a discovery?  Does the title suggest the site of Rebecca’s body?  There are even villagers who could be suspects.  Besides the man arrested for child pornography, there’s a village lothario who worries that “all his discretions [might] begin to unravel.  He couldn’t afford for that to happen,” and a man who “drives to the disused quarry and took a sledgehammer to his desktop computer”.

There are also humourous touches.  An annual cricket game is held with a neighbouring community and the villagers never win.  One year, the annual pantomime is Dick Whittington, but at a parish council meeting, Clive “had concerns about the use of dick.  Janice Green excused herself from the room for a short period, and on returning asked Clive how he would prefer that to be minuted.  As is, Secretary, he said.  As is.”  The understated tone is perfect. 

This book is unconventional.  In its structure and use of the passive voice it breaks the generally accepted rules of creative writing, yet it works.  Reading it becomes almost mesmerizing.  By the end, the reader will feel as if he/she has taken up residence in this village.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Review of THE PERFECT NANNY by Leila Slimani

3.5 Stars
This psychological suspense novel is a whydunit; it opens with a shocking revelation:  “The baby is dead. . . . The little girl was still alive . . . [but] her throat was filled with blood.  Her lungs had been punctured, her head smashed violently . . . [The nanny] didn’t know how to die.  She only knew how to give death.  She had slashed both her wrists and stabbed the knife in her throat.”  The rest of the novel is a series of flashbacks showing the nanny’s life with the Massé family in Paris throughout which the reader searches for the motive behind the tragic events.

Myriam and Paul hire Louise to look after Mila and Adam when Myriam decides she wants to return to working as a lawyer after she becomes filled with “bitterness and regret” at having abandoned her career and feels “as if she were dying because she had nothing to talk about but the antics of her children.”  In Louise, a 40-year-old widow, they think they have found “a miracle-worker.”  She is adept at looking after the children, entertaining and enchanting them, and then gradually takes over more and more tasks in the house:  “Every day [Myriam] abandons more tasks to a grateful Louise.”  She cooks gourmet meals for the family and their guests, cleans, and never complains when asked to stay late.  “In a few weeks, Louise’s presence has become indispensable.”  She, however, also becomes jealous and protective:  “She is Vishnu, the nurturing divinity, jealous and protective; the she-wolf at whose breast they drink, the infallible source of their family happiness.”  And eventually “she has embedded herself so deeply in their lives that it now seems impossible to remove her.” 

From the beginning, there are hints that there is more to Louise than is obvious.  When Myriam and Paul meet her, they are “charmed” by her because “she appears imperturbable” but her physical appearance suggests hidden secrets:  “Her face is like a peaceful sea, its depths suspected by no one.”  Gradually, readers learn about her grim past.  She lives in a “vile” one-room apartment and has only one friend.  There are several references to her loneliness; for example, “Solitude was like a vast hole into which Louise watched herself sink.”  What she wants more than anything is to become a member of the Massé family:  “She has only one desire:  to create a world with them, to find her place and live there, to dig herself a niche, a burrow, a warm hiding place.”  Of course as time passes, Louise realizes that eventually the family will cease to need her; her lack of security causes her to become more and more desperate.  In the end, some readers will find sufficient explanation in Louise’s character for the murders, but others may still feel that Louise remains an enigma. 

The reader will end up asking who bears responsibility for what happens.  Is Louise entirely to blame?  Do Paul and Myriam exacerbate the situation by sometimes telling her, “’You’re part of the family’” and at other times, keeping her at a “’good distance.’”  Myriam, for example, thinks, “You look at her and you do not see her.  Her presence is intimate but never familiar.”  Only once does Myriam try “to imagine, in a corporeal sense, everything Louise is when she is not with them.”  Should Myriam and Paul have been less willing to become dependent on Louise:  “It would be impossible, they think, to manage without her.  They react like spoiled children, like purring cats.”  Are the children too much for Louise?  The children’s tantrums do exhaust the parents; “Mila’s tantrums drove [Myriam] mad. . . . Sometimes she wanted to scream like a lunatic in the street.  They’re eating me alive, she would think.”  What is the role of fate?  At one point, fate is described as “vicious as a reptile.  It always ends up pushing us to the wrong side of the handrail.”

Readers who enjoy character studies will enjoy this novel.  The third person omniscient narration gives insight into the thoughts and feelings of all characters, even the children.  On the other hand, the book may be too intense for parents looking for a nanny or au pair for their offspring.