I've been a bit rulesy with my reading in the last few months. Yeah, I had enough of that nonsense. This month I didn't give myself any assigned reading, and it turned out quite well.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari was a fascinating and accessible journey through the evolutionary and cultural history of humankind. Some ideas Harari explores I was already at least somewhat familiar with – the theories around language development, for example – while others were entirely new to me. This book blew my mind in small and large ways repeatedly. I feel like I should read it again because I know there is more to absorb.
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is a novel I've been meaning to read for some time. I finally put it on hold at the library during my month of banned books, and it became available a few weeks later. It's the life story of one woman, Aminata, who is kidnapped as a child from her village, marched in chains to the coast, and shipped to America as a slave. The story opens with her narrating from a prospect of old age, providing assurance to the reader that she will survive her grim ordeals. I think that was probably the least realistic part of the narrative, that she would survive to become an elderly woman – but as the reader bearing witness, I'm so grateful she did. I learned a lot from this novel, some very uncomfortable truths. We don't actually learn much in school about Canada's complicity with the slave trade; we prefer to focus on stories about the Underground Railroad.
Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult was... fine. To be honest, this month I didn't make notes as I read. I just wrote down the book titles. And when I sat down to write this post, my mind was a complete blank about this book. I googled for a quick refresher, and it came back to me. That's the kind of impression it made. Not much. People have raved to me about Jodi Picoult as a writer. Based on this book and this book only, I don't get it. I mean, it wasn't bad. It just wasn't good. Plus, I was irked by plot holes the size of a freight train and the lack of any depth or texture to the characters. If the plot was startlingly original, I might be able to get past it, but it wasn't. Anyhoo....
A Tap on the Window by Linwood Barclay was next up. Now this is a writer who knows how to craft a thriller with well-realized characters. I may have mentioned this before about Barclay, but one of the things I really enjoy is that I feel like he could tell me the whole back story of each of his characters, even the most minor. This novel is no exception. Cal Weaver, a private investigator whose teenage son has recently died, gives a ride a to a young woman one rainy night because she had known his son and says she's stranded. He thinks maybe she can help him understand what happened to his son. What he has no way to anticipate is the sequence of events kicked off by this short drive. And speaking of writers who know things...
On Writing by Stephen King was a Christmas gift from the Dave this year. Somehow, it ended up on a bookshelf without being read until now. Probably that frenzy of tidying that hits me every year on December 27 or so when I want to get everything OUT of the living room so we can move without slipping on a scrap of wrapping paper or stepping on a stray battery. Anyway, the book opens with a brief memoir of his writing life, which to me made the book before I even got to the meat of it. I grew up with King's novels. My dad was a big fan; I think they appealed to his dark sense of humour and enjoyment of the macabre. Learning about King's process and perspective on writing was fascinating, and he offers several tips that a hopeful writer can action right away.
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel is a wonderful, delightful, magical read. If you love the writing of Gabriel García Márquez, you will love this novel. (And if you don't love his writing, what is wrong with you?) In three sections, this book tells the story of three men who have each been widowed and are struggling to cope with the loss. Bizarre and beautiful, yet strangely believable. Plus, there's a chimpanzee motif.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is everywhere again with a new TV mini-series. I haven't seen it, but I hear it's very good and does justice to the novel. Like 1984, which I read again summer, the dystopian future painted here feels like it's even more prescient than when the novel was written. If anything, the utter moral hypocrisy of the elite is more hidden in Gilead than it is in present-day America. I should probably stop there - Big Brother and all.