BOOK REVIEW: FIVE TUESDAYS IN WINTER by LILY KING


Five Tuesdays in Winter

A lot of the time when I read slice-of-life short stories, I feel underwhelmed more than anything else. It’s not that I dislike these stories, exactly, but rather that they often end up feeling ungrounded, “slices” that don’t evoke any underlying sense of the totality that they’ve presumably been “sliced” from. That is, the characters and their stories feel like props on a stage, a tableau contrived for the sake of the short story but that falls apart as soon as that story is over.

I bring this up because you will find none of that in Lily King’s excellent collection. King’s stories are slice-of-life, yes, but far from feeling flimsy or ungrounded, they are substantial and, more remarkably, moving. The stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter find their characters–children, teenagers, young adults, mothers, fathers–in singular moments in their lives, times during which their ways of thinking–and living–have been called into question, brought into the light, disrupted, shifted. All these moments hinge on the interpersonal, on a growing relationship or a severed one, or else on a relationship that a character must now renegotiate on different terms: a mother trying to connect with her daughter in the wake of her husband’s death, a boy learning to see his life differently in the absence of his parents, a man reuniting with the college roommate he used to be infatuated with. To say that these moments are singular, though, is not to say that they entail some kind of monumental upheaval; they are small moments, but just because they are small does not mean that they register as any less important to the characters who experience them.

More to the point, what I love about King’s stories is that they feel meaningful without being dramatic; they convey a real sense of impact without resorting to overblown scenes or language. The writing is measured and graceful, the stories pared down in a way that feels compelling rather than plain: you want to know more, but you are only given enough to know that you want more. Nowhere is this more evident than in this collection’s characters: the characters in Five Tuesdays in Winter feel fleshed out not because we’re given some perfunctory background on them in each story, but rather because we are allowed illuminating little glimpses into the lives they lead.

(My favourite story was by far “Five Tuesdays in Winter,” but I also especially loved “When in the Dordogne,” “North Sea,” “Creature,” and “South.”)

The stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter are by turns affirming and unsettling, hopeful and melancholy, but regardless of tone I thought this was just an all around lovely collection.

Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!


Blog | Goodreads | Twitter | Instagram

BOOK REVIEW: DID YE HEAR MAMMY DIED? by SÉAMAS O’REILLY


Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is–maybe surprisingly, given its title–a lovely book, funny and poignant in equal measure. And it’s exactly that combination of the two, the balancing act between gravity and levity, that makes it work so well as a memoir. Right from the get-go, the opening chapter of the book tells you all that you need to know about the kind of tone you’re getting here,

“One thing they don’t tell you about mammies is that when they die you get new trousers. On my first full day as a half-orphan, I remember fiddling with unfamiliar cords as Margaret held my cheek and told me Mammy was a flower . . . ‘Sometimes,’ croaked Margaret, ‘when God sees a particularly pretty flower, He’ll take it up from Earth, and put it in his own garden’ . . . As Margaret reassured me that God was an avaricious gardener intent on murdering my loved ones any time he pleased, I concentrated once more on my new corduroy slacks, summoned from the aether as if issued by whichever government department administers to the needs of all the brave little boys with dead, flowery mams – an infant grief action pack stuffed with trousers, sensible underpants, cod liver oil tablets and a solar-powered calculator.”

And to be sure, it’s not an easy tone to strike. This is, in many ways, a sad book: O’Reilly confronts the loss of his mother head on, a loss that is made all the more tragic because he was so young when it happened. It’s also a loss that follows him throughout his life, as he tries to recover his early memories of his mother, the very little that he had of her before she passed away.

And yet, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is never a sad book, per se. O’Reilly takes many things seriously–bereavement, grief–but he also knows when not to take things seriously, and that’s what makes this book so charming in the end. That’s not to say that sad books about grief are somehow lesser–that O’Reilly’s book is “better” as a memoir because it’s not just sad–but rather that this particular book accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to combine the serious with the funny, and look at the ways in which the two can and do intersect.

“I was simply too young to grasp that the only thing sadder than a five-year-old crying because his mammy died is a five-year-old wandering around with a smile on his face because he hasn’t yet understood what that means. We laugh about it now, but it really is hard for me to imagine the effect I must have had, skipping sunnily through the throng, appalling each person upon their entry to the room by thrusting my beaming, three-foot frame in front of them like a chipper little maître d’, with the cheerful inquiry:
‘Did ye hear Mammy died?'”

Something else I loved about this book’s tone is O’Reilly’s earnestness. It’s a memoir about his mother, yes, but also about the rest of his family: his dad, who features prominently in many of the chapters, and his ten siblings. There are lots of fun and funny dynamics at play here, and I think O’Reilly does a great job at teasing out some of the notable and illustrative anecdotes that speak to these family members. His dad especially is quite the character (in the best of ways): I love the way he gently pokes fun at his little quirks and mannerisms. Regardless of who or what O’Reilly is talking about, though, that earnestness is always there: you can really tell how much he loves and cares for his family, and that shines through in the writing without it ever being sentimental or saccharine. It’s just a simple fact for him, and he treats it as such.

I just really enjoyed Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?–and especially because I listened to Séamas O’Reilly himself narrate the audiobook. His literal voice and narrative voice compliment each other perfectly, and the humour of his writing very much comes through in the way that he narrates the audiobook.

Altogether, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? really is such a charming memoir, one that I frankly can’t imagine anyone not liking.

Thanks so much to Hachette Audio for providing me with an audiobook ARC of this in exchange for an honest review!


Blog | Goodreads | Twitter | Instagram

BOOK REVIEW: TRUST by HERNAN DIAZ


A modern classic in the making, Trust is one of the most fascinating novels I’ve read all year.

Trust is a novel that is, at its most basic level, about capital. This is very much front and center in its first section, “Bonds,” where one of our two main leads is the hugely successful and nigh indomitable Wall Street financier, Benjamin Rask. Here the novel plants the seeds of the ideas it’s going to explore in its next three sections, namely the kind of mutability that is inherent to capital and the way it operates. That’s where you get passages like these,

“He became fascinated by the contortions of money–how it could be made to bend back upon itself to be force-fed its own body . . . It was the complexity of it, yes, but also the fact that he viewed capital as an antiseptically living thing. It moves, eats, grows, breeds, falls ill, and may die.”

“His reticence increased with his reach. The further and deeper his investment extended into society, the more he withdrew into himself. It seemed that the virtually endless mediations that constitute a fortune–equities and bonds tied to corporations tied to land equipment and laboring multitudes, housed, fed, and clothed through the labor of yet other multitudes around the world, paid in different currencies with a value, also the object of trade and speculation, tied to the fate of different national economies tied, ultimately, to corporations tied tied to equities and bonds–had rendered immediate relationships irrelevant to him.”

So the novel is interested in looking at the many permutations of capital: how one thing is transmuted into another, all these different “mediations” that can and do make capital seem so abstract for those at the top pulling its strings.

It’s not a stretch, then, to go from exploring the permutations of capital to exploring the permutations of narrative. That is to say, more than just being about capital, Trust is also a (very meta) novel about narrative–and those two things are, in fact, inextricable. The structure of the novel–four sections, all told from different points of view–very clearly brings this thematic focus to bear. And Trust is such a cleverly structured story: its narrative asks some patience of you, but by its end rewards you tenfold for that patience. What started out as a somewhat slow-moving and dispassionate novel for me ended up being an absolutely fascinating and, in many ways, enthralling read precisely because it started out in that very deliberately slow, measured way from the outset. I love when literary fiction novels keep me on my toes, and Trust did that and then some. It went in directions I never expected it to go, and more than just being surprising, those little twists and turns made the novel so much more thematically rich and complex in the end.

Much in the same way that capital is always subject to these “mediations”–equities, bonds, land, etc.–Trust also gives us narratives about this famous financier character that are mediated by different authors and genres: a novel, a memoir, a journal. And the more you try to put your finger on what kind of person this man is, the harder it becomes to define him; accounts of his character are always shifting, transmuting across the book’s many narratives and genres. Language, of course, plays a critical role in how these narratives work–in fact, what I loved so much about Diaz’s exploration of narrative is how carefully he pays attention to language in his writing, specifically the parallels between the personal and the financial. The novel is called “Trust” and its first section is called “Bonds”–the double meanings there fit right into what the novel is trying to do re: capital + narrative. But Trust takes this even further; it’s also interested in asking questions about the relationship between the self and wealth: in what ways is the former caught up in the latter? And as much as the novel highlights how wealth is institutional–supported and perpetuated by all the institutions that work in one’s favour because one happens to fall on the side of privilege–Trust is also interested in interrogating what it means on an individual level to accrue these almost unfathomable amounts of wealth. What kind of person would you have to be to be able to do that? Where does the drive to make so much money come from, and, ultimately, where does it lead?

“Every single one of our acts is ruled by the laws of economy. When we first wake up in the morning we trade rest for profit. When we go to bed at night we give up potentially profitable hours to renew our strength. And throughout our day we engage in countless transactions. Each
time we find a way to minimize our effort and increase our gain we are making a business deal, even if it is with ourselves. These negotiations are so ingrained in our routine that they are barely noticeable. But the truth is our existence revolves around profit.”

Finally, I want to mention the writing, which is just pitch-perfect. (I highlighted so many passages, not just because they were interesting, but also because they were just beautifully written.) Trust is one of those rare novels that’s so deftly and precisely written that not a single word feels out of place. You really feel like you’re in such capable hands here because the writing is so measured, controlled in a way that makes it feel elegant rather than stiff. If the novel’s structure–its different narrative genres–works well, it’s because the narrative voice in each of its sections is distinctive, attuned not just to the genre in question (memoir, journal, etc.), but to the narrator who is giving us access to that narrative.

“Her speculations reflected one another, like parallel mirrors–and, endlessly, each image inside the vertiginous tunnel looked at the next wondering whether it was the original or a reproduction. This, she told herself, was the beginning of madness. The mind becoming the flesh for its own teeth.”

My review of Trust has, so far, been less about my opinion of the novel and more about its thematic layers. To me, though, those two things are equivalent: that is to say, I loved this book precisely because it was so thematically rich. Like Noor Naga’s If an Egyptian Cannot Speak Englishit’s a novel that I found remarkably thought-provoking, propulsive by virtue of the strength of its incredibly compelling commentary and structure. As with Naga’s novel, I started Trust feeling a bit lukewarm about it–but then it won me over, and the fact that it did just made me love it that much more in the end.

Thanks so much to Picador for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!


Blog | Goodreads | Twitter | Instagram