I read several really, really good books in October. I found myself staying up all night to finish them, in fact. I’m a notorious insomniac already anyway, but often I find books help relax my mind and lull me into a sleep. Not these.
I may even have to break out of my three-line review mode.
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven – Susan Jane Gilman
In 1986, fresh out of college, Gilman and her friend Claire yearned to do something daring and original that did not involve getting a job. Inspired by a place mat at the International House of Pancakes, they decided to embark on an ambitious trip around the globe, starting in the People’s Republic of China. At that point, China had been open to independent travelers for roughly ten minutes.
Armed only with the collected works of Nietzsche, an astrological love guide, and an arsenal of bravado, the two friends plunged into the dusty streets of Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, they quickly found themselves in over their heads. As they ventured off the map deep into Chinese territory, they were stripped of everything familiar and forced to confront their limitations amid culture shock and government surveillance. What began as a journey full of humor, eroticism, and enlightenment grew increasingly sinister-becoming a real-life international thriller that transformed them forever.
It’s hard to summarize how I feel about this book. First of all, I’m surprised it hasn’t made any of my travelling buddies’ reading lists, because it’s definitely one of the better travel books I’ve read, despite the weird and misleading book cover. It’s certainly a departure from what I usually read. It’s seriously just as gripping as the description says it is, and the writing is beautiful…other than the insane overuse of the word “ostentatious.” I can’t help but pick up on these things. The word seems so silly when something far easier could be used.
Anyway, I started out HATING the girls. They are the self-righteous, over-privileged, “my father is an important businessman in America” travellers most of us hate. BUT to be fair, Susie admits all this throughout the story. And things take a crazily dramatic turn near the end. You’ll see.
The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood
“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge”
More than fifty years on, Iris Chase is remembering Laura’s mysterious death. And so begins an extraordinary and compelling story of two sisters and their secrets. Set against a panoramic backdrop of twentieth-century history, The Blind Assassin is an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal…
I give this book five stars out of five, and I’m stingy as hell with my stars. Is there anything Atwood can’t do? I’m afraid I’ve started worshipping her. I wish I could live inside the protagonist’s mind forever.
I admit it took some while for me to get into this book – the non-linear narrative is jarring until you get used to it. And I still can’t really wrap my head around why Xandu was given so much space. But, wow. Atwood probably vomits poetry. I had major book hangover when I closed this baby down at 4 AM.
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”
A Prayer for Owean Meany – John Irving
John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany is the inspiring modern classic that introduced two of the author’s most unforgettable characters, boys bonded forever in childhood: the stunted Owen Meany, whose life is touched by God, and the orphaned Johnny Wheelwright, whose life is touched by Owen. From the accident that links them to the mystery that follows them–and the martyrdom that parts them–the events of their lives form a tapestry of fate and faith in a novel that is Irving at his irresistible best.
I think it’s safe to say at this point that John Irving is my favourite author. Like, of all-time. There has literally not been a book or story I’ve read by him yet that hasn’t left me feeling like a pulpy piece of shit, robbing me of faith in my own work because WHO THE HECK CAN COMPETE? It’s not a competition of course. But this dude was a major author by the time he turned 28. His storytelling abilities seem so effortless; it’s overwhelming.
This book is no exception. I marvel at authors like Irving and Atwood who create 600-page beasts with no constant high-pace action, just a slow and steady thread to pull you into a story and get hella connected to the characters and their lives. I blubbered like an idiot.
“When someone you love dies, and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.”
If you want to read any of these books, there’s an Amazon widget linking to them in my sidebar. It’s all affiliate, so I’ll be handed a measly dollar or two for my efforts, but hey, I’m poor. It works. You can also follow me on Goodreads!
IN OTHER NEWS: I booked a cheap ass flight to Hawaii today! MAUI! DREAM! Hence the reason I’m poor. That, and I have to pay tuition shortly. Oh the life of a student.