The Dead Husband Project ~ #JNGReads

“Rare to see people so raw, so exposed, reality stripped bare like that.”

I really don’t have much to say about The Dead Husband Project…because it is brilliant and anything I say about it will pale in comparison to what it actually is.

I picked up Canadian author Sarah Meehan Sirk’s collection of short stories on an absolute whim. I hadn’t heard of it, or her, before seeing the book in Chapters one day and being taken by the gorgeous cover, dark black sprayed with beautiful flowers of rich reds and blues. I wasn’t intending to buy a second book on this day, but I turned to my fiancé and said, I have to have that book – look how beautiful it is! Little did I know that the words inside were even more beautiful.

Short stories are not easy to write…believe me, I’ve tried. There is something so difficult and daunting about writing a short story, about trying to create a vast story that will fully engross a reader in a very limited amount of pages. Each word in each sentence of a short story is so very important because there aren’t that many of them available to tell a particular tale, and the short story writer must have a grasp of language akin to that of a poet – words and images must be chosen with the utmost care and never wasted. There are extremely few writers, in my opinion, who have mastered the short story genre, who have been able to make me feel things in the span of 40 pages that most 400 page novels have not, and these are the writers that I have always revered and looked up to, that I have tried to emulate in my own writing. Munro. Gallant. And now, Sirk.

Sarah Meehan Sirk is a genius. Her writing absolutely blew me away. When I’ve reviewed short story collections in the past, I’ve given ratings to individual stories, but I can’t do that in this case. Suffice it to say that there are not enough stars on Goodreads or on the planet to rate The Dead Husband Project. It is, for me, at the caliber of Munro’s Runaway (quite possibly the greatest short story collection ever published), and considering that it is Sirk’s first publication, I am incredibly eager to see what she will produce next. I would be really hard-pressed to pick a favourite story from The Dead Husband Project because literally every single one touched me and left me awe-struck. Sirk’s subjects are at once creepy and realistic, her protagonists flawed in character but flawlessly characterized. There are stories that are so inexplicably bizarre that you can’t help but ruminate on them for hours after finishing them, and there are those that are so sad and heart wrenching that you want to forget them as soon as you flip the last page. There is such vivid and pure human emotion in these stories that it is both painful to read them and impossible not to. Sirk knows something that few others do about human nature: she knows how to inhabit it, how to get into the minds of the most varied and peculiar personages, and she is clearly comfortable exploring sentiments that most humans try to ignore or deny.

If I had to pick stories that stood out from this collection (not favourites mind you because, as I said, I loved them all), well I wouldn’t want to because they are all so heavy hitting, but I could. “Barbados” haunted me for miles after I exited the subway, where I read it. It left me breathless and anxious and scared. It made me feel like my past could and would come back to snatch me up and suffocate me, as it does for so many of Sirk’s main characters. It made me afraid of former versions of myself and of the probably foolhardy decisions they had made. “In the Dark” left me raw and vulnerable. It painted such a true and realistic portrait of anxiety that it made me introspective. It forced me to examine my own anxieties and fears, and view them from an outside perspective, one that was a little less understanding and a bit more cynical. It made me see what other people, those who aren’t quite as compassionate and don’t live inside my head, might see when they look at me. “The Date”…that story I find very difficult to talk about. It left me feeling physically ill and petrified. My severe childhood fear of robots notwithstanding, this story opened my eyes to the dangers of technology, to the tumultuous and traumatic future we might all be headed towards. It made me look at love differently, it made me consider new forms of love that might spring up in decades to come, and the new forms of acceptance they will require and necessitate.

Reading The Dead Husband Project left me irrevocably changed. I am a different human for having read it, not necessarily better but in no way worse. The best description would be to say that it damaged me, it scraped me down to the core, it turned me inside out and made my heart race with exhilaration and nerves and excitement. It was one of the most all-encompassing, disturbing and visceral reading experiences I have had in recent years, and it has left me with much to contemplate.

The Dead Husband Project is not for the faint of heart because it will shock and overwhelm you. But, oh, is it ever worth it because it is one of the most riveting and powerful pieces of literature I have ever encountered. An absolute must read!

❥❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

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What’s The Buzz? The Most Underrated Books (…in my opinion!)

Recently, I was on Goodreads, about to add a fellow reader with similar bookish interests to mine as a friend when I was bombarded by his Friend Request Question. I think these questions are a lot of fun (I set one for my profile too) because it gives you a chance to immediately get to know the person you’re becoming friends with, and gain some insight into their reading habits and preferences. I also enjoy answering these questions because they get me thinking about my own love of books and different genres that I’ve encountered.

This particular Goodreads user’s question was very challenging, though! It asked:

What underrated book would you recommend?

For the life of me, I could not think of an underrated book to recommend, which struck me as really peculiar! I don’t think my reading preferences are all that cliché or common, and while I definitely enjoy checking out buzzworthy books, I also like to pick up novels that are more obscure and not as mainstream. Nothing came to mind when I was faced with this question, however, and so I decided to dig into my Favourites Shelf to garner some ideas…and in so doing, I discovered a bunch of underrated or unappreciated (in my opinion!) novels that I thought I should be listing and recommending here on my blog as well. I was reminded of a bunch of stories I read that I haven’t seen many other people picking up, and it struck me as a darn shame! So, with that said, here is my list of a few underrated or less popular books that I ADORED and recommend to anyone who’s looking for something new and unexpectedly awesome to read…

Poignant and Timely Non-Fiction

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, to be perfectly honest, but one book that totally blew me away was Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. This could have a lot to do with the fact that my fiancé was born in Iran, but I think it has more to do with Nafisi’s very unique approach to non-fiction: she describes her struggles, and those of many women living in Iran, through the lens of various literary works she secretly read during her time living in the Middle East. It was absolutely fascinating to rediscover novels I had read and enjoyed through the eyes of a woman living in a much less liberal and open-minded society, and I learned a great deal about Persian culture and the troubled Iranian government through the guise of literature.

Acclaimed Theatre

There is no play out there that has touched me as much as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Yes, I know this play is extremely popular and critically acclaimed, but I would say that it is underrated because I just don’t know of many readers who rush to pick up theatre. I have never been more moved by a story than I was by Angels in America though, and it touches on such a variety of topics like religion and sexuality and politics, that there is truly something in it for everyone! There are so many great lessons to be learned from this text and I am convinced that anyone who picks it up and delves into it becomes a better person for it!

Perfectly Paced Short Stories

There’s no doubt that Alice Munro is the ultimate short story writer, and she is undoubtedly my favourite. However, I am equally a fan of fellow Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant, and her collections Montreal Stories and Varieties of Exile are forever favourites of mine. Gallant’s style is very similar to Munro’s in that she focuses on the ordinary and mundane, but highlights the extraordinary and interesting about it. She takes the most everyday activities and characters, such as a woman commuting to work on the subway, and infuses them with a special quality that immediately connects the reader to them. Plus, her use of language is gorgeous and very similar to Munro’s, so if you are a fan of Alice Munro, I guarantee you will love Gallant’s short fiction as well.

Poetry from the Distant Past

Poetry is probably the literary genre I have the least amount of experience with, and most of my reading of poetry has been for literature courses rather than for pleasure. Having said that, I have encountered some truly EPIC poems in my day (I’m think of a certain Paradise Lost, as an example) and one of my favourite, lesser appreciated long poems is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This is the quintessential medieval tale, with references to King Arthur and his valiant Knights of the Round Table, and although I had to study it for a class, I absolutely fell in love with the tale and with the adventure and, of course, with chivalrous Sir Gawain. This is definitely a fun one and it is so easy to get swept up into the tale!

Tear-Inducing Children’s Lit.

Why not throw a picture book on this list? Love You Forever by Robert Munsch is a story I grew up having read to me and is probably the first book I ever encountered in my life. It is touching and moving and lovely, and I swear, everyone needs to read it to their kids. It’s a classic, in my opinion!

Hard-Hitting Young Adult Lit.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, EVERYONE should read Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. It treats the same subject matter as Thirteen Reasons Why, but, to me, is a far superior novel. It is deep and engrossing, and the main character Sam Kingston is easily relatable but also hopelessly flawed. I can’t say enough good things about this novel, and the film adaptation (starring Zoey Deutch) is equally good! If you only pick up one book from this list, make it this one!

Heartbreaking Romance

If I say too much about The First Last Kiss by Ali Harris, I will cry. It is a tearjerker in every sense of the word, but it is also a uniquely structured and stylized romance. The way it is written makes it truly stand out (by focusing on telling the stories of different first kisses between the two main characters), and I have it on my list of favourite novels of all time…considering that I’m a big rom-com reader, this should tell you something, since it clearly stands out!

Midnight Mystery

Although The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is technically a Victorian novel, it is the ultimate mystery that I think rivals stories told my Agatha Christie and more contemporary mystery writers. It is a story that instantly draws the reader in, with its family politics, deceptions and unreliable narrators, and there are so many different narratives that it never gets boring. The reader is swept up in a mystery that is genuinely difficult to solve, what with all the competing theories swirling around between the many characters, and it is a truly fun and suspenseful ride. I adore this novel and I’ve read it several times…knowing the end result doesn’t even phase me because the ride is the best part!

Haunting Historical Fiction

I’m going to label The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson a historical fiction novel, although it also contains fantastical elements and is a contemporary novel, so really it fits into three categories. Whatever genre it is, it is without doubt one of the best novels I have EVER read, and this is all down to the remarkable narrator. He’s so flawed, complex and complicated, at once detestable and so loveable, and I was so moved by this novel that it has left a permanent mark on my heart. It’s an emotional and troubling story, but it is so worth the read because it will truly blow you away! HIGHLY recommend this one!

Crazy Classic

Jude the Obscure is one messed up novel…but what else do you expect from an author like Thomas Hardy? I have a lot of favourite Victorian novels, and there are other novels by Hardy that I prefer, but Jude the Obscure is totally underrated in that barely anyone reads it, as far as I know. Readers are more inclined to pick up Tess of the D’Ubervilles (and with good reason, of course), but they forget about Jude entirely even though it seems to be Hardy’s darkest novel. Honestly, I can’t even explain some of the crazy stuff that happens in this book, but it is just so dark and gothic and really worth picking up if you’re into classics.

And finally…

Oh Canada!

Being the extremely proud Canadian I am, I had to include an underrated Canadian novel on this list, and I chose The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables, and I have huge respect for that story, but in my opinion, The Blue Castle is just better. It is more adult and sophisticated, and it also features this indomitable and fierce female character, Valancy Stirling (what a great name, eh?), who I instantly fell in love with! She actually became a role model for me and I admit that I think about her often when I’m in social or professional situations that require me to have a bit more backbone than usual. I don’t think many readers know about this novel and that is a serious shame because it is at once hilarious and profound and entertaining. And, talk about girl power, because Valancy knows how to hold her own, no matter who she is up against…I LOVE IT!

Let me know in the comments below if you plan to pick up one of these underrated novels…or if you already have, let me know what you thought and if you too would recommend it!

xox

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

Alias Grace – #JNGReads

If you watched my Instagram story from the beginning of this week (I don’t have Snapchat, so I actually found it kind of fun to use the new Instagram story feature!), you’ll know that I finally finished Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I recently wrote a blog post about the difficulties I was having getting into the story and acclimatizing to Atwood’s often tricky narrative voice, but I am happy to say that I grew to really enjoy the novel and I am quite happy that I stuck it out and read all the way to the end. According to Goodreads, I started reading the novel on July 19th, so it took me just under a month to finish it, which is not bad for a 550+ page novel, especially considering the fact that I work full-time.

Here’s a more comprehensive review of my thoughts on Alias Grace

Alias Grace is a very interesting and thought-provoking novel, and I would probably say that it is my favourite Atwood work that I have read to date. Although I struggled in the beginning, for about the first 100 pages, with the writing style (for example, the lack of quotations and proper punctuation during Grace’s narration) and with all the details that seemed arduous and much too wordy, I really developed a feel for the story as I delved further into it, and I became accustomed to Grace’s manner of speaking and to the various narrative voices that Atwood employs. I also started to become more invested in the plot, and I put on my own detective hat for a while, trying to piece together the information about the murders of Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear. As I reached the point in the novel when Dr. Jordan listens to Grace’s narrative about her life and the events surrounding the murder, I was able to start to investigate my own feelings about Grace and speculate about her degree of guilt. I haven’t reached any definitive conclusions, even after finishing the entire story and allowing myself to consider each point of view, but I will say that I don’t think Grace’s involvement in the murders is clear cut and I don’t know that I think she is entirely guilty or innocent there is certainly some grey area in between, and I believe Grace inhabits that space.

Probably my favourite aspects of the novel were the portrayal of Grace’s complex personality and psyche, as well as the description of the setting…

Grace Marks is a remarkable and fascinating woman. I know that Atwood based as much of the novel as possible on fact, and I do understand why 19th century individuals would have been intrigued by Grace’s story and would have lined up to see her. I am very conflicted about my feelings toward Grace – as I said above, I don’t know if I believe her to be solidly guilty or innocent, and I do think she made several very poor decisions during her time working for Thomas Kinnear. There were undeniably moments when she could have revealed James McDermott’s plan and saved herself from becoming an accomplice to murder (if that was in fact her only role in the crime). However, even despite the ambiguities surrounding her involvement, I found myself empathizing with Grace and feeling sorry for her. She had a rough, uncomfortable childhood, especially during her immigration to Toronto, and she was forced to become an adult at a very early age and learn to provide for herself. This ultimately led to her employment at Kinnear’s home, and I think she felt reluctant to leave her position, even when there was suspicious activity, because she felt as though she didn’t have a home to call her own. She was a woman, or a girl rather, trapped in unfortunate circumstances… And I do mean trapped. I don’t think Grace had any other choice but to be in the position she was in, as her options were very limited, and I cannot imagine being a girl of the age of 15 or 16 who has no family, friends or even acquaintances to rely on or receive advice from. It’s my opinion that Grace got mixed up in a bad situation because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time…but I also believe that Grace had no other option and that she would have ended up in dangerous circumstances regardless of whose house she worked at. Having said all that, I can understand why Atwood was haunted by Grace because I feel that she must’ve been severely misunderstood in her time, and I think it is a testament to Atwood’s immense skill as a writer that she took the time to thoroughly research Grace’s life and document its details with impressive accuracy.

As far as Dr. Jordan goes, in terms of other main characters, I found him to be a complex character mainly because he was often very hypocritical and ended up totally surprising me with his actions toward his landlady Mrs. Humphrey. I thought I had Dr. Jordan’s identity pegged at the beginning of the novel, as a studious and lonely doctor, but many other layers of his personality were revealed, and it turns out that I didn’t really know him at all. He had a much more sinister side than I ever could’ve expected, and while this caused me to respect him less, I found him to be a more interesting character because of it.

The greatest source of interest, for me, in the novel was the treatment and description of Toronto and its surrounding areas, including Richmond Hill (where Thomas Kinnear lived). I found it fascinating to read about my own city and imagine what it was like in the 19th century. Although this novel is not at all written in the Victorian style, it does describe the 19th century in vivid detail, and I often lost myself in imagining the streets of Toronto in a completely different light. I also felt the urge, after finishing my reading, to visit some of the sites mentioned in the novel. I wonder if Thomas Kinnear’s house still stands in Richmond Hill and if his and Nancy’s graves can still be found at the Presbyterian Church. I wonder if the streets I walk on my way to work or during daytrips downtown are the same ones that Grace Marks walked. And if I ever visit the Kingston Penitentiary, will I see the very spot where James McDermott was hanged? There’s nothing quite like reading about a familiar setting and experiencing this discomfort when it becomes unfamiliar and unrecognizable to you. I think it informed my understanding of Toronto’s history to get a glimpse into what it was like to live here 200 years ago.

I have heard that Alias Grace is being made into a TV series, and I think that is a great idea. 550+ pages is a lot to get through, especially when the writing is so dense, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being able to undertake the challenge. But Grace’s story, and particularly Atwood’s treatment of it, is very unique, and I think many people would find the plot interesting and intriguing. I’ll definitely be giving the show a try.

Finally, I should mention my least favourite aspect of the novel… Any and all reference to Susanna Moodie. Her text Roughing it in the Bush was the bane of my existence in university, and I cannot shake this sense that she was an incredibly annoying woman!

❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

So Far, Not Good

I’m in probably the worst position an avid reader can be in right now…

I am not enjoying my current read.

If you follow along with me on Twitter or Goodreads, you’ll know that I started reading Margaret Atwood’s Victorian-esque novel Alias Grace last week. My choice to read this book was completely random: I had just finished Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and I didn’t have a clue what book I would read next; I saw Alias Grace sitting on my bookshelf and impulsively picked it up, placing it in my work bag to begin reading on the bus the next day. Alias Grace did NOT come highly recommend, however; my brother eagerly gave me the book after completing his Canadian Literature class this past year. He hadn’t actually read it because it seemed “too long and boring”, so he thought he would just dump it on me for my blog. Not exactly a stellar review, eh?

I have to preface everything I am about to say by admitting that Canadian Literature is not my favourite. I’m pretty sure I’ve already mentioned this on the blog before (I’ve actually been writing this thing for so long that I sometimes forget what I’ve told you all – imagine that!), but my mark in my Canadian Literature class from second year university is a black spot on my academic record that I will never recover from. Okay, I actually got a good mark by most people’s standards – it was a B+ if you must know – but considering that it is the ONE B amongst all the other A’s I achieved in 5 years of study (including my Master’s), I think it’s fair for me to be a little bit upset about it. (*Overachiever problems, clearly!) I also stand by the fact that I deserved a higher mark because the essays I wrote for that class were among my favourite in my entire academic career. I’m convinced the TA had something against me and my writing style, but I have yet to prove this – it was also very gratifying to take classes with this same TA during my Master’s and realize that my opinions were in fact just as valid as his. Anyway, I digress, no need to get more enraged by this. The point is, although I love the short stories of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, and I have enjoyed a Canadian read here and there, it’s not my absolute favourite style of literature.

Now, in theory, that has nothing at all to do with Alias Grace, which does take place in Ontario but which is set in the 19th century. I mean, we all know that is a time period I am very interested in, and it should be fascinating to read about how my favourite era played out in my own country. It should be fascinating, but, if I’m honest, I’m not finding the story all that fascinating just yet. Actually, no, I shouldn’t say that – the plot itself is very cool: the story investigates the life of Grace Marks, a housekeeper turned murderess who kills her employer and fellow housekeeper in cold blood. Yeah, I think that sounds intriguing too!

However, here’s another startling admission: I am not a fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing. I have read many of her works, starting with The Handmaid’s Tale in high school, then onto some of her short stories in the aforementioned Canadian Literature class, and even including her novel Cat’s Eye which I read randomly one summer. So I’m experienced with Atwood’s writing style. The issue is that I don’t particularly like it – her stories are interesting enough, but her writing seems so dry to me, and Alias Grace is especially written in a sort of catalogue or documentary style. I’m really struggling to get through it for that reason. It feels a lot like homework to read this novel, which is not exactly what I was looking for in a summer read.

The problem is, everyone seems to be excited about me reading this novel. Everyone and their mother is liking my Goodreads status or Tweets about it, so obviously enough people think it is a good book. I’m just not there yet, and the thing is almost 600 pages, so I’m hoping my opinion changes really soon.

Here’s the question: keep plugging away or give up now while I still can? I’ve never been a quitter, so I think I need to give this one a more solid effort!

Wish me luck!

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

Something Strange – A Bit of a #ThrowbackThursday

I recently had a few spare hours on my hands, while sat at a computer and without my paperback novel on me.  I wanted desperately to read something, to lose myself in a story, but because I didn’t have my physical novel with me, I didn’t think it would be possible to get any reading done.

Then, I had a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself: I decided to look up my favourite short story writers online to see if any of their works had been featured in online publications.  I should qualify this by saying that my two favourite short story writers of all time are my fellow Canadians, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant.  These two incredibly talented women (I mean, Munro did win the Nobel Prize in Literature recently) have had works in numerous publications, so I figured one or two of these would be floating around online.  And, much to my satisfaction, they were!

I ended up reading a short story by each of my favourite ladies: “Train” by Munro and “Florida” by Gallant.  And, let me tell you, they were both seriously strange!  I thoroughly enjoyed each of them and I was immediately sucked into the literary voices I knew so well and craved at the moment.  But, I still don’t know what to make of these stories at all, and I’m not even entirely sure what they were about, if anything… I’m just quite confused, to be honest.

“Florida” was the more random story of the two.  It followed a French Canadian mother visiting her son at his new home in Florida.  Honestly, that’s about all I can say on the subject – the relationship between the mother and son is tense and strained at best, but it’s such a short story that it’s kind of impossible to get a sense of why exactly that is.  It’s definitely possible that this story was later expanded and I just got to read an excerpt, but from what I read, it seemed like a simple slice of life narrative, an uncomplicated account of that odd stage of parenthood when a child has branched off on their own and become an adult that isn’t altogether a person you’re proud to have created.  It was awesome to read a story by Gallant because I totally idolize her work, but this story wasn’t as poignant or touching to me as something like “Varieties of Exile”.  It didn’t leave a lasting impression on me, BUT it did solidify just how brilliant Gallant is for being able to come up with a story about something so mundane and realistically human.

“Train” was a bit more profound and had a greater message, but, as with most Munro stories, it seemed so random as well.  It never ceases to amaze me that Munro can start a story in one mood, voice or location and with one apparent focus, and then totally shift gears pages later and move the story in a totally unexpected direction.  “Train” did exactly that – I thought I had a grip on the characters, their relation to each other, their histories, and then all of a sudden, Munro pulled a 180 on me and I was left reevaluating everything I had come to believe.  The plot follows a young man named Jackson, who I actually thought was going to be a more minor character.  For half the story, I thought he was more of a catalyst to the experiences of the female character, Belle, and then, in the second half of the story, I realized that everything actually centres on Jackson’s life after all.  Not to mention, Munro introduces an entirely different female character at that point, and the two women are seemingly unconnected to each other, except for the string that is Jackson between them.  So, the story went from being an interesting tale about a female farmer to a detailed analysis of a troubled character who has created multiple identities for himself and who is reluctant to become attached to any people or circumstances.  It was truly fascinating!  Although it isn’t my favourite Munro story by any means (“Tricks” will always and forever hold that title for me), it was classic Munro in the sense that it spun a tale that was truly unique and mind-bending.

And that’s where we get to the Throwback Thursday element of this post: I first encountered Gallant and Munro when I was in my second year of university and took a Canadian Literature class.  While I turned out to not love the class for a variety of reasons, I fell in love with these two authors and I have been moved and inspired by their work ever since.  As I sat at my computer and read through these two short stories, I felt instantly transported back to the library at University College (part of the University of Toronto), a library that I’ve always adored for its gothic, quiet and serene atmosphere.  I vividly remember sitting in this library, at a tiny desk in an even smaller alcove, reading page after page of Canadian literature.  I always seemed to find myself at this library at night, and I was overcome by a feeling of warmth, contentment and peace on each occasion.  As I read these short stories that I had never encountered, just a few days ago, I felt nostalgic for the student I was, for the days when I had infinite hours to read, and for those courses that pushed me to discover new writers, new voices and new tales to take my breath away.

Here’s hoping I will always be that exact same reader, and always crave the voices of my favourite author-friends!

JNG

Girl with a Green (and forever Canadian) Heart

my green heart

Crickets and Christmas

The word “Crickets” from the title of today’s blog post refers to the book I just finished reading. The word “Christmas” refers to the book I will shortly begin…again. To begin with the metaphorical crickets, I’ve just finished reading A … Continue reading