More February Reads

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood is a series of stories about a woman named Nell. The stories start in her childhood, move on to a weird (but just normal-weird, not freaky-weird) relationship with an older guy, and then ends with a pair of stories about her childhood and her relationship with her mother. Good, entertaining, interesting.

There's a kind of crankiness, a negativity, to Margaret Atwood's writing which stops me from reading two of her books in a row. Everything's described in the most sordid way. I mean, I could describe every annoying and stupid and gross thing about my life, and leave out all the good bits, and it would sound overwrought and terrible like Atwood's characters' lives, but really my life is not all miserable and icky, and I don't buy that Atwood's characters' lives are all miserable and icky. Sometimes it annoys me that her books are so relentlessly negative. Lighten up, lady! Give it a rest! (Lest you mistake this for intelligent literary commentary, I feel the same way about Stephen King books.)

On the other hand, the thing I love about Margaret Atwood, and this isn't something that seems to come up much, is her little jokes. (She likes that too: a friend of mine saw her do a reading, and apparently she laughs at her own jokes.)

(Careful readers will note that this is the first of my Alphabetical To-Be-Read List Plan, and that I have read several off-list books. If I'm going to get through any amount of my TBR pile I'm going to have to increase the on-list:off-list ratio.)

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin is our second book club book. (The girl who's planning this month's meeting decided we needed something a little lighter after The Things They Carried. On the one hand, Rwanda; on the other hand, cakes!) Baking Cakes in Kigali is about a community of ex-pats of various countries who have come to Kigali to participate in (or take advantage of) the post-war rebuilding and spending. Centreing the book on non-Rwandans is a great way to write a book about Rwanda without asking us to get into the heart of someone who lived through the genocide. Not that that's not a worthwhile thing to do, but it's not this book.

Our main character is Angel, a Tanzanian grandmother who has recently launched a custom cake business. Her husband works for the university, and is the reason they are in Kigali. They live in an apartment complex populated by people from other parts of Africa and the world, and one of the delights of the novel is reading Angel's thoughts on cultural differences within Africa. The main charm of the book is Angel, actually: her thoughts on her neighbours, on feminism, on running a small business, and on coping with hardship are reminiscent of the levelheaded philosophies of Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe.

(Leading, obviously, to the question of whether these white writers are creating a new sterotype, the "practical African woman". Both Precious and Angel are admirable characters who you would want to have by your side in a crisis, but I feel like I need to hear another voice from Africa, perhaps one that isn't so tailored to my taste as a North American reader.)

Baking Cakes in Kigali isn't a work of great literature, but it was a pleasant and easy read and raises enough discussion points that I think it will make for a good book club meeting.

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman was perhaps an unnecessary diversion from my TBR list, but Delphine had it out from the library and I hadn't read it, so I did. Besides, it was short. It's the story of Odd, who is odd and not entirely wanted at home, so he goes away. While he's away, he meets some more odd characters: a bear, a fox and an eagle who aren't behaving as you might expect a bear, a fox and an eagle to behave. Events transpire, Odd quests and succeeds, learns about himself and his family, saves the day and returns home stronger.

It's a wonderful little book, as you'd expect from Gaiman. He has a gloriously gentle, deadpan way of ushering you into his imagined world that I loved in the Sandman comics.


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