my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

July 28th, 2011

#59 – Still Alice by Lisa Genova

My RRHB has a saying whenever anyone asks him contracting advice about their basements: “you can’t win against water.” This saying kept echoing and echoing through my mind as I read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice last night into the wee hours because the baby woke up at 2AM, and I couldn’t get either to sleep or back to sleep, so I pretty much finished the book in one sitting. The only other Alzheimer’s-related story I’ve read is by Alice Munro, and it’s aching, brilliant and cutting at the same time (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain“) so I sort of expected the same emotional resonance that carried throughout that story to be found in this novel, and I don’t know why, but it’s just not there.

Alice, the title character, starts having strange episodes involving her memory. She’s a “brilliant” psychology professor at Harvard who has devoted her life to understanding linguistics, and her equally brilliant scientist of a husband might just cure cancer (honestly); the two share a wonderful life, three equally brilliant kids, and a whole host of truly awful dialogue as the episodes become diagnosed as early-onset Alzheimer’s. I know the book jacket tells me this is an award-winning NY Times bestseller but, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why. It honestly read more like a really bad Lifetime movie of the week in parts, and I couldn’t abide by the melodrama.

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#57 – A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From the Good Squad coverWhat a rare book Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad turned out to be for me — one utterly and completely deserving of its rather exuberant praise and awards. This book swept me away from start to finish and the quirks that I would normally complain about (a la the entire chapter by the young Alison Blake) charmed me to no end because the writing is just that good. It’s more of a series of linked stories, Venn Diagrams of people’s lives as they interact, slip away, and then come into contact with someone else who can complete the tale rather than a traditional novel. The format feels innovative and new — parts of the book are told out of chronological order, some characters flicker in and out like fireflies, but Egan masterfully holds it all together with deft strokes and impressive sentences. I could not put this novel down.

Here’s the reading scenario: my son has Hand, Foot and Mouth disease. Yes, it’s as awful as it sounds. We spend a miserable evening at the emergency room in Peterborough for them to tell us that it’s a “virus.” He ran a fever of 104. He turned the colour of a lobster. My heart would not stop racing. And we spent a miserable night in the middle of a heat wave with him sobbing and trying to gain control over his fever — Egan’s novel was the only thing that kept me sane that night. I held him and read it. I rocked him and read it. He slept on me, and I read it. And when his fever didn’t break the next day and we had to head home to see the family doctor to get a further diagnosis (he had stopped eating and drinking at this point too), when I forgot the book in a panic to get home, I was devastated.

It’s a book, people. (more…)

July 27th, 2011

#55 – Bossypants by Tina Fey

BossypantsSummer reading generally means three things to me: extremely popular bestsellers, chunky classics that I never get around to finishing, and chicklit. I know I shouldn’t consider Bossypants chicklit, but, in a way, to me, it was. I am not downplaying Tina Fey’s obvious feminism or her ability to spin a good yarn — but it’s more the sense of where her comedy comes from, a deeply funny, incredibly awesome redefinition of girlie. She’s confident without being boastful, extremely thankful of all of her hard-won opportunities, but also wickedly aware of her own limitations, and the limitations of a “Hollywood” life. Maybe I’m reading too much into it — because it’s really more of a series of vignettes than narrative nonfiction, which made for incredibly easy reading. Perfect for a week at the cottage by yourself with an infant.

I laughed out loud and I found so much of Fey’s self-deprecating humour, her voice, and her ability to find a positive message for women in just about every situation that it’s hard to remember what a force for change she remains in the “industry” (I say that like I am actually “in” any “industry”). I never found the read tedious like so many celebrity “memoirs” (and yes, it deserves air quotes, come on, you know it does). It doesn’t feel ghostwritten or contain any deep-seeded confessions that turn my stomach a little even though I’m dying to read them anyway, ahem, Ashley Judd (let me tell you, when I was a tween, bedtime reading was Mommie Dearest; I know, it says a lot about me. In fact, Mommie Dearest coupled with Sweet Valley High, Louisa-May Alcott and Anne of Green Gables — not much has changed all these years later).

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May 31st, 2011

Review Catch-Up #s 44 – 47

I have spent three days this week at various doctors appointments and sitting waiting for blood work, and managed to read three books in five days. It’s almost like I’m breastfeeding at all hours again, only I’m not. Actually, it’s nothing like that at all. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Regardless, here are some short reviews of books I’ve read lately.

#44 – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Allan Sillitoe
Sometimes, when you see the filmed version of a book first, it’s almost impossible not to replay the movie in your head as you read. In the case of Allan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, this was entirely the case. Luckily, both the book and the film are excellent, so I wasn’t disappointed by anything happening in my own head as I read. Sillitoe’s portrait of a young man, a working class, philandering, hard-drinking, impulse-driven, anti-hero remains captivating over 50 years since its publication. I found myself violently engrossed in the film, at times disgusted by Arthur Seaton’s behaviour, his attitude towards women, his own selfishness, and yet utterly thrilled by his voice, his hard-driving anger, and his youth.

Set in a working class section of Nottingham (and forgive me if it’s all working class; I am not familiar with the geography), Seaton works at a bicycle factory, where he gets paid by the piece. Work too fast, and you make too much money, the big bosses will come down on you; work too slow and it isn’t worth your while to get up in the morning. There’s a tender balance Seaton strikes between boredom, completely shutting off to the redundancy of his tasks and letting his mind wander (usually to the state of his love life, which is complex, and full of many married ladies). He served in the army but has no faith in it; he drinks not just because it’s the only thing to do but because it IS the thing to do; and all of his relationships with women are based on lying, cheating and his own awkward concepts of love. Yet, as a character, I couldn’t help but adore him — a prototypical bad boy when it still meant something to buck the system, and the dichotomy of the two parts of Seaton’s life: the Saturday nights spent drinking and with his hand up the shirt of his many married lovers; and the Sunday morning when he goes fishing and perhaps decides upon one girl, nicely contrast the tenor of life in England after the war. Everyone needing to find their footing, their voice, after the collective “pulling together” (Keep Calm and Carry On) as a universal decree. All in all, it’s an excellent novel. (Also exciting is that it’s on the 1001 Books list, whee!).

#45 – State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is one of my favourite American novelists. I adored Run, enjoyed Bel Canto, and had my heart broken over Truth & Beauty. But State of Wonder is in an entirely different class — if I had to find a comp, like someone (I can’t remember who) mentioned on Twitter, I’d too suggest Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. But, truly, the unbridled success of this novel lies in Patchett’s almost post-colonial “talking back” to Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness. Now, I read Conrad’s book in first year university and haven’t revisited it since, so it’s hazy, to say the least in my memory. I recall more of Apocalypse Now than I do the novel itself but that doesn’t mean that I can’t theorize that Patchett set out to write back to Heart of Darkness, tackling not necessarily themes of colonialism and “going native” (shuddering to write that sentence) but more so the toll and cost of medical research takes from on our “modern” world.

When Dr. Marina Singh’s workmate and lab partner, Dr. Eckman, is pronounced dead in a far flung letter from Dr. Annick Swenson, a research doctor who has been in the field for almost decades developing and studying a very particular tribe in order to create a fertility drug that could revolutionize women’s reproductive health, she (Dr. Singh) is sent out to retrieve the true story and maybe, just maybe, bring both the body and a report of where the work actually is back to the company for whom they all work. Things go wrong for Marina right from the start — her suitcase is lost, her clothes taken by the Lakashi tribe when she arrives in camp, and soon every vestige of Western life has disappeared from around her. She wears her hair plaited by the Lakashi women, the only dress she has comes from them as well, and without sun protection, the half-Indian Marina’s skin bronzes so deeply that even she notices how different she looks than when at home suffering through a long, terrible Minnesota winter.

Classically trained as a OBGYN, Marina gave up her medical practice due to a terrible accident, and has been a pharmacologist ever since. Yet, once she finds Dr. Swenson (and the path that got her there was no less than difficult), her skills as a doctor are called upon — an in unclean, unhygienic and utterly disorganized (in terms of performing surgeries), and Marina’s life takes a turn in a direction she never imagined. The novel’s ending, both spectacular and breathtaking, has perfect pacing — I couldn’t put it down, and it brought me to my knees. I found myself reading and reading, any chance I could get, morning, deep into the night, just to find out what happens. And the last sentences, just like the amazing ones that end The Poisonwood Bible, stayed with me for days. Highly recommended; it’s perfect summer reading in my humble opinion.

#46 – Faith by Jennifer Haigh
I’m going to be honest — the subject matter of this novel remains difficult for many reasons — the church and its history/current struggle with pedophilia doesn’t necessarily equate “light,” “breezy” read. Yet, the tone and undercurrent of Jennifer Haigh’s novel, while neither light nor breezy, is both generous and kind, a difficult balance to achieve when discussing Catholic priests and the matter of faith in general. The narrator of the story, a self-proclaimed (at the beginning of the novel) modern-day “spinster,” Sheila McGann retells a story her half-brother Art, a priest who has found himself embroiled in a scandal that threatens not only his livelihood but also his life, and his core beliefs.

Sheila returns to Boston to help her family in the time of crisis. Art, accused of an unspeakable act with a young boy, the grandson of the rectory’s housekeeper, with whom he has a parental-like relationship, shakes everyone to their cores. I know it’s a cliche — family comes upon tragedy, novel unravels whether or not the accusations are true — but Haigh has a gift for character, and while this novel remains very traditional in its narrative format, I was impressed at how she tackled the subject matter. Haigh never shies away from the difficult nature of it, and I like how faith as a concept remains interwoven throughout the narrative. Arthur has never questioned his calling. But, like anyone, it’s impossible to know when something might happen to rock your beliefs, earthquake-like, and send you reeling in another direction. Innocent, even naive, to the ways of the world, Art finds himself questioning everything he has ever known: the church, his ministry, the idea of love, when he comes to face to face with Kath, the mother of the young boy he is accused of abusing. It takes the entire novel to truly find out what happened. And no one is left unscathed, not even the reader. Faith is a novel that forces one to evaluate one’s own relationship to God, to the church, even if you’re a non-believer. It’s impossible to stand in judgment, of anyone’s life, and I think that is the eloquent point that Haigh makes throughout this book. It’s one that definitely got me thinking. And I’m a girl who got the majority of her religious schooling from Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? when she was a child. Of course, I read more widely about religion in university. (I still remember sitting with a particularly obnoxious Religion major at Queen’s who honestly said to me, “You know, it’s not as if I’m totally obsessed with God or anything, I just think Jesus was a really cool guy.” Seriously. That was her take on her entire degree. Good grief.) Regardless, the kind of storytelling that Haigh purports in this novel usually drives me crazy (the retelling of a story when one could choose just to tell the damn story) but it’s subtly balances nicely with the seriousness of the subject matter and I don’t think she could have written it another way. By the end, I was a little heartbroken, which, for me, is always the sign of a very good novel indeed.

#47 – Every Time We Say Goodbye by Jamie Zeppa
This is a Vicious Circle book club book, and I’m so pleased that I’ll get to discuss it with a great group of women. It’s a women’s novel (as you can see from the awful cover [I’m sorry but it really, really isn’t reflective of the book]) rather than dreamy chicklit as the cover suggests. I know what it’s going for — there’s a pair of siblings that the novel centres around, but the cover adds a layer of Hallmark Movie of the Week that dumbs down Zeppa’s sharp, instinctive and eager writing.

Told from multiple perspectives, the book follows three generations of Turner women, some blood, some married to blood, who each struggle with the idea of family, what it means to be a mother, and the difficult restrictions society, at different times over the last 50 years, for people of my gender. I fell particularly in love with Grace, a woman forced to leave her son behind to make a better life for herself in the city. Her strength, ability and the way she came into her own was particularly breathtaking. There’s a lot in the novel that isn’t necessarily fresh (troubled fathers, difficult women that seem cut from Lawrence, “women’s” troubles) but Zeppa finds a way in that is both refreshing and real — and I enjoyed this book immensely. I just have one tiny criticism — there’s a main character, Vera, a matriarchal figure, that we never hear from, she’s only portrayed through other people’s stories. I would have enjoyed knowing more about her point of view, her perspective, but I understand how too many voices could also ruin this novel. Regardless, it too is a perfect summer read. Funny how that works out, isn’t it?

April 12th, 2011

#32 – Committed

Dear Elizabeth Gilbert,

Should you have ever come to one of my book club meetings, you will have discovered that I am not a fan of the epistolary format. It makes me a bit crazy unless it’s Mary Shelley, actually. Yet, I feel the need to speak to you directly. Perhaps it’s the personal nature of your book or perhaps it’s my own selfish need to write a bit differently today — regardless, here we go, an open letter to you.

An apology to start: I really and truly hated Eat, Pray, Love. I didn’t give it a proper chance, however, and threw the book across the room halfway through India. The voice, the whining, the lack of appreciation for your life’s gifts, it all annoyed me to no end. And then I watched the movie (why oh why does Hollywood insist upon making movies about writers where they never, ever write? Aside from an email or two — to break up with a boyfriend none the less — the Liz Gilbert in the film never picks up a book or a pencil. Annoying. Didn’t that bother you?) and it affirmed my every action in terms of not finishing that book.

Cultural zeitgeist aside, I was weary to read Committed. In fact, I’m not sure why I did — and it took some effort, an extra trip to the library, a hold, actual dedication to read your book while caring for an ever-increasingly needy infant. But am I ever glad that I did. I’m going to say it loud and clear: I’m so very sorry. I was Judgy McJudgerson when it came to EPL, I couldn’t abide by the stories I was hearing of groups of women having themed parties and giving up their own lives for a year of self-journeyment. Maybe I was jealous. Maybe I wanted to be out there too — travelling for year and then writing about it. I mean, it sounds delicious. Yet, something in Committed, maybe it was the word “skeptic” in the book’s subtitle that caught me, or maybe it was the subject matter (being a happily married lady myself but ever-curious about the social and political implications of the institution itself), but I was hooked by the first chapter.

In fact, despite the odd pairing of the more anthropological aspects of the memoir with your own personal experiences, I was somewhat taken in by your obsessive/compulsive need to research just about everything you could possibly about marriage before wearily entering into your own second union. I know Curtis Sittenfeld pointed out that some of the connections between your own research and experiences in limbo while waiting for Felipe’s immigration situation to be sorted stretched thin across your narrative, but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed learning about the people that you met, the marriages you came across, the kind of social history that seems to only be discussed between women but not necessarily written down. Women need to talk more about their differences. Or, rather, women need to be better aware of the social and political implications of marriage around the world — if only to appreciate and understand our own particular wants, needs, and biases.

But what I adored about your book, and what made me feel like a heel for being so judgmental about your first book, was the story about your grandmother. I, too, grew up with a strong natured, extremely intelligent, ridiculously amazing grandmother — a war bride who bravely left her family behind in England to start a new life in Canada with a difficult man, who held her family together tragedy after tragedy, and whom I loved so much that I still think about her every single day. Your grandmother, with her sassy fur coat and her determination, her happiness in that tiny farmhouse with her small kids and everything that she gave up — there’s a richness to her story that I felt was missing from the bits of EPL that I read. Maybe I should have been more patient. Maybe more Maud-like stories would have shown up in the “Love” section of your book. Alas, I didn’t wait around to find out.

I did, however, rip through to the end of this book and was pleased to see that the legalities of your situation worked itself out. That your skepticism still allowed you to take a brave step down the aisle and I could absolutely relate to the idea of wanting to be married but not necessarily needing a “wedding” (we called ours a “non-wedding” for a long time and got married at city hall; it took less than 15 minutes. In fact, the actual “wedding” means so little to either of us that we a) forget our anniversary just about every year and b) neither can remember exactly how long we’ve been married. Some people might think this strange — but for me, and for us, it’s about the relationship, not the piece of paper, about building a life together, not about the institution. In a way, why did we get married at all, one might wonder. But it was important to me to be married and I’m sure it’s exactly as you explore throughout your book — the way I was raised, the example of my parents’ marriage, my grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Also, you have such a grand sense of humour throughout this book that perhaps I missed completely while being so annoyed with EPL? The tone of this book was whip-smart yet still with a questioning when it came to having to do something you were both so against from the beginning of your relationship. Lastly, I can absolutely relate to the obsessive/compulsive way you went about coming to terms with having to get hitched — the research, the restlessness, the ideas of how to still be the “you” that you had discovered after your first failed marriage. And as one who obsesses and has their own compulsive tendencies when it comes to many aspects of my life — it made me feel better to see someone else put it down in writing so eloquently.

So, in short, here’s my apology for being so flippant and, well, cruel. I’m sorry.

March 24th, 2011

#29 – Cleaving

Yes, I am skipping #28, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, because I’m not particularly inclined to write and entire post about it. It was interesting, as everything he writes is, but not really book-length fascinating. And I certainly didn’t find it as impactful as The Tipping Point. In a way, the book seemed a bit contradictory — the thesis was all about trusting your first instincts, but the arguments and/or examples were all people who had massive amounts of experience in a particular area that gave them the freedom to trust their first impressions (if that makes any sense). I mean, I realize it’s also about unpacking prejudice and other social innuendos (I found the section on marriage and reading faces particularly interesting), but overall, I don’t know if this book changed my perspective on, well, life and business etc. the way his first book did. Regardless, I am now going to put Outliers on my library holds list because I do like his writing so very much.

So, Blink is my trailer — now for the feature, Julie Powell’s Cleaving. I read and adored Julie & Julia, and came to this book with the same wide-eyed wonder of yet another deserving blogger becoming a published writer — expanding and solidifying their skills on the written vs. the virtual page. But, not all books can contain the wonder of first books when they are particularly successful, and Cleaving suffers a little from the sophomore slump.

The first half of the book deals specifically with Powell’s apprenticeship with a butcher shop in rural New York. She writes passionate and obviously well-learned passages about her experiences, and I found these sections of the book the most intriguing. They were riveting — bones cracking, wrists aching — and you can immediately tell the passion she feels toward the art of butchery, a profession that few women enter. But where the book falls down are the “life is messy” bits in between. Her marriage, oft-described as ‘like breathing’ or something equally life-sustaining, has, well, lost its oxygen — both she and her husband are having affairs; Julie first, then Eric in retribution, perhaps. And yet, despite hurting each other to the core, they stay together, they love each other, even if, at that moment, it means a lot of anger and trial separations. Powell’s lover, referred to for most of the book as “D,” is passionate, dirty, and a little rough, which is what she needs. In a way, it fulfills some sense of anger (or I’m totally reading into it) and self-destructive behavior that Powell feels deep down.

Yet, the narrative itself, the Julie Powell contained within the book’s story, doesn’t actively analyze her behaviour — sure, she over-“metaphorizes” it (there are only so many meat metaphors one book should contains). She flails around drinking too much, and somewhat laughing off claims of alcoholism, sex addiction (not really but she does participate in SOME dangerous activities in certain parts of the novel), and actively tries to stalk “D” once he tells her he can no longer see or speak to her. In a way, it’s the same obsessive behavior that made her dedication to the Julie & Julia project work, and you can’t fault Powell for her extremely open, balls on the table, writing style. In a way, though, I did wish she came closer to finding out some answers — or at least looking deeper at the roots of the problems.

The constant comparison between her husband, the meat, and her lover grew tiresome, and then she lost me completely in the second half of the book when she leaves Eric (the husband) to take numerous trips to explore meat culture around the world. Not saying that self-discovery is wrong, or that her experiences don’t sound magnificent, but the whole book felt smacked together in a way that didn’t necessarily work from a narrative point of view. The sinews, forgive my own meat metaphor, grew far too thin between the first part and the second.

In a way, it’s impressive that Powell writes so openly and honestly about her experiences. And I’m not even claiming it’s “TMI” as some of the other criticisms I read around the internet claimed — it’s more that there’s a lack of style to the project, the style was there in her first book, this one feels rushed, repetitive and kind of “shock for shock value.” There’s no denying she’s a talented writer of memoirs (memoirist?) but, on the whole, I wanted there to be a central focus, sometimes, that wasn’t Powell, her actions, her feelings, or her explosive.

Not to make a comparison, but I’ve started Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed (another library book!) and, while I hated Eat, Pray, Love (threw it across the room half-way through “Pray”), I’m rather taken with it so far. Gilbert sets out, upon learning that she’ll have to marry her lover (so he can live in America, with her), whom she promised never to marry (they both had spectacularly awful divorces), to learn everything she can about the institution to see if she can uncover her preconceived notions and move forward. That’s what Cleaving is missing — context — something beyond the vivid descriptions of butchery (which, I’ll repeat, are excellent) that grounds the memoir in something other than Powell’s own heaving emotions.

That said, the package is fantastic — I adore the cover; think the title is brilliant, it brings up all kinds of great word associations; and ripped through the first part in an afternoon. So, I’m on the fence when it comes to the book as a whole, but felt spectacularly sorry for her husband, her lover and Powell herself, the emotional train wreckage they all went through was so messy — it can’t have been easy to relive it on the page. And sometimes, the rawness of it all comes through so clearly that I’m surprised Powell had the gumption not to edit herself, even if the book suffers for it.

I read this great opinion piece on NPR’s MonkeySee blog about the book. And agree, too, with the Globe’s review. In case anyone was thinking of reading this book, too.

March 13th, 2011

#24 – The Illumination

Oh, Kevin Brockmeier, thank you so very much for breaking my heart.

The Illumination swept me away and held me tight and didn’t let go — I inhaled this book over a 24-hour period, and actually didn’t mind the fact that I was the only one awake in my house far into the night simply because I had this book for company. Told in successive vignettes from the perspective of six different people, a single notebook, filled with one sentence love notes from a husband to a wife, the novel tracks the impact of “The Illumnation” on their various lives. One day, peoples injuries, be it cancer or a canker sore, begin to glow with white light. All of a sudden, the world’s population is lit up when they are in any kind of pain. And it affects each person differently, and utterly changes the world.

The novel begins with Carol Anne Page, who manages to slice off the tip of her thumb trying to get into a package that her terrifically mean-spirited ex-husband has mailed to her. While in hospital, with her glowing wound, she meets a kind doctor, and then has a roommate who dies in a car crash. As her light is just about to expire, the young woman tells Carol Anne to keep her journal — inside are hundreds of love notes from her husband, whom she thinks perished in the crash — and the book starts along a journey that essentially forms the basis of the plot of the book. What’s going to happen to the book, how does it end up from one person to the next, and what does it mean to their lives.

It then goes back to the husband, to a young boy, a missionary, a writer and then finally a street person who sells books in NYC. Each story alights on the fact that their lives are somehow touched (or ruined in Jason, the husband’s case) by these words and the pain they carry. All in all, it’s an excellent novel, truly the best I’ve read so far this year (I know it’s only March). The writing is spectacular and, like Blindness by Saramago, the supernatural event isn’t cloying or overdone; it’s simply another way to explore the human condition and how it changes when pressed in a direction it never imagined it would go. There isn’t the “end of the world”-ness that you’d find in something like Children of Men or the aforementioned Blindness, but there is a sense that without The Illumination, these six individuals would never come together, even with the notebook, which is a fine thread to connect them together.

They are vastly different stories but they all have one thing in common, and that their internal pain in some ways now matches their external pain, and there’s little that can be done about it, even in a day of modern medicine. Strange and exciting things happen to each of the characters as we follow them while they have the notebook — it changes them sometimes, sometimes nothing changes except perhaps a level of acceptance of the true disappointment in life. Regardless, the stories broke my heart in a million different ways and I love that about a novel. In particular, the one told from the perspective of young Chuck Carter, whose rich and vivid imagination more than counterbalances the fact that his home life is terrifically mixed up and abusive, and that he has decided to stop talking. I wanted to reach into the book and tear the boy up with hugs, I wanted to shake his parents, and then I remembered it wasn’t real.

I can’t imagine liking a book more, I truly can’t.

#23 – You Or Someone Like You

I’d never heard of Chandler Burr or Your or Someone Like You before our sales conference, maybe a year ago, maybe longer. A friend in the office read and adored the book, so I ordered a copy in to read and there it sat on my shelf at work, and then at home, for months and months. So, coming to the “Bs” meant finally reading it, and what a surprise, it’s actually a terrific novel, and completely not what I expected.

In a way, Burr’s narrator, Anne, reminded me of a character Lionel Shriver would create: intelligent, uncompromising and, at times, aggressive in terms of what she wants out of life. At it’s heart, this is a book about words, what they mean, how we use them, and how books enrich a life. Anne’s got a PhD in English Literature. She’s been married to Howard Rosebaum for years. He’s a huge Hollywood producer and they’ve been living in LA for years. They are the elite of the elite of LA, they know everyone, and everyone knows them.

Anne’s background, British by accent, raised around the world by her parents as her father served in the Foreign Legion, has taught her that home is always where you choose to be; Howard, her husband, feels like home is where you go back to, where people always have to accept you. This fundamental different might not seem like much, but when religion becomes involved (Anne never converted; Howard is Jewish but not Orthodox or necessarily practicing), it becomes a fissure that threatens to tear the couple apart. And when their son Sam announces that he’s going to visit Israel, to explore his roots, something happens to shake Howard and Anne’s marriage to the core.

Surrounding the family drama, Anne begins a book club — more like an intense canonical reading group — and she takes directors, screenwriters, producers, line producers, and the like through the books as a means of self-improvement and understanding. From there, it gets out of control, an article in Vanity Fair, and then all of sudden she’s about to produce her own movie. Not always likable and not always saying things that prove popular, when Howard has a crisis of conscious, Anne breaks all boundaries to get him back. In a way, she has chosen love and family above all else, and without Howard, she’s not home, she’s not where she wants to be. But how she gets there, and her opinions, and what she has to say to impact him, to pull him back from where he ended up, well, it’s neither politically correct nor all together sane.

The book is delicious in its irony, and carries the weight of its words very well. It’s hard to write a book about high literature, about some of the greatest books ever written, include many of their words, and not expect the book to hold up to the same kind of scrutiny. I didn’t agree with a lot of what Anne said sometimes, especially towards the end, but that’s the point — she was trying to be argumentative, fighting with all of her words to get her husband back, and regardless of the outcome (SPOILER: she gives a disastrous speech in front of a lot of truly “important” people), you can’t fault her reason or her passion. But I think the most successful aspect of the novel is the fact that it truly doesn’t go where you expect a simple story about a marriage either falling apart or coming back together goes. In fact, there’s nothing simple about this book, and that’s to be celebrated.

CHALLENGES: Off the shelf…

February 27th, 2011

#18 – Pretty Little Dirty

If I remember correctly, I wasn’t terrifically enthralled with Amanda Boyden’s second novel, and so I let Pretty Little Dirty languish on the shelves for, well, years. And while there were a few problems with the novel, I found myself reading it well into places in my life where I should have been sleeping, and that’s got to be a sign that it moved me in some inexplicable way.

Lisa Smith (oh what a placid, everyday name) has been best friends with Celeste Rose Diamond (yes, you read that right; the names are terrible, I know) since they were both in grade six and moved to Kansas City from other, larger cities (Chicago and New York respectively) before the start of the school year. Their friendship is epic: they are destined to love one another in ways that only schoolgirls can — utterly and completely, beyond a familial relationship and creating a bond that best friends know is there, even if they can’t explain it — they love one another above and beyond anyone else.

Celeste, of course, is utterly beautiful, and both she and Lisa are gifted academically — so they excel at school, when it’s in their interests. They are suburban girls looking for adventure, and they find it the summer before they graduate from high school in the form of an teacher and his students from the local art college. Experimenting with sex and drugs, Boyden’s narrative matches the feverish way young girls have of barreling into adult life — it rolls around and around, often repeating similar thoughts over and over again — much like a conversation between girlfriends. She has a strange tick to her writing — keeps telling us, the reader, that Celeste’s story is far more interesting than her own, but then we never get the full story when it comes right down to it, because the book is told from Lisa’s perspective. Celeste remains at arm’s length from us, and maybe that’s the way Lisa likes it — she’s as much in love with being Celeste’s best friend as she is with the idea of friendship itself. The ultimate unreliable narrator, in a way, putting her subject on a pedestal and then never really letting the reader see how the sculpture came into existence.

I also like how, while there’s very typical things in this novel that even reminded me a little of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (minus the very important Trip Fontaine character, naturally) — mother’s with psychological problems, broken families, fathers that hold on too tight to their daughters, sex with older men — Boyden intersperses this with the punk scene in the 80s, something that’s kind of close to my heart. Not because I was remotely a punk, but there was a time when I used to sneak downtown to hang out with skin heads at a bar called Michael’s on Queen Street across from the Big Bop, and grew up just at a time when the wrong Doc Marten’s could get your head kicked in — so much of this book, while set earlier than my own teenage years, reminded me of my youth. I didn’t do nearly the same amount of drugs, and never dropped out of university, but the struggle to find myself, to define myself outside of the tragedy that defined my own family, as Lisa attempts to do by attaching herself to the Diamonds, well, that rang incredibly true.

It’s hard to write teenage angst without it coming across as melodramatic, and Boyden does it so very well in this book — there were problems with the book in places, mainly the sex scenes (they were a bit too much and a little “ride me like a stallion Morag” for my liking) — but overall, once I started this book, I couldn’t put it down. I actually avoided sleep training the RRBB so I could read more, which meant we spent a lovely few hours with him sleeping on me as I powered through the pages. Lastly, I really, really wish people would stop using the second person. I don’t know why it bugs me so much, but it does. However, I would have given my left shoe to be at some of the shows Boyden describes throughout the narrative. Black Flag in 1982? Probably way too violent for me but what an experience.

The Summary: Another Off the Shelf book down, and while the alphabetical reading is now weighing me down a little (I’m really not liking my current book, In the Time of the Butterflies), I am getting through the books much quicker than I thought. I might start reading 2 or 3 in a row from any particular shelf just so that I’m not bouncing around so much and can get through a letter before moving on to the next. In fact, maybe that’s what I’ll start now and pause my current book because it’s seriously boring.

January 31st, 2011

#10 – The Reserve

Well, let me be honest, Russell Banks’ The Reserve totally surprised me. The only other novel by Banks that I’ve read was The Sweet Hereafter and, while I enjoyed it at the time, the only reason I had for reading it was to compare it to the film, which was excellent. I tried and abandoned Cloudsplitter, and never went back to Banks. But, I’ve got my new reading approach, and B is for Banks in my American fiction section, and hence, The Reserve.

Not unlike Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife, The Reserve has a totally unreliable and somewhat wicked female protagonist. Beautiful, charming, and terrifically disturbed, Vanessa Cole has returned to her parents’ summer home after her second divorce. It’s 1936, and her behaviour remains scandalous throughout the novel. And when artist Jordan Groves flies in to see her father’s art collection, he’s lured into a dangerous relationship with the woman that has far reaching consequences for both of them, and for their families.

There’s a Gatsby meets Hemingway feeling to this novel. The Coles are of the upper classes, and it’s not just money that separates them from the locals. But the fact that they own a section of an exclusive property in the Adirondacks called The Reserve. The locals work there; the summer people only vacation, and this dichotomy is explored throughout the novel, especially when Vanessa turns to the guide Hubert St. Germain to help her with the tragic situation that becomes the pinnacle moment in the book. When her father dies suddenly of a heart attack, Vanessa’s demons, whether real or imagined (the novel only hints at the truth), are unleashed. And her actions are shocking.

Banks excels at plotting and the novel simply draws you in from start to finish. His descriptions of the setting are incredible and do much to add to the atmosphere that surrounds Vanessa’s questionable actions. The fog that lies low over the lake echoes her state of mind kind of thing, and while it might sound sound cheesy when I write it here, I’m not doing Banks’ exceptional prose justice. There’s not a hint of melodrama, and there could be, and even though you feel you know these characters — the flighty socialite, the rugged outdoorsman, the unhappy wife, the “artist” as “man” (aka Jackson Pollack), Banks has a way of twisting them just slightly to the left or the right, whether it’s by their dialogue, or the actions that ultimately unhinge them, that casts them away from type.

I roared through this book. Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. I left the RRBB sleeping on me for hours so as not to disturb either his napping (I should have put him in his bed as we’re trying to do more of these days) or my reading time. At one point, he was curled up on the bed beside me as I dove through the final thirty pages or so, with me rubbing his tummy so he would sleep just that little bit longer and I could finish. I was that engrossed. Sure, there are loose ends. Sure, there were things that could have been tidier, but on the whole The Reserve is damn fine novel, and it makes me actually want to read more Russell Banks. Thankfully, I’ve still got a copy of Cloudsplitter, as it’s a 1001 Books book, which means it’s now in alphabetical order — and once I’ve finished my International “A” selection (Purple Hibiscus), I’m on to 1001 Books titles. But it’ll be a while before I get to the “Bs”. I’ve got three Austen novels to get through first.

Sigh. My life is rough, isn’t it?

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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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