December 19th, 2011
My reading life this year has been defined by my “discovery” of Julian Barnes. I think I’ve read four of his books over the last fourteen or so months, and honestly think he’s one of the finest novelists working in English today. The Sense of an Ending, his Booker-prize winning novella (because it’s really short, come on!), reminded me a little of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, both because it’s short, but mainly because they both have protagonists whose lives are defined by a fractured relationship that seems to drive an earthquake-sized fissure through their lives.
Tony’s an average man. Balding. Divorced. Retired. He has a good relationship with his ex-wife and his daughter. He travelled a bit in his youth. He held down a good job. He has a nice little condo. All in all, he has had a happy life. Perhaps not necessarily fulfilling in the way that you imagine, you romanticize, adulthood when you’re in the throes of the high points of your youth. While in school, Tony’s and his friends envelop Adrian into their fold — he’s charming, ridiculously intelligent, and soon becomes a favourite of both the teachers and students alike. He’s a young philosopher who dissects a fellow student’s suicide with a calm, exacting kind of matter reminiscent of some of the great existential minds, and when he goes off to study at Oxford or Cambridge (one of those high profile British universities anyway), it’s not surprising. He has that kind of energy that pulls people towards him, including, Tony’s first serious girlfriend.
Everyone knows memory isn’t anything close to the truth (the heroine of Before I Go To Sleep knows that better than anyone, I think). It’s selective and seductive — keeps the good (and the terrible; hell, don’t we all have those “stop your heart” moments where you look back and feel the utter ruin of a moment?) and reverberates the bad. And as Tony goes backwards, forwards, and in between, to piece together why said ex-girlfriend’s mother has left him not only money in her will but Adrian’s diary (and how did she get it in the first place?), the story slowly unravels into truth. And like the best of novels, like the best of writers, the story, the ending, is not at all what one would expect.
The sense, I think, that the title refers to the many ways that situations can end — death, obviously, break-ups, naturally, but also philosophically, that is, knowing how and when to say good-bye, to bring things to an end. There’s a moment, always, when one can go too far with something, hurt people, get hurt oneself, and Barnes explores this theme brilliantly. The narrator of the book, utterly fallible to human emotions, human mistakes, finally understands the complex nature of the situation, and the revel is everything you expect from a superior novelist. There are no cracks or fissures in this book. No stray words, no false pretences, no extraneous, well, anything. It’s not a lengthy or even as rich a novel as say Arthur and George, but the way it looks at moral questions, the way it builds character and suspense, remains engaging from start to finish. I know, in a way, that perhaps the Booker committee gave him the award as a kind of lifetime achievement situation, but, in the end, when a book is this good, does it really matter?
I’ve been sitting here for a few minutes trying to think of how to write about Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues. Firstly, it’s an amazing alternative history or, rather, underwritten history of the Second World War. A group of jazz musicians in Paris, a young half-German boy among them, a gifted musician, perhaps the most gifted among them, is taken by the Nazi’s while simply on a quest for milk. His companion, Sid, his friend, another musician, perhaps not as gifted, watches as the Gestapo carts Hiero away. This is the moment that haunts Sid for the rest of his life, through multiple wives and multiple lives, it’s not something that he’ll ever forget.
Yet, Edugyan’s story isn’t so straightforward. Yes, it’s a novel about musicians during the war. It’s about displaced people and a how a burgeoning art form creates families among the young men who eat, drink and live jazz. It’s about betrayal and loyalty as much as it is about cowardice and making hard choices in impossible situations. Sid is an amazingly conflicted character — he acts, well, human in situations where one would think that morality needs to have a higher purpose. Life, in times of war, is not to be taken for granted and, yet, he seems unable at times to move beyond his own jealousy about the music, about his own inability to come to terms that the gods have not necessarily bestowed him with the same kind of gifts as his fellow musicians.
August 9th, 2011
The year that Kiran Desai won the Booker Prize, I was working at Random House of Canada. She attended a party, that I think was thrown because it was the International Festival of Authors, and I remember thinking that she was both regal and beautiful — I was in awe. Normally, I don’t get starstruck by authors, especially ones where I have never read their work, but I was incredibly familiar with her mother’s writing (many courses in post-colonial literature and a slight obsession with Baumgarter’s Bombay), and found myself hovering around her trying to get a word in edgewise or at least shake her hand. Neither happened. I’m sad about that now, only because, years and years later, I have finally gotten around to finishing The Inheritance of Loss, and did not find it lacking in the least. In fact, it ultimately lives up to the image I have of Desai: tall, gracious, and utterly beautiful.
The Inheritance of Loss follows the lives of a select group of people living near the Kalimpong mountains. They are as cut off from the world around them as they are, ultimately, from themselves — their geography forming an incredible metaphor for the loss each character has in terms of self-awareness as the novel progresses. There’s the judge, Jemubhai Patel, who hides away in his decrepit, falling down house because he’s both determined and disabused by his own false societal notions (an Indian who aspires to be English, he feels cut-off from his own society and therefore physically removes himself from it), and his cook, whose son, Biju has escaped to America and is forever in search of an elusive green card — both men have been living together for decades upholding a false sense of classicism as the house, the world, and their archaic notions crumble down around them. (more…)
July 28th, 2011
What 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…)
November 30th, 2010
Paul Harding’s novel, Tinkers, won the Pulitzer Prize last year, and it’s a novel more than worth its success. First published by the Bellevue Literary Press in NYC, the novel will hopefully find a wider audience now that it’s being published by HarperCollins. Anyway, the publishing history isn’t really the purpose of writing a review on the blog, is it?
In a way, Tinkers will feel familiar to Canadians, it’s premise, an old man lays dying and reflects on his life, is one that we’re quite familiar with. If it were only called Stone Tinkers, it’d probably be a bestseller. The novel intertwines the stories of son and father, George and Howard Aaron Crosby, as George lays dying, system shutting down, in his living room. Surrounded by family, sometimes George knows what’s happening, sometimes his body betrays him, but Harding has a particular talent for writing his death honestly and without pretense.
George, a clock repairman, has led a happy, quiet life. Precision guides him, even in death, and as his body shuts down, its elements of machinery, the very same things that guided George through life, are failing. His mind wanders, he can’t recognize the family members by his bed, but he notices that his favourite clock isn’t wound. In this simple example, it’s apparent that one of the most moving aspects of Tinkers remains Harding’s ability to describe a body deteriorating into death. Tears came to my eyes more than once throughout my reading of this novel — I was reminded of my mother, of how her body failed in the few days it took her to die. Sometimes his descriptions were so apt that I felt the pain of the loss in my chest. To me, that’s the sign of an exceptional writer. Someone who can move you to remember or feel something so personal yet so unrelated to the story by the simple power of a sentence.
Harding attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and worked with Marilynne Robinson, and you can feel her influence all over this novel. It’s quiet but intense, the characters are wholly good people with complex flaws, and the novel’s simple story betrays the power of the prose. Overall, I’d highly recommend this book — it’s a quick, emotionally satisfying read — it’s perfect for a rainy day when you have some time to spend just laying about on the couch. But have a tissue or two on hand…
August 18th, 2009
Lionel Shriver’s Orange prize-winning novel has been on my “to be read” pile ever since I started working at HarperCollins Canada, two point five years ago. Somehow, it always got shuffled around, whether or not I was trying to start or finish a challenge, or something flashy had caught my eye, the book remained on the pile. I guess I found the subject matter a little daunting: a mother talks through letters to her ex-husband about their troubled child, Kevin, who was responsible for a serious school shooting incident.
But once you start We Need to Talk About Kevin, it’s almost impossible to put down. Shriver has a way with character that forces the reader to confront human nature head on — both the good and the bad. There’s no stereotype in Eva. She’s an individual who has made her way in the world, created a successful company and lives a happy life with her husband. She’s hesitant to start a family for a number of reasons: will she be a good mother, how will a baby change their lives, what will it do to her relationship, all of which seem rational when making a decision as big as whether or not to start a family. And it’s apparent that it’s a decision, and not an accident, when she gets pregnant with Kevin. Everything else that happens later seems to fall from Eva as a result of her inability to feel happy about the birth of her son. It’s not as if she blames herself but more that she’s working through the blame, the denial, the regret, as she sends letter after letter to her estranged husband, Franklin.
The letters are personal and they are obviously missing a bit of perspective. But that’s why they are just so effective, you are in Eva’s life irrevocably, and you feel her pain, are motivated by her hurt, and want to understand what went wrong almost as much as she does. I don’t think you can write a book like this without laying bare the limitations of humanity in a way — of society’s ability to forgive and forget to a point that benefits those directly involved in tragedy. For Eva, she’s haunted by her losses, surely, but she’s also haunted by the simple fact that life doesn’t end even if you might want it to, even if you believe it should. You take a step and move into a more, miserable life, but you’re alive nonetheless.
Her relationship to her son, the mass murderer, is complex, difficult, aching, and utterly real. But what I loved most about my Perennial edition, was the story behind the book at the end. Apparently, Shriver (and I’m paraphrasing so hopefully I don’t get this too wrong) wrote this novel really quickly and sent it to her agent at the time who rejected it entirely. The string of novels she’d written up to that point hadn’t been enormously successful and when the agent refused to sell it, Shriver took it upon herself to send it to an editor friend, who ultimately (I think) published the book. Then, as we all know, it won a well-deserved Orange Prize. Sometimes a writer simply has to trust her own voice. Right?
June 12th, 2008
Quinn posted up a note this morning that Rawi Hage has won the IMPAC award. I only made it through three of the shortlisted books (too many challenges; too much travelling; very little reading) but DeNiro’s Game was one that I read and loved. It’s nice to see novels that were shortlisted for Canadian prizes, like the book I’m currently about 20 pages away from finishing, The Book of Negroes (which just won The Commonwealth Prize), go on to win international prizes. It’s not as if I’m writing a “here’s the trouble with the Giller” note or anything, but I’m glad that both DeNiro’s Game and The Book of Negroes will go on to find larger audiences as a result of the attention.
Posting has been sparse, life seems to be overwhelmingly busy these days. And we’re on the road again tomorrow, taking a family trip to NYC. Right now I feel like I’ve been travelling for months. And for those moments where I’m sitting behind my desk staring out the window thinking how nice it would be to have a job where I travelled even more, I’ll need to remember this feeling. The one where I just want to be home with a good book, my two working hands, and some time to get caught up on my writing.
January 9th, 2008
Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People is a bloody good book. A book I wasn’t necessarily expecting to be as riveting as I certainly found it, and by far one of the best titles I’ve read from the 1001 Books list. In fact, I was so obsessed with finishing that I stood on Lansdowne Ave and read the last two pages before walking home. Some guy walked by, chuckled, and said, “Must be a really good book.”
The story takes place in South Africa in 1980 during an uprising, which is fictional, where the country is invaded by Mozambique. With mayhem all around, Maureen, her husband Bam, and their three children are forced to flee the city. Their servant, whom they call July, offers to take them to his village, where they settle in his mother-in-law’s hut for the time being.
Stripped of their city life, their status, and with nothing but the colour of their skin and a few prized possessions (a “bakkie” [truck] and a rifle) to remind them of what life was once like and despite their fiercely liberal beliefs, Bam and Maureen struggle to get along in this foreign world. Fighting fleas, sickness in their children, language difficulties, and a whole host of other problems, it’s a challenge just to get through a day.
After weeks pass, the family starts to adjust, and the little motions that happen in families start again. The children make friends, and even Maureen finds herself more comfortable around the other women, gathering greens for dinner with them, speaking in broken Afrikaans to them, and managing the hut with a strong hand. But as a whole the family cannot flourish in the environment, and as a result, the relationship between July and the Smales breaks down.
Once affable, even amiable, small things pick away at the core differences between them: how July refuses to give back the car keys after taking a trip to town; how Maureen lords the information of his city mistress over him; and how he adjusts to life back in the village full time, how his own presence effects his family unused to seeing him home. Themes of racial inequality are impossible to ignore, as they’re turned on their heads, then ripped apart, and forced into situations that exploit how the idea of the liberalism so cherished by Maureen and her husband in a philosophical way is almost farcical.
In one of my undergraduate classes in post-colonial literature, I read Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, which I remember to be just as poignant and readable as July’s People. It was the same year that I read my first novel by J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, but for some reason, I carried on reading him and abandoned Gordimer altogether. Maybe now is the time for me to read more Gordimer? Especially considering how much I enjoyed this novel.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: Because I didn’t have my camera with me on Lansdowne as I read the last two pages, I’ve piled the book up on a stack of ARCs that I have to take back to work. Oh, and there are some stocking feet poking their way in as well as the library book I need to return. Ah, the life of a literary gal.
READING CHALLENGES: July’s People is on two of my lists: the 1001 Books I’d like to read this year, and the South African entry in my current Around the World in 52 Books. I’d highly recommend it for either. Oh, and I think Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature (which I just confirmed on Wikipedia; she won in 1991), so we can add that to the major award winners that I’ve read in my lifetime too. Whew. Kind of like a bird life list for bookish peeps.
November 28th, 2007
Elizabeth Hay’s lovely, Giller-winning novel took me quite some time to read. Set in Yellowknife in 1975, the novel follows a group of CBC radio people as they make their way through an informative part of their lives. Touched by the presence of two relative strangers, Dido from The Netherlands and Gwen from small-town Ontario (if I’m remembering correctly), the station’s manager, Harry, finds his life categorically changed from the moment he meets both women. Their presence in his life and at his station act as a kind of impetuous for change for many of the other people these two come into contact with, and in his own way, Harry falls for both, with differing results.
As the novel drifts in and out of the lives of the various characters, you can tell that Hay feels out each and every one with an intensity that can do nothing except inform the story. As the life in the station exists both on and off the air, it becomes apparent that each person in her narrative has come north and stayed for different reasons. There’s something so subtle about Hay’s writing, and about this story in general, that builds up over the time spent engrossed in the book.
And when the four main characters, Gwen, Harry, Ralph and Eleanor, set off into The Barrens for a trip of a lifetime, you know that they’ll come back changed. It’s a novel about that moment in life that you only realize later has come to define your entire life. While all the characters are too close for this to become clear, the narrator gives little hints throughout the text (meant to serve maybe as suspense; in my opinion not entirely necessary), and on the whole it works well structurally.
While I haven’t read many of the other shortlisted titles (just two Effigy and Divisdero), I do think that Hay’s novel has the scope, the emotion, and the heartbreak to be a novel deserving of the prize. I adored Garbo Laughs, and I felt this novel taught me many things, not only about life north of sixty, but also about the idea of radio, the importance of it in the lives of these characters, how sometimes a career isn’t necessarily built but its found, and that love can move in many forms within a person’s heart.
It’s interesting that two of the more intriguing books in Canadian fiction this year have been set in the North, Kevin Patterson’s brilliant Consumption, and now Late Nights on Air. Maybe it’ll get more people thinking about how different the landscape will be in the next fifty years if we don’t make an effort to preserve it. Every inch of Hay’s novel is full of the scenery, not just to set the story, but to inhabit it, like we do our desk chairs every day, from the flora, the fauna, the wildlife, it’s a world that demands attention, and not just on a fictional level.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I finished the book in bed this week, and so a picture of it on my bedside table taken from the perspective of my head laying on the pillow.
October 27th, 2007
After hearing Anne Enright read last weekend at the festival, I raced home afterwards and started The Gathering right away (well, after I’d finished with Hemingway, of course). In part because I loved her reading of the work, powerfully spoken with a voice fraught with emotion and a hint of exhaustion, but also because the novel just won the Booker. (I get caught up in awards, I’m not ashamed to say. It’s a good way to discover new writers, right?). Not surprisingly, the book reads in much the same way: it too is powerful, full of emotion, and teeters on the emotional edge that Veronica, the novel’s 39-year-old protagonist, finds herself.
Charged with telling her aging mother, worn out after raising twelve children and enduring another seven miscarriages, that her brother’s body has been found in Brighton, Veronica struggles to cope with his death. As if the absence now of him from her life entirely puts her entire existence into a sharper focus, and until she gets it all down, until she tells the story of what happened when she was eight or nine in the living room of her grandmother’s house, Veronica simply can’t move on. As if the past has finally come up and choked her future, and without blowing it all out around her, she’ll never breath the same way again.
The narrative that spills out over the next few hundreds pages fights with itself at every turn, angry, raw, overwhelmed, Veronica takes hold of what’s left of her life and shakes it, pulls all the pieces down around her and then can’t really tell how to put them back together again. In the end, I’m not clear if she has or not, but it doesn’t really matter because this book is so painfully honest about life, about family, about tragedy, that becoming ‘normal’ again isn’t much the point.
Just before she started her reading, Enright mentioned that now The Gathering had taken the prize, she felt far more tender toward it, considering so many more people were going to read it now with the shiny gold sticker on its cover. And I can see why she might need to make the distinction. Veronica isn’t a character that you feel an affinity for, she’s a character that pulls you into loving her with sharp fingernails and a bitter edge to her voice. She’s at once complex and plain, difficult and bright, and smart and ridiculous all at the same time. But she’s also got to get to the end of this, not her life, but just these feelings hauling her out to the metaphorical sea of her family’s existence.
It’s a book about memory, about the lies we tell ourselves every day, about what family means and what it doesn’t, and about how people don’t change, ‘they are merely revealed.’