April 1st, 2013
I’m not sure what to say about Tamara Faith Bergen’s Maidenhead. I know it was hard for me to read, something akin to watching that film Thirteen where you know a world exists like this, but it’s just perhaps too real. Myra, a relatively inexperienced sixteen-year-old “meets” Elijah (and I say that in quotes because he was actually hunting her or someone like her, young, virginal, easy to be preyed upon) while on holiday in Key West. What follows is a story of sexual awakening coupled with some very extreme emotional issues as Myra’s mother leaves the family, and her father retreats into the basement, emerging red-eyed and downtrodden. Like many smart teenagers with little adult supervision, she’s back and forth between drugs, sex, and this Elijah character who doesn’t necessarily take advantage of her at first (as she’s ready and willing to be with him)… but, I don’t even know. She’s young, wild, and knows her own mind, but the situation, as much as it frees her, is dangerous.
There are a lot of themes, threads, and intelligent issues in the novel, but overall I felt it lacking something. In a sense, I wanted Myra to be more than just a f*#ked up teenager with a value to shock. I wanted the relationships with her parents to be less stereotypical, and I found the odd play-type dialogue between Myra’s friend Lee and Elijah’s girlfriend Gayl, a little off-putting. And the p0*n, which really isn’t my thing, was a little overwhelming. I do, however, appreciate that Coach House published the book–even if it ended up not quite being for me.
March 13th, 2013
I read a lot of good books. Books I’d recommend heartily to friends and family. Books I push on strangers at various events. Books I try to sell. Books with good writing, a solid story, and that provide a solid experience from start to finish. Good writing is good writing. But great writing, well, that brings an emotional depth that resonates and goes beyond the story itself. Poached Eggs on Toast is, simply put, great writing. Frances Itani’s Deafening was a glorious novel, but I think that when she’s faced with the short story, her work packs a punch that the format allows–there’s no doubt that the pieces in this collection benefit from their length. They are focussed, sharp, intense, and brilliantly characterized.
It’s true. I had often devalued the short story in my own reading. Preferring the length of a novel, I grew tired of the collections I was coming across that depended on “twee” (ugh, I despise ‘twee’) and “quirkiness” to get them to the end. But here, the basis for all of Itani’s work are the very rich and very real experiences of life. Real life. Lives that are shared, and put under pressure. Disease, war, destruction–they provide the backdrop, the impetus for her characters to do something, but Itani writes about life like nobody’s business, and that I appreciated.
A few of the stories take place in war-torn countries, wives of soldiers, diplomats, peace-keepers themselves in a very different way, leave the comfort of their homes to exist on bottled water and food in packets to keep their lives safe. One story that has resonated with me, “Marx & Co.”, which is about two friends, one of whom is dying of breast cancer, remains one of the strongest portrayals of female friendship I’ve ever read in print. Overall, I read these stories in short bursts, subway rides, before bed, moments when I’m frayed and exhausted and burnt out from the grind, and found them to be inspiring, achingly so, and I didn’t want the collection to end.
February 14th, 2013
When I finished Rebecca Rosenblum’s latest book of short stories, The Big Dream, I had one thought in my head: she’s, to put it simply, a natural writer. I’ve been reading a sh*t tonne of short stories lately, mainly for work, but also for pleasure (and my work is pleasurably so figure that dichotomy out!), because I can digest them in the 10 minutes I have before crashing at bedtime, and they’re really great for commuting. So, The Big Dream. It’s different from Rosenblum’s first collection, Once, in that there was an element of whimsy to the stories, a few of them even touching into magic realism for lack of a better term, while staying true to their urban core. The same urban/suburban settings apply to this collection–many of the stories are centered around characters who work for or on a series of trade magazines that honestly reminded me of Rogers, even though I probably shouldn’t say that out loud.
Rosenblum has an uncanny ability for writing intensely modern stories with fresh characters, but they’re all leading lives that anyone might recognize. The core issues that all of our Toronto-centric humanity deals with–love, family, happiness, selfish/less/ness, the TTC, job insecurity etc.–run like undercurrents throughout. I don’t want to point one story out to be my favourite, because I think the whole collection is so even and well-written that it wouldn’t do the pieces justice. Taken as a whole, with its links between (emails from members of the Dream magazine company), the book pieces together modern life through the myriad different people who work for, around or in the organization, but in these ordinary lives are extraordinary occurrences, observations, the things that make people individuals. I love that.
There’s a lightness and a freshness to Rosenblum’s voice. Her metaphors are exacting, and her sentences direct, but the writing isn’t sparse. It’s rich and vibrant and keeps your attention. These stories are like good episodes of a some great television you’d see on HBO, they’re definitely cable, not mainstream, if that makes any sense. Overall, I was consistently impressed–reading this book made me happy, full stop. And isn’t that a wonderful thing for a book to do?
(other books finished: Jennifer McMahon’s creepy Don’t Breathe A Word, which I found really implausible but still read it recklessly to the end, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, which I enjoyed but found a bit light; however, am intensely curious about all of the quilting designs she describes, and really loved Honor Bright, the main character).
February 13th, 2013
Like so many of my posts, I’ll start off with a confession–ever since coming back to work after mat leave almost eighteen months ago now, I’ve been woefully behind on my “work” reading. Keeping abreast of HCC books, etc., before publication was one of the perks of my job–reading books before they’re on the shelves is kind of like the ultimate spoiler to me, and I can’t resist a galley at the best of times, and for my favourite authors, I usually even read them in manuscript, that’s just how I roll.
To further confuse things, it used to be my job, as a digital marketing peep, to know and be able to talk about various titles, you know, building buzz, that sort of thing. Now that I work exclusively in ebooks, I never seem to get on top of our books until they are actually published. This brings me to The Painted Girls. I didn’t read it in manuscript or galley format–and I didn’t read our ebook, I actually took the physical book with me, a true break from my life, on my trip to New York a couple of weeks back. I read 90% of it while away, and then it took me almost two weeks to finish it as work reading (Bonnie Burnard’s Casino and Other Stories [#5]) and my January theme book, When the Body Says No, #6 crowded around.
Annnywaaay, told from the perspective of Marie and Antoinette van Goethem, the story follows the two sisters as they make their way in the world of La Belle Époque Paris at a moment in time when lives could change in an instant if a young girl, a petit rat, a ballerina, was chosen for the main stage of the Opéra, and even more if they caught the fancy of an abonné, a rich patron whose roses were always accompanied by other favours. Wrapped around them like the tulle of their practice skirts is the story of a band of ruffians, criminals who Antoinette falls in with, and Charlotte, their youngest sister, who eventually becomes a beloved fixture of the ballet.
For Marie, a young girl of just thirteen when the story opens, dance is the way up from impoverished existence, a world where hard work could change the circumstances defined by a dead father and an absinthe-addicted mother. She catches the eye of Degas, infamous now for his portraits, portrayals of young ballet girls, and begins to model for him, eventually becoming the inspiration for his sculpture, “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen.” You would think, with all of these opportunities, coupled with Marie’s own amazing and intense work ethic, that ballet would be the making of her. As it is with most good stories, opportunity is always coupled with some sort of adversity, and Marie’s path becomes obscured by the pressures of her own moral compass as it becomes tested with the new world she inhabits.
For Antoinette, the dance has already been spoiled, and her world consists of hard scrabble to find her way, taking a terribly wrong turns after falling in love with a ruffian named Émile, whose story comprises the second historical vein running through the novel–as he’s on trial for murder. Antoinette has always been the glue that holds the girls together–pulling their hair taut into buns, mending their skirts, stealing their bread, and when her love for Émile challenges the tender bonds of family, all three sisters are tested, and no one comes out unscathed.
At its heart, one would imagine this is a book about ballet, and it is, Buchanan, herself a former dancer, writes confidently and accurately about the art–it’s hard to do, dance in novels and films is often trivialized or sensationalized (Black Swan, anyone? bleech). The other novel that I read recently that presented the most honest portrayal of dance I’d ever read was Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz, a terrifically underrated gem. The Painted Girls does an exceptional job with the ballet portion of the story, it feels inherent and right, and it reminded me, like so many other girls, of a time in my life when I was emboldened by pink tights and plain black leotards, feet bruised and insteps aching, stretching myself to the limits even for a basic plié. I was never meant to be a ballerina, however, modern dance was always more for me, and so I felt for Antoinette, who wasn’t quite right for the Opéra, who struggled to find herself in a world insistent upon sending her in the wrong direction. But I think this is a book about sisters, about the bonds of family, and about the lengths that you’ll go to save someone you love–that’s what it becomes for Marie, that’s what it becomes for Antoinette.
Like Girl with a Pearl Earring, Buchanan expertly weaves art, experience, history, with the very human experiences of life and love. Breathing history and backstory seamlessly into the narrative, Buchanan creates a book that’s both rich and vivid, as beautiful as its cover. Highly recommended.
January 11th, 2013
Spending time at home over the holidays, I was mainly reading short stories, simply because they’re easy for my brain to process when I’m tired. Luckily, I have more than a few collections on my shelves, so I picked up, read, and enjoyed Jessica Westhead’s delightful, quirky And Also Sharks over the last few weeks. The people that populate the pages of these stories are hard to place–their ages, their locations–they seem mysteriously suspended in small towns, in small places that contain their lives, marriages that aren’t necessarily working, jobs that are filled with reports and decidedly odd co-workers and “plant ladies.” Westhead’s writing reminds me of Rebecca Rosenblum’s–they share that enviable talent of finding an exploitable quirk in human nature and brilliantly surfacing it throughout a story. The results are razor-sharp, humane without being twee, and riotously vivid.
I was in a meeting yesterday where one of our editors here at work was talking about how Canadian writing, in particular, elevates the short story, and it’s true–we have our own Chekov, as he described, in Alice Munro. Michael Christie, Sarah Selecky, Alexander MacLeod, Andrew Pyper–and Jessica Westhead can easily be listed alongside those writers whose ability to convey the emotional depth of a novel within far fewer paragraphs than a full-length work (I’d also add to this list Lydia Peele’s excellent Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, but she’s American…). Not every one of Westhead’s stories obviously goes one-to-one with Munro, but we have a long tradition of appreciating the form here in Canada, and I’m pleased that we take publishing, reading, reviewing, and writing short stories so seriously. I enjoyed this book immensely, highly recommended.
June 22nd, 2012
After what feels like years, I am finally coming to the end of my shelf of Bs. David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris was a particular stumbling block. Not that I have to “relate” to the characters in a book in order to enjoy reading a novel. But in this case, Morris, a middle-aged man suffering a through a life crisis after the death of his only son, Martin, was a character I felt was almost impenetrable to me as a reader. Maybe that’s too severe of a word, “impenetrable.” Maybe it was more that I really couldn’t find a way into him–I understood his suffering. I felt his pain, intensely. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for a pacifist to lose their child in the most tragic of ways (he was shot by friendly fire; a mistake by one of the men on his own patrol, so senseless). I can’t even imagine how that would rip a family apart, as it does Morris’s. Yet, it still took me probably close to eight different tries to finish reading this novel.
Let me digress for a moment: I think, personally, that David Bergen is among this country’s finest, finest writers. His novel, The Retreat, is one of the best books I read last year while on mat leave. He has a gentle, yet direct writing style that I admire. He has an ability to add emotional weight to characters and situations that manages to both move the story forward but also keep resonating with the reader–that’s an impressive skill. There were moments of exceptional writing in The Matter with Morris. But, still, that didn’t get me passed feeling Morris, as a character, fell kind of flat for me, and I think it’s because I just couldn’t relate to him. Yes, I understand the tragic, shocking reaction to his son’s death. Yes, I completely see the impetus for Bergen to want to write the emotional side of what’s been occupying the front pages of our newspapers for years. Yes, Morris was a rich, deeply troubled, quite fascinating character. Yet, I just didn’t get him. That is wholly a fault of mine and not a fault of the author’s–let’s be clear.
On the whole, I don’t know why I find emotional breakdown-type stories of the “midlife crisis” kind so, well, frustrating. There’s elements of cliche to what Morris goes through, he falls for a younger woman (who happens to be a sex worker); he wants to ‘exit’ from society by removing all of his life savings from the bank and loading them up in a safe; he’s alienated by his children for his boorish behaviour. Bergen’s writing elevates all of this to a level that would encumber lesser writers, and there were sections where the book had me in its clutches, but then Morris would do something so frustrating that I’d be lost again.
Regardless, I’m pleased that it’s up for the IMPAC this year. I think anything to get people reading ANY books by David Bergen is a good thing because, like I said above, he’s one of our greatest treasures.
March 10th, 2012
I follow @Angie_Abdou on Twitter, and she follows me. It’s a fun internet friendship. We have similar tastes in books and a penchant for crying at inopportune moments. And when I confessed that I have a strange obsession with climbing-related nonfiction, she asked if I’d enjoy climbing-related fiction and promptly mailed me a copy of her intense, addictive, and refreshing novel, The Canterbury Trail.
Of course, I’m going to digress — I lived in a town not unlike the fictional Coalton, BC. I fooled around with a boy or two insanely like F-Bomb, SOR and Loco, and while I never stayed in Banff long enough to get to ski season, I certainly did my share of dumb, dangerous things the two summers I spent there during university. And I got it. The reason why people live in places like Coalton. For me, and it’s not this way for everyone, it was one-part my youth and another part my need to run away, it wasn’t real life. I completely got Alison, the slightly-older journalist who decamped to the town and invited herself up the mountain with the boys just for the ride. When I lived in Banff, we had no television, no phone, no internet, no radio, no newspapers, nothing to tether us back down to society except beer, mountains, and elk. It was awesome. (more…)
February 20th, 2012
The one bright spot that I pulled off my shelf of “Bs” in the last week or so has got to be Julie Booker’s incredibly adept story collection, Up, Up, Up. I like, first of all, how she puts “short” back in “short story,” with many of the tales clocking in at less than ten or so pages. I also like the whimsical package, the pretty colours, and how the word “twee” never once entered my mind as I raced through the collection.
By far my favourite stories are the ones taking place in a natural setting. And by far by far, the one I enjoyed the best was the very first one, “Geology in Motion.” Because, how could you not love a story that starts like this: “Lorrie and Kate tended to say too much.” You see, they talk themselves right into an Alaskan vacation, two over-sized ladies in an under-sized kayak — woman against nature. And immediately the story brought to mind the infamous line from one of my favourite Flannery O’Connor stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” where Julian accompanies his mother to the Y for her reducing classes. (more…)
December 19th, 2011
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.
Getting caught up with book reviews might be an impossibility at this point. There are a few that I think deserve full, thoughtful reviews. But for some of the books that I’ve finished over the last little while I just want to note that I’ve read them, you know?
So, here’s my lesson: do not buy multiple books by the same author if you a) have never read the author and b) don’t know if you’d like the author’s voice in the first place. Way in the way back, I bought a copy of The Polished Hoe because it won the Giller. Then, because I thought to myself, Clarke was a Giller-winner and therefore must be a great writer, I bought a copy of another novel of his, More, before actually reading The Polished Hoe. And I found More an exceptionally hard book to get through. I’m glad I read it — it’s an interesting look at a woman living in downtown Toronto who abandoned her life’s dreams upon arriving here after taking up with a rogue of a man and having a son who becomes difficult to raise as he grows older. Yet the story, told in extreme stream of consciousness over the course of a few days when Idora discovers her son is missing (and she refuses/is scared to go to the police), remains incredibly hard to follow. And the voice, complex, issue-driven, and difficult, yet heartbreaking at the same time — it’s a highly personalized narrative, but it’s also confusing in terms of locating a coherent time/place in terms of the story. And that about did me in, I often found myself wondering where is she, what happened? how long has passed? throughout each of the diversions from the actual time frame of the novel. And then, I discovered that The Polished Hoe is written in much the same vernacular. Oh boy. Avoiding reading The Polished Hoe had me reorganizing ALL of my books in alphabetical order (instead of alphabetical by country/reading challenge) JUST to put it off for a few more days/weeks.
I read this book over a few weeks on my iPad and enjoyed it immensely. Former EW writer Jennifer Reese. Over the course of many, many months Reese undertook an enormous task: is it actually cheaper to make anythings and everything at home? From butter to cheese to vermouth to chickens to turkeys to you name it, Reese tried to make it. And you know, the results were fascinating. It was an interesting experiment — and wholly interesting in terms of the comparisons. I don’t think I’d ever make a cheesie from scratch but I might actually go back to using our breadmaker in the new year (if I can find it). The only downfall was that the formatting of the ebook was terrible — drop boxes ending up in places that didn’t make sense, strange typos, and odd recipe layouts.
To be perfectly honest, I have no idea how this book ended up on my shelves. I avoided it for months, giving up my British shelf to focus on the Canadian, because I had zero interest in reading this novel. And yet, the novel was a complete delight — the story of a young girl, coming of age, coming out, who has to cope not only with being an awkward, outcast of a teenager, but with her mother’s manic depression. Jesse wants nothing more than to fit in and, after her mother returns from hospitalization, her father moves the family to a new town where she falls in with the popular (cruel) kids. The difficulties of leading a double life, not only hiding her mother’s troubling state of mind from her friends, but also her own sexuality, come to fruition with a somewhat cliched but still utterly engrossing conclusion. This novel completely surprised me, in a good way. Beale’s a strong, empathetic writer, and by the end I was rooting so hard for Jesse that I had to remind myself she wasn’t real.
SJ Watson’s thriller seems to have done the impossible — thrilled literary and non-literary readers alike with an insanely addictive novel that is literally impossible to put down once you’ve started. In many ways, we, as a society are spoiled by the massive amount of entertainment that’s available to us. To someone who consumes a lot of pop culture, surprises are hard to come by. I mean, I can count on one hand how many times in the last ten years I’ve actually been fooled by “twists” in movies. I’m not going to step out and say that Watson’s novel is perfect — there are little inconsistencies that made me a little mental — but here’s the trick, I roared through this novel in less than a day and that’s while working full-time and taking care of a toddler. And that’s saying something about the power of his writing. When Christine wakes up, she has no idea who or where she is, amnesia has taken her life, and not for weeks, for years. Kept carefully and safely by her husband (or IS she?), Christine slowly manages to both overcome her medical condition and discover what really happened all those years ago. The novel keeps you hooked (although, like I said, anyone who knows their pop culture/thrillers/Julia Roberts movies will guess the ending) and it’s a terrific novel for a rainy Sunday afternoon when there are no good films on your PVR .