March 20th, 2013
Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome had been on my “this book seems interesting to me” list ever since I read the New Yorker article that Jonathan Franzen wrote, while the specifics of the article faded away rather quickly, the general sense that I should be reading more of her work stayed with me. We have done a version of this book for our public domain ebooks, and I glanced through it briefly, which gave me an idea of the tone and scope of the novel. But upon a closer reading, it’s actually quite incredible what Wharton accomplishes in the novella–she tells the entire story of the very sad, very tragic lives of Ethan, his wife Zeena, and her cousin Mattie with brevity, which actually allows for the weight of what happens to them to settle without it feeling overwhelming.
In short, Ethan’s unhappily married to a hypochondriac woman. Zeena wasn’t always that way–there was a point where she helped Ethan’s family out immensely (the reason they married), but for years they’d been engaged in a psychological battle. Zeena’s “illnesses” defining reasons why their lives are incapable of moving forward. When Mattie shows up, a poor cousin of Zeena’s without anywhere else to go, Ethan’s life changes. And when Zeena leaves for a far-flung doctor’s appointment, the two nights he and Mattie spend together have the potential to change their unhappy lives forever. For upon her return, Zeena means to turn Mattie out, and as she’s his last glance at happiness, Ethan will do anything to prevent it from happening.
Oh, the heartbreak in this little book. It’s truly and completely engrossing. Her choice of words, how she structures the story, it all comes together in a way that elevates the everyday-ness of the events to new levels. Parts of the house is described (and I’m paraphrasing) as “grungy” even for this poor area. Ethan schlumps and slogs through his life despite his relatively young age, and Zeena, with her greasy hair and dowdy clothes remains unbearable from day one. The narrator’s removed–a stranger, an outsider–they’re able to honestly look at what happened in ways that someone intimately involved with the events in the book would be unable to. Does their slight poverty increase the tragic elements in the novel? Absolutely. But it doesn’t define them. They act the way they do simply because they have no choice to otherwise. It’s a novel that explores how limited the choices are for women of a certain class, and it does that expertly. In a way, I enjoyed this little book even more than I enjoyed The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, both books I adore, by the way, because of its simplicity and sadness.
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.
February 5th, 2012
My copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die characterizes Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot as such: “This is a fascinating jigsaw puzzle of a book.” And while it’s not an untrue statement, it’s also a little dismissive of what I feel is the real, true accomplishment of this novella — Barnes’s complete ability to broadly reimagine the constructs of the “novel.” In a way, if you were reading critically, you could define the book in so many different ways: a post-modern collection speaking back to one of the greats of Western literature, Flaubert; a finely tuned, self-referential critique of the Ivory Tower nature of literary history and criticism; a highly personal story of a man (a doctor) relating so deeply to a story and characters (in Madame Bovary) that it allows him the space to come to terms with the state of his own life; and the more you read it, the more you see in it — that’s the utter brilliance of this work. (more…)
December 16th, 2011
Yes, I am very behind. I have read seven different books in the last little while that need to be written about, I will be getting caught up over the next week or so because as of today at 5 PM, I am on vacation until January 3rd.
RRHB: “At least you can get some rest.”
And I laughed, what does that actually mean? Rushing around for the holidays, cooking like mad, scrambling to see loved ones of all shapes and sizes? Probably. But do you know what it also means? Naps.
I miss naps.
And then I read Akhmatova’s poetry over the last week on my commute to and from work. Her writing is simple yet powerful, serene yet complex, and utterly, completely captivating.
My favourite of all of the poems in this little volume is a fragment that goes like this:
But I warn you,
I am living for the last time.
Not as a swallow, not as a maple
Not a as a reed nor as a star,
Not as water from a spring,
Not as bells in a tower —
Shall I return to trouble you
Nor visit other people’s dreams
She lived through prison camp, through bad marriages, through hard Russian winters, through so much hardship, and she managed to still turn words into beautiful things for me to admire. It’s joyous, the wonderful, spirited, heightened magic that is the power of language, isn’t it?
October 30th, 2011
Anyone who might dismiss Lynn Coady’s masterful Saints of Big Harbour as a regional novel would be selling themselves short, I think. Yes, it’s set in Nova Scotia in a small town adjunct to an even smaller hamlet where life resists any change that doesn’t first come in the form of a rumour; and yet, it’s as a pure novel that explores the ideas of love, life, and family as I’ve ever read anywhere. The whole book just swooped in and stole my heart.
Guy wants nothing more than to date a girl “not from around here.” “Here” being the place where he’s grown up, outside of town, with a single mother, a sister who has already escaped, and a half-crazed uncle hell bent on ruining his life all the while claiming to save it. And when the girl of his dreams turns out to be slightly unhinged (or a teenager), his life takes a complex turn. As if being a teenager isn’t hard enough, Guy has to contend with Isadore, his unhinged, alcoholic uncle, whose violent, angry, controlling tendencies keep his family under continual threat of emotional explosion. And when Corinne Fortune makes up a story about him, avoiding violence (from her brother, from his uncle) becomes a way of life for poor Guy.
It’s a multi-perspective novel, and more and more Coady’s writing reminds me of other great Canadian storytellers like Paul Quarrington. There’s an element of humour. An instance of absurdity. And yet, it feels so utterly honest and real, and depicts a life that if I took one step to the right, I could completely see myself living. That’s how real her characters feel to me. The story barrels along and it hums with efficiency — there’s so much truth in the telling, from her portrayals of alcoholism to the unhappiness of a teenage girl, that I was consistently amazed at the evenness of Coady’s storytelling — it never falters, never waivers.
October 27th, 2011
After reading Lucky Jim for book club, there was chatter about other “set in post-secondary education” novels and whether or not they were successful. One of the books that was mentioned was Lynn Coady’s Mean Boy. As I’ve talked about earlier, I’ve been on a quest this year to clear off my shelves and get through all the books gathering dust in my life. It’s an impossible task — I’ve been reading my “old” books in a haphazard, semi-alphabetical/dewey-like system since a few months into the RRBB’s life. I was, at first, reading “A” titles from Canada, England, etc., and then gave up and just wanted to power through one country before moving on to another. So, I’ve started with my Canada shelf, and I’m at C now (FINALLY) and have three Lynn Coady novels to get through (four if I add the *new* The Antagonist to the list even though I’ve promised myself that I’ll only read one new book for every one from the TBR pile), which means it’s weeks before I get through just this one particular author, sheesh. All of this rambling is to say that I’m knee-deep in Coady these days. I raced through Mean Boy, am half-way through The Saints of Big Harbour, and had actually started The Antagonist weeks ago before I felt too guilty for not reading all of her backlist. In a lesser writer I’d be frustrated by having to read so many of their books in such a short period of time. Lucky for me then to discover that I LOVE Lynn Coady. (more…)
October 20th, 2011
There’s a definite advantage to being back at work and that’s reading time during my morning and evening commutes. One would think that would have me reading at a furious pace except that now my days are so full that I feel as though we are in a sailboat during one hell of a windstorm with the waves threatening to capsize our vessel at any moment. So, I’m reading but I’m not finishing a lot of books. And I’m still desperately trying to get through my shelves because I’ve started, gasp, collecting all kinds of books again now that they are there and ripe for the picking. I just can’t seem to resist a shortlist these days.
So, I finished Dionne Brand’s novel, What We All Long For, a couple weeks ago, and haven’t had the chance to string any thoughts together until now. The novel opens up with a heartbreaking tragedy: a Vietnamese family attempting to flee their native country loses their son in the mayhem of the escape. Quy’s father thinks his mother has him; his mother thinks the opposite. And it turns out neither does, the boy, just a toddler really, mistakes a pair of shoes, pants, for his father and ends up on a boat that takes him entirely away from his loved ones and into a world of crime, abuse and relentless self-survival. When his family lands in Toronto, they are broken and never truly recover, even the siblings born after the boy is lost feel an emptiness where a there should be a brother.
Quy’s youngest sister Tuyen, whom he never met, bridges the difficult gap between the two worlds. Her parents want her to stay home, to be more family-oriented, and she wants to spread her wings, explore her art and her sexuality, move beyond the sadness that has defined their lives to this point. Tuyen and her friends Carla, Oku and Jackie, are all young, just trying to find a way to live life on their own terms, to battle their own demons. They are the children of immigrants straddling expectations and opportunities with an increasingly split perspective, and writing this kind of dichotomy is something that Brand does exceptionally well. (more…)
September 4th, 2011
There’s something about Miriam Toews’s writing that I absolutely adore. It’s quirky, yes. It’s stylistically her own, yes. And yet, even though, as a writer, Toews has such a distinctive voice that you’d think that it would overpower the narrative, the characters, it really doesn’t (at least in my humble opinion). In her latest novel, she revisits some familiar themes and/or characters: young girls with troubled home lives, Mennonite families with conflicting issues, generational problems, bossy-rebellious little sisters, and adventures that are necessary and compulsive. Irma Voth, a young, freshly married Mennonite woman who has married outside of her society, lives with her husband (they are both teenagers) in a house on her father’s compound without electricity or running water. They married in secret. Her father has shunned her — she can milk the cows for her house but in no other way is Irma allowed to interact with her family.
When her husband essentially abandons her for asking too many questions (read: they married way too young and there was no way it was going to work out), Irma takes up with a Mexican film crew, and her life is forever changed. Irma misses Canada, her father absconded with the family when she was young, and she, and her sister Aggie, have fond memories of snow and their older sister, Katie. When the events unfold that drive Irma off the compound and onto the streets of Mexico City with Aggie and another, precious, package in tow, the two transform into the people perhaps they were always meant to be: strong, independent young women who both need to accept and come to terms with what Irma calls her “sins.” (more…)
August 11th, 2011
ASIDE: I know I’m skipping #63 – I read Chester Brown’s Paying For It a couple of weeks ago but feel that it is a book best discussed in person. Also, I’m waiting for my RRHB to finish it too so we can discuss it before I actually pull all of my thoughts together. So, The Quarry. Of course, I always finish really big books really late at night. Even though I’m this-close to sleep, I always need to start another book. Generally, I pick something short. Damon Galgut’s The Quarry fit the bill — the entire book clocks in at 202 pages. Perfect for those moments in between epic reading undertakings.
But to dismiss Galgut’s work as simple or frothy just because of its size would be a mistake. He’s not an easy writer. He’s a succinct, sharp, unpunctuated writer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the book doesn’t carry weight. Like I’ve mentioned in other reviews of his work, Galgut reminds me of Coetzee. They similar sparse prose and they use violence as a backdrop to open a much larger, richer conversation about the state of society.
As the novel opens, the main character who is never directly named (with the exception of the name he takes later on, which is not his own) hides from oncoming traffic in the vast outer territories of South Africa. And by “traffic,” I mean one car. When the next car rumbles to a stop, he’s forced out of hiding in a way, and offered a ride by a minister going far north to a small church to work. They share awkward conversation and drink the communal wine. And then, the man kills the minister. It’s quick, frighteningly violent, and utterly unnecessary — but it’s the crime that sets off the major action in the book (and I’m not spoiling it by writing it here, either, as it’s on the dust jacket). (more…)
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…)