February 5th, 2012
When the book arrived in the mail for my upcoming book club with a thunk, I thought, “there’s no way I can make it through 650+ pages before Saturday.” And then, magically, I did. And then, no so magically, I didn’t even get to go to book club because the RRBB was terrifically sick (104 fever, oh my!), and he basically used me as a couch from Thursday to Sunday, which was one of the hardest parenting weekends I’d had in a long time.
Annywaay, Skippy. Oh, the poor soul, so troubled, so riddled with angst, so deliciously in love with an unworthy girl. And then, it happens, he dies and the whole world that he leaves behind can’t seem to cope with the loss. Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies would have made for excellent book club discussion had I been able to participate. And, from the sounds of things, it did. One would imagine that many threads of a 600+ page novel would get lost, but Murray manages to keep a handle on the sprawling story for the most part. Sure, there were parts that I would have excised, but, on the whole, the book’s utterly readable and incredibly well-paced from beginning to end. (more…)
May 12th, 2011
There’s just something about Roddy Doyle’s writing that reminds me of The Pogues song “Bottle of Smoke.” It’s just so quintessentially fast-paced, direct, and full of great storytelling. These short stories speed along like a day at the races, and reading them feels like you’ve come ahead a winner — ‘like a drunken f*ck on a Saturday night, up came that Bottle of Smoke.’ All thirteen stories are from a man’s point of view, that’s not to say that there aren’t female characters, but these men, some older, some younger, have all reached middle age. They’ve watched their kids grow up, they’ve watched their parents grow old, they’ve had jobs, they’ve lost them, they’ve lived and loved, but most of all, they’ve survived.
Doyle’s writing, so succinct, so of the moment, and his dialogue and the entire demeanor of the stories remains so refreshing, that you feel like you’re sitting next to the author in a pub as he tells the story. Despite their similarities, the characters are all still so distinct — and it reminds me of a great writing lesson that I was once told by a teacher who really, really disliked me and what I had to say — they each have something that defines them, that stops them from becoming a stereotype, whether it’s a reaction to a situation or a particular thing they love about the woman that became their wife.
I enjoyed each and every one of these stories, so it’s hard to pull one or two out as my favourites. They all blended together so nicely, like an evening of conversation at a pub with a group of old, familiar friends, and the writing is so controlled that there isn’t a sense of unevenness that I generally find with short story collections. I enjoyed “Teacher” and “Bullfighting” — as both dealt with interesting situations — the former, a man’s struggle with alcoholism; the latter, a group of friends who take a trip to Spain. Male friendship isn’t always explored in the books that I read on a regular basis. It’s either there as a crutch, a necessary side-kick and/or reason to move the plot along in a mystery, but in “Bullfighting,” it’s the central theme of the story. These four men have know each other forever, and they don’t have to talk about their feelings or share their inner secrets, they can just sit around and shoot the shit. And Doyle knows just how to write it to ensure that there’s a poignancy to the everyday that can’t be avoided, that needs to be celebrated.
It’s a wonderful collection. And for all my ranting about reading far too many short story collections these days, I have to say that I’d take one by Doyle over a novel just about any day. It’s just excellent.
December 14th, 2010
Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way surprised me, and that’s not easy to do. Yesterday, I had plucked it and Sarah Waters’s Affinity off my shelves to start reading upon finishing up the Mo Hayder. I don’t know why I chose one over the other — except the beginning passages of Barry’s novel reminded me in a way of A Star Called Henry, and once I started, I couldn’t put the book down until I was weeping at the end.
Willie Dunne, the son of a police commander in Dublin, hasn’t grown tall enough (you must be six feet) by his teenage years to join the constabulary so, instead, he joins the army at the very beginning of the First World War. Willie and his three sisters live in the Police Castle with their father, their mother having passed away in childbirth years before. The Dublin before the war is a very different Dublin during the war and even more so once the war is over. Home Rule becomes an issue, and the Irish soldiers fighting for freedom, country and King, go from heroes to villains in one fell swoop. And while Willie is far away from the politics invading his country, his life, his identity, stuck in the mud at the Somme, breathing in mustard gas at Ypres, and seeing death and destruction all around, the very nature of the issues are never far away either.
Barry, from what I can gather from his short bio at the beginning of the novel, is a playwright, and often you can sense this throughout. The dialogue and characters are so very well developed, so pristine in their environment, that you know there’s been a sure hand in their creation. But, often, much of what sits outside the characters and their dialogue, and this is a rare criticism for I enjoyed this novel very much, feels like stage direction — a lot of repetitive details, re-used observations, and a little bit too much of a dependence on heavy metaphors.
Yet, you can’t help but have your heart on your sleeve when reading Willie Dunne’s story. He has tender feelings for Gretta, a girl whose father was injured by Willie’s dad himself during a particular uprising; and this love keeps him alive as he sits covered in lice, grime and his own piss at the bottom of a trench. The horrors of the First World War have been fictionalized by Canadian writers so exceptionally over the course of our literary history. The horses sinking into the mud in The Wars, the morphine-addicted character in Three Day Road; the First World War defined Canada as a nation, we were exhalted for our bravery, we held positions, and this is how I’m used to reading the events. Yet, Barry has an entirely different perspective — Willie’s split in two. He’s on furlough when Easter 1916 happens, and he sees the violence in a way that changes his mind about how or why he should be fighting. But it’s so easy to be political when you’re not the one in the trench, in a way, when you’re the one throwing the rocks and refusing to go, abandoning the boys that went — but those boys are still suffering, barraged by mortars and attacked at every corner by the enemy, their lives are not their own, but they must own their actions.
And when Willie is left for his second furlough, and aspects of his homecoming are inevitably difficult, your heart breaks for him. Nothing has stayed the same in Dublin during the time he’s been at war, but he needs the stability, and needs to come home. What happens to a man no, rather, a boy born into his manhood by seeing and participating in unspeakable horror, who can’t go home again? It’s fitting when he arrives upon his doorstep that his youngest sister doesn’t recognize him, and when everything he hoped to come back to falls apart, Willie still does the honourable thing — he goes and visits the family of his fallen Captain, a man he respected because he held the line during the first instances of the gas when everyone else, rightfully, fled to save their lives.
There’s a cast of motley characters that survive alongside our hero. My favourite, Christy Moran, the second in command, a brash, ballsy, opinionated brave fellow who hands away a medal as easily as he would share a ration, manages to add a lightness to many situations. There’s the usual stereotyping of the Irish by the brass — and by some of the other soldiers — but the perspective on this war, the sacrifices that these boys made, and how it all changed because of what was happening at home, well, I’ve never read anything like it. While Henry Smart was holed up in the Post Office in A Star Called Henry, Willie Dunne was holed up in a trench in France and Belgium. They come from different places but they represent two very distinct aspects of Irish history, and Barry, alongside Roddy Doyle, creates an interesting, almost bookended reading experience should one choose to tackle the two novels together.
In the end, I wept, and wept, and there was more than one moment where I put my hand over my heart and held tight to my baby. This is not a post-partum emotional reader talking — this is the result of a powerful story wrapped in a wonderful character. In the end, I was very sad to see his story close.
READING CHALLENGES: The Off the Shelf Challenge of course, and as Barry is Irish, I’m counting A Long Long Way for Around the World in 52 Days. Over the last couple weeks, I think I’ve managed to get through about 10 books from my shelves. There are hundreds more to go but I doubt I’ll make my annual reading goal of 100 books. Simply too much went on this year. I think, too, I’ll forgo my annual top 10 books list as well — I’m just going to keep plowing through titles in the wee hours of the morning and actually enjoy the fact that our baby still wakes up a couple of times in the night to give me those stolen moments when everything is so quiet and my mind can wander over words, imagination, and impressive stories I don’t expect to enjoy as much as I do.
March 21st, 2010
I had wanted to finish either The Wig My Father Wore or The Third Policeman by St. Patrick’s Day as my monthly “themed” reading. Oddly, both books are truly absurd, which is why I only finished one of them. I’m not sure if absurdist fiction is necessarily for me — in a way, I don’t like to be confused or feel like a story is convoluted just for the sake of making a point. Sure, I read Beckett in university and enjoyed it at the time but these days I just don’t have the concentration it requires to read something that deems the absurd a necessary plot point. Hence my abandonment of The Third Policeman.
And while Anne Enright’s The Wig My Father Wore dips its toes into the same kind of storytelling, there’s at least somewhat of a plot to keep you motivated. Grace, the novel’s protagonist, opens her door one evening after work (she’s a producer for a Dating Game-style show in Ireland) to discover an angel on her stoop. Stephen lives with her for a time. They have cryptic conversations and an even stranger love affair all the while he’s changing her body — literally.
There are parts to Enright’s writing that are almost unbearably beautiful. Grace finds herself in a difficult time in her life — her job’s in peril and her father’s dying — and it seems the angel has come along at just the right time. He helps her to come to terms with her life, but he also comes with a bit of havoc (imagine your body disappearing before your eyes, imagine!), and as Grace looks back at her childhood, at her father’s strange, inappropriate wig, the story makes sense.
But often, aspects of this book just don’t come together in the same way, and its far too convoluted for my tastes. Imagine a chicklit scenario (young woman trying to find herself working for a dating television show), with a bit of Legion (except he’s not a wicked angel, but someone in between trying to earn his wings), and BBC Drama (the dying father) thrown in — the book simply doesn’t make sense.
It’s a shame because I adored, adored The Gathering. I felt like all of Enright’s formidable talents, her sharp perception, her angst with family life, was put to good use. In The Wig My Father Wore any good will I had about the former book is lost the moment I reread sections where Stephen the angel attempts to become a contestant on her dating game show. I mean, really? That said, I marked more than one passage as I was reading, especially the more domestic sections with her mother.
But in this one sentence, squeezed my heart as well: “I woke up grateful and sick with grief, as if I could not carry my heart anymore; it had burst and spread, like an old yolk.”
Keep those sentences and toss back the rest.
WHAT’S UPCOMING: Still going to trudge to the end of The Third Policeman, if only because it’s on the 1001 Books list and I hate not finishing books. There’s always something good in them, even if it’s just one sentence that sticks with me. Then I’m going to read for work, and maybe finish the third Stieg Larsson galley that a friend sent over. It’s awesome. I think the charges he’s anti-feminist are bollocks, BTW.
Whew, that’s enough rambling for today.
READING CHALLENGES: Enright’s Irish, so that’s one for Around the World in 52 Books.
January 8th, 2010
For the majority of my life, I’ve associated with Dracula (the character) with scary things I’d rather not imagine thank you very much. “I vant to suck your blood” refrains and the truly awful Francis Ford Coppola movie that I remember seeing in the theatre did nothing to help the cause. Bram Stoker’s (pictured left) book was mentally filed, “never going to read.”
#2. 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die happened.
#3. The Strand happened (and I fell a little in love with the TP edition I found sitting a top a pile of totally unrelated books).
#4. “My RRHB read the book in one sitting and wouldn’t stop talking about it” happened.
Which meant I simply couldn’t ignore it any longer.
And rightly so. It’s an excellent novel. Echoes of one of my all-time favourite books, Frankenstein, are found within the epistolary format; the novel contains a truly kick-ass female heroine (why was that never portrayed in any film who actually stands up and fights both for her life and for her friends [in a totally appropriate 19th century way, of course] in a way a certain, modern character [ahem, starts with a “B” and ends with a “hella” er “ella”] never does); and there are some really fun, creepy scenes of Dracula making his way to England (the boat, ahhh, the boat) that actually made me shudder and I flipped the pages. Put all of it together and I’m kind of shocked to say that I’m really glad I finally finished Dracula.
If I have but one criticism of Stoker’s work, it would have to be the bits of the book told in colloquial dialogue. I found Van Helsing’s sections hard to understand and the way he spoke to be kind of silly and affected (not his character; that’s exactly the opposite of this). But I got over this quickly as the book’s action and pacing ripped me along on another part of the adventure. The story’s so rich, so layered and so utterly engaging that my own preconceptions about affected speech/dialogue in novels can be set aside.
Also, it’s pretty neat to see the literary evolution of the vampire from the sort-of beginning. I’m sure there were earlier moments in terms of the vampire appearing in literature, but I like thinking about all the moments in pop culture that has sprung from this particular text. Annywaaay, I just loved it.
READING CHALLENGES: 1001, baby.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: Reading The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, Clean by Alejandro Junger, the first Sookie Stackhouse book and Sometimes a Great Notion. Yes, we’ll see which one I actually finish first. Your guess is as good as mine.
May 14th, 2009
Weeks have passed since I finished reading Colm Toibin’s ridiculously fabulous new novel, Brooklyn. When the book arrived in the mail, I let it sit on my desk for a couple of days because I knew it was one of those books that once I started reading, I wouldn’t be able to put it down. Both of Toibin’s previous books were equally excellent but Brooklyn is hands down my favourite. In fact, I’m going to say that it’s probably the best book I’ve read so far this year.
Eilis has spent her entire life in the village of Enniscorthy where she spends her days taking bookkeeping classes and her nights being ignored by local boys at local dances. She lives in the shadow of her successful, poised, well-dressed older sister Rose, who has built an existence for herself in the small town with a good job and a passion for golf. When a priest from Brooklyn comes to visit and offers Eilis the chance at a new life — a job, a place to stay, a world away from Enniscorthy — and she takes it. After all, both of her brothers have left to make their fortunes in England, and Rose does nothing but encourage her to take the chance.
In Brooklyn, Eilis finds herself, she works hard as a shop girl during the day, and continues to learn bookkeeping at night. Simple goals, but all within reach. And her life truly opens up when she meets Tony. Her homesickness has passed, and despite the moral strictness of 1950s America (not to mention Ireland), Eilis actually feels happy until tragedy brings her home. Everything is different now. Eilis is different, changed, more confident, schooled, and experienced, which leads her to a crossroads. Does she stay in Enniscorthy or does she return to Brooklyn, to Tony?
The story reads overtly simplistic when you think about it — a coming of age tale, an immigrant’s experience — but Toibin’s skill at telling it remains unwavering throughout. His language, his ability to cast the characters, to explore their emotional situation without ever having them openly express an emotion stunned me. What more can you ask of a book than it be a well told story with well developed characters who make a choice that ultimately defines their life in the end? How many young girls emigrated, found themselves away from home, unhappy, and then surprisingly ensconced in a new life that widens their world?
Eilis doesn’t always make the right decisions. Her human flaws are always apparent. Yet, her story has you engaged from the very moment the novel opens with the simple action of her watching Rose come home from work. If anyone out there has read and hasn’t fallen completely in love with this novel as I have, I will swear right now that we can never be friends.
READING CHALLENGES: I’m counting Toibin as my Irish entry for Around the World in 52 Books. It’s also #1 so far in terms of the 30-odd books I’ve read so far this year…
January 11th, 2009
Like so many of the classics on the 1001 Books list, it’s easy to know the premise and/or general story of the books, but be utterly ignorant of the details. I’ve never read an Oscar Wilde play, but seen quite a few, enjoyed the films (both Wilde and The Importance of Being Earnest), and had only heard of Dorian Gray because my RRHB dragged me to the truly horrible The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. What a surprise it was to read The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s different from what I expected, full of Wilde’s infamous wit even if the writing is a little melodramatic, but it’s also wonderfully spooky and even a little surprising in places.
A young, beautiful man becomes the subject of a painter, Basil Hallward. The blush and brilliance of his youth inspires the artist as nothing ever has before and the resulting piece contains a bit of magic he’ll never achieve again. Dorian Gray, the subject, learns of his own beauty, through the painting and makes a vain wish to never suffer the indignities of losing his youth. The painting, once it hangs in Dorian’s own house, starts to degrade each time he acts wickedly. It shoulders the burden of age. It withers, wrinkles and bleeds. Buoyed on by the psychology and philosophy of his best friend, Lord Henry Wotten, Dorian leads a life of purely hedonistic endeavors. He ruins women. He collects icons without any thought to their religious values. Society adores him, but he has enemies, women swoon, and men wish they were him. Sound familiar? Yet throughout it all, the painting haunts him, and makes it impossible for Dorian to completely forget his actions. The lives he ruined haunt Gray and by the end of the novel he questioning whether or not redemption is even possible.
The novel has gothic overtones, which I enjoyed immensely, as well as a character who’s driven to act in ways he may not have had he not been celebrated for his external qualities. In a way, the novel reminded me of Woody Allen’s film Match Point. There were so many quotable pages that I wished I had a physical copy of the book (instead of an ebook) so that I could earmark all the pages. And I was intensely curious about Wilde’s decision to imbue the book with luscious and sometimes over the top descriptions of the natural world in which they live. Flowers, the smell of winter, the pine trees, lovely blossoms, everything compliments the glorious state of utter hedonism throughout. The malcontent Dorian feels towards the picture gets locked up in a dusty old schoolroom, closed off from his everyday life. The violence in the novel is contained and away from good society, as Lord Henry says, crime is beneath them. The moral of the story utterly apparent by the time the novel ends and, in a world where Hollywood images of ageless people rule the magazine stands, I’m surprised more references aren’t made to the book in pop culture. A whole generation of Dorian Grays inhabit our modern world, raised up by millions wishing they too were young, beautiful and apparently indestructible.
READING CHALLENGES: The Picture of Dorian Gray is on the 1001 Books list, and is one of the 66 titles that I’ve highlighted for the year. Really I’m just trying to clean some space off my Sony Reader so that I can put some more classics on it. Truly, it’s the best gadget I’ve ever owned. It’s replaced my blackberry forever in my heart.
September 20th, 2008
No other chicklit writer even comes close to achieving what Keyes can: strong, morally based stories about real women that grab your attention from the very first page and hold on to it tight like a hand on a roller coaster. Her latest, This Charming Man, is no exception. To be honest, my wrist is strained from holding the book up until all hours on Monday night (I wasn’t sleeping anyway). I mean, it’s 676 pages!
The story follows four very different women all connected by one man: Paddy de Courcy. As Ireland’s most eligible bachelor, de Courcy has been courting women for years. Now that he’s ready to settle down with Alicia, how will all of the other women cope with his absence from their lives? For Nola, it means she leaves her life, her job, and her entire world behind to escape the grief that her politician boyfriend is marrying someone else. For sisters Grace (a journalist) and Marnie (a troubled office manager), it means ending a life-long obsession they each had with Paddy. And, lastly, for Alicia, his intended, it means finally recognizing the love she’s carried for Paddy since adolescence.
The lives of the four women intersect and the narrative changes between their four perspectives. If I had a favourite storyline, it would have to be Nola, whose breakdown is tempered by her delightful adventures living in her friend’s uncle’s summer house. But as with all of Marian Keyes’s books, there’s a hidden story behind the sweet writing that slowly reveals itself as each of the women confess their own problems when it comes to Paddy de Courcy. Being in the public eye, as a member of an up and coming Irish political party, does little to save face as the novel unravels his less than charming persona.
I won’t give anything more away except to say that while I’ve been ill this week with that damned bronchitis, this has kept very good company indeed.
READING CHALLENGES: Chicklit, chicklit and more chicklit, but at least Keyes is Irish so that counts as a country other than the one my arse currently occupies.
March 21st, 2008
While not at all typical in its writing style or its telling, John Banville’s The Sea is a book with a familiar story. An older man suffers a tragedy that stops his life short and in the process looks back at a particular point in his youth, another moment that he realizes far too late that defines him. It’s the story Richard B. Wright told so well in October, that Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses explores so deftly, and that Banville toys with in The Sea. His protagonist, Max Morden, has just watched his wife die from an insufferable illness and simply can’t cope. He leaves his life (and even refuses to go back to the house they shared together) and returns to the small sea side town where he used to vacation with his parents before they split up.
The small village of Ballyless, miles away from a town ironically called Ballymore by Max, holds sway over him. It was the site where he fell for his first love, a tempestuous, temperamental and even bullying tomboy of a girl named Chloe. As Max grieves for his wife, he rolls back over the motions of his life, the summer he spent with Chloe and her (I’m assuming autistic) brother Myles, their governess Rose, and their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Grace. Much more than a symbol, the sea itself governs all of his actions that summer, he shows off swimming, they play at the seaside, and every character changes during the time they spend by the water, some for better, some for worse.
With both of his defining relationships now behind him, his marriage and his definitive first love, Max seems unable to move beyond either. Moored to both experiences as a boat to a dock, he can’t cast himself off from the past, even though his daughter desperately wants to save him from himself. An art critic, he can’t help but look at everything with the same discerning eye he would apply to a painting, pulling his life apart strip by beautiful strip, setting it under the same disturbing light he applies to his professional life.
I dogeared so many of the almost-200 pages of this novel and constantly wondered about Banville’s impressive vocabulary, his superb ability to create suspense within a story without the reader ever expecting the tale’s many twists, and how he packed so much into such a short novel. I can absolutely see how and why he won the Booker for this novel in 2005.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The book sitting on top of my book, that I printed out in its entirety yesterday, shocked and kind of thrilled at the size of the manuscript.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: Tim Winton’s The Turning.
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.’