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…)
October 11th, 2011
I remember reading all about the advance and/or the sale of Dennis Bock’s first novel, The Ash Garden. And when I read the novel, I was completely taken by not only the story but his writing as well. But then, The Communist’s Daughter, despite how much I enjoyed the first novel, sat on my shelves for years and years and years. So I’m glad that I’m reading in alphabetical order because this novel probably would have sat on my shelves for another many years without it.
Years ago, I felt very Canadian as I watched on the CBC or some such, Donald Sutherland’s starring role as Norman Bethune. Who knows why, but in my romantic youth I was obsessed with Bethune. Perhaps I had always dreamed of communist doctors fighting for the good cause in faraway places. Perhaps I had idealized the idea of the Spanish Civil War in terms of all the great minds that participated in the cause. All of this is to say that I’m much older now. No longer a wide-eyed innocent, I enjoyed Bock’s portrayal of Bethune in this novel, even if, as anyone know who reads this blog, the format (it’s epistolary) drove me bananas.
The novel opens with a series of letters, each in a different ‘envelope,’ written on old typewriter with a mocked up old ribbon to Bethune’s daughter, whom he has never met. Born in Spain to his Swedish lover, the girl’s mother passed away in tragic circumstances, leaving Bethune bereft but not dissuaded from his cause. When he begins his tale, truly a record of his life, loves and losses, for his daughter, Bethune’s in China attempting to shore up battlefield surgeries, improve their frontline medical conditions and teach the masses about not only blood transfusions but also the fundamentals of Western hospital care. Struck with tuberculosis while a younger man, his lungs are troubled now and his health is failing. Before he finishes, he needs to tell his daughter everything about his life, from beginning to end, and the narrative skips back and forth from Canada to China, from Spain and the oceans in between. (more…)
September 2nd, 2010
Please, please forgive the pun but I’m going to fawn over Alissa York’s magnificent Fauna over the next few paragraphs. Good lord I fell hard for this novel, for the author’s imagination, likening my experience of reading this book to the high school crush I had on a boy named Chris P. Rice — his blond hair and blue eyes ruining me for months when our brief love affair ended. I fell and fell hard, just like I did for Fauna.
The novel counts squirrels, bats, raccoons, coyotes, and skunks among its characters. All kinds of critters combine to create a world that exists, wild and sometimes frantic, in and around the edges of the urban city of Toronto. In a way, even the human characters are misfits, outcasts, human versions of the animals they co-habitat with in between the pages. Edal, a troubled young woman who used to work for the Forestry service, currently on leave, befriends and then feels abandoned by a mouse in her house. She’s suffered a loss that she can’t quantify and spends much of the book trying to find her way back from tragedy.
And while you don’t find out what that tragedy is until the end of the book, how she comes to met Guy, a kindhearted animal lover who runs a scrap heap/yard/towing service feels magical and reminiscent of fairy tales. Edal enters his giant yard by a locked gate (The Secret Garden!), finds their magical world (SPOILER: an animal graveyard covered with hubcaps), and returns often to listen to him read The Jungle Book out loud (ever good relationship starts with a story). Rounding out Guy’s (he’s named after Lafleur, people pronounce it incorrectly ALL the time) motley crew are Stephen, a wounded war vet and Lily, a teenage runaway who makes her home in the Don Valley.
The novel takes you through each of these characters, and one other, Darius aka “Coyote Cop,” as they interact with various different kinds of wildlife in the city. Oh, and there’s another character, Kate, who is also broken — she works at an animal rehabilitation clinic in the city and meets Lily as she’s jogging through the Valley. The one theme that holds them all together is their love of animals. Whether as a career or a hobby or, in Darius’s case, as a strange obsession, animals become a focal point to how they understand the world around them. Every single one of York’s characters feels empathy in a way that accelerates how connected we are with the animal world around us, even when we live in a concrete jungle like Toronto.
Yet, even when the animal characters show up in the vignettes, York’s not anthropomorphizing in any way. These aren’t Disney squirrels. They aren’t Alvin and his brothers. I mean, it would be impossible not to describe them in human terms, but you get a real sense of what life is like for a skunk in the city, you feel the raccoons fingers trying to figure out a bungee cord, and you see the car lights flashing by as the animals attempt to cross the road. It makes the world of this novel feel more organic than setting traditionally is in a novel — the leaves and trees, the bugs, the mice, the living, breathing world that surrounds these characters becomes so much more rich and alive with York’s magical thinking (I KNOW, I hate using that term but it feels magical, it does).
There’s little about this novel I didn’t like. There’s deep emotional resonance, fascinating characters, and even if the essence of the novel’s plot runs a bit thin, the wildness and imagination that courses through every page, every sentence, of the book more than makes up for it. I didn’t need a lot to happen on the surface of this novel — because the ideas that drive the story were so rich and experiential that I was pulled along regardless. It’s one of my favourites I’ve read this year, absolutely. Highly, highly recommended.
April 7th, 2010
Amanda (my intern) and I will be co-reviewing the book over at Savvy Reader, just like we did for Cool Water, but I still wanted to write my own thoughts down about this exceptional novel. No, that’s not hyperbole — I truly think Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That is exceptional from start to finish. And when I did finish the book on my way home yesterday, I ended up bawling like a baby on the subway with all kinds of commuters looking at me oddly. Yes, it’s a good thing I had the physical book and not a gadget, or else they would have really thought me strange.
Shep Knacker has always been a self-starter. Despite his lack of a university education (his pastor father still holds the fact that he never went to college against him), he managed to build up a million-dollar handyman business before selling it to a bohunk (one that keeps him employed, more to humiliate Shep than anything else). On the eve of Shep finally taking the plunge into his ultimate dream of The Afterlife, escaping to foreign soils where he and his family would live off of the proceeds of his company’s sale, tragic news stops him in his tracks. Shep’s wife, Glynis, has never been all that supportive of The Afterlife. She resents the idea that he wants to get away from everything (modern life, her) and spend his dying days on Pemba, an island off the coast of Tanzania. So when Glynis announces that she has a very rare and very virulent form of cancer (mesothelioma) that requires immediate and expensive treatment, it’s almost a passive aggressive attack on her husband and his dreams. Upon hearing he’s about to up and leave for Pemba, has even bought the tickets, she announces almost blithely, “I do wish you wouldn’t… I’m afraid I will need your health insurance.”
The other set of main characters in the novel are Jackson, Shep’s coworker and best friend, and his family. His eldest daughter, Flicka, is a teenager who suffers from Familial Dysautonomia (FD), yet another rare and difficult disease. Carol, Jackson’s wife, is Flicka’s primary health care provider, and the family’s other daughter, Heather, often feels excluded because her sister demands so much attention. They are a typical New York family — they own a house in Brooklyn with a hefty mortgage and the couple works night and day to afford the care for their daughter, much of which isn’t covered by their combined insurance policies.
Regardless of how you might feel about the debates raging south of the border — the ridiculous “Tea Party,” the sensational news coverage by the right, the objections by the right, all of it — the idea that health care and the fundamental lack of affordable ways of getting it, form a central thesis in the novel. It’s topical and timely, but not preachy. Oh, it passes judgement but more in the sense that it allows the reader to draw her own conclusions by presenting facts and an honest, if fictional, situation.
In the face of their diseases, both Glynis and Flicka find comfort in one another — that’s not to say that they are “happy” by any means to be sick. The opposite, in fact, is often true, and Shriver’s uncanny ability to write characters who are at once complex and yet so unbearably human comes into sharp focus in this novel, just as it did with We Need to Talk About Kevin. The impact of the two unhealthy individuals shatters each family in different ways. The patients are angry, upset, and unflinchingly honest when they need to be about their diseases. But the road to acceptance, to leading a life where disease is always present and can never be escaped (and here’s something I know better than most), is never easy. Glynis fights to live. Sometimes, Flicka fights to die.
The moral issues Shriver explores, the sheer expense of health care in the States, the value of a human life (the millions of dollars spent on treatment), becomes so much more than a moral question — it’s the entry point for examining American society in general. From Jackson’s anti-establishment rants to Glynis’s fervent need to blame someone for her cancer (in this case, it’s the company who produced artistic supplies for her metalwork training when she was a student — they contained asbestos, the cause of her cancer). And because Shep has always paid for everything, that’s just his role in his family, he pays and pays and pays — for Glynis’s treatment, for his father’s old age home, for his sister’s heating bills (and is she ever a piece of work). No matter how hard he works, no matter how much he cares about his family, his life seems to crumble down upon him as penny by penny disappears from his Afterlife account.
At any point in this novel, there are moments when you simply don’t like the characters. You can’t believe they’re acting so selfishly, are so obtuse. And then, something happens and you see them in a different light. I’d argue that few living novelists do this as well as Shriver. She has a talent for pulling out extraordinary details in ordinary lives and writing them in a way that’s original and provocative.
As a girl who has dealt with a serious illness for all of her adult life, I couldn’t help but associate with the two characters dealing with disease. And while my Wegener’s is nowhere near as aggressive as Glynis’s cancer (because it’s moderated with medicine, unchecked it’ll kill me in terrible ways) or as impactful as Flicka’s FD (primarily because you can’t tell I’m sick by looking at me; at least I hope you can’t), the psychological warfare that disease plagues one with remains ridiculously effective throughout this entire novel. Shriver’s research reads impeccably — she writes the side effects, the symptoms, the treatments, the physical implications of each disease in such rich detail — and it’s the main reason the reader becomes so emotionally involved with this story. And the ending, well, I’m not going to spoil it — I’m only going to say it’s absolutely perfect and calls to mind the absolutely perfect ending of another exceptional novel, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.
Highly, highly recommended. This is not a novel that will disappoint even the most cynical of readers.
WHAT’S NEXT: Ian McEwan’s Solar. I’m 30 pages in and loving the Salman Rushdie “man in midlife crisis” of it all.