my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

October 27th, 2011

#76 – Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

Short stories are epic and amazing things to read on the subway. They give you the false impression that they are “lighter” reading than novels because of their length, but I’ve been finding that so many of the collections I’ve read as of late pack an emotional punch that knocks me out after ten rounds a-la the Ali rope-a-dope, and none walloped me harder than Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner.

Like many obnoxious city dwellers, I pride myself on my political correctness. I urge my life forward in terms of pop culture knowledge and feel some pride that I can still scramble in some quality viewing in terms of films, television. I’m achingly earnest about my interest in environmental issues, even if we struggle on a daily basis with our consumption and teaching our families about our feelings about how much stuff there is in the world. But Zsuzsi Gartner takes a machete to pop culture, and slices through it with her razor-sharp prose, like I said on Twitter, and inevitably makes you think about it in a way that consistently questions my own steadfast resolve in my own “goodness” (if that makes any sense).

In many of her stories, there’s an element of the fantastic — a man reverts back to the stone age, becoming more neanderthal by the day, barbecues become open pits, women turn feral, and a young girl rides out of the ravine on a tortoise. The group of neighbours, all healthy, wealthy and utterly politically correct, can’t understand what’s so appealing about ripping open a 2-4 and roasting giant, hulking hunks of meat over an open flame. Houses disappear due to mud slides (I imagine) but never claim a human life. Young, adopted Chinese girls fly up into the air and are no longer human. The stories are awe-inspiring. Both in the sense that Gartner’s awe-inspiring imagination is unparalleled in Canadian writing (I think) but also in how she manages to create a world that’s so utterly familiar and terrifically strange at the same time. I’s kind of like Fringe, in a way, with two realities — the one in which I live every day and the other where it’s not strange to see a blimp floating on by. (more…)

September 4th, 2011

#69 – Irma Voth

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…)

September 2nd, 2011

Good Gravy, Reviews, Wha?

I am so behind in, not just my reading, but my writing about my reading it isn’t even funny. So, for posterity, I have finished the following books:

#66 – A Gate At The Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Truth be told, I loved this book like a high school crush, I couldn’t get enough of it. The tragedy of it felt a bit forced but the writing remained so fresh and inspiring all the way through that I forgave Moore for the melodrama. Her writing reminds me a little of Miriam Toews (I’m reading Irma Voth right now) and perhaps that’s why I ear-marked about 100 pages of phrases and thoughts that melted my heart as Tassie Keltjin, a 20-year-old university student who becomes a nanny only for the entire situation to go so magnificently awry in the most horrible of ways (no death, nothing gruesome, just sad), suffers through one of the most pivotal years of her life. The book is so, so sad, but that’s what makes it so, so good in my estimation.

#67 – Pulse by Julian Barnes

Personally, and I’ll take anyone to task, I think Barnes is one of the best short story writers working today. It’s an amazing little collection. I liked every story. I love Barnes. I don’t know what else to say. Well, except that the package — the cover art etc., is terrible. Truly.

#68 – Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

My, when I started this book I raved and raved to my aunt that Elizabeth Hay was one of the best Canadian writers working today. The story of the young girl’s murder, the narrator’s amazingly intriguing aunt Connie, the setting (Ottawa and Saskatchewan), it all came together and gave me a reason to rip through the pages, and then half-way through the book, the whole thing sort of fell flat, like a ginger ale, really awesome when you first open it, then by the time you get to the bottom of the can, your teeth hurt and your whole mouth feels kind of fuzzy. It’s not her best novel, and that’s all I’m going to say at the moment because I am about to go and play some cards on my last night here at the cottage.

August 25th, 2011

#65 – The Astral

Thunderstorms, summer colds, visiting friends, awesome weather, terrible weather, baby not napping — all of this contributes to being very behind in a) reading and b) blogging. Anyway, I’m going to try and get caught up…

The Astral by Kate Christensen

I ran hot and cold with this novel. I searched for a plot, and then realized that it was more a novel about character than action, which was okay with once I decided to just go with it. The story of an aging poet, Harry Quirk, who has just been tossed out on his elbow from not only his home but his thirty-year marriage to Luz, the novel meanders around their lives, intersects meaningfully with the lives of their children, and brushes up against the lives of many of their friends.

Harry reminded me a great deal of Charles Bukowski, not in appearance, voice, or anything other than the fact he was a poet and liked to have a drink every now and again. That coupled with his rambling persona as he walks the streets of Brooklyn, well, I couldn’t get Bukowski out of my mind — that’s not Christensen’s fault. Anyway, Harry tries and tries to get his wife back, to convince her he is not, nor has he ever been, having an affair with his best friend, a photographer who has just lost her husband. I really liked the relationship between Harry and Marion. It’s rare to see a platonic relationship between a man and a woman so accurately and responsibly produced in print.  (more…)

August 11th, 2011

#64 – The Quarry

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 7th, 2011

#61 – Fair Play by Tove Jansson

There are so many things I am thankful for when it comes to my Vicious Circle book club. The ladies are amazing, intelligent and actually love to discuss books. But they are also so well read that it’s crazy — I am consistently in awe of all of the books, and authors, my friends  (and I feel privledged to call these women friends) know. Before the Vicious Circle, I had never heard of Tove Jansson. After book club, I can’t imagine my life without her.

I finished Fair Play last week and am still standing in amazement at its simple complexity. The story of two life-long partners, Jonna and Mari, the book consists of short chapters that follow the two women through their travels, the creation of their artwork, and their lives together in a small cottage on a far-away, solitary island. Their conversations are simple yet laced with meaning. Their actions are the same and Jansson, as Ali Smith points out so adroitly in the introduction, consistently plays with the interaction between love and work. The love, between these two women, feels both sisterly and romantic. They debate films with the heated intensity of siblings that are forever at odds with one another. Yet, they have a delicate, lovely cadence with one another — even when jealous rears its ugly head or the weather turns utterly dangerous — that can only come from a lifetime spent in love.  (more…)

#60 – The Devil’s Company by David Liss

The Devil's Company by David LissI enjoy David Liss’s novels so much. They aren’t my typical reading material — I don’t read a lot of true historical fiction (I do read a lot of literary fiction, a lot of which takes place during historical moments but, somehow, it’s not quite the same). Regardless, Liss writes rollicking adventure tales that are smart, intricate and remind  me a little of the best of Charles Dickens. You never quite know what’s going to happen and you can be sure that every single detail will mean something by the time you get to the end of the book.

In The Devil’s Company, Benjamin Weaver, the hero from Liss’s previous A Conspiracy of Paper, takes on an evil man named Cobb who has gone about buying up the debts of his friends and loved ones to force Weaver into doing his bidding. Of course, as the reasons for Weaver’s indentured servitude unravel, no one turns out to be who they seem to be, and surprise after surprise drives the plot towards its conclusion. I quite enjoy Benjamin Weaver — his brash, fists-first way of attacking a problem as his mind figures out the best way to get himself out of a situation. Soon Cobb has him acting as a thug/go-to man for one of the East India Company’s most industrious and, well, evil men. Everyone, it seems, is protecting his or her interests, not only in the company, but in the trade of cotton as well — and fortunes are both made and lost in this novel.

Overall, all I can really say about this book is that it’s a rollicking adventure that I read quickly and without prejudice (if that makes any sense.

July 28th, 2011

#59 – Still Alice by Lisa Genova

My RRHB has a saying whenever anyone asks him contracting advice about their basements: “you can’t win against water.” This saying kept echoing and echoing through my mind as I read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice last night into the wee hours because the baby woke up at 2AM, and I couldn’t get either to sleep or back to sleep, so I pretty much finished the book in one sitting. The only other Alzheimer’s-related story I’ve read is by Alice Munro, and it’s aching, brilliant and cutting at the same time (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain“) so I sort of expected the same emotional resonance that carried throughout that story to be found in this novel, and I don’t know why, but it’s just not there.

Alice, the title character, starts having strange episodes involving her memory. She’s a “brilliant” psychology professor at Harvard who has devoted her life to understanding linguistics, and her equally brilliant scientist of a husband might just cure cancer (honestly); the two share a wonderful life, three equally brilliant kids, and a whole host of truly awful dialogue as the episodes become diagnosed as early-onset Alzheimer’s. I know the book jacket tells me this is an award-winning NY Times bestseller but, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why. It honestly read more like a really bad Lifetime movie of the week in parts, and I couldn’t abide by the melodrama.

(more…)

#57 – A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From the Good Squad coverWhat 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…)

July 27th, 2011

#56 – The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky

The Big Oyster - TP Edition

When I alphabetized by bookshelves to gain some order over the suburban sprawl of my TBR piles (read: four book shelves), I neglected to include any nonfiction in my overall reading strategy. I see now this was a mistake because I really love narrative nonfiction, especially when it’s well-written and about New York City. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, while, yes, might be a bit repetitive and contain perhaps one too many historical recipes that feel like filler, fits the bill. I have never read anything else by Mark Kurlansky but I am ever-curious to read more of his nonfiction after finishing this book.

From the early Dutch settlers to the heyday of the Golden Age, New Yorkers have always consumed copious amounts of oysters. The social-anthropological thesis behind Kurlansky’s narrative fascinated me: human beings, in any situation, will simply ruin a natural, wonderful thing (oysters in the NY and surrounding harbours) by industry, profit and greed. And what’s worse, while the environmental message rings clear in this book, it’s amazing to me that even if they did bring the oysters back, the water at the bottom is so dead (no oxygen) that they wouldn’t survive. Ironically, as many activists point out, oysters are like vacuums cleaning up the waters for us. Annnywaay, that’s my rant about the ruination of our earth.

Back to the more fun things. It’s fascinating to examine the growth of a city through food — how it evolved, how it became an industry, and how said industry changed once the product disappeared for good. I loved how everyone in NYC: rich, poor, tourist, eats oysters — heck, my RRHB and I even took his parents to the beautiful oyster bar in Grand Central Station for dinner — all throughout history. Starting with the native peoples who first traded with the Dutch, through the English colonization and then downfall of their rule, and into the Golden Age, one thing remains constant: an unwaivering appetite for oysters among the inhabitants of one of the world’s greatest cities.  (more…)

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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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