my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

May 3rd, 2012

#38 – Naked Lunch

I’ve been reading my bookshelves alphabetically for a while now, not consistently, if someone recommends a book to me or if I’ve got a book club meeting coming up, or if I’m particularly inspired, I stray, but I have managed to read many titles that have been sitting for ages this way, and I’m glad I’m doing it. I bought a copy of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in 1992. That’s right — that book has been sitting on my TBR shelf for twenty years. I went through a phase in high school where I read all kinds of beat literature, Kerouac, who still remains a favourite, changed my world when I first read him. I didn’t know books could be like that — On the Road was the perfect book for me as a kid, it filled me with a wonderful sense of curiosity, spit me out into the world, on road trips, to different provinces, adventures away from home and I have such fond memories of the physical act of reading those books.

So, I bought Naked Lunch way in the way back from Pages on Queen Street and started it once, twice, three, times, read Junkie in between and loved it, and carted the battered paperback copy around to a half-dozen apartments. Then, when I finally gave in to the fact that I honestly just had to suck it up and read the damn book, it took me a good three weeks because, and I am saying this with all honesty, I could not understand what the heck was going on half the time. So, yes, I know it’s a moderately incoherent, rambling, deeply intense and evocative piece of writing by one of America’s most controversial figures in literature. I can see why it’s important. But maybe I’m so far passed the point now of looking at my life as a long list of the “cool” things that I have read that all I really wanted was the good junkie story and far less of the Interzone oddities.

I really, really liked the Appendix, where Burroughs outlines his drug use, all of the effects, and what worked in terms of him getting clean. His dialogue is terrific, and there are some amazing characters sprinkled throughout the book, but the whole “cut up technique” (as described in my 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die text): “which serves to render the reader equally unable to make full sense of the surroundings.” Indeed. “Narratives begin, interweave, become lost, and are found again; scenarios are glimpsed then vanish from sight.” Exactly. And then all I’m screaming in my head is “What on earth is going on and that’s a lot of naked peeps and body parts and excrement and swearing and shooting up and holy hell I am one tired mother right now.”

However, I did listen to a lot of Junkie via this great link that Brain Pickings posted via Twitter, and was reminded that it is, indeed a terrific book, especially when read by Burroughs himself. Really all I have to say about this in conclusion is that I am really glad to have finished it. That’s all.

Other books read: The Last Tycoon by Fitzgerald (#39).

October 20th, 2011

#75 – What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

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…)

July 26th, 2011

#54 – Suddenly

First, I am going to preface this review with a statement: I adored Bonnie Burnard’s The Good House. It’s a novel I picked up on a whim from Book City when it was first published and sang its praises to everyone who would listen for years. It’s a classic, right up there with The Stone Diaries, Clara Callan, and Away (book I read all around the same time), and so I was excited to read Bonnie Burnard’s latest novel Suddenly, if only because it’s the first one she’s published in 10 years. That’s a long time to wait.

Sadly, I probably never should have read this book. It’s neither the right time of my life (it’s a novel about truly middle-aged women) nor am I in the right frame of mind (having spent the last nine months battling my own life-threatening disease, I couldn’t quite cope with the breast cancer victim at the centre of the novel) to appreciate the gift of Suddenly. There’s no doubt in my mind that Bonnie Burnard’s a wonderful writer. She has an ability to bring the everyday to the page that’s unparalleled by many of her contemporaries. It’s a unique gift, and her voice reminds me deeply of Carol Shields, which is why I was so very disappointed in this book.

Sandra, our heroine, finds an evil lump in her breast at the end of the summer — her grandchildren have just gone back to the city with her husband, and she sits alone after a swim contemplating the hard reality of her future. Of course, her friend Jude has battled breast cancer and survived, and Sandra hopes she will too. Alas, it is not to be, and the majority of the novel takes place on her deathbed, that awesome Canadian-woman-writer-trope, where the family rallies around and all of the action takes place in reverse as the dying go through their lives, their relationships, their happiness and their regrets with a fine-toothed comb.

But one remains easily lost within this book because the point of view isn’t that simple, it switches from Sandra, to her best friend Colleen (who is beautiful, but childless, natch, and married to Sandra’s brother, the surgeon Richard), to her other best friend Jude (the ex-hippie, jilted by a Texan lover who left her on a farm to go fight the Vietnam war after casually fathering her son), to her husband Jack, and back again. It’s all over the place and the pronoun “she” doesn’t help matters when all three main characters are women…

It’s a tedious book, with tedious, unbelievable characters: Sandra’s a saint; so’s Colleen only she’s beautiful too, Jude’s “wild” but reformed, and they all feel so old they’re covered in a layer of dust. These are the women of my mother’s generation, one of them could have been my mother, and yet they have no sense of humour, no sense of adventure and really no life in them at all — even when it’s “flashing” before them as their best friend fades away in a cloud of morphine and horrible pain from an awful disease that takes far too many women. The title confused me for nothing happens quickly in this book — Burnard takes pages and pages to describe the most mundane aspects of everyday life, episodes that would have been best excised, and the whole novel would have been better for me if it read chronologically, if I got to see these women through their lives and not just as flashbacks in Sandra’s journals, which, of course, she kept religiously her entire life.

But I feel bad being so critical, which is why I think that my original statement, that it’s neither the right time of my life nor am I in the right mindset to contemplate a novel about someone so willingly giving in to a disease — not fearing death is one thing but Sandra’s utterly unrealistic in terms of her approach to illness; no one is as saintly as she’s portrayed on the page, no one. There’s no anger, and even when there is, it’s slightly ridiculous — two women having slight “words” during a winter storm and then poof, it’s back to celebrating Sandra and her ability to hold the other two women together. Yawn.

I much prefer Lionel Shriver’s approach to illness: frank, honest, angry, and also accepting — there’s something raw and real to how she writes about sickness, and I appreciated it. There’s tedium to being sick, to having tests, to being stuck in a bed, and anger, relentless, unceasing anger about the fact that your body just isn’t doing what it’s supposed to. And I’d hope that Sandra would have a glimpse of this throughout the book, that someone, anyone, might rage against the dying of the light just a little before rubbing more lotion on her cold feet or recalling some other wonderful thing she did during her abnormally normal life and marriage.

So don’t blame Burnard — it’s a great book club book for women of my mother’s age, it’s a terrific book to give your mother-in-law for Christmas, and it would have done wonders if Oprah’s Book Club still existed and ever considered that Canada has a literature from which to choose reading material. But Suddenly, with its long, drawn-out conclusion (Sandra dies! People mourn!) just didn’t cut it for me, a girl of a certain age who has battled a mean-ass frustrating disease for months.

February 27th, 2011

#17 – Arthur & George

Oh, Julian Barnes, how I adored Arthur & George. From its opening pages right up until the end, it’s a complex mix of the fictional and the historical, a comment on colonialism/literature, and a rollicking good adventure. The novel even encouraged me to download The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to my iPad (it’s on the 1001 Books list anyway). I’m not quite sure how to alphabetize my ebooks into my reading yet so it might remain unread for some time, but I digress.

Told from either man’s changing perspectives, with a few odd other characters thrown in, the novel brings to life to exceptionally interesting characters: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, among others and George Edalji, a half-Scottish, half Parsee solicitor wrongly accused of a number of heinous crimes.

Doyle’s a larger than life character — both in the book and in his own mind, to a degree. He’s the prototype for the colonial British man: athletic, sharp, intelligent, opinionated, moral, and just (to his own sense of duty and accomplishment, if that makes any sense — we might question his upstanding “Britishness” under a post-colonial analysis and discover his beliefs lacking a broader, more realized context) and his confidence spills over every page. He marries a lovely woman because he should; and then promptly falls in love with someone else (but never acts upon his feelings in anyway that could be considered ungentlemanly). He strives to clear George Edalji’s name because it’s the right thing to do but doesn’t believe in the suffrage of women. And it’s these contradictions that make him such a fascinating character caught within Barnes’s rollicking story.

George Edalji, a firm believer in truth with a capital “T” finds himself in quite a pickle when the local constabulary arrests him for mutilating animals and sending horrible, harmful prank letters to his own family. George, a solicitor by trade, firmly believes in the good, just righteousness of the legal system. It will save him. What he doesn’t count on is the racism that feeds the decision to imprison him. Even when further animals end up mutilated, there’s a “viable” explanation as per why George is still guilty of the crimes.When Sir Arthur reads about his case in an obscure newspaper, he sets his mind upon clearing George’s name and helping him seek restitution for both his wrongful conviction and his imprisonment.

Even though their lives and personalities couldn’t be more different, when they finally meet, their actions — Doyle’s “investigation” and subsequent attacks in the press and George Edalji’s further insistence of his innocence — challenged and then changed the existing legal system. But it is the personal lives of both men that keep the narrative from feeling dry and/or crisp. Barnes remains rich in his description of their lives, their wants, their needs, their loves (or lack thereof in the case of Edalji). He’s also careful to keep a narrative distance. While we feel and know the racism behind George’s conviction — the staunch way that George himself refuses to believe it had any part in his troubles, how George firmly believes (and was brought up to be) himself to be an Englishman first, remains a fascinating part of his character. Goodness, I enjoyed this novel — its pacing, the characters, the setting, the “investigation,” — all of it. It was a bright and welcome change — to race through a book that you felt was somewhat flawless in terms of its prose and presentation.

I’ve never read any other Julian Barnes. I’m glad there is at least one other on my shelf that will be tackled the next time I reach the British section. It shouldn’t take me too long. I can’t believe that after finishing In the Time of Butterflies, I’ll be back reading Austen again — the last on my shelves.

January 31st, 2011

#11 – The Very Thought Of You

When I got the British/Irish/Scottish section of my shelves, the book that came up first was Rosie Alison’s The Very Thought of You. At the time, I couldn’t remember a) why I had this book in the first place or b) where it came from. Most of the books on my shelves are from various jobs I’ve had, things I’ve traded with friends at other publishers, blogger review copies, you get the idea. But this novel was a rarity, something I actually bought. I think I was trying to read all of the Orange Prize novels for some challenge I had invented for myself, or something.

Annnywaay, I was ultimately disappointed in this book, and found myself, more often than not, rolling my eyes at her prose and complaining, loudly, to my husband about how melodramatic and often nonsensical the book was as I was reading it yesterday while we were playing Scrabble on the iPad as the RRBB slept (you get a pattern here… a LOT of reading goes on while the RRBB sleeps these last few days). The story of a young girl evacuated from London at the start of the Second World War, The Very Thought of You simply tries too hard to capture the essence of the time and place. The novel opens promisingly — echoes of The Remains of the Day float through the book as it describes the fall of the house of Ashton, whose last remaining heir, Thomas, had just died leaving the house to the National Trust and its inevitable treasures up for auction.

Thomas, and his wife Elizabeth, opened their home to 80-odd boys and girls during the war. With his body destroyed by polio, and the remaining members of his family dead, Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth, who is, natch, beautiful but damaged, find solace in children roaming the halls and playing outside while the war rages around them. Anna Sands, a quiet, contemplative child, misses her mother desperately but finds her way at Ashton Park. The girl gets drawn into the complex adult relationships between the Ashtons and the various other people embroiled in their unhappiness.

There are way, way too many characters in this book, and much of the narrative consists of awkward, cliched prose that melodramatically describes not only the failing relationship between the main characters, but also the multiple extra-marital affairs that seem to happen all over the place. No one is happily married in Alison’s novel, and it gets a bit tiresome after a while. The story could have been simpler, the prose more direct, and then I could actually understand its inclusion on the Orange Prize longlist last year.

The author does an exceptional job of getting into the mind of Anna as a child, but then falls down by dragging the reader through the rest of her life in a Titanic-like moment that feels very put upon as an ending. There’s no doubt that Alison has talent, but the novel suffers from a lack of true perspective, it tries too hard, which ends up meaning a lot of it just isn’t believable. There’s a point where too much tragedy between the pages simply becomes too much tragedy. I felt something similar when watching The Company Men last week at Stars and Strollers. Sometimes, the reader just needs a break from all awful things humans can do to one another, they need to actually love their partners, and someone, somewhere needs to find a bit of happiness, even if it’s only for a moment. I’m not saying that Alison’s characters don’t — I’m just saying that it’s all a bit overdone.

London during the war is a fascinating subject for me. One of my favourites to read about, and the idea of the novel works, as does its basic plot — but there were two secondary characters, Norton, a diplomat with whom Thomas Ashton worked, and his wife Peter, whose lives would have made for a far more interesting novel than the sappy “love gone wrong” and then “love lost forever” storyline occupied by the Ashtons, the two main adult characters. It’s a shame when one gets to the end of a book and all one has to say for it is, “well, I’m glad that’s done.” And considering the other Orange Prize nominees, including Barbara Kingsolver’s exceptional The Lacuna, I’m surprised that the panel included this book at all. However, despite Alison’s first novel jitters (overwritten sentences, the tendency to say something, then repeat it just in case the reader didn’t get it the first time, introducing bucketloads of characters that never appear again, the need to tell the WHOLE story), I’m curious to see how she matures as a writer. I’m sure her next novel will straighten out some of the above and what great exposure for an up-and-coming writer regardless of how I ended up feeling about the book.

January 18th, 2011

#5 – Abide with Me

Elizabeth Strout is the kind of writer whose novels have such a solid moral core that you don’t even realize their depth until you’re at the end, teary-eyed, and wondering how she managed to be so subtle in her prose, yet so overwhelmingly apparent in her themes both at the same time. But wait, let me back up a little. There’s a subset of American fiction, primarily written by literary writers, people like Strout and Marilynne Robinson, that I would equate to the “old woman on her deathbed” narrative that sometimes defines our Canadian canon, and that’s the “pastor going through crisis” trope (would we call it a trope? Do I even remember what that word means?) that you find in novels like Home or Gilead. So, when I first started Abide with Me, I thought, ‘oh, here we go, Strout’s just putting in her two cents worth in terms of that American tradition.’

But what a rich tradition it is, and what a rich novel Abide with Me turned out to be. The story of a widower who is the minister of a small town in New England where the rustic setting not only traps its inhabitants during the long, cold winter, it turns them, often, against one another through fits of gossip, jealousy and petty indiscriminations. Tyler Caskey arrives young, bright-eyed and newly married. His wife, Lauren, is almost too big for the town with her bushels of red hair and big city ways. She spends too much money and isn’t all that interested in being a minister’s wife. Not to mention the fact that the town isn’t all that crazy about her, either. But then, she dies a horrible, tragic death (and I’m not spoiling anything here), and Tyler’s lost his way, and the novel turns — it becomes about grieving, about loss, about life after tragedy, and the subtle ways Strout moves through Tyler’s experience don’t even become readily apparent until the end of the novel, when you fully understand how hard it must have been for him to lose the woman he loved, but also the life he expected to lead.

Not only is Tyler suffering from the loss of his wife, but it seems everyone else in town has undergone some sort of trouble. From adultery to actual crimes, Strout’s novel pits the concept of grief up against some very real problems that exist within the human condition, perhaps to explore how grief affects people in many different ways, that it comes in many different forms. By the end, the book moves into a separate stage, and it is through the idea of healing, whether it’s by telling the truth finally, by allowing yourself to be forgiven, or by respecting the fact that sometimes you simply can’t continue, the entire town can’t help but move through Tyler’s grief with him, and it has a very poignant impact on everyone.

I adored this novel. I was so taken by the character of Katherine, Tyler’s five-year-old daughter, who so vicerally experiences her mother’s death that my heart broke on every page, and the sheer inability for the people around her to see how and why she’s suffering (with the exception of her father who, while baffled by his daughter’s behaviour, clearly loves her more than life itself) or to give her the hand she needs felt so real to me, primarily because I too lost my mother, but not at such a young age. All in all, the novel, set in the 1950s, explores gender roles, explores the banality of small-town life, the suffication of spending so much time indoors when the snow is piled high and all the women can do is make beds and polish floors to keep themselves sane, and it also explores the idea of faith, how it can stretch and bend, but also break, just at the very moment when you need it the most — and this is a theme for which I am quite familiar with in my own life these days.

I’m amazed that I had these novels just sitting collecting dust for so long. But I am a true believer in fate when it comes to reading. You pick up a book at the right time for you to be reading that book — if you don’t finish, it’s not always the book’s fault, it’s just perhaps not the right moment to be reading. I needed both Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me this month. They have enriched my life in ways that I find hard to express — and given me something to aspire to, Strout’s writing is simple exquisite.


December 31st, 2010

#67 – Amy And Isabelle

After suffering through Pearl, was I ever grateful for Elizabeth Strout’s excellent Amy and Isabelle. When I was combing the shelves for something to read, I had forgotten that Strout wrote the excellent Olive Kitteridge, and you can see similar themes in her earlier novel: small town life, history repeating itself, the problems of parenthood, mother-daughter relationships (even though Olive had a son, correct?), so I should say parent/child relationships.

Regardless, Amy and Isabelle remains a thoughtful, engrossing novel that takes place, I think as the 60s are turning into the 70s. Isabelle, the mother, and Amy, the daughter, each live with their own internal restrictions that affect their relationship. Isabelle is strict, complex, sad — she tells everyone she’s a widow, but you know that’s not the whole story — and is in love with her boss at the shoe mill where she works as a secretary. So proper she always wears pantyhose in the heat of summer (the hottest on record), her thin brown hair consistently pulled into a French twist, she’s unprepared for the issues that arise over her daughter: typical teenage stuff, lying, inappropriate love affairs, and then a shock that changes everything.

Amy’s naive in an intelligent way. She was raised by an honest, forthright person (for the most part) and believes that when someone says something, they mean it. And her good heart, her good nature, gets her into a situation that ultimately disappoints her, it’s heartbreaking for both mother and daughter.

Strout has a gift for small town life, like in Olive Kitteridge, she intersperses the story of the main character with other colourful people — people like Amy’s best friend Stacy, her parents, the church women and a truly delightful character called Fat Bev (who comes from French Canadian stock; naturally).

Shirley Falls, Maine might be experiencing a heat wave but the weather isn’t the only thing stagnating. As the summer progresses, and as the lies pile up both for Amy and for Isabelle, it’s a relief when the truth rains down, both metaphorically and literally — the storm breaks not just the weather, and it’s glorious. The novel itself reads like that moment just after a storm when everything feels fresh and renewed. I honestly enjoyed this novel so much that I spent the few spare minutes finishing it yesterday morning when I should have still been sleeping. I did regret this for a moment when the RRBB had such a rough night last night, but good lord, it was a good read. I honestly think that Alice Munro is an excellent comp for Strout, so if you’re a fan, I’d be curious to see what someone else thinks.

READING CHALLENGES: What else? Off the Shelf!

WHAT’S UP NEXT: I started Joyce Maynard’s The Good Daughters and am already finding it a bit lacking. The prose feels a little sloppy and repetitious at the moment, but I’m hoping the further I get into the actual story, the more this will abate.

December 30th, 2010

#66 – Pearl

Oh, this book. OH THIS BOOK. I wish I had better things to write about Mary Gordon’s Pearl. I know how hard it is to write a novel, and I always try to judge books with that thought in mind, but I couldn’t get over how annoying I found the narrative voice in this book. Gordon uses the second person, a device that rarely works beyond Choose Your Own Adventure, and the narrator TELLS the entire story. I know it’s obnoxious but it’s the kind of writing I hate — the storytelling, the David Adams Richards-esque, perspective that ultimately means that the writer doesn’t trust the reader to GET it.

Pearl, the title character, is a, natch, beautiful young woman in her twenties; she’s impressionable but brilliant at languages, so she’s studying Irish in Ireland in the 1990s. Taking a very tragic accident to heart, she chains herself to the American embassy after putting herself on a hunger strike for six weeks. She’s going to die for a cause — in a roundabout way, the Peace accord that Sinn Fein signed — and feels her actions are right and just. Her mother, Maria, a strong-minded, strong-willed woman who came of age in the 60s, flies to Ireland to try and save her daughter’s life.

The premise feels so forced, in fact, the melodrama of the entire story degrades the very real politics in the novel. It belittles them to the point that I was a little offended. That Pearl invokes Bobby Sands, that she is so taken by his very real and very necessary actions, isn’t what bothered me, what bothered me the most is the arrogant way the narrator speaks from her perspective. It’s not that Gordon is a bad writer — she’s just far, far too precious of a writer. It’s as if she’s in love with every single sentence and doesn’t have the heart to cut to the actual story, which, had it been allowed to be shown instead of told, could have been quite affecting.

There’s also a moment of such pure absurdity, I mean, eye-rolling absurdity, between Pearl, Maria and Joseph, Maria’s quasi-adoptive brother (he’s the son of her housekeeper; Maria’s mother died when she was two and her father employed Joseph’s mother; he became like Maria’s brother, caretaker, and so much more), that put the nail in the coffin for this novel for me. I almost didn’t finish but I am on a mission and I stuck with it. But I’ll tell you one thing — it’s hellish to try and read a book you really aren’t liking at 4 AM. On the whole, I didn’t find a single part of this book believable, not the characters, not the situation, and especially not the intrusive, annoying, overbearing narrator who just wouldn’t remove themselves and let me enjoy the writing. It’s the first dud from my shelves. How disappointing, eh?

December 14th, 2010

#60 – A Long Long Way

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.

December 13th, 2010

#59 – Birdman

Mo Hayder remains one of my favourite crime writers. I had the good fortune to interview her a couple of years ago when she was in Toronto promoting the Walking Man series, still Jack Caffrey mysteries, but with the introduction of Flea Marley, the police diver, who becomes the other central character in the books. She’s self-educated, incredibly smart, and it was one of the best interviews I had ever done (and she was very gracious when she signed my book).

Annnywaaay, I’ve had Birdman, the first Jack Caffrey mystery, on my shelf for about four years. Every time I look through my books to see what I should pick up next, I think, I should really read that Mo Hayder novel. I guess, with everything, and with my own superstitious nature about reading (books are ready for you at the right time in your life and never before… that’s why you can’t finish them if you start and put them down again , and why it took me at least seven tries to get through Crime and Punishment; it just wasn’t the right time), it languished. There were always other books to read first. But I had just finished The Post-Birthday World and wanted something that I could read in a day — and grabbed Birdman on a whim.

I don’t know what it is about motherhood that inspires me to want to watch and read about murder and mayhem. I’ve been only keeping up with shows like Law and Order UK, Detroit 1-8-7, and watching the boxed set of Prime Suspect. My friend Duncan suggested it’s because crime novels are easy to pick up and put down. You feel like you’ve accomplished a little something when you get to the end of a police drama: there’s a mystery, it gets solved, people are punished. It’s all my overloaded, exhausted brain can handle. Well, he’s got a point. And maybe the escapism I used to get from watching movies, I’m finding in a good, solid, mystery/thriller here and there.

So, Birdman. It’s a fairly typical crime novel, of course, because it’s Mo Hayder, it’s extremely well written and utterly readable. It charges along at a fast clip and before you know it, Jack’s done it again: ruined another relationship, pissed off a whole bunch of people, and solved a heinous crime (in this case a lot of dead prostitutes/strippers/addicts) involving a serial killer (or killers). In a way, this novel is more structured than Hayder’s later books. I’m not sure if this is part of a series with anything more linking it than Caffrey as the main character because it’s all tied up very neatly at the end — that’s not to say it’s a happy conclusion — but there’s a finality to this book that the Walking Man novels don’t have. They all seem to pick up where the other left off in a deliciously addictive way.

Jack’s new to the force in London, and it’s his first big case. When they uncover the bodies of five women, all mutilated, all murdered, there’s conflict in the force. There are clues that lead a racist, repugnant DI Diamond in the wrong direction and Jack, along with his partner Essex, have to fight against the curve to get everyone working in the right direction. His profile is correct, and when we meet the villain about eight pages in, you get the feeling that it’s all coming together a bit too quickly, you know, like when the cops disappear too soon on Law and Order, and you know there’s trouble with the case…and low and behold, once the villain becomes known to the police, the killing doesn’t stop. So who is the real Birdman? Of course, it’s a race against time for Caffrey and Essex to figure it out because there are real people involved now — not just victims, but people with personal relationships to these officers.

Part of Vintage Canada’s World of Crime series, I love how the jacket copy says, “For some killers, murder is just the beginning…” It’s a pretty terrific tagline and utterly relevant to this particular book. I love it when there’s a twist that’s hinted, ever so slightly upon toward the beginning of the novel, and explodes at just the right time in the reading. Hayder’s exceptional at creating completely creepy villains who do absolutely disgusting things. Yet, the level of (for lack of a better word) “grossness” that Hayder employs in her writing is consistently balanced with razor-sharp prose, snappy dialogue and intense research. These novels are solid, have ripping plots (how else do you read them in a night while breastfeeding a baby?) and hinge upon a fascinating character that she’s created in Caffrey. I mean, he does remind me a little of Jackson Brodie — Kate Atkinson’s protagonist — they’re both damaged in a way that makes them so good at their job. In Caffrey’s case, it’s the disappearance of his younger brother when he was eight and the passionate way he’s convinced his next-door neighbour, whom he still lives beside, is responsible for his murder.

Unlucky in love seems to be the MO for these kind of men, which, of course, makes them irresistible on the page, both to the reader and to just about every woman in their path. But romance never works out for Jack and it’s a good thing too because how else would he solve the crime and save the day? I’d highly recommend any Mo Hayder novel for the crime/thriller lover. She’s such an exceptional writer that it’ll totally satisfy your craving for good sentences as much as your craving for, as my grandmother used to say, “a good whack on the head.”

READING CHALLENGES: The Off The Shelf Challenge, of course. I already have a British writer for my Around the World in 52 Weeks, so I can’t double count Hayder.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: I started Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way this morning and it absolutely reminded me of one of my all-time favourite books, A Star Called Henry, and so I’m hoping to continue it this evening. Not too much time to read today as I was alone with the baby and we took an amazing nap this afternoon. How delicious is it to lie in bed with your baby tucked into your chest, and then wake up with him snuggled right into your arm all smiley and sleepy when you both wake up. Even if the moment only lasts for about five minutes before he wakes up fully and discovers he’s got shitty pants and is starving and, therefore, starts screaming, but it was a bit of bliss on a cold blustery day.

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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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