my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

December 12th, 2010

#58 – The Post-Birthday World

The Post-Birthday World, like many of Lionel Shriver’s novels, manages to defy the reader’s expectations both in its construction and its central thesis — that a life can change drastically based upon one split-second decision. This is no rom-com, and while it might feel like Sliding Doors, there’s little beyond the premise, that to act or not to act (and in Shriver’s novel, it’s very much an action that splits the protagonist’s life into two distinct futures vs. happenstance, Gwyneth missing the tube or not missing the tube), in that one moment can change your life forever.

Irina Galina McGovern, children’s book illustrator and common-law wife of Lawrence, both American ex-patriots living in London, against her better judgment, goes for a birthday dinner with the infamous, rakish, handsome professional snooker player, Ramsay. Lawrence is away on business. They have a standing birthday dinner date — but it used to be a couple’s thing. Ramsay’s wife, Jude, was a collaborator of Irina’s, and when their marriage fell apart, it fell to Lawrence and Irina to entertain Ramsay (who’d always pick up the cheque) on his birthday.

The story splits into two over a kiss: something much more than a birthday peck on the cheek, a knee-shaking, earth-shattering, fall-in-love-on-a-street-corner kind of kiss, that will determine two very different futures for our Irina. If she kisses Ramsay, she says good-bye to her lovely life with Lawrence; if she doesn’t kiss him, she would be denying herself the chance to feel passionate love, one that involves great, great sex.

As each chapter vacillates between the two realities, each relationship breaks down and apart for different reasons. Love becomes deconstructed through the everyday reality of what it means to make a choice to be with someone. Irina’s not a woman who can live without a man yet she isn’t an anti-feminist character — she’s someone who has always prized life with someone above life on her own. Her past butts up against her future in various places throughout the novel: a self-obsessed Russian dancer of a mother; a life that she left behind in the States; the need to assimilate in some ways to her new life in London.

In a way, Irina is always in relation to something, to someone — whether it’s her art (and the forward momentum of her career) or the two men in her life. The chapters that deal with her life with Lawrence, are deemed “safe” — he works for a think tank, is intelligent, but he’s also controlling in strange and obstinate ways, turning his moral eye upon a drink in the afternoon, calling her a “moron” every now and again. And it’s a relationship without passion. For years, Lawrence hasn’t kissed her, I mean, really kissed her, and Irina misses this desperately. When she asks if they can’t get married, his utterly crushing response is, “okay.”

Her relationship, and subsequent marriage to Ramsay, is the polar opposite, even when it runs along the same time line — Shriver is careful to keep the details just the same so the book does veer off and the reader gets lost but she also makes the two storylines distinct enough that you truly get a sense of how disparate Irina’s life becomes from that fateful moment — it’s passionate, vibrant, even violent (with wicked fights; not fists), and full of absolutely fantastic sex and happy moments (when the two aren’t battling).

Two sides of the same coin, Irina remains the same person, the same character, but the subtle changes in her that you see when she’s with either man bring her sharply into focus throughout the novel. Success means different things in either of her worlds and aspects of her personality get lost in either relationship. Shriver is keen to point out that love is sometimes separate from sex and other times as tangled as your bodies get. She writes of mature, intelligent, adult relationships — and she’s the only author with her sort of aesthetic, her brutal honesty, her ability to make things palatable even when you dislike so many of the characters and their decisions, but still keep you utterly engaged as a writer. Irina is flawed, deeply, and you are the more interested to read each chapter for this reason.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Shriver is one of my favourite working novelists. I adored So Much For That, especially in light of my own health issues, and the very essence of her writing always boils down to one thing for me — if we can harken back to my second-year university course on existentialism — Shriver writes so very convincingly of the human condition that I would challenge anyone to find a contemporary writer better. It seems she tackles an issue with each of her books, plants it solidly in a plot that would seem tepid to a lesser novelist, and while the themes might be love, relationships, sex and marriage, you know instantly that you aren’t reading the Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult versions of reality. There’s depth and heft to Shriver’s sharp intellect and the piercing nature of her pen ensures that no characters comes out unscathed.

In the end, it’s up to the reader to imply, in a way, which was the right choice for Irina Galina to make, but the ending is just so satisfactory, and being a woman, I know what kind of relationship I’d prefer, but I don’t want to spoil it — it’s actually worth getting through the 500-odd pages. And it’s not often someone in my particular situation would have the patience to read a) a book this long and b) be willing to give up precious bits of sleep (like the hours between the feeding at 3 AM and the 6 AM feeding; it wouldn’t have mattered, I’m on so much prednisone that sleep is hard to come by anyway, I’m no martyr, I’m just on meds) just to finish it.

READING CHALLENGES: The Off The Shelf Challenge. Yes, another one bites the dust or, rather, another book is banished to the magic box in the basement that every single guest coming into my home is forced to go through. My high school friends brought brunch over today and left with over 15 books between them. Go baby go! There will actually be space for dust to collect on my shelves by Christmas (if I have anything to say about it).

December 1st, 2010

#54 – Started Early, Took My Dog

Kate Atkinson remains one of my favourite writers. I will drop any other book I’ve got for her new novel — she’s a lot like Laura Lippman in that way. She writes engrossing, utterly readable, quasi mystery books with flawed protagonists (ahh, Jackson, I knew exactly when you showed up in the narrative and it actually made me smile) and great, rollicking plots. In her latest, Started Early, Stole My Dog, Jackson Brodie is no longer a true private eye, semi-retired but working the odd case, he’s on a road trip inspired by a case: a young woman wants to find out more about her birth family. Seems simple, right? But, of course, this being a book with Jackson Brodie as the main character, there are twists, turns, and some solid punches before he gets to the bottom of the mystery.

There are plenty of other stories woven into the narrative… a retired DCI, Tracy Waterhouse, does something so out of character, she has to go on the run. And then, she’s chased. The group of police Waterhouse worked with, the old boys’ club, has something to hide that Jackson stumbles upon. Lastly, an actress on her last legs, literally, as her mind starts to wander due to dementia, and the way her final action turns the tide on the entire story feels shocking, to say the least. Of course, Jackson, even when he tries his damnedest, can’t stay out of the middle of all of it, and how Atkinson pulls it all together remains impressive throughout the novel.

It’s the kind of novel that you can read in one sitting, the perfect for a book-a-day challenge. It just breezes along, pulls you in from the beginning and doesn’t let go of your hand until you’re absolutely on the last punctuation mark of the very last page wishing that you didn’t read so bloody fast. There’s really not much more to say except I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and won’t spoil it at all for those of you who haven’t discovered Atkinson yet.

Lastly, she was born in Scotland, which means that Kate Atkinson’s novel counts as another Around the World in 52 Books, which means, maybe I’m at seven or eight now… Yay!

November 30th, 2010

#53 – The True Deceiver

Trying to read more books published by NYRB remains one of the never-ending “should-do’s” on my reading life. I admire just about everything about the publishers: the packages they create, the books they choose to publish, the authors they choose, and the quality of the writing. Yet, I never seem to get around to reading, well, ANY of them. So, I was pleased when our book club, The Vicious Circle, picked Tove Jansson’s The True Believer as a monthly pick.

Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki, and she was an illustrator as well as an author. She grew up spending the summers on the Gulf of Finland, in a small fishing cabin, and the setting of The True Deceiver seems absolutely informed by the time she spent in that kind of an environment. The setting is stark, snow-filled, cold, and austere. The novel opens, “It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling.” The darkness isn’t frightening, it’s not meant to create the Let the Right One In kind of environment, it’s a fact of life, a season to get through — life still goes on, groceries need to be delivered, dogs need to be walked, boats need to built. I like how Jansson creates the setting, it informs and layers the story but it doesn’t overwhelm the novel.

The story revolves around two women who live in the small village. A strange, awkward girl named Katri Kling who lives above the general store with her brother, Mats (whom everyone thinks is simple but is truly just quiet and introverted). And Anna Aemelin, a relatively wealthy (as compared to the people in the rest of the village) children’s artist who is a bit of a recluse. From the beginning of the novel Katri has a plan — she wants to gain an “in” with Anna, she has a very specific, calculated plan to ingratiate herself into her life, and nothing will stop her from getting her way. The entire village thinks the girl is strange. She has a gift with numbers and with honesty, and so many people come to her for problems: is so-and-so cheating on me, was I charged too much by the grocer, is blah-de-blah taking advantage — the villagers are ashamed to ask for Katri’s help but they continually do it. With this premise, she begins to be helpful to Anna. There’s just one difference, Anna didn’t ask for Katri’s help, and doesn’t necessarily want it. She lives in her own kind of blissful ignorance, like the dark of winter, Anna closes herself up in her house, illustrates her woodland characters, idealizes the childish way she has of creating a world in the undergrowth of the forest, and wishes she could do it differently, but change isn’t something that comes naturally to Anna.

Eventually, Katri and her brother move in with Anna, into her house. Gossip starts. But as with anyone who sets out with a plan, things go astray. And the spareness, the sparsity of Jansson’s prose nicely echoes the setting. Her words are cruel when they need to be, sparingly kind in places, but always clean, if that makes any sense — she’s an incredibly clean, crisp writer, she sort of writes like the snow itself, cold, but melts when the temperature reaches a certain point. The title refers, naturally, to Katri, but it’s also pointedly about Anna, as well — deception when it comes to yourself, deception concerning another person, they are both themes that run from beginning to end. What’s simple doesn’t always seem so, and telling the truth, and then recognizing the truth about yourself, both happen to these characters by the end. Overall, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this novel, I read it quickly, in every spare moment I had, and I do have them these days, not necessarily to write long blog posts, but to read at 2 AM when the RRBB is breastfeeding. It’s very easy to balance a book on The Breast Friend, let me tell you, as long as it’s a teeny paperback. I’m having a little more trouble with my giant hardcover copy of The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell.

Also, Jansson was born in Finland, which means I can use this book for the Around the World in 52 Days challenge I do every year. I am sure I have managed about six weeks in total, but, still, I don’t think I’ve ever read a Finnish author before. And I am sure I would read more of her books in a heartbeat considering how much I loved this one.

May 7th, 2010

#20 – Wolf Hall

As a part of the “The Orange Prize is Definitely the New Black” challenge that we started over at the work blog, I finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall, last weekend. And then couldn’t put it down. For days. On end. Now, that’s saying something for a giant hulking 650-page tome about Thomas Cromwell, of all people. Mantel’s certainly not the first, nor the last, to dramatize the Tudor period in literature. The lives and wives of Henry VIII have been immortalized, studied, fictionalized and melo-dramatized for our modern age — movies, TV series, novels abound about Katherine, Anne, Jane, etc., to the point of overkill. I reached my Henry VIII peak after seeing about three episodes of the current series The Tudors on the Ceeb a couple of years ago, and it all felt wrong, wrong, wrong. First off, and I know it’s me being far too literal, but as attractive as Jonathan Rhys Meyers might be, he’s just not Henry VIII material — and neither, for that matter, is Eric Bana — not in looks, countenance or bearing. I mean, can’t Hollywood even get the hair colour right?

Annnywaaay, like most history, pop culture weeds out the most salacious aspects and runs with them, and it’s not like the Tudors were lacking in dramatic moments that would work well in terms of adaptations, but it all started to feel a bit tired. I mean really tired. Like The Other Boleyn Girl might just be one of the worst films I’ve ever seen kind of tired. So when Mantel’s novel won the Booker, I kind of thought to myself, “Really, another novelization of the Tudors? Really?”

How wrong I was.

While this is a novel very much about the Tudors, it’s from the perspective of an outsider. Someone who came from nothing to make something of himself, who used his very sharp mind to control people and situations to his benefit, and not necessarily with the ulterior motives that tend to drive most characters in historical fiction (sex, greed, lust). But what I really, really enjoyed is that this novel didn’t focus entirely on the melodrama, it’s actually devoid almost completely of it, and instead turns its focus to relationships of all kinds and how life functioned for these characters at this epic moment in time. It’s not about the romance between Henry and Anne and what it means for love and betrayal; it’s about how the romance between Henry and Anne changed everything — and the man who not only made most of these changes possible, but who also participated in creating the whole background of the time period, was Thomas Cromwell.

The novel starts off with a young Thomas getting the stuffing knocked out of him by his brute of a father Walter. Soon, he takes off into the great big world to make a name for himself, and when the story picks up again, he’s done just that — found himself a position working for / serving Cardinal Wolsey, and when that turns sour, for the king himself. Politics, or political machinations rather, take centre stage in this novel. It’s about maneuvering situations more than anything, about how to be a man, and how to teach his children to be good in life, but it’s also about power — finding it, taking it, destroying it — and all the ways it contributes to the ups and downs of the Tudor court.

It’s hard to describe the novel as anything other than engrossing. I found myself totally sucked in and read the first 300 pages in just over a day — sometimes the narrative’s a bit muddled (Mantel uses a lot of pronouns and the “he’s” get all mixed up sometimes. I just decided that if I was remotely confused that the “he” in question was Cromwell and that seemed to work for me) and the book’s unquestionably dense — but I couldn’t put it down. When I gave my copy away mid-read to a friend (I had another at work; we’d save on mail that way), and decided to finish the McEwan novel that I’d started, I found myself longing to know what was going to happen next to Cromwell. Would he convince More to change his mind? Would he ever find a second wife? Would these ghosts ever stop appearing in front of him? Who would he marry his son off to (we didn’t get that far; it must be in the second book).

ALL of these questions are answered in history, yet I longed for Mantel’s perspective. I loved how she would add rich description to scenes, sum everything up with a brilliant sentence, and keep my interest in her novel far passed my bed time. This book? Definitely better than TV.

WHAT’S NEXT. I’ve started Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising. That’s #2 of the Orange Prize nominated books. Will I make the June 9th deadline, probably not. But maybe…

April 26th, 2010

Like I Need Another Reading Challenge

But I can’t resist. I’m going to try to read all of the six Orange Prize-nominated books before the June 9th deadline. I figure, if the jury can do it, so can I. Right? And, plus, we publish three of the books through work, so that makes it easy to at least procure the first three on the list. Like I said, I’ve started with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and it’s a massive, massive book (645 pages) but it reads so well that I’m already three-quarters of the way through. Thankfully, the other novels aren’t as daunting (one would hope).

April 7th, 2010

#16 – Sylvanus Now

Rachel loaned me Donna Morrisey’s Sylvanus Now when we went to see (shhh! keep your thoughts to yourself) this in the theatre back when there was still snow on the ground. She gushed. I tucked the book away and meant to get to it sooner. But once I started reading it, not even the exhaustion of sales conference could stop me from finishing. It’s addictive, sad, aching in parts and absolutely worth forcing yourself to muddle through the somewhat gross mass market edition (why this format; a TP could be so lovely!).

The novel takes place in Newfoundland in the mid-to-late 1950s when the government all but ruined the fishing industry and forced inhabitants from their outports into communities. The novel very much relates a society in flux: from fishing by hand in a little boat to giant trawlers with destructive nets; from an industry built up around drying salt cod to fish factories; from community built around family, neighbour and self-made lives to roads, towns, and government subsidies. Parts of the novel are achingly tragic, and Morrisey’s descriptions of the havoc “new” “industrial” fishing has on the lives of her characters broke my heart into pieces.

The story centres around Sylvanus Now, the youngest son of Eva, a widow who had already raised many, many children by the time he came along. He’s a fisherman, of the old-school variety, who prefers to go out with line in hand and fish the coastal waters near his outpost. The apple of his eye, Adelaide (Addie) sets herself apart from the rest of her kin almost immediately. She loves to be alone (almost impossible in a house full of so many kids) and wants to stay in school. When they marry, their relationship is all heat and tragedy, happiness and sorrow, but it’s also about the essence of marriage — the coming together in so many different aspects of life, how your lives become so entwined and in ways you never expect, and what it means to love someone over years and years instead of months and months.

The driving force of Sylvanus’s life seems to be resisting a certain kind of change. I’m sure, we can all relate. The way of life, salted cod and all, has sustained his family for generations, and his obstinance to evolution seems level-headed in a way, knowing what we know now about the depleted state of our oceans and how we’re fishing ourselves into extinction. Those were the most poignant moments in the novel — how Morrisey describes the differences between how Sylvanus fishes and how it’s done industrially. Like anything, progress comes at a cost: smaller fish in coastal waters; mothers harvested before they’ve had a chance to spawn; the decimation from trawling nets, all parts of what we sacrifice to have fresh fish on our plates.

It’s an unbearably human novel, somewhat like Kevin Patterson’s excellent, excellent Consumption. Morrisey does for Newfoundland what Patterson does for the Arctic, describe in indelible detail the destruction of a way of life, and while we’re richer for her work, I’m not sure if our country’s richer for the loss of Syllie’s sustainable fishing industry. Maybe I’m making terrible generalizations, but this felt like a very fitting book to read one month away from celebrating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, where we need, more than ever, to think about where we’ve come from and how we want to leave this earth for the next generations. Like Addie, I’d never leave the outpost either — its beauty seemed breathtaking, regenerative and part of her, just like my cottage is part of me.

All in all, I’m so pleased I found time to read this book in between conferences, pet peeves, rain, sun, antiques, plane rides, train rides and uncomfortable hotel rooms.

READING CHALLENGES: Yet another for the Canadian Book Challenge. I wish I had a better idea of how many Canadian books I’ve actually read since last July.

March 17th, 2010

#14 – Cool Water

Dianne Warren’s new novel, Cool Water, tells the story of good people, a whole town full of them. That’s not to say their lives are easy or to be taken for granted, sure her characters have strife, but they also have substance and decency. Set in Juliet, Saskatchewan, the multi-perspective novel takes place over the course of about thirty-six hours. When I first started reading, and especially because the book opens with a horse race between ranch hands, I thought the book definitely had tones of Annie Proulx, all windswept, sand, and sorrow. But while the introductory vignette introduces us to the setting, the small town (population 1,100 or thereabouts), none of the characters reappear, except in story, during the rest of the book.

The intertwining stories of Norval, the bank manager; Blaine and his wife Vicki, a couple losing everything; Lee, a young man who just inherited everything; Marian and Willard, wife and brother of the deceased Ed; and Hank, an ex-rodeo cowboy-slash-farmer, unfold slowly, in delicate increments. Many have trouble sleeping and the whole book rolls out like those long hours in the night when one feels as though they’re the only person on earth awake. Warren has a delicate touch, but that doesn’t mean her writing reads overtly flowery or painfully self-aware (like so many Canadian novelists sometimes come across). In no way is this novel overwritten, either.

In fact, there’s a patience to these stories, and the truth of the lives of these characters comes out in the details of the day-by-day. There’s a beautiful line midway through the book that goes something like this — that the nature of the day can change easily over night, day separate from night, like how one breath separates life from death — I didn’t mark it so I can’t find the exact phrasing, but it struck me as unbearably true.

Lee’s story resonated especially with me. Both of his quasi-adoptive parents have passed away and he’s left behind on the farm; it’s where he wants to be, but he’s finding life alone in the house a difficult transition, dust collects, clothes go without being mended. When a grey Arab horse magically arrives in his front yard, he sets off for a marathon ride that echoes the book’s first chapter. It’s not even that the journey is epic — 100 miles — it’s more what it signifies for Lee, a final transition from boy to adult, a man on his own farm, a man with his own horse. Lee’s not the only one making a transition to a new chapter in his life throughout the book.

Cool Water remains full of characters whose lives are changing, sometimes irrevocably, but the novel’s also about the small decisions that make up a day: whether to go to town or do your chores, whether to finally finish your to-do list, whether to round up the cattle immediately or get back together with a nincompoop ex-boyfriend. When you put them all together, the picture that unfolds isn’t epic but human, and there’s something utterly familiar throughout the pages — but at the same time, interest in the story never wanes. It’s a hard balance to strike.

The other parts of the book that I truly enjoyed were the will-they / won’t they between Marian and Willard. They’ve been living together, without Ed, the actual person who brought Marian into the house in the first place, for nine years. She’s desperate to tell him something; he’s desperate for her not to leave now that her husband has passed away. Their stories are full of feelings that go unspoken and unleashed potential — it’s truly delightful.

I’m not going to lie, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. My intern, Amanda, who’s reading it too, said that it’s Annie Proulx meets Alice Munro, and I think she’s right, except much of the story lacks the latter’s biting sense of humanity, if that makes any sense. When one reads Alice Munro, and I’m not for a minute suggesting she isn’t the best short story writer in the history of Canadian literature, there’s always an underlying toughness, a sense that life always takes a wrong turn, disappoints. In Cool Water, life’s disappointing for some, but that cynical streak isn’t as present. I’m rambling, I know. Let me finish by just saying that Warren’s novel was a truly lovely surprise this week.

READING CHALLENGES: Well, indeed, this title would count towards this year’s Canadian Book Challenge. I’m not even sure where I am with that one…maybe this weekend I’ll take a moment to figure it out.

MOVING ON: I’m still trying to get through The Third Policeman and The Wig My Father Wore as my Irish reads for March. I’m also compiling poetry for April. Happy St. Patrick’s Day peeps!

March 5th, 2010

#12 – Invisible Man

My goal for February was to read a couple books for Black History Month. Not surprisingly, I managed one: Ralph Ellison’s classic, Invisible Man. The novel is substantial, both in its scope and narrative approach. It took me ages to read–and I abandoned it at one point and picked up a different book, read magazines, anything really to escape the relentless story.

The title, metaphorical, not literal, refers to the narrator’s lack of identity as a black man. He can walk down a street and no one sees him. He can stand on the street and people will pass on by as if he wasn’t even there. Invisibility — blessing and a curse — defines his life. And what a troubled life, kicked out of school (not his fault), and settling in New York City, things go from bad to worse for the man. The novel, which was first published in 1952, and it was interesting to read it now, over fifty years later. Ellison’s writing style, while imbued with the tone and tenacity of the time, doesn’t feel dated. In fact, the book reminded me a lot of The Best of Everything, not in its subject matter, characterization or plot, but more because of its uncanny ability to bring the story to life and embed in a very particular time and place.

My 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die tome suggests the novel has existential themes, and I’d agree, the narrator can’t help but contemplate his existence; it’s the purest form of a Manichean dialogue, race goes beyond allegory, it’s essential and he’s essentially being defined against it by just about everyone he comes into contact with him. There were moments when the cruelty of the world became almost too much for me to bear — I turned away like I did when I watched Inglorious Basterds, when the violence, meant to be too much, shocked me into tears.

I was first supposed to read Ellison’s masterpiece in university. At the time, I was too wrapped up in Faulkner, a writerly obsession I carried with me from high school. Since then, I’ve carried my same copy around with me from apartment to apartment, keeping it on that metaphorical ‘to be read’ someday shelf with many other books from school. Slowly but surely, I’m working my way through a lot of them. Because I read so much modern Can Lit, and let’s face it, books that are published by the houses where I worked over the last five years, I’ve been rebelling a little. When I go to the shelf I’m inspired to pick up big, heavy books like Invisible Man and give my brain a work out. I imagine writing a paper filled with literary theory, can smell the air in the library as I do research, and think that Invisible Man does exactly what a classic piece of literature should do, it lasts.

READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books, natch.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: I can’t blog about the book I read this week, Emma Donoghue’s Room (#13), because it’s not out until Fall 2010. But I will say this, it’s exceptional — a literary page turner of the likes I’ve never read before, and it’s become one of my favourite new books of the year. I can’t wait to talk to people about it once it’s actually published. So I’m going to try to finish the totally absurd The Third Policeman (also a 1001 Book), and a couple other Irish writers because it’s March and my theme is, well, Irish writing this month.

February 12th, 2010

#9 – The Value of Happiness

The subtitle of Raj Patel‘s The Value of Nothing questions ‘why everything costs so much more than we think.’ It’s an intelligent, dense book that explores our modern society, its economic context, and the very real implications of our lifestyles. Patel sustains his main thesis, that the true value of goods and services are completely at odds with their prices as set out by the market, while people never give it a second thought. Patel wrote an amazing piece of added-value content for our Book Guide here that explains, in short, the kinds of material things we pay heavily for but that are relatively cheap.

I’m not going to lie, this isn’t an easy book to read — Patel looks at everything under a microscope, he digs deep into economic theory and pushes the reader to think hard about what he’s saying. The very idea that, as a society, we are blind to the terrible impact our consumerist ways are having on the world around us despite seeing it, literally, every day, is compelling. In ways, it’s easy for me to support Patel’s work. I believe in his politics, sit slightly to the left, and have already been convinced that we need to change as a society before we ruin everything. Like Patel, I believe the first step to change is concerted dialogue about the issues, exactly the kind of thinking that is represented here.

However, what really struck me about the book concern post-colonialism. It’s not surprising to me that issues with modern economics are so essentially tied up in old colonial models. We don’t think about it everyday. We don’t turn on our work blackberries and think, “hey, I’m exploiting the Congolese today.” Has anyone else out there read King Leopold’s Ghost? Hasn’t the Congo been through enough? But I can’t stop it — I don’t have a personal cellphone but I do have my BB and I use it all the time, every waking moment, and I don’t think twice about what went into building it or sourcing it or the power that it takes to use it. I send money every month to David Suzuki and the WWF to try and balance out my consumption. Somehow, I feel ashamed that I’m not doing enough.

You can’t be faint of heart when you read this book. You can’t expect to be unchanged. And you can’t imagine you’ll keep living your life as you had been living it. Once you know the true value of what we consume, the cost to human life, the cost to the planet, you’ll think hard and then you’ll think twice.

READING CHALLENGES: The Better You Read The Better You Get. Oddly, I’m, um, not actually finishing the books from my shelves. However, I do feel like reading more nonfiction has reminded me that it’s important to challenge yourself with smarty-smart material every once in a while. School’s good.

Read an excerpt of The Value of Nothing here.

February 3rd, 2010

My David Bezmozgis Weekend (#8 – Natasha)

Ever since we did the Summer is Short – Read a Story promotion at work, I’ve had David Bezmozgis’s Natasha and Other Stories on my TBR pile. You can read one of the stories from the collection here, at the Globe, from when we expanded our promotion in their online books section. The stories are sparse but not sparing, swift without feeling rushed, and amazing portraits of a family in flux — immigrants new to Toronto managing to balance their lives on the cusp of old and new.

The collection contains seven linked stories and you simply fly threw them. His prose manages to get to the heart of the human condition without feeling preachy. In style, his writing reminds me a little of Alexander Hemon, although I couldn’t put my finger on why. The central characters in Bezmozgis’s stories, Bella, Roman and Mark Berman, are Russian Jews who have come to Canada from Latvia, leaving behind their home, their family (although by the end of the book many have migrated as well), and trying to make their way in Canada. I find these in-between stories, from the perspective of first generation immigrants, absolutely fascinating. There’s something about the in-between perspective that illuminates parts of Canada, of being Canadian, that those of us born here take for granted. I always liken it to the idea of speaking another language — it’s as if it’s a different world.

There are deep similarities between Victoria Day, Bezmozgis’s first feature film, which I also watched this weekend on TMN, and the stories. An only child, Mark (the stories) and Ben (the film) struggle with adolescence, balance parental expectations and eventually find a way to define themselves by being inclusive of everything they are. Victoria Day‘s more of a coming-of-age tale than is contained within the stories. The film resonated because I was a teenager then, and even remember the news stories surrounding the disappearance of Benji Hayward disappeared after a Pink Floyd concert. In the film, Ben loans his hockey teammate some money and then deals with his conflicted feelings once it surfaces that the teen too has gone missing.

The movie has echoes of The Ice Storm and other atmospheric films about teenagers finding their way. Far, far less “teen” than say John Hughes (and I LOVE John Hughes — it’s a comparison point not a criticism), the picture manages to feel Canadian without the earnest-ness of so many of our native pictures (I did love One Week, but man, holy Canadian batman). There are moments of pure beauty within the film making — even if the performances feel a bit stiff at moments. Regardless, I very much like the ambiguity within the picture, something that Bezmozgis imbues in his fiction as well.

If I had to pick a favourite story, it would be the title tale, “Natasha.” But coming a close second would absolutely be “Minyan,” the story that closes the collection. Annywaay, I truly enjoyed my David Bezmozgis weekend, I’d highly recommend you give it a try, maybe next weekend?

READING CHALLENGES: I’m counting this towards this year’s Canadian Book Challenge. At some point I’ll tally up exactly where I am with this but there are other things to write at the moment.

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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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