March 13th, 2013
I read a lot of good books. Books I’d recommend heartily to friends and family. Books I push on strangers at various events. Books I try to sell. Books with good writing, a solid story, and that provide a solid experience from start to finish. Good writing is good writing. But great writing, well, that brings an emotional depth that resonates and goes beyond the story itself. Poached Eggs on Toast is, simply put, great writing. Frances Itani’s Deafening was a glorious novel, but I think that when she’s faced with the short story, her work packs a punch that the format allows–there’s no doubt that the pieces in this collection benefit from their length. They are focussed, sharp, intense, and brilliantly characterized.
It’s true. I had often devalued the short story in my own reading. Preferring the length of a novel, I grew tired of the collections I was coming across that depended on “twee” (ugh, I despise ‘twee’) and “quirkiness” to get them to the end. But here, the basis for all of Itani’s work are the very rich and very real experiences of life. Real life. Lives that are shared, and put under pressure. Disease, war, destruction–they provide the backdrop, the impetus for her characters to do something, but Itani writes about life like nobody’s business, and that I appreciated.
A few of the stories take place in war-torn countries, wives of soldiers, diplomats, peace-keepers themselves in a very different way, leave the comfort of their homes to exist on bottled water and food in packets to keep their lives safe. One story that has resonated with me, “Marx & Co.”, which is about two friends, one of whom is dying of breast cancer, remains one of the strongest portrayals of female friendship I’ve ever read in print. Overall, I read these stories in short bursts, subway rides, before bed, moments when I’m frayed and exhausted and burnt out from the grind, and found them to be inspiring, achingly so, and I didn’t want the collection to end.
February 14th, 2013
When I finished Rebecca Rosenblum’s latest book of short stories, The Big Dream, I had one thought in my head: she’s, to put it simply, a natural writer. I’ve been reading a sh*t tonne of short stories lately, mainly for work, but also for pleasure (and my work is pleasurably so figure that dichotomy out!), because I can digest them in the 10 minutes I have before crashing at bedtime, and they’re really great for commuting. So, The Big Dream. It’s different from Rosenblum’s first collection, Once, in that there was an element of whimsy to the stories, a few of them even touching into magic realism for lack of a better term, while staying true to their urban core. The same urban/suburban settings apply to this collection–many of the stories are centered around characters who work for or on a series of trade magazines that honestly reminded me of Rogers, even though I probably shouldn’t say that out loud.
Rosenblum has an uncanny ability for writing intensely modern stories with fresh characters, but they’re all leading lives that anyone might recognize. The core issues that all of our Toronto-centric humanity deals with–love, family, happiness, selfish/less/ness, the TTC, job insecurity etc.–run like undercurrents throughout. I don’t want to point one story out to be my favourite, because I think the whole collection is so even and well-written that it wouldn’t do the pieces justice. Taken as a whole, with its links between (emails from members of the Dream magazine company), the book pieces together modern life through the myriad different people who work for, around or in the organization, but in these ordinary lives are extraordinary occurrences, observations, the things that make people individuals. I love that.
There’s a lightness and a freshness to Rosenblum’s voice. Her metaphors are exacting, and her sentences direct, but the writing isn’t sparse. It’s rich and vibrant and keeps your attention. These stories are like good episodes of a some great television you’d see on HBO, they’re definitely cable, not mainstream, if that makes any sense. Overall, I was consistently impressed–reading this book made me happy, full stop. And isn’t that a wonderful thing for a book to do?
(other books finished: Jennifer McMahon’s creepy Don’t Breathe A Word, which I found really implausible but still read it recklessly to the end, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, which I enjoyed but found a bit light; however, am intensely curious about all of the quilting designs she describes, and really loved Honor Bright, the main character).
January 11th, 2013
Spending time at home over the holidays, I was mainly reading short stories, simply because they’re easy for my brain to process when I’m tired. Luckily, I have more than a few collections on my shelves, so I picked up, read, and enjoyed Jessica Westhead’s delightful, quirky And Also Sharks over the last few weeks. The people that populate the pages of these stories are hard to place–their ages, their locations–they seem mysteriously suspended in small towns, in small places that contain their lives, marriages that aren’t necessarily working, jobs that are filled with reports and decidedly odd co-workers and “plant ladies.” Westhead’s writing reminds me of Rebecca Rosenblum’s–they share that enviable talent of finding an exploitable quirk in human nature and brilliantly surfacing it throughout a story. The results are razor-sharp, humane without being twee, and riotously vivid.
I was in a meeting yesterday where one of our editors here at work was talking about how Canadian writing, in particular, elevates the short story, and it’s true–we have our own Chekov, as he described, in Alice Munro. Michael Christie, Sarah Selecky, Alexander MacLeod, Andrew Pyper–and Jessica Westhead can easily be listed alongside those writers whose ability to convey the emotional depth of a novel within far fewer paragraphs than a full-length work (I’d also add to this list Lydia Peele’s excellent Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, but she’s American…). Not every one of Westhead’s stories obviously goes one-to-one with Munro, but we have a long tradition of appreciating the form here in Canada, and I’m pleased that we take publishing, reading, reviewing, and writing short stories so seriously. I enjoyed this book immensely, highly recommended.
February 20th, 2012
The one bright spot that I pulled off my shelf of “Bs” in the last week or so has got to be Julie Booker’s incredibly adept story collection, Up, Up, Up. I like, first of all, how she puts “short” back in “short story,” with many of the tales clocking in at less than ten or so pages. I also like the whimsical package, the pretty colours, and how the word “twee” never once entered my mind as I raced through the collection.
By far my favourite stories are the ones taking place in a natural setting. And by far by far, the one I enjoyed the best was the very first one, “Geology in Motion.” Because, how could you not love a story that starts like this: “Lorrie and Kate tended to say too much.” You see, they talk themselves right into an Alaskan vacation, two over-sized ladies in an under-sized kayak — woman against nature. And immediately the story brought to mind the infamous line from one of my favourite Flannery O’Connor stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” where Julian accompanies his mother to the Y for her reducing classes. (more…)
September 2nd, 2011
#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.
May 12th, 2011
There’s just something about Roddy Doyle’s writing that reminds me of The Pogues song “Bottle of Smoke.” It’s just so quintessentially fast-paced, direct, and full of great storytelling. These short stories speed along like a day at the races, and reading them feels like you’ve come ahead a winner — ‘like a drunken f*ck on a Saturday night, up came that Bottle of Smoke.’ All thirteen stories are from a man’s point of view, that’s not to say that there aren’t female characters, but these men, some older, some younger, have all reached middle age. They’ve watched their kids grow up, they’ve watched their parents grow old, they’ve had jobs, they’ve lost them, they’ve lived and loved, but most of all, they’ve survived.
Doyle’s writing, so succinct, so of the moment, and his dialogue and the entire demeanor of the stories remains so refreshing, that you feel like you’re sitting next to the author in a pub as he tells the story. Despite their similarities, the characters are all still so distinct — and it reminds me of a great writing lesson that I was once told by a teacher who really, really disliked me and what I had to say — they each have something that defines them, that stops them from becoming a stereotype, whether it’s a reaction to a situation or a particular thing they love about the woman that became their wife.
I enjoyed each and every one of these stories, so it’s hard to pull one or two out as my favourites. They all blended together so nicely, like an evening of conversation at a pub with a group of old, familiar friends, and the writing is so controlled that there isn’t a sense of unevenness that I generally find with short story collections. I enjoyed “Teacher” and “Bullfighting” — as both dealt with interesting situations — the former, a man’s struggle with alcoholism; the latter, a group of friends who take a trip to Spain. Male friendship isn’t always explored in the books that I read on a regular basis. It’s either there as a crutch, a necessary side-kick and/or reason to move the plot along in a mystery, but in “Bullfighting,” it’s the central theme of the story. These four men have know each other forever, and they don’t have to talk about their feelings or share their inner secrets, they can just sit around and shoot the shit. And Doyle knows just how to write it to ensure that there’s a poignancy to the everyday that can’t be avoided, that needs to be celebrated.
It’s a wonderful collection. And for all my ranting about reading far too many short story collections these days, I have to say that I’d take one by Doyle over a novel just about any day. It’s just excellent.
March 19th, 2011
Light Lifting, Alexander MacLeod’s remarkable book of short stories, was our book club selection this month. I have to admit I did complain a little about reading yet another short story collection. In my mind, I’d grown a bit weary of the format and wanted something a little juicier, a little longer, to dig my teeth into. The women in my club are the smartest book people around and we have amazing discussions about books but this was our third story collection in a row and I had very mixed feelings about the other two.
But I’ve come to a very different conclusion after reading Light Lifting. I’m not tired of the short story. I’m tired of reading uneven collections where the stories are too dependent on quirks for them to be plausible and/or plot-worthy. With Light Lifting, and like The Lemon Table, I was ridiculously impressed, not only by the quality of the writing, but also by the cohesiveness of the stories themselves within the book. MacLeod hasn’t written a linked book of short stories but each of the pieces includes are complete in a way that many lesser writers, some of whom we’ve read over the last few months in our book club, fail to achieve with any consistency.
There are real people between the pages of Light Lifting and while they all undergo some sort of life changing event, the writing around it remains subtle, metaphors don’t stick out like sore thumbs, nothing supernatural happens, there’s nothing ‘put-upon’ in terms of their suffering — things just happen. Neighbourhoods change. Plants shut down. Fights break out in bars. But it’s the intersection of these events and the places where his characters in his stories are in their lives that combine to create a remarkable moment. Someone at book club described it as pivotal — something you don’t realize at the time, or you do but it takes some time to reflect — and one is forever changed.
I would hate to single out one story as my favourite among such rich bedfellows. But, as I always read so personally, the last story, “The Number Three,” about a man who killed his wife and son in a tragic car accident, ripped open my heart and splayed it out — I bawled. I mean, of course I did, even from the very first sentence, I knew I didn’t have an emotional chance against this story: “The single fried egg might be life’s loneliest meal.” The psychological ramifications of the accident, regardless of whether or not it was his fault, are deep. And ironic, as he was a career man working for GM, and story’s title plays on ideas of the big three, and the decline of the industry in general. So much is taken away from this protagonist, and even when there’s a moment where he might take a step forward, the palpable pain that prevents the step is achingly apparent. It’s just damn fine writing.
And in another bit of fine “life equals art” moments: there’s a part in “Wonder About Parents” where the dad takes the baby, five months old or so, into the change room and discovers she’s pooped so much that it’s easier just to throw her outfit into the trash and carry on. They’re on a road trip, heading home for the holidays, and the baby isn’t well. His wife makes him go back and retrieve the clothes, they were a gift, they can be washed — clothes are expensive. He does. Well, we were discussing that particular moment when the RRBB had his own, ahem, explosion at book club and I contemplated throwing all of his clothes out, but didn’t, because he was wearing a pair of pants that I adore, that were also a gift. But, goodness, the child had poo IN HIS HAIR.
Overall, it was a wonderful book club brunch, and every single one of us loved the book. It’s up there in terms of one of the best I’ve read so far this year (but The Illumination still holds the crown thus far, I think). But I’d highly, highly recommend this book — in fact, I’d be happy to pass my copy along to anyone who might want to read it, I loved it that much. Light Lifting needs to be shared, discussed, and celebrated — it’s that good.
March 7th, 2011
My bookish love affair with Julian Barnes continues, and I thoroughly enjoyed his short story collection, The Lemon Table. It’s funny, a lot of the criticisms that I leveled against Sarah Selecky’s work — mainly its use of the second person, a story in epistolary format, and general the “twee-ness” of much of the stories — can be set against this collection as well. Barnes uses the second person, which normally makes me crazy; he has a story that’s all letters from a kooky old lady to himself, wherein the self-referential nature of it all would usually enrage me; and the last piece could be described as microfiction with no “real” plot per se but a selection of descriptions that come together to tell the tale of an egotistical composer. All of the above normally have me throwing the book against the wall and giving up in exasperation. But gracious, these stories are excellent.
The last story, “The Silence” tells me that lemons are a symbol of death in Chinese culture — I’m not sure how reliable the narrator is in this last piece, so I am not going to take that verbatim. But it does give the reader and understanding of the general theme that pervades the entire collection. Musings on the ends of lives, on divorce, on death, on widows and the children left behind, on relationships that could have been but never were — and I imagined ‘table’ more of tableau — of that terrible acting exercise where your teacher yells “hold” and everyone freezes in whatever position they landed upon.
It’s a terrific collection, cohesive even though none of the stories are linked; rich in language and metaphor; paced brilliantly and truly honest in its interpretation of the human condition. In a way, these stories reminded me of Alice Munro, only there’s a little bit more sex and bad language, especially in “Appetite,” which like her story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” deals with the tragic and debilitating affects of Alzheimer’s. Both Barnes and Munro have a distinct talent when it comes to creating characters and situations that highlight the slightly awkward and sometimes terrible aspects of human nature. In this, the stories feel real, they feel relevant, and they feel complete, but not overwritten.
On the whole, I can’t get over the immense breadth of Barnes’s talent for creating characters that cross decades, even centuries, are so wholly different in voice, and are so utterly believable (even when he writes from a woman’s perspective). In the epistolary story, entitled, “Knowing French,” a spunky pensioner sends the author Julian Barnes a number of letters, each progressively more familiar, with little gems of humour and slices of life: “What I was trying to say about Daphne [a fellow “inmate” at her home] is that she was always someone who looked forward, almost never back. This probably seems not much of a feat to you, but I promise it gets harder.”
And then, in an amazing story about misguided and unrequited love, “The Story of Mats Israelson,” he writes, “Barbro Lindwall was not convinced of her feelings for Anders Boden until she recognized that she would now spend the rest of her life with her husband.”
And then my last favourite line from the book, it’s from the last story, the microfiction-like one about the egocentric, aging, and silent-for-years composer: “Geese would be beautiful if cranes didn’t exist.”
I can’t stop. I earmarked a half-dozen, maybe more, pages, and kept putting the book down on my chest just to savour particular passages. In “The Things You Know,” two elderly widows sit down for a terribly polite breakfast once a month and what comes out of their mouths is completely different from the thoughts in their heads: the resentment towards one another only palpable as a fork stabs an egg or a waiter brings hot water instead of a purely fresh pot of tea — it was actually one of my favourites among an already rich collection.
Overall, now I think I want to read every single book Julian Barnes has ever written. It’ll be a challenge to find books this good on my shelves as I continue through them. Thankfully, I’ve got a few books from publishers to get through before I get back to my challenge. I need a bit of a break from the pressure of the 300-odd titles staring at me day after day from my desk chair.
February 8th, 2011
One very good lesson for life: One should not read any other books whilst one is reading Emma by Jane Austen. They will all pale by comparison. So, it’s unfair to This Cake is for the Party that I had to stop at page 258 in Emma for a couple of hours to read Sarah Selecky’s short story collection for my book club.
This is not your average book club, just let me state that for a fact. I swore up and down, left and right, to hell and back, that I would never, ever join another book club. It’s not that I didn’t like my first book club experience. Let me just say it wasn’t for me. The ladies were lovely people. But they weren’t book people. It’s important for book people to be in clubs with other like-minded book people. They don’t have to all like the same books, they just need to read the books, want to talk about the books, want to talk about what works within the books and what doesn’t. My first book club didn’t do this — we had a blow job class once, that’s how far we fell. And I judged. And then I ruined that book club with one drunken night a club and some misheard gossip. Oh yes, but that’s not a story for the internet. Like I said, lovely people, but now, my new club, The Vicious Circle, is full of delicious, delightful, delectable, defined book people. We talk books non-stop. I feel like I am swimming with my own school for once; it’s an important feeling. Books are important. They start with words on a page; it’s only fitting that people use words to critique, enjoy, discuss, etc.
Annnywaay, so, long story short, we read This Cake is for the Party this month. Now, I don’t read a lot of short story collections. I tend to only go back to them if I’ve read a novel by an author I fall in love with and then double back to read earlier material. Case in point: Tim Winton. Or if the collection is written by Alice Munro, because, well, it’s Alice Munro. But we’ve been reading a lot of short story collections for book club — last month it was Jessica Grant, this month it’s Selecky, and next month we are reading Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting. I will freely admit that half-way through the meeting last night, I did say, “Can we then read a novel please?” It’s not that I don’t appreciate the art form — it’s that I expect a lot from it. The stories must have guts, be whole, feel intensely, and travel a long way from start to finish. These are high standards. But if you don’t have high standards, what’s the point?
Did Selecky‘s collection pull its weight? Not entirely. I’m being perfectly, perfectly honest now — I would have never read this book were it not short listed for the Giller prize nor a selection for my book club. And even after dedicated two solid hours to it, and saying out loud to my RRHB as I read feverishly while the RRBB took an abnormally long nap in his bed, I did like it overall. A couple of the stories truly broke my heart — especially “Where Are You Coming From Sweetheart,” which is about a teenage, motherless girl having trouble with her father’s completely inadequate parenting skills. She desperately wants to escape Sudbury and live with her aunt Juicy (LOVE aunt Juicy) and her cousin in Mississauga, where she wouldn’t have to stalk local parks for empty beer bottles and water her father’s growing collection of half-dead plants. There’s an ache to this story that so accurately reflects what it’s like to be in a house post-tragedy and it resonated with me personally for reasons I don’t have to repeat here.
The other story that blew my mind, that had the guts I so search out in a short story collection, was “Paul Farenbacher’s Yard Sale.” Meredith, neighbour of Paul Farenbacher, starts the story calm, cool and collected as the widow of the story’s namesake clears out her house after the death of her spouse. There’s anger, resentment, and a wonderful, wonderful scene at the end that I won’t spoil because it is delicious.
Lastly, there’s a delicious ending to the second story in the collection, “Watching Atlas,” that I wished more of the less strong pieces emulated. Often, I felt like the stories just ended for the sake of ending and, in the format, I truly believe that endings are even more important than beginnings.
But then, a lot of the stories feel too poised, they feel like they’ve been written and re-written, and there’s one in epistolary format that didn’t work for me at all. The other story that I really had trouble with was “One Thousand Wax Buddhas.” There was the use of the second person. And this isn’t something I can hold against Selecky. It’s important to play with form to get to the heart of your characters, to push your writing to another level, but I really hate the second person. Again, this is a personal opinion. I also am not entirely fond of “quirky” for the sake of “plot” — when characters have “quirks” that stand in for actual action — which is a point that came up last night.
She’s a polished writer, and there were some lines in this collection that were undeniably amazing. I earmarked about a half-dozen pages throughout, and even read a couple passages over because I liked them so much. There’s also a coherence to this collection that was missing from Jessica Grant’s book, these stories fit together even though they aren’t linked, but Selecky needs to rely less on her own devices (lots of extra-marital sex [what is it with affairs and books for me these days]; plenty of hippies making work in their basements and other places in their houses; and male voices that weren’t 100% believable). In a way, I felt these characters all needed to get out and live more — but that’s just me.
So, overall, my review of the book is mixed. Yes, I liked it. Yes, there were some truly great bits of prose. Yes, there were two or three stories that made me stand up and shout. And then there were some that weren’t on the same level as the others, for me. I think it’s important to read writers and read first books, to support the new generation of Canadian writers, and Selecky does that herself by teaching creative writing. But I got the sense that she has spent a lot of time with these stories. I am curious, now, to see what she’ll write next, or to see what she’ll publish less, if it’ll be more stories or a longer piece of fiction. But, regardless, I am hooked. I will happily read whatever she does next.
January 12th, 2011
A friend at Doubleday sent me a galley for Andrew Pyper’s The Guardians way back in the way back, and then asked that I not post until closer to the book’s pub date, which was the beginning of the month, I think. Regardless, I put the book on my shelf and forgot about it until one day last week when I was searching around for something BETTER to read than the Joyce Maynard I had just finished. I described the book on Twitter as such: “The Guardians = Stand By Me + River’s Edge / Mystic River without the Boston setting.”
And I stand by these comps. The book, about a group of hockey-playing young men, friends since grade school, who end up embroiled in a tragic situation involving their hockey coach, a young woman and a haunted house, was seriously not what I expected. As you know, I have little faith in “haunted” stories. Blame my reticence on Sarah Waters, I think The Little Stranger ruined it for me forever, and maybe it’s because I don’t think any book can do “haunting” better than that Alejandro Amenábar film, The Others, I’ve given up finding satisfaction in being scared in print. Also, I really hate being scared so why would I put myself through days of it versus 1.5 hours of a film.
Yet, I found myself inexplicably drawn into to Pyper’s narrative. He has a cool way with character, they’re masculine, very Lehane-esque, but that’s not off putting to me as a female reader. The main character, Trevor, suffers from Parkinson’s, which, while the disease isn’t remotely the same as mine, I can kind of relate to — simply the idea of your body not cooperating with itself. When his childhood friend commits suicide after years of protecting both the secret the group of four boys harbours and the house across the street (the haunted house), Trevor and Randy (the second of the foursome) head home for the funeral. The truth unravels from there, and I didn’t even mind the “memory diary” device that Pyper uses (Trevor’s therapist insists he keep it as a way of dealing with the disease; should my shrink ever do such a thing I would terminate treatment immediately; who wants to be constantly reminded of what the farking disease has taken away from you, seriously?). The narrative switches back and forth between Trevor’s diary and the action in the present tense.
There are all kinds of interesting things that happen when someone goes home, especially someone who made the conscious choice, after the tragedy, that Trevor did to never go back. The small-town Ontario setting adds to the nuance of the novel — things like this couldn’t happen in a big city, someone would tear the house down, raze the trouble before it even started or simply not notice, walk on by. But in this town, a hockey town, the house stands for over forty (I think) years creating havoc for not only the four boys who are deliciously intertwined in its grasp, but a few other tragic souls as well. It’s a terrific book, a perfect read for a snow day if there ever was one, and I’m glad that I read it in the deep, deep hours of the night, just for those extra chills.
The other title I read last week was Jessica Grant’s Making Light of Tragedy for my book club. The cover sucks so I am refusing to put it up here on the blog, and Kerry’s done a wonderful job of wrapping up our meeting. Everything she says about the book, well, that’s what I think about the book too. I fell on the Grant’s writing was a little bit too twee for my liking, and kept thinking of that old-school writing class line that if you’re in love with your prose that’s the stuff that should be cut right away, and there were many, many, many loved lines in these stories that could have been sliced to the benefit of the writing. However, there were also some amazing metaphors — and this coming from a girl who actively removes every single metaphor from her own writing she finds them so distracting — where I found my breath catching just a bit at her turn of phrase it was so beautiful. So, uneven, but enjoyable. The company, however, and our meeting, was a serious breath of fresh air. I even managed to feel like I was using a part of my brain that a) doesn’t sing everything I’m doing, b) actually considers thoughts before they come out of my mouth, and c) had nothing to do with talking to or about the RRBB.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: I’m reading The Keep right now, as recommended by a few friends, but am actually spending far too much time playing iPad Scrabble during the late-night feedings. It’s scrambling my brain a little so I am going to stick to just the book tonight, we’ll see how that goes at 2 AM.