my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

October 4th, 2010

#47 – In a Strange Room

Damon Galgut has come to occupy a piece of my reading heart only formally held by Coetzee. Like Coetzee, Galgut writes with such skill and serenity that I find myself a better person for having finished one of his books. Until I discovered Galgut, I’d never read another writer who can write so simply (in terms of structure and punctuation) and yet who can still create such a compelling, moving Coetzee-like narrative. I don’t want to just compare the two or lump them together but it’s impossible not to notice the influence as you read In a Strange Room.

As of late, though, I haven’t been as enchanted with Coetzee’s novels, and, in fact, one of my pet peeves in books is when authors create and/or write themselves as characters (it’s the main reason why I can’t get through Beatrice and Virgil and why I’ve never read THE Paul Auster that everyone else has read). Coetzee’s been doing a lot of this lately and as such I haven’t been as enthralled to read his novels as I once was. Yet, when I got halfway through the first of the three stories contained in Galgut’s latest, Booker-shortlisted, collection, and discovered that the narrator is in fact a travelling writer named “Damon,” I kind of inwardly groaned, but I was so taken already with the story, with the setting, that I didn’t put the book down. And I am very glad that I got over my bias because Galgut’s three stories are incredible.

There’s something about landscape in this short collection that defies description — the idea of travelling, of how it leads you to become someone so much more than you are at home — and pervades the narrative throughout this book. In each tale, more lost at home than he ever is on the road, the narrator often boxes up his life for months on end and takes to the road. The settings are exotic to a Canadian girl like me — Goa, Zimbabwe, Lethoso, even Switzerland, places where the only chance I’ll probably ever get to see them is through watching The Amazing Race. But it’s the deeply personal aspect to travelling that I found so affecting throughout. It’s not a travelogue. The stories aren’t about the setting; they are simply informed by it, the dingy hotels, the hostels, the camping trips, the odd characters, the difficulties of travelling with a friend, the difficulties of travelling to unstable places, it never feels forced or fake. It never feels Hollywood. It never feels like he’s using setting to “prove” something. The places he visits are often accidental (in the middle story, “The Lover,” the narrator leaves for a two week “jaunt” to Zimbabwe and ends up in Tanzania weeks upon weeks later) and it’s this idea of happenstance, the essential inability to know what’s going to happen once you’ve put yourself decidedly out of your routine, that creates the bulk of the plot contained within the three linked stories.

Galgut switches up what I’d call perspective; in some sentences he’s using “he” to describe the main character, in other places it’s “I” — both refer to the traveller “Damon,” and as a reader, I sort of inferred that the character of “traveller” is very different from the “I” that recollects what happened upon return; two different sides of the same experience, in a way. The dual nature of the narrator, who he is at home (wondering, wandering, a little lost) and who is he on the road, willing to take risks, confident (in a way), was perpetually fascinating for me throughout all three stories. If I had to name a favourite, it would have to be “the Guardian,” for it’s sheer narrative force. I don’t want to ruin any part of the story for someone who might want to read it so I’ll just say that it’s far less about travelling than it is about friendship — the narrator takes a troubled friend to Goa and horrible things happen, and the sadness that Galgut projects even through his simple storytelling left me a little breathless by the end. Time and distance have such an affect upon tragedy — it’s an interesting perspective.

Anyway, I’m rambling. I truly hope that Emma Donoghue wins the Booker for Room. But there’s definite worth in reading the other shortlisted books too, so far, for me, I’ve enjoyed the two I’ve read immensely. Oh, and Galgut is South African, which means I can add a book to my incredibly lame, utterly failing Around the World in 52 Books list for this year. I might be at 5 or maybe 6 countries if I’m lucky. Fail!

December 9th, 2009

#67 – Little Black Book of Stories

Have you ever noticed I generally start all of my reviews with some long, rambling introduction? Today will be no different.

I’m reading about 4 different books right now (What Should I Do With My Life, The Law of Dreams, Slowing Down to the Speed of Life; can you sense a theme there?), including the only one I’ve finished so far, A.S. Byatt’s engaging short story collection, Little Black Book of Stories. Monday was spent in transit (doctor’s app’t, to and fro from work), which ensured I had a few spare moments to read (and by spare I mean an entire hour in the middle of the day waiting for the damn doctor).

We were at a birthday party this summer when the sister of a friend of mine was telling me the book that she had most enjoyed reading so far in 2009 was A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. As I don’t have a copy that book in my possession, when I found this book just sitting on my shelf, I thought, “yes, that’s it for this week.” Because if you can’t have THE book why not at least try A book by one of the year’s most celebrated writers?

Comprised of five lengthy short stories, Byatt’s expansive imagination coupled with her never-ending quest to aptly describe human saddness (or longing, that might even be a better word), the book reminded me a little of Too Much Happiness. Every single character in the stories has been marred emotionally by their lives — happiness isn’t expected and nor is it gained. Life is rough, untidy, difficult and downright miserable in places. But because Byatt’s an exceptional writer, the undercurrents running through each story, the little bits of lives that exude joy, are there as well. She also has some lovely fantastical elements in each — the stories themselves tend a little toward fairy tales for adults.

My favourite of the five would have to be “Body Art”: an aging doctor released from an unhappy marriage but not his religious convictions finds himself entangled with a young (apparently almost-homeless) artist charged with “brightening” up the ward. Universal questions like how and why is art important to a life are, of course, raised, but the unlikely relationship between the two resonates even more. The central tale, “A Stone Woman,” has lovely fantastic elements, and “The Pink Ribbon” too — even if that story is achingly sad (it too reminded me of Munro, specifically, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”).

On the whole, this collection was far more satisfying to read than Nocturnes. Because, holy cow, what a snoozer of a book that was.

READING CHALLENGES: Cleaning Out My Closet — a book from the dark corners of my bookshelf, for once. And because this book just feels so British (along with A.S. Byatt being born in England), I’m tagging it for Around the World in 52 Books too. My only reading challenge for next year? To keep up with all of my other reading challenges. Or maybe even finish one or two.

November 20th, 2009

#63 – Nocturnes

Even before finishing the first story in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, I had a sinking feeling that I shouldn’t have started another book of short stories so soon after finishing Too Much Happiness. Overall, Nocturnes reads and feels like a bridge — not a structure that connects two pieces of land, but that instrumental section in a song that marks a transition. The entire book feels like something Ishiguro has written in between major works. I missed the exacting, perfectly balanced narrative from Never Let Me Go, and had a hard time believing the characters in many of these stories. In places, the dialogue seemed forced, pitched in because it needed to be there and not because organic and/or interesting things were happening within the scene. And two of the middle stories were so, I don’t know, cliched and almost forced, that I almost didn’t finish the book. The last story, as I detail below, was a saving grace.

Sometimes, stories about music and the people who play and/or create it, never capture the true essence of the experience. You always feel as though it’s not real — the bands are made up, the musicians are made up, even when the author uses actual music to ground the story in some form of reality. In a sense, a lot of these stories read like those “ripped from the headlines” episodes of Law and Order where they take a real scene, Puff Daddy and J-Lo involved in a shoot out at a club, use no-name actors and tack on a murder to take the whole drama up a notch. Overall, this collection felt a bit like that, not utterly authentic, and I was disappointed because I firmly believe Ishiguro to be one of the world’s best living writers.

The first story, “Crooner,” follows a young guitar player who has emigrated from an Eastern block country to Italy where he’s making a living. He meets a very famous singer, a kind of “great one” who came up in the days when crooning lead to fortunes being made in Vegas at a time when the original Ocean’s Eleven was released into theatres. The aging crooner hires the young guitarist to accompany him as he serenades his wife. The performance, for many reasons is bittersweet, but the contract between the young and the old, their very different lives, what the crooner meant to the young man (who grew up with his mother listening to all of his albums), is poignant. Things are never as they seem, lives are never what they appear, and music doesn’t always have the meaning it suggests.

The other three, and especially “Come Rain or Come Shine,” are somewhat forgettable. There’s a ridiculous element to that particular story (“Come Rain or Come Shine”) that I didn’t find believable, and despite liking the main character, a fellow who teaches English in Spain (who’s kind of trapped in this transitory life), not a single secondary moved beyond a level of caricature. The tenuous connection to music wasn’t enough to keep me interested in the mess the this fellow finds himself in as he visits two, married, university friends. Yet, even when I don’t find the situation or the characters particularly engaging, I can still respect Ishiguro’s talent — a bad Ishiguro story is still better than most. There just didn’t seem to be enough emotional consequence in any of the stories to keep me interested throughout the read.

The other story worth mentioning, the very last piece in the book, “Cellists,” that was, by far, my favourite of the five. A young cellist starting me make his way in the world finds himself a teacher in an American tourist. They develop a deep and lasting teacher/student relationship over the course of a summer. She’s running away from a relationship she can’t quite decide if she wants to be in or not, and he’s trying desperately to live up to both his talent and his potential. They each take something different from one another: she believes she’s a genius, like him, and he believes his work is getting better simply through the power of her words, her explanations of what’s wrong with his playing.

The narrator of this story, a bandmate and friend of the cellist, tells the story with a detached sense of wonder, in a way — he sees the cellist years later, better dressed, nicely groomed, and is reminded of the strange summer they spent together. The last paragraph of the story might just be the best of the entire book — it’s pitch perfect in its assessment of both what happened to the cellist and how potential, or any kind of gift really, can easily slip away. It was utterly, heartbreakingly, authentic.

READING CHALLENGES: Ishiguro was born in Japan (even though he’s lived in the UK since he was 5 or something), so I’m counting it as Around the World in 52 Books, which might just bring me to, oh, five books read for that challenge this year. Pathetic!

June 9th, 2009

#34 – Love Begins in Winter

From the P.S. Section of Simon Van Booy’s collection of short stories, Love Begins in Winter, I learned he’s a solitary writer. Not that writing isn’t always a solitary act, but that he actively heads out of town and travels alone specifically so he can conceptualize a story before he puts it down on paper. His writing embodies the nature of this travel — it’s touched with the insights of a keen observer but not without a haunting sense of loneliness, one that informs every character that comes alive throughout the five stories.

Each has its basis in a love story, whether it’s traditional or parental, love in its various forms remains the central theme of each piece. Entire lives are defined by it, or the absence of it, and as his characters come to find it, unexpectedly in most cases, love changes them in not-so subtle ways. Setting informs every inch of this book — it’s rich in its description, from the rain on the streets of Sweden to the snow in Quebec, you get the feeling that the author, and not just the characters, have walked the streets, lain in the cold white sheets of the hotels, and explored every inch of what’s detailed.

Poets have such a way with prose. I know we take that forgranted, that poets actually know what to do with language, but sometimes they stumble over the longer form (I’m sorry Anne Michaels, I am sorry to say that outloud; I know you are beloved), and get lost in trying to find the right words. And yes, what Van Booy does with language is breathtaking. I’m forever impressed by writers who can create a vivid character, a vivacious situation, with just one sentence, and this book was full of moments that made me hand the book over to my RRHB and say, “see, THIS is how I feel.”

I’m a romantic at heart. I wept at the sickly-sweet ending of the utterly terrible He’s Just Not That Into You. I stumble over cliches of chicklit, and often find myself welling up even though I know I’ve read it all before. But here, in Love Begins in Winter, I’ve never come across love in quite this way before — never stretched it out like a road underneath a motorcycle or jumped with it off a cliff as a backstory, and it’s refreshing to see how it changes Van Booy’s characters when it appears in front of them whether they’re expecting it or not. Walter the Irish-Romany’s knees get a little weak but pages later you see how true love vests itself into his life. George gets a letter in the mail and it changes his life forever, and for the better. And if you’re patient, and read this book slowly, carefully, you can’t help but get swept away in the romance of it all, at least I couldn’t.

READING CHALLENGES: The “Summer is Short. Read a Story.” challenge for work. Next up is actually trying to finish Sarah Waters’ latest novel, and hoping that it doesn’t continue to put me to sleep at the turn of every single page. Zzzzzzzz. Wait? What?

NOT FOR A WHOLE POST, BUT STILL: Speaking of romantics, I finished Gemma Townley’s latest novel, A Wild Affair (#35) and have to admit that I wasn’t as enamoured as I usually am with her books. The plot seemed really contrived and her usual way of writing smart situations within a genre that really exploits cliches just wasn’t there. On the whole, I’m not sure if the Jessica Wild character is someone to hang a series of novels upon, and the “twist” felt more like a plot necessity than a life-shattering event. However, I still adore her, and highly recommend her chicklit as a cut above many of the other writers attempting the same kind of fiction.

May 26th, 2009

Summer is Short. Read a Story. (#s 32-33)

I am very excited about a fun campaign we’re running at work called “Summer is Short. Read a Story.” Celebrating much-beloved but hard-to-sell short story collections for the summer months got me thinking about two books I finished recently: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Gil Adamson’s Help Me, Jacques Cousteau. Both books contain a series of linked short stories that have female protagonists: the former centred around an aging (and then retired) 7th grade teacher (the Olive Kitteridge of the book’s title) and the latter around the ever-growing Hazel. Authors Adamson and Stout (who just won the Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge), while different in terms of their style and substance of their stories, have uncanny talents for characterization. They can sum up a character — their habits, their emotions, their intentions — often with just one heartbreaking sentence that seems to epitomize good writing. It’s something I admired while reading both books over the past week.

Olive Kitteridge lives in a small-town in Maine, her husband was a pharmacist and her son grows up to be a podatrist, and neither truly lives up to her expectations. People in town are as kind to Olive as they are critical, and she’s a presence in every single story, whether it’s from the point of view of her husband or her neighbour. Each perspective adds a little bit more to her character, unravelling Olive like an onion until the final sentences of the book open her up to the core.

Echoes of small-town life can be found in Gil Adamson’s stories as well, Hazel, who we see grow up from a young girl into a young woman, copes with the pressures of family life. Whether it’s crazy uncles, oddish grandparents, fathers who can’t stop tinkering or mothers who feel that they made a wrong turn somewhere, she grows up with a wild and unwieldy cast of characters who inevitably shape who she is as a person.

My reaction to both of these books was emotional — I fell a little bit in love with these two main characters, Hazel for her rough and tumble time with adolescence and the pains that accompany growing up, and Olive for her tough-talking, no-nonsense approach to life that ultimately ends up alienating her from so many people that she loves. Modern life bleeds so many different colours, from rationalizing long-term relationships, their success or failure, from expectations we have for ourselves and how they change to the complex relationships between parents and children, and these two works explore these themes with a keen and affecting eye for detail and determination.

Highly recommended reads.

READING CHALLENGES: Help Me, Jacques Cousteau is the 12th title I’ve read for the latest Canadian Book Challenge. And, well, Olive Kitteridge is an award winner so maybe I’ll create a new challenge for those, unless on already exists?

WHAT’S UP NEXT: I’ve started Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move, Frances Itani’s Leaning, Leaning Over Water and am halfway through Sarah Waters’s latest novel, The Little Stranger. But Vanity Fair also beckons — somehow I can’t resist spoiled rich kids in Sofia Coppolla-inspired photo joints coupled with the Kennedys and more Bernie Madoff revelations. I mean, I’m only human people.

January 25th, 2009

#9 – Once

I think I tweeted last week about being so caught up in one of Rebecca Rosenblum’s stories from Once that I completely missed the fact that our VP was standing right next to me on the subway. He laughed and said, “Good book?” when I finally realized he’d been there for almost my entire ride. And they are just that addictive, drawing you in from almost the first sentence, creating a world that sits slightly askew of the one you live in everyday, and then finishing completely.

I’m consistently amazed by the innovative ways young writers have when looking at the world. Rosenblum’s characters — people waiting for the bus heading to awful jobs, young immigrants, a family struggling to make sense of their situation — are atypical. And yet, how often do you sit on the bus completely oblivious to the girl wearing three inch heels who carries on up Landsdowne after we all pile off and into the subway? But those people, sometimes lonely, sometimes burdened, always intriguing, make up the core of her characters. There’s always something to explore in Rosenblum’s world, and her keen writer’s eye leaves little untold.

In the end, I suppose picking out one or two favourite stories might be the way to go, but it’s hard when they’re all so different and so, well, good. If I had to choose, I’d say my absolutely favourite would been “Linh Lai.” A young immigrant girl who lives with her relatives tries to navigate her new world, holding tight to some very special talents, she gets a part-time job at a restaurant that is frequented by more than a few characters in the book. Charming, whimsical and full of great sneakers, the story stood out for me. But I honestly enjoyed every single story, their sad undertones, their slightly awkward protagonists, and the thorough ache of lives bursting with the kind of promise that never seems to quite bubble to the surface as it should.

READING CHALLENGES: Rebecca Rosenblum lives and writes in Toronto, so I’m counting Once as a part of this year’s The Canadian Book Challenge. I’m way off in terms of books I picked at the outset but I don’t think it matters as long as I’m still within my “for the ladies” theme.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: Blogging Lee Gowan’s Confession, which I might leave until tomorrow so I can think about the book a little more… For now, I think I might start my Harlequin assignment for this week and then watch a movie. Foggy-cold-head makes for very poor book reviewing.

January 7th, 2009

#4.5 – "The Fall of the House of Usher"

Oh Sony Reader, I do love you. Before the holidays, I dumped a bunch of ebooks onto my reader, classics from 1001 Books that I could always have on hand in transit. Stuff that I could read when I finished whatever novel I was carting around at the time. One of the stories I put on was “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and I’m not going to tell a fib, primarily because it was short and I’m all about the numbers these days.

I love how 1001 Books states, “It seems to be stretching the definition of the word to its very limits to describe The Fall of the House of Usher as a “novel.” Note they use italics and I am sticking to quotes because you can’t tell me this isn’t a short story. I’m not complaining, I’m just clarifying for my own edification.

Annnywaay, this story scared the living crap of out me. It’s creepy, chilling and totally gothic in that yummy way that only Edgar Allen Poe can accomplish. A young man returns to the house of Usher where the only two remaining family members, Roderick and his sister, Madeline, live in a decrepit and decaying house. They’re both sick, Madeline from an illness that confounds the doctors, and Roderick from something that reads a whole lot like depression to my modern eye. The narrative creeps up to the last fateful night, and what Poe achieves in 61 electronic pages is really astounding. Stories within stories, pages devoted to mad poetry (as in its being written by a madman, not “mad” in the means “awesome” way), and a narrator who spends more time describing in intricate detail the abysmal surroundings than he does talking to his childhood friend.

One line in particular that I bookmarked: “Hitherto she had steadily borne up against the pressure of her malady…” Maybe I need to make that into a t-shirt it’s so fitting to my life. Now, one question: why is it that in ghost stories, things always happen in threes? It was the same in A Christmas Carol. And why does it take someone three utterly terrifying occurrences before they wake up and, um, get the fark out? I read a lot of Poe in grad school, but because my mind is terrible with titles, and well, let’s face it, entire plots, I haven’t counted off any of the stories in 1001 Books. I am going to go back to Project Gutenberg, though, and download some more. They’re just perfect for a stormy night barreling through the city in the red rocket.

READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books, natch.

March 24th, 2008

#20 – The Turning

How have I made it this far in my life and not read all of Tim Winton’s books? Seriously? I don’t think there was a single story in The Turning that wasn’t ridiculously successful, and his writing is so full of angst and ambiance that it’s impossible not to get a sense of both character and place, often within the first few sentences. I’d have to say my favourite stories were “Family,” “Boner McPharlin’s Moll,” and the title story, “The Turning.”

While not all the stories are linked, some have characters that appear in more than one, and many take Angelus, a small town on the coast in Western Australia, as the main setting. One of the neat technical aspects to the collection that I enjoyed was how Winton ordered the stories. We’d read about one character as an adult, and then the next story would be him as a child, exploring how something in childhood led him to the man he was, but in reverse. I also felt like it takes a deft, dedicated hand to describe adolescence so well, and this is a quality The Turning shares with Winton’s excellent new novel coming out in a few months, Breath.

I read Winton for Australia in my Around the World in 52 Books challenge. And I have not note that I’ve had such a visceral reaction to both of his books that’s kind of akin to how I felt after finishing Peter Carey’s ridiculously good Theft. Winton’s writing is so urgent, so driving, so gut wrenching that I think it’s impossible not to relate to it on that kind of level. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I would crawl up into bed with any of these characters, I could certainly understand why Jackie gets in the car with Boner McPharlin, and how it turns out exactly the opposite of what she wants and needs, scarring her for life.

One line from “Commission” sent a rock-and-roll-style reverb right through me: “Drunks and junkies take everything out of you, all your patience, all your time and will. You soften and and obscure and compensate and endure until they’ve eaten you alive and afterwards, when you think you’re finally free of it for good, it’s hard not to be angry at the prospect of dealing with the squalor again.”

See? Angst and ambiance. Brilliant.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I’m at work this morning so a book cover will have to do. Love the colours and the image of the surfer.

READING CHALLENGES: As I said, it’s all about Australia, and the novel does encapsulate a world that I’ve never been to, which makes it rich for the imagination.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

March 4th, 2008

Lorrie Moore: Where Have You Been All My Life?

I’ve been reading, sllloooowwwly, the stories in Eugenides’s collection: My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead. Some I’m familiar with (Joyce’s “The Dead”; Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”; Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”), but some have been complete surprises. Denis Johnson’s “Dirty Wedding” knocked me out as cold as a February wind; so much so that I went out and bought his latest book, Tree of Smoke, before realizing it too is a whopper, clocking in at 613 pages.

But Lorrie Moore’s “How to be an Other Woman” might just be my favourite so far. It’s a little gem of a story with such fresh prose that I kept laughing out loud last night in bed and reading parts to my half-asleep RRHB. But my favourite lines might have to be these:

“After four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half musuems, you sleep with him. On the stereo you play your favourite harp and oboe music. He tells you his wife’s name. It is Patricia. She is an intellectual property lawyer. He tells you he likes you a lot. You lie on your stomach, naked and still too warm.”

Now that’s how to use the second person and not make me want to punch the story in the nose (tm Munro).

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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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