Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary Fiction’

marrying off mother gerald durrellMarrying Off Mother and other stories by Gerald Durrell ~ 1991. This edition: Harper Collins, 1991. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-99-223808-X. 197 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

A quick, easy, and enjoyable read.

I have a strong fondness for Gerald Durrell’s self-aware, tongue-in-cheek, and humorously wry writings, stretching back to a childhood introduction to his books when my parents were given a copy of Catch Me a Colobus. My father had it on his night table, and was reading it with evident enjoyment, and when I asked him what it was about he handed it to me with a smile. I laboriously read it – I was of the tender age of 8 or 9 at the time – and was hooked.

Since then I do believe I’ve read every single thing the man wrote, with the exception of some of the juveniles of the writer’s last years. Obviously not an exclusive reaction, as Gerald Durrell was a best-selling author and eventually a household name in the English-speaking world –  right up there with the even more prominent David Attenborough –  though he (Durrell) bluntly stated in his later books that the income from his writing helped in great part to finance his pet project, the Jersey Zoo & Wildlife Preservation Trust , and that he continued to produce manuscripts only for the purpose of furthering his wildlife work.

Be that as it may, the man did have a decided literary talent, and in later years broadened his scope from the autobiographical to the more obviously fictional, with several novels and a number of short stories to his credit.  Many of Gerald Durrell’s fictional short stories show a decidedly macabre twist to the man’s mind; one in particular, The Entrance, the final story in The Picnic and Other Pandemonium – an otherwise quite light-hearted and delightful compilation – has the distinction of being one of the creepiest and most frightening tales I’ve ever read, and rather put me off Durrell completely for a while, giving an unwelcome insight into something other than the avuncular animal-loving anecdotist one innocently assumed. I got over it, though I still think of that particular book with a reminiscent shudder, and have studiously ignored it ever since. Though now that I’ve been reminded, I have the feeling that I should perhaps face my fears and re-read it and review it. Maybe. Or maybe not…

As usual, I’ve digressed. Back on track, then, with a rundown on this short story compilation, which, though a bit dark in places, was, as always, mostly just plain diverting reading, perfect for tea break consumption – engaging but not too challenging, and easy to take up and put down.

  • Esmeralda

Of all the many regions in La Belle France, there is one whose very name adds a lustrous glitter to the eye of a gourmet, a flush of anticipation to his cheeks, that drenches his taste buds with anticipatory saliva, and that is the euphonious name of Périgord. Here the chestnuts and walnuts are of prodigious size, here the wild strawberries are as heavily scented as a courtesan’s boudoir. Here the apples, the pears and the plums have sublime juices captured in their skins, here the flesh of chicken, duckling and pigeon is firm and white, here the butter is as yellow as sunshine and the cream on top of the churns is thick enough to balance a full glass of wine on. As well as all these riches, Périgord has one supreme prize that lurks beneath the loamy soil of her oak woods, the truffle, the troglodyte fungus that lives below the surface of the forest floor, black as a witch’s cat, delicious as all the perfumes of Arabia.

Enter one Esmeralda, a porcine lady graced with a delicate golden chain around her neck, and smelling delicately of the exclusive perfume Joy…

  • Fred – or A Touch of the Warm South

On a lecture tour of the American South, our author is hosted by a Traditional Southern Lady, and meets her butler Fred. By the by, the amount of ardent spirits consumed during this short foray into Tennessee give an insight into Durrell’s subsequent liver problems. The man did seem to enjoy tipping them back!

As the taxi drew up (the) handsome door was thrown open to the frame by a very large, very black gentleman with white hair in tail coat and striped trousers. He looked as though he might be the accredited Ambassador of practically any emerging nation. In the rich port-like tones that I remembered from the telephone he said, ‘Mr. Dewrell, welcome to Miz Magnolia’s residence.’ and then added as an afterthought, ‘Ahyam Fred.’

‘Glad to know you, Fred.’ I said. ‘Can you handle the luggage?’

‘Everything will be under control,’ said Fred.

The taxi driver had deposited my two suitcases on the gravel and driven off. Fred surveyed them as if they were offensive litter.

‘Fred,’ I said, interested, ‘do you normally wear that clothing?’

He glanced down his body with disdain.

‘No,’ he said, ‘but Miz Magnolia say ah was to greet yew in traditional costume.’

‘You mean that this is traditional costume here in Memphis?’ I asked.

‘No suh,’ he said bitterly, ‘it’s traditional costume where yew comes from.’

  • Retirement

A Scandinavian ship’s captain looks forward to his last voyage and retirement beside the sea, but his plans are tragically set at naught. A delicately appreciative tale with a chillingly memorable ending.

  • Marrying Off Mother

A return to the sunny Corfu of My Family and Other Animals, and an attempt by her children to bring some romance into Mrs. Durrell’s life.

‘I wonder if passion flowers would look nice on that east wall,’ said Mother, looking up from her seed catalogue. ‘They are so pretty. I can imagine that east wall just covered with passion flowers, can’t you?’

‘We could do with a bit of passion around here,’ said Larry. ‘Just recently, the place has been as chaste as a nunnery.’

‘I don’t see what passion flowers have got to do with nuns,’ said Mother.

Larry sighed and gathered up his mail.

‘Why don’t you get married again?’ he suggested. ‘You’ve been looking awfully wilted lately, rather like an overworked nun.’

‘Indeed I haven’t,’ said Mother indignantly.

‘You’re looking sort of shrewish and spinsterish,’ said Larry… ‘And all this mooning about passion flowers. It’s very Freudian. Obviously what you want is a dollop of romance in your life. Get married again.’

‘What rubbish you talk, Larry,’ said my mother, bridling. ‘Get married again! What nonsense! Your father would never allow it.’

‘Dad’s been dead for nearly twelve years. I think his objection could be overruled, don’t you? …’

Never fear. Mother competently turns the tables on her meddling family.

  • Ludwig

Do Germans, as a race,  have a sense of humour? The author attempts to answer this query with the cooperation of a willing-to-learn hotel manager, one Ludwig Dietrich.

  • The Jury

A former British public hangman is discovered to be living in a remote South American village. Though he has tried to make a new life for himself, he can’t outrun his past. An appropriately nasty ending awaits him, with our author as chief (fictional, one would hope and assume) witness.

  • Miss Booth-Wycherly’s Clothes

An ex-nun creatively and anonymously supports her old order’s orphanage, with the help of the bequest of the magnificent wardrobe of the deceased Miss Booth-Wycherly of Monte Carlo.

  • A Parrot for the Parson

The gift of a foul-mouthed parrot assists a defrocked vicar in his quest for replacements for the choirboys he longer has easy access to. Immensely politically incorrect, but rather funny in an “I shouldn’t be laughing at this” sort of way.

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fits like a rubber dress roxane wardFits Like a Rubber Dress by Roxane Ward ~ 1999. This edition: Simon & Pierre, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 0-88924-4. 303 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

*****

Great title and teasingly provocative cover. Didn’t realize it was Canadian until I got a page or two in, though the cover blurb by Timothy Findley should have been a major clue:

“It’s a glorious book! Roxane Ward is a sorceress – she transports you into a weird world of frantic characters dancing on the edge of the millennium. Then she lets you in on the secret: it is your own world, seen through the eyes of young, super-urban artists who are never satisfied with what they have or what they find. I warrant you will not forget Indigo Blackwell, in her pursuit of a life that fits like a rubber dress …”

– Timothy Findley

I raced through this one in a single sitting, staying up much too late last night to finish it, so that is an indication of its more than decent quality. This said, Fits Like a Rubber Dress is being added to the giveaway box as soon as I record this review, as I doubt it’s a re-reader for me.

Our heroine Indigo Blackwell is 29, on the cusp of leaving her youth behind, and she is obsessed with all of the usual angst-ridden baggage this entails. Her four-year-old marriage to a freelance writer/aspiring novelist, Sam, is happy enough, though Indigo loudly complains to her husband and her best friends (bartender Tim and television presenter Nicole) that her sex life is not as exciting as it once was in the “early days” of her marriage. She obsesses about this as much as she does about the incipient wrinkles she imagines are lurking, waiting merely for the flip of a calendar page to appear. Indigo wants to have sex, lots and often; Sam just isn’t that interested, citing stress, and preoccupation with finishing his novel, and gently ignoring Indigo’s increasingly desperate attempts to maneuver him into the bedroom.

“Frustrated” describes Indigo’s general state of mind. Not only is her marriage dull and her sex life stalled out, but her career is increasingly unsatisfying. Working for a Toronto public relations company, Indigo is modestly successful in her field, but when she receives a minor promotion, her feelings of dismay surprise her. Indigo needs to spice up her life …

All of this sounds most clichéd and rather yawn-making – oh, yes, we’ve read this story before – but author Roxane Ward managed to keep me engaged enough to follow Indigo on her quest for self-fulfilment, for a life that fits her and expands with her as she “grows” and makes her look and feel oh-so-good about herself, obliquely referencing the title. This first novel is more than competently written; Ward has oodles of talent, and I am curious as to what she did after getting Indigo out of her system, though I can find no evidence of a second novel in my brief internet search this morning. Which, if so, is a shame. But I digress.

Okay, back to Indigo. Her seems-so-serene marriage is about to founder, due to Sam’s own preoccupation with sex, or, rather, the sex lives of others. Researching the Toronto gay scene for material for his novel, Sam strikes up an increasingly deep acquaintance with a male escort, Graham, though he insists that there is nothing personal going on with his fascination with that parallel world. Indigo, having decided to dump her P.R. career and go to art school to study film-making, walks in on Sam and Graham in the midst of Sam receiving some firsthand experience with male-on-male sexual practices, and though Sam insists that it is all in the nature of research and that Indigo should basically get over it already, the marriage is, from that moment of we-could-all-see-it-coming-but-Indigo discovery, doomed.

Luckily Indigo has a cozy place to escape to, as her mother has just left for Bali for an extended artists’ retreat (what wonderful lives these people lead – no one is worried about the phone bill; it’s all about self-fulfillment; but how do they pay for it?! – I wish I knew!), leaving Indigo with the keys to her house. Indigo embarks on her own sexual explorations, taking up with bad boy, drug-dealing, sadomasochistic Jon, who introduces her to the world of fetish parties and anything-goes sex. This is cool for a while, but then things go a little bit sideways, and Indigo bails out, showing more sense than I had initially expected her to have. (She is described at one point in the novel as being “malleable” – very apt, as she appears willing to go with almost anything that comes her way – so it was a happy surprise when the girl found her spine at long last.)

So at the end of the tale – and here be spoilers, so look away now if you care to – Indigo is quite happily solo, Sam is off doing whatever comes next in his life, one friend is pregnant, and another is dead. Oh, and Indigo has a new tattoo. The end.

Did that sound rather bitchy? Yeah, I guess it did. On reflection, I realize that I didn’t ever really like Indigo. She was just too self-absorbed and navel-gazy and spent so much time worrying about the really obvious things in life – yes, Indigo, we’re all going to die, and no, Indigo, drug dealing, abusive artist types are not that into empathy and understanding. Go figure.

All that aside, a good first novel in a modern-urban, slightly satirical way. Well written, good characterizations. Nicely done, Roxane Ward. I hope you’re still out there writing away, because if Fits Like a Rubber Dress is any indication, you can say it well.

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the chamomile lawn mary wesleyThe Chamomile Lawn by Mary Wesley ~ 1984. This edition: Black Swan, 1989. Softcover. ISBN: 0-552-99126-0. 336 pages.

My rating: 4/10.

It had its moments, but not enough to make it a keeper. Into the giveaway pile, to try its luck with other readers.

*****

In the summer of 1939, just before the start of the Second World War, a group of cousins assemble at a Cornish cliff side house. Lazing in the sun, lounging on the fragrant chamomile lawn, they are poised for whatever the future brings. Mary Wesley’s narrative follows them through the war, in a series of extended flashbacks triggered by the surviving cousins preparing to attend the funeral of a mutual acquaintance, a key figure in the family’s  fortunes.

That summer Oliver, newly returned from fighting in the Spanish Civil War, is in love with beautiful Calypso, who professes not to love anyone; 10-year-old Sophy is in love with Oliver. Kind Walter, his indolent sister Polly, and the twins from the nearby rectory, David and Paul, round out the cast of characters lounging the days away and enjoying the hospitality of Aunt Helena and Uncle Richard. When war is declared, the scene shifts to London, where the various marriages, affairs and misalliances of the cousins, the twins, Helena, Richard and Jewish refugees Max and Monika Erstweiler form a complicated and vaguely incestuous moving picture of lust, yearning and self-indulgence.

The Chamomile Lawn became a bestseller when it was first published in the 1980s, and much was made of the fact that the author, Mary Wesley, who apparently based much of the wartime narrative on her own experiences, was over seventy when it was released. A popular television mini-series broadcast in 1992 brought the novel to a much wider notoriety.

I can understand the popularity of the novel, as it does have an ambitious scope, a tangled, soap-opera-like storyline, and a generous enough amount of sexual goings-on to pique the interest of the most reluctant and jaded of readers, but I’m afraid I did not embrace it fully. This might be partly editorial, as the phrasing often seemed awkward to me, and I never entered fully into the story, remaining very much an onlooker as the author soberly and without much flair matter-of-factly related the action with an abundance of smutty detail which couldn’t help but leave me squirming – and not in a good way.

Little girls running about with no underwear and “respectable” gentlemen who should know better putting their hands up under those juvenile skirts; continual references to flatulence and erections and various other bodily functions seemed, after a while, to be over-telling; much too much information! The thing just felt smutty to me, and the story, though reasonably engaging, was completely unrelatable. None of the characters came to life for me, and I couldn’t drum up enough interest to really keep track of who was sleeping with who after a while, let alone try to get inside their rather nasty little heads long enough to work up some personal empathy.

It was hard work to finish this one. Perhaps because right before reading it I had just experienced Vita Sackville-West’s The Edwardians, which is a gorgeously written specimen of this sort of novel, an example of what it could be?

Mary Wesley isn’t even in the same city, let alone the same ballpark, as Vita Sackville-West and her ilk! Apples to oranges, or, rather, an overripe, sickly sweet, partly decayed banana (phallic pun fully intended, inspired by Wesley’s fixation on the male naughty bits) to an opulent bunch of hothouse grapes.

This is a damning review, and I’m sitting here having second thoughts about even posting it, but I think I will go ahead and just put it out there as an example of something which sounded great, received lots of positive press, but just didn’t click with this particular reader.

I didn’t hate the book, and I truly enjoyed some of the details the author shared about life and attitudes in wartime England, but the sexual stuff put me off. Not the fact that there was sexual content in this novel, but how it was portrayed.

Nothing was terribly graphic; I’ve read and happily tolerated – more than that – enjoyed – much more detailed portrayals of people’s fictional sex lives, but this one just felt off somehow. I’d hoped to be able to give The Chamomile Lawn to my elderly mother to read, but I don’t feel comfortable with doing so after reading it; something which seldom happens, as she quite happily tolerates a fairly broad range of “intimate” detail in some of the modern fiction we share and discuss.

I’m open to investigating some of the author’s other titles if they cross my path, because the story itself showed some creativity, but not planning on seeking them out in the near future. I will, however, be making a determined search for Sackville-West’s The Heir, which I know is around here somewhere, and which I desperately want to re-read, because reading All Passion Spent some months ago, and The Edwardians a day or two ago have reminded me what a stylish and clever writer Vita was, and how enjoyable really well-written “personality” fiction can be.

Edited to add: I’ve just registered The Chamomile Lawn with BookCrossing, and will be sending it back out into the big wide world on one of my next trips to town.

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february lisa moore 001February by Lisa Moore ~ 2010. This edition: Vintage, 2011. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-099-54628-3. 310 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

*****

An intense read. Absolutely impossible to put down.

February is a story about grief and memory and love and people coping with heartbreakingly dire situations the best way they can, which means not always particularly happily or successfully. The novel ends with optimism, but I could not call it happy. It is a keenly observant, uncomfortably bleak, very believable portrait of a woman and her family and their reaction to the brutally unexpected loss of their son, husband and father.

Lisa Moore has written, all clichés aside, a powerful book. Stark, often deeply uncomfortable, occasionally humorous, never maudlin, and, I suspect, one that will be quite unforgettable.

The novel is based on a true Canadian tragedy. On Valentine’s night in 1982, out on the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland, the oil drilling rig Ocean Ranger capsized and sank during a violent storm. All eighty-four men on board the rig died in the frigid waters, some apparently within hailing distance of a vessel which was unable to rescue them. The families of the dead learned of the disaster from news accounts on the radio; the oil company made no attempt to notify them.

Helen O’Mara loses her husband Cal that night. She has three young children and is pregnant with a fourth. Life for all of them becomes indelibly marked by their loss in ways both immediate and not always obvious until many years later.

The novel ranges from 2009 all the way back to the 1970s, when Helen and Cal were first married, in a series of memories, incidents, anecdotes, and flashbacks. A second storyline develops along with Helen’s, that of her now-adult son John, who has suddenly found out that he has fathered a child during a casual romantic encounter. As he attempts to come to grips with an adequate response to that situation, his story and that of his mother’s form a two-part composition of major and minor key, mingling and contrasting and bringing different incidents into sharp focus.

I thought this approach worked very well. A few reviewers have noted their irritation at John’s weakness as a character; I found him believable, though not at all likeable. Helen herself comes so vividly to life and we are taken so intimately into her thoughts, that everyone else pales just a bit in comparison. For that matter, I did not particularly like her, or most of the other characters, for that matter; many of their lifestyles are not at all in sympathy with my own, and I frequently caught myself getting all judgemental about some of their choices, but I will say that they all felt true and alive there on the page.

I’m cutting this review short right here, as other duties call, and I want to get it posted prior to this week’s Canada Reads debates on CBC Radio.

Would I recommend this book to “everybody”? No, definitely not.

It is an uncomfortable thing, and I’d want the reader to go in with expectations on high alert. In particular, women with husbands engaged in dangerous lines of work, heads up. This is a book you very likely should read, because it speaks bluntly to the situation and spotlights our every nightmare. The good thing about this is because it is fiction, it allows us to analyze the characters’ emotions and responses in relation to their fabricated stories, rather than agonize too deeply over what we would feel like if it were us instead.

Perhaps because it is one of the most contemporary and personally accessible of the five Canada Reads choices, I felt it was much the strongest. Every book on the list has its unique qualities, but for sheer emotional punch, this one wins hands down.

My ranking as of this evening:

  1. February by Lisa Moore
  2. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
  3. Away by Jane Urquhart (Actually, I’m undecided on how to place this one and Indian Horse. They’re running neck and neck, each with different strengths and types of appeal.)
  4. Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan
  5. The Age of Hope by David Bergen

I am going to work on completing Two Solitudes tonight and tomorrow, so a response to that one may be forthcoming in the next day or two as well, but no promises.

This is the first time I’ve attempted to read the Canada Reads contenders, and I must say that I have been introduced to novels I would not otherwise have chosen for myself. February I would likely have avoided because of the tragic storyline, The Age of Hope for its mediocre description as a novel of a “woman’s awakening”, and Indian Horse for its declared focus on hockey.

I’m glad I read them all. It will be interesting to see how they all fare in a “contest” situation. They are all quite different, though their universal bleakness is a point in common. So terribly sincere

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age of hope david bergenThe Age of Hope by David Bergen ~ 2012. This edition: Harper Collins, 2012. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-44341-136-3. 287 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

A decent enough novel in that it is well written and readable, but is this really the best we could come up with for a Prairies (and “North”) regional choice for Canada Reads?

Here were the other choices for the Prairies and North region:

Okay, then, I guess the masses have spoken. We’ll work with what we’re given.

*****

This book is about my mother. No, seriously. It really is. My mom was born in 1925, to parents newly arrived during the second Mennonite diaspora from Russia, in a rural town in southern Manitoba. The titular Hope was born in 1930, in similar surroundings, and her young womanhood was much the same; the Mennonite Brethren picnics and bonfires for “young people” which Hope attended were a pleasant diversion from the usual round – school, household chores, church and Sunday visiting, potluck dinners and occasional movie nights – all of the trappings of the middle-class North American post-war world.

Hope is the representation of an entire generation of women who lived through one of the most change-filled centuries the world has yet known. Hope and her kindred fellow housewives are an almost extinct breed today; their everyday reality, so common for their generation, is almost completely foreign to the younger generations immediately succeeding them, and the tendency in many circles is to sneer a bit at the banal stay-at-home lives they appear to have lived.

What with the abundant Canada Reads 2013 discussions taking place right now in various literary venues right across Canada, I don’t think I’ll spend too much time going into the storyline of the novel. Here’s the promotional blurb:

Born in 1930 in a small town outside Winnipeg, beautiful Hope Koop appears destined to have a conventional life. Church, marriage to a steady young man, children – her fortunes are already laid out for her, as are the shiny modern appliances in her new home. All she has to do is stay with Roy, who loves her. But as the decades unfold, what seems to be a safe, predictable existence overwhelms Hope. Where – among the demands of her children, the expectations of her husband and the challenges of her best friend, Emily, who has just read The Feminine Mystique – is there room for her? And just who is she anyway? A wife, a mother, a woman whose life is somehow unrealized?

This beautifully crafted and perceptive work of fiction spans some fifty years of Hope Koop’s life in the second half of the 20th century, from traditionalism to feminism and beyond. David Bergen has created an indelible portrait of a seemingly ordinary woman who struggles to accept herself as she is, and in so doing becomes unique.

So this isn’t a proper review of The Age of Hope at all, I’m afraid. I’ll fast forward to my personal views on the book itself, my general feelings about it after having completed it a week or so ago.

Is this a book “every Canadian should read”? In a word, no.

To elaborate: it’s a fine domestic novel, and it does track the country’s historical progress through a good chunk of the twentieth century as a vague background to the progress of Hope, but it doesn’t really say anything terribly important about either the social group Hope was part of, or the country she lived in. There are many quite nicely drawn pictures of the settings and times Hope moved through, but really, she could have lived anywhere. This book could have taken place in any of the towns or small cities of the American mid-west, or the British industrial towns, or the suburbs of Sydney, Australia.

Though I recognized many of the references, because of my knowledge of my mother’s similar background, there is nothing that stands out as marking Hope’s nationality as Canadian. She’s the sub-fusc universal everywife-and-mother, moving in her little cloud of dull angst among the others of her kind. The unquestioning daughters, wives and mothers; the generation who did their duty, were all about self-effacement and not putting oneself forward, not imposing. And though Hope has a good friend who breaks away from the norm, to separate from her husband and live her life as an independent “liberated woman” in the city, Hope gently accepts that as what someone else does; I didn’t get that there was any sort of yearning coming from Hope for the same kind of “escape”. She nods and smiles and listens and plugs along in her same old groove. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I didn’t much like how it was implied that Hope’s was the less admirable choice. It was a viable option, was it not?

Hope’s mental anguishes, which land her in a psychiatric hospital to undergo shock therapy sessions, are not terribly well presented by the author, though I’m unclear as to what degree that is a deliberate literary choice in order to emphasize the constant dull fog that Hope walks in. It’s either a very clever choice by the author, or sheer authorial laziness.

This book is well written, and I appreciated the author’s stylistic skill. I “got” Hope, and I didn’t think her husband or children were all that unrealistically portrayed – well, except for the 6-foot tall, flagrantly gay, Olympic-athlete daughter – that was a bit of a plausibility stretch, I thought –  but none of them came to life for me. The whole novel had a distance about it, a very hands-off feel. I didn’t hate it, because that would be a strong emotion, and I don’t feel at all strongly about this one.  It’s such a mild drama. And I didn’t like or dislike any single character. I couldn’t care enough to invest my own emotions in any deep way. This is not a good thing in a novel.

I doubt The Age of Hope will have much of a shelf life after its brief prominence as a Canada Reads pick, though it may linger on for a year or two on the strength of that. And from reading this one, I have no urgent, burning desire to explore another work by the same author, though I understand he’s turned out a prizewinner or two. I’ll doubtless pick up his other novels at some point and read them with mild enjoyment, but my expectations are tempered.

Other reviews to peruse:

The Winnipeg Review – The Age of Hope – a generally positive review, highlighting the novel’s strengths.

Quilll & Quire – The Age of Hope  – nailed every negative thing I thought about the story and states them brutally succinctly.

Goodreads – The Age of Hope – a very broad range of opinions, all over the map, as the readers jump into the debate.

*****

With two of the Canada Reads books polished off and mulled over, I’d have to say that at this point Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese is strongly in the lead in my personal race.

I’m currently tackling Hugh McLennan’s Two Solitudes, and finding it rather dull going. It has its moments, but it’s very much a period piece, I’m finding. Perhaps too much so for a universally recommended “must read” choice?

I’m looking forward, though increasingly apprehensively, to the last two books in the Canada Reads Top Five. So far the choices have been just a bit ho-hum.

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indian horse richard wagameseIndian Horse by Richard Wagamese ~ 2012. This edition: Douglas & McIntyre, 2012. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-55365-402-5. 221 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10.

*****

Saul Indian Horse, a young Ojibway man in his thirties, has hit rock bottom and is crawling back up. He’s in a detox program after spending six weeks in hospital after collapsing in alcohol-induced tremors on a Winnipeg street. Part of the rehabilitation is bringing out old memories to get to the root of the issues behind the addictions, so Saul is writing down the story of his life.

Going back, waaaaay back, Saul starts with the anecdote about his great-grandfather which led to the family name.

The Ojibway were not people of the horse. Our land existed as an untamed thing, lakes, rivers, bogs and marshes surrounded by citadels of bush and rock and the labyrinthine weave of country. We had no need of maps to understand it. We were people of the manitous. The beings that shared our time and place were lynx, wolf, wolverine, bear, crane, eagle, sturgeon, deer, moose. The horse was a spirit dog meant to run in open places. There was no word for it in the old talk when my great-grandfather brought one back from Manitoba.

The traditional life of Saul’s immediate ancestors is changing, and the horse becomes a treasured and useful part of the tribal economy, pulling trees out of the bush to be floated down the river to the mill where they could be sold for cash, a necessity in the evolving way of things.

The negative side of progress is being felt as well. Children are being rounded up and forcibly taken away to mysterious locations where they are taught the ways of the Zhaunagush, the white people. The residential schools. Some – many – do not return. Those that find their way back are changed beyond comprehension of their parents and grandparents, and many, when they have children in their own turn, are emphatic in their fear of losing their own children to the schools. Saul’s parents were both residential school students, and the family  is constantly on the lookout for the floatplanes and motorboats carrying the armed white men intent on collecting the native children.

Despite their wariness, Saul’s sister Rachel is taken, and his brother Benjamin. Rachel never returns, but Benjamin runs away and finds his way home, though he is so sick from TB that he soon dies. The tragedy of finding and then losing their beloved son is too much for Saul’s parents. Against Grandmother’s pleas, they bundle up Benjamin’s body and set out by canoe to take him to the Catholic priest for “proper burial”.  Saul will never see them again.

Saul is only eight, and helpless to interfere. He and Grandmother are left behind, and as winter sets in and the parents do not return, are faced with a choice: stay in the bush and die during the winter, or travel out to the closest town, where there are relatives who will take them in.

Tragedy follows on tragedy, and Saul is eventually bereft of his grandmother as well; she freezes to death while sheltering Saul with her body. Saul is found and rescued, and is sent to “the school”, the regional Catholic residential school, where he joins the other traumatized native children who are in a state of walking apathy as everything they know is stripped away, and they are forcibly remade into “good, obedient, educated Christians.”

Saul already knows how to read and write in English, as his father had taught him from old schoolbooks, so that culture shock is minimized for him. But he desperately misses his family, and carries within him a core of grief that cannot be healed. Like most of the other children, Saul soon adapts to survival mode, learning how to avoid drawing attention to himself and cooperating in all demands made upon him.

A young priest joins the school the same year Saul is brought there, and his enthusiasm for the game of hockey brings interest and opportunity to the group of boys showing interest and ability. Saul is fascinated by the game, though he is considered too young to play. He sweeps the ice in the mornings, and surreptitiously teaches himself to skate and stick-handle, using to0-big skates stuffed with newspaper and frozen horse turds for pucks.

Of course, Saul is a natural. His progression is predictable, though fraught with emotional and physical challenges. Saul eventually gets too good for the Indian League, and is scouted, reaches Toronto, and plays for a top junior league team. Then it all blows up, as the stress of the constant racism – both brutally blatant and thinly veiled – he comes up against, and his deeply hidden bitterness about his tragic family and cultural losses finally push him over the edge.

*****

Richard Wagamese is an excellent writer, with an easy facility for words. I blazed through Indian Horse in one evening, willingly abandoning myself to Saul’s story. I’m not at all a hockey fan, and the description of this novel as a “hockey story” put me off much more than the residential school angle. My reluctance was needless; the saga of Saul did not require any stretch to understand in any of its elements.

I wonder if both the details of the game of hockey and the horrors of the residential schools are so ingrained into our combined Canadian psyches that we now immediately “get” the references? And does this therefore cushion the impact of a book detailing the atrocities done to First Nations people to a mere cultural reference, even when the author is most obviously a member of that cruelly wronged racial group?

For though I understood the points that the author was trying to wake us up on, I didn’t feel shocked. Nothing he brought up surprised me; the story of Saul is not unique, at least in the residential school survivor aspect. The hockey prodigy bit was where I had to stretch my “willing suspension of disbelief.” The kid was just a bit too awesome and magical through his whole short career. After a while his awesomeness, quite frankly, rather bored me. And then when he snaps, he beats up guys much bigger and stronger than he is, from sheer force of his rage. Yeah, okay. Fair enough. Next.

Wagamese himself says, about Indian Horse:

I think it is wonderful to be included in the top five [of Canada Reads 2013], mostly because it was Canadian readers who got me to the regional finalists and it shows me that they embraced a book that had a very dark, harrowing and hard theme.

I think it gives the opportunity for more clarity for the impact of residential schools on people, not only for the survivors themselves but the inter-generational impact on the children of the survivors. It allows Canadians the opportunity to have an emotional reaction to the story because it’s very direct and deliberately underwritten. It would have been really easy to go over the top and make it even more bleak and harrowing than it is, but my intention wasn’t to shock anybody or to cause anybody anger or anxiety.

The novel definitely didn’t feel over the top to me, though the atrocities are sprinkled liberally throughout. I guess what I’m feeling right now is that I should feel more “anger and anxiety.” What does it say about me, about our societal callousness, that stories such as this, even though fictional, do not stir us in a much deeper way?

Or maybe it’s just me.

I suspect this novel will do exceedingly well in the Canada Reads debates, both official and among the nation’s readers, because the topic is just so darned “politically correct”, especially with all of the recent “Idle No More” protests and rallies. I’m guessing that a collective “white guilt” will soften any criticism as to whether the book actually excels as a novel, a story.

It’s definitely engaging, and thought-provoking, and representative of an important Canadian issue, though I am not convinced it is better than the other four Canada Reads 2013 choices in being chosen as the book all Canadians should read. I’ll have more to say on that once I finish reading the five picks. I’m halfway through book number three. Not done with discussing this one quite yet!

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judging book by its lover lauren letoJudging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere by Lauren Leto ~ 2012. This edition: Harper, 2012. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-207014-2. 269 pages.

My rating: 4/10.

Quick verdict: Glad I didn’t buy this. Mildly diverting, but not a keeper.

The author is (apparently) a popular blogger. Fair enough. The chapters would indeed make fine blog posts. Read ’em and forget ’em. (Not that I would extend that attitude to those of you, my marvelous readers, who are also fellow bloggers. No, no, no! But blog posts are, by the very nature of the venue, rather in-the-moment, are they not?)

*****

I was going to condemn this novelty project by calling it pure fluff or something equally dismissive, but fellow-reader compassion for the author, an undoubted book lover, stays my hand. I’m mostly just glad I got this one from the library. It was mildly humorous in a pleasantly snarky way and I did frequently smile. Some sweetly tart anecdotes about a childhood of reading and a gentle ode to her book-loving grandparents enriched the whole.

I easily made it to the end, though I tuned out some at the mention of and rants about authors I’d never even heard of. Who the heck is Susan Wiggs? Chuck Klosterman? Augusten Burroughs?

The publisher is pushing this one with the following:

Want to impress the hot stranger at the bar who asks for your take on Infinite Jest? Dying to shut up the blowhard in front of you who’s pontificating on Cormac McCarthy’s “recurring road narratives”? Having difficulty keeping Francine Prose and Annie Proulx straight?

For all those overwhelmed readers who need to get a firm grip on the relentless onslaught of must-read books to stay on top of the inevitable conversations that swirl around them, Lauren Leto’s Judging a Book by Its Lover is manna from literary heaven! A hilarious send-up of–and inspired homage to–the passionate and peculiar world of book culture, this guide to literary debate leaves no reader or author unscathed, at once adoring and skewering everyone from Jonathan Franzen to Ayn Rand to Dostoyevsky and the people who read them.

Not a particularly broad field of authors covered within, I found, but the author did her best with her limited years of reading experience, for she’s a youngish bright young thing – I quickly googled her and found a reference to her being twenty-four in 2010 – and obviously feels most at home among the American bestseller and college reading list standards.

And that’s all the time I’m going to spend on this one. Should be in abundant supply in the used book stores in the next year or two, as all of the readers who’ve received this for Christmas of 2012 purge their shelves.

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Two-Part-Inventions1Two-Part Inventions by Lynne Sharon Schwartz ~ 2012. This edition: Counterpoint, 2012. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-61902-015-3. 277 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

An interesting book. Deeply engaging, though just a bit cold and clinical in style, to match, perhaps, the deeply bottled up hangups of the main protagonists, pianist Suzanne Markon and her recording engineer husband, Phillip. The title is indicative of the contents, in numerous ways.

I liked it.

*****

As those of you who’ve been following my postings will already know, I’m presently very actively involved with preparing for our annual Regional Performing Arts Festival, which starts in early March. And though I didn’t mindfully consider the performing arts theme when I picked up this book, it was perhaps a Freudian impulse which prompted my plucking it from the display rack of New Releases at my last library visit.

That, and my remembrance of hearing good things about the book and the author. My impulse was rewarded; I’m glad I read the book, both because it was an engaging if rather sombre literary diversion from my mind-boggling pile of Festival paperwork, and because it has introduced me to an author I’d like to spend some more time with.

I’ve promised myself some personal catch-up time this morning to complete several blog reviews which have been simmering on the back burner, as it were, so I’m going to try to keep things short and to the point, especially in the case of those books which are recent and not at all obscure. The internet abounds with reviews for these books already, many of them so well-written that I am adding little to the conversation that is already taking place.

*****

The high piercing wail reached him even before he got to the front door. so jarring that he dropped his keys on the flagstones. The wail sounded like a small creature being tortured, a bird, maybe. A demented form of birdsong. But there was no pause for breath or change in tone, no hint of sputtering life. The shriek kept up at that bizarrely high pitch, the far end of the keyboard, while he fumbled at the door and finally rushed inside, dropping his briefcase and laptop on the shelf in the front hall.

Where was she? It couldn’t be Suzanne. It wasn’t a human sound. He followed it through the living room, past the grand piano with open sheets of music – Bartók, Poulenc, Stravinsky, he registered automatically – and into the kitchen, where billows of steam seethed and rose in clumps from the red teapot, already forming cloudy patches on the tiles behind it. He tripped over her body, stretched out flat on the floor, on her back. She looked like a ballerina who falls back in a firm, elegant line, confident that her cavalier will be there to break her fall and propel her on to her next step. But no one had been there to catch her. Before he knelt to see if Suzanne was still breathing, he stepped over her to turn off the flame under the screeching pot.

But Suzanne is not breathing. As her husband Phillip discovers in the next few moments, she is, though still warm – as Phillip discovers as he caresses her hands and face – finally, irretrievably dead.

The story that follows is the dual portrait of two ambitious and talented people, yoked together in a relationship that transcends mere marriage. Suzanne and Phillip are both damaged souls who find a certain respite in each other’s company since their first meeting in high school. Their love is certainly passionate, at least at first, but a longer acquaintance reveals the core of ice in the heart of each, which ultimately will determine their twinned fates.

Suzanne has been a brilliant pianist since an early age, something of a child prodigy. After a chance encounter with an eccentric neighbour leads to a musical mentorship and a stint at Juilliard, it seems that the concert hall is Suzanne’s undoubted destination. She suffers, however, from crippling stage fright, which worsens with every succeeding engagement, to her bitter dismay. For though she loves her music for itself, for the deep emotional need it fulfills in her life, what she desires even more is the adulation of an audience, the continual reassurance that she is indeed a worthy person, that she is “real”.

Phillip, musically gifted though not to the degree that Suzanne is, has built himself a succesful career in the recording industry, and from the first is Suzanne’s most passionate promoter. He sees his wife’s true talent, and has lofty ambitions for her performing career. As she chokes on performance after performance, and as word of her inability to pull off a concert hall quality presentation spreads, her choice of venues narrows to the most prosaic, to her deep inner shame, and to Phillip’s obvious despair.

The bookings were in smaller and smaller places: a party for a volunteer ambulance squad; a benefit for a local Little League team held in a high school gymnasium for an audience of unwilling teenagers and their teachers; once, a ticket to her recital was the reward at a silent auction for a nursery school. But the panic didn’t change, and this she could not get used to…

…This must stop, she thought…She’d tell Phil she needed a break She knew what his arguments would be, and his ceaseless encouragement, which was beginning to cause her mild nausea… “Why don’t you give it up?” she said to him once …There was no need to explain what she meant. He looked at her with a stunned face. He was holding a container of milk, about to pour some, and he put it down because his hand shook. “Give it up? This is what we planned from the very beginning. Things are moving along. All you need is patience. Do you want to waste your God-given talent?”

God-given. She’d never expected to hear a word like that from him. If anything, the talent had begun to feel demonic…

Soon Suzanne has given up completely, and has slid into a passive acceptance of her failure. She becomes reclusive, spending her days watching television while Phillip is at work, and preparing elaborate meals for him as she seeks to fulfill her creativity by concentrating on cooking. She still practices daily, and teaches a few students, but she refuses to perform for an audience. And now she has a legitimate excuse; she is pregnant.

But even in this Suzanne and Phillip are about to face a heartbreaking disappointment. The pregnancy ends in a miscarriage and in Suzanne’s inability to conceive again. She drifts even further into her introspectively passive state of acceptance. Phillip is bemused and disappointed, but his own career is steadily becoming more successful; he now owns a recording studio, and is turning out highly regarding classical music CDS. His performers are thrilled with how their work sounds in the recorded form, Better, in fact, than they thought it would while they were playing.

For Phillip has started tinkering with the possibilities of cutting and splicing and layering the recorded music, and though he insists to himself that he is merely augmenting the recordings to what they should sound like, the practice is gaining a hold on him, especially as no-one seems to notice. So one day he suggests that Suzanne might want to produce a CD of her own, playing privately in the recording studio, with no audience to cause her to freeze up …

*****

There is so much more going on in this novel than I’ve included above. We have an intriguing love triangle (or two), a tragic childhood accident which allows the character in question (Phillip) to justify his questionable moral behaviour, complicated family relationships and deeply complex friendships, and an endless array of intensely focussed (and sometimes slightly warped) creatively gifted people pursuing their various deeply personal goals.

The success that Phillip eventually engineers for Suzanne was inspired by, as the author discusses in her Author’s Note, by the real life example of pianist Joyce Hatto, whose sudden blaze of glory via stunning recordings of “her” works were found to be highly engineered by her husband.

From the flyleaf:

Two-Part Inventions begins when Suzanne, a widely-admired pianist, dies suddenly of a stroke. In the midst of his grief, her record-producer husband, Phillip, becomes deeply agitated: Suzanne’s reputation is based on a fraud which is about to be exposed in the classical music world. Phillip has built a career for his wife by altering her CDs using portions from recordings of other pianists. Syncing the alterations seamlessly, he has created a wide repertoire of flawless music with Suzanne getting sole credit.

In this psychological novel set in New York City, (the) author … guides the reader through a flawed marriage and calculated career. Beginning with Suzanne’s death and moving backwards in time, Schwartz examines Suzanne’s early years as a musical prodigy, her education at Juilliard, her life with Phillip and her unusual career, while contemplating the nature of truth, marriage, and the inner demon of thwarted ambition.

A sombre psychological novel describes this one well. There were occasional flat spots, though definitely not enough to mar the narrative. The overall tone, in my opinion, stylistically fits its characters quite perfectly.

Definitely an author worthy of further exploration: Lynne Sharon Schwartz

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the roaring girl greg hollingshead 001The Roaring Girl: Stories by Greg Hollingshead ~ 1995. This edition: Somerville House, 1995. Softcover. ISBN: 1-895897-53-X. 196 pages.

My rating: 4/10. These are cleverly written, but a little too far out there for me. I wouldn’t re-read any of these anytime soon, and if I’d never heard of Greg Hollingshead it wouldn’t break my heart.

This collection won the 1995 Governor General’s Award for English Fiction – Short Stories, and the contents are undeniably well-written, but most of the stories left me feeling more than a mite confused, and usually a whole lot disturbed. Hollingshead has a creative mind and a grand way with words – some of his phrases lift up off the page and vigorously come to life – but it’s all kind of kinky. Often humorous, but definitely dark. Lots of sex – mostly of the “ew!” nature – and deeply twisted thoughts.

I’m not going to spend any time deeply reviewing this one, because it would require me to spend more time in Greg’s head (as it were) and, quite frankly, I don’t want to.  I’ll be moving The Roaring Girl along to see if it can find a more suitable home.

*****

  • The Side of the Elements – A couple rents out their home for the year they must be away. Stuff goes on in their absence. This one I rather liked.
  • The People of the Sudan – A family is maneuvered into taking temporary care of a box full of Canadian Christian Relief “supplies” for someone going to the Sudan; the rendezvous goes awry and the situation goes surreal. Another good one; downright humorous.
  • Rose Cottage – A young man becomes involved in trying to fix what he believes is an abusive relationship between a nurse and her elderly charge.
  • The Roaring Girl – A transient girl is given temporary haven by a family, deeply affecting the adolescent son.
  • The Age of Reason – Some sort of dysfunctional family saga. I have no idea what this was all about!
  • Rat With Tangerine –  Ditto.
  • A Night at the Palace – This one was a complete nightmare – couldn’t finish it. People behaving strangely. And badly. Hallucinogenic.
  • The Appraisal – Oh, thank goodness – an actual narrative arc! Well, relatively speaking. A cottage appraisal turns into a conversation on the nature of civilization, and its impending collapse. Awesome – loved it.
  • The Death of Brulé – A young boy becomes involved with the older girl next door. Ick.
  • The Naked Man – Another absolutely surreal family tale.
  • How Happy They Were – Sad people; love gone wrong.
  • Walking on the Moon – The view from a roof overlooking the people next door. Odd.

So – out of these twelve there were four I kind of, sort of, almost enjoyed reading. The Appraisal is the only one I’d willingly seek out again. Goodbye, Roaring Girl!

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the best thing for you annabel lyon 001The Best Thing for You by Annabel Lyon ~ 2004. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 2004. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7710-5397-5. 322 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Annabel Lyon is absolutely fearless in where she’s willing to go with these novellas, and there wasn’t a single jarring note anywhere. I am in awe.

I liked this collection in the same way I liked her high-profile Giller and Governor General’s Award nominee, and Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize winner, 2009’s The Golden Mean – sometimes I was deeply disturbed – and occasionally almost offended – by the images she conjured up, but I never, ever – even briefly – looked away. She kept me fully engaged the whole breathless trip.

This woman can write, people. If you haven’t already, you need to check her out.

Highly recommended.

*****

The Best Thing For You is a collection of three novellas. This is a form which I don’t see used much any more, but in this case it works wonderfully well, allowing an ambitious complexity of content and keeping the pace fast without the inevitable fluctuation in energy which occurs in a longer novel.

All three stories are set in Vancouver, British Columbia, the home of the author. The first two are set in contemporary times and the third is set during the ending days of World War II; the celebration triggered by the announcement of the end of the war plays an important part in the narrative.

Be prepared to pace yourself when reading through this one. Each novella deserves as much attention as a novel would; I found that I stopped cold after each one and only was able to turn my full attention to the next after digesting what I’d read for a few days. I wouldn’t recommend reading these in one fell swoop; I personally would have found that overwhelming. This is a collection that deserves – demands! – the reader’s full attention.

  • No Fun – A conventional enough narrative about a respectable middle class family, mother a doctor, father a university professor, well-adjusted, perfectly normal teenage son in high school. That’s the surface picture. When the son is involved (possibly? probably?) and criminally charged in connection with the brutal beating of a mentally handicapped man, the picture perfect impression dissolves into a dramatically realistic portrait of three people in personal crisis. As the mother of a teen boy myself, this novella (cliché alert!) touched me deeply in a very personal way. It made me smile in recognition, it frequently made me laugh, and it made me feel less alone in my occasional confused dismay at what our beautiful babies evolve into without our maternal permission (damn it anyway!) Lyons gets it so very right; how does she do that? The portrait of a marriage going on behind the issues brought about by the child is exceedingly well drawn as well.
  • The Goldberg Metronome – a young couple find a mysterious package taped to the pipes under the bathroom sink in their newly rented apartment. In it is a midnight blue, broken antique metronome. The story of the metronome’s history interweaves with the stories of the lives of the people it has joined tenuously in a thread of possession, passion, desire and loss. Gorgeous story.
  • The Best Thing For You – The strongest (of a strong three) and most elaborately plotted (of a beautifully complex three) of these novellas. A discontented young married woman involves a teenage delivery boy first in an adulterous affair and then in something much deeper and darker. Another teenager in the periphery of the events becomes deeply involved in a very different way. Cleverly noir, I thought as I read; I was vindicated in this assessment by reading in an interview here that film noir was indeed Lyon’s inspiration for the story:

I like film noir, and was interested in creating a femme fatale who’s both less and more than she seems.  Anna is a black-eyed adulteress who murders her husband for his life insurance, but she’s also bookish and melancholy and doesn’t really enjoy sex with her lover.  She’s also curious.  That’s one of her defining characteristics for me.  She doesn’t want to close her eyes and act as though everything’s all right when clearly–as a young woman with little formal education, no job, and no prospects, who is perceived basically as a sexually precocious child by everyone around her–her life looks quite grim.  She doesn’t want to play along, to pretend.  She wants to confront.

I guess the tone of the novella came about because I was constantly thinking about film.  I tried to keep the action quite external, to start scenes in the middle, to cut, to use dialogue in the slightly stylized manner of movies from the forties, and also to convey a sense of black and white through the prose yet with a complexity of texture that is a hallmark of some of the great movies from that era.

Again, here’s the interview link: Book Clubs. ca. Short, but well worth a read after you’ve enjoyed the collection. It added another dimension to my respect for the depth and general excellence of this author’s work.

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