Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book 26 – Lives of Girls and Women

Alice Munro

The past few years have seen the emergence of interesting contemporary Canadian fiction and I’ve definitely enjoyed the fruits of writers like Miriam Towes, Ian Hamilton, Alan Bradley and Gil Adamson. Though I’ve never liked Margaret Atwood much, the only CanLit icon I’ve ever bothered to explore was Timothy Findley. Alice Munro is a definite gap in my CanLit reading. When I found a cheap copy of Lives of Girls and Women at a used bookstore in Nova Scotia (dontcha just love the cheezy 70’s cover?), I admit I was kind of expecting a coming-of-age version of The Diviners, or maybe a CanLit version of Judy Blume, since this controversial coming-of-age classic was banned from a number of schools in the 1970s due to its frank portrayal of sexuality.

What I got was a slow-paced anecdotal novel in the form of a “short story cycle”, or a series of episodes, chronicling the life of a young girl growing up in Ontario. All the CanLit tropes are there: a coming-of-age story featuring the minutiae of daily life in a rural setting interspersed with thoughtful introspection… Unfortunately the sex stuff doesn’t occur until at least three-quarters into the book. The very 70’s paperback edition makes much of the sex as the blurb states this is an “intensely readable story of Del Jordan grappling with life’s problems as she moves from the carelessness of childhood through uneasy adolescence in search of love and sexual experience.”

So I waded through mucho exposition about Del and the Jordan family living in rural Ontario, like how Uncle Benny tells Del and her brother about his experience driving around Toronto looking for the young wife who ran away from him:

He remembered everything. A map of the journey was burnt into his mind. And as he talked a different landscape—cars, billboards, industrial buildings, roads and locked gates and high wire fences, railway tracks, steep cindery embankments, tin sheds, ditches with a little brown water in them, also tin cans, mashed cardboard cartons, all kinds of clogged or barely floating waste—all this seemed to grow up around us created by his monotonous, meticulously remembering voice, and we could see it, we could see how it was to be lost there, how it was just not possible to find anything, or go on looking.

To be perfectly honest, that “monotonous, meticulously remembering voice” also aptly describes Munro’s writing. There are certainly moments of brilliance--she is, after all, Alice Munro--but you also get lost in the landscape of that droning voice. It’s not unlike the experience of politely listening to your eloquent yet doddering aunt who goes on a little too long with her stories, occasionally dropping a juicy tidbit of family gossip.

Don’t get me wrong -- I'm didn't pick up LoGaW just for the sex stuff (mostly).   But I wasn’t expecting this book to be, so… well…. (Munro fans can take heart that I feel slightly like a Philistine when I say this)… but I found this book to be really rather boring!

Apparently I’m not the only literate person who feels this. But when you have the Quill and Quire pounce on a Calgary Herald reviewer who slammed Munro’s Selected Stories, you have to be a little careful in what you say.  Still, I can’t help but agree with the reviewer’s opinion:

It may be one of the seven deadly sins of CanLit to utter a critical word about Munro, but the sin of a scanty plot is an even bigger one. This collection can’t rightfully be called stories. They’re unsatisfying sketches of characters who wander through depressive environments, observing the idiosyncrasies of those around them. Yet, those idiosyncrasies are there simply for the sake of being there; they do not lead to climaxes or denouements.

And just note how the Q&Q smugly puts down the reviewer as not being well-read!

Now, although we’re certainly Munro fans here at Quillblog, we’re also in favour of critical reviewing and disinclined to kneel before sacred cows… However, it does seem painfully apparent that Lakritz simply hasn’t read much literary fiction before. Which is the real issue here: surely some sensitivity and expertise should be a prerequisite for a book reviewer?

How the hell do they know what or how much Lakritz has read?  The real question is if there are any literate, well-read people who actually (or even secretly) find Munro boring? A quick google search for “Is Alice Munro boring?” yielded some interesting results.

Take this earthgoat blog for example:

Why are her stories so much longer than most people's? Are her plots more involved, does she bite off larger chunks of time and jump around in them more, does she include more character details or scene description than most writers, are her stories really micronovels? Maybe. Certainly it's working for her. She must be one of the top five most respected living short story writers. I won't spend time here praising her style, use of language, etc. -- her mastery of the form is well known.

Or cracking spines, who provides a fitting analogy:

I imagine that if Alice Munro were a painter, she would paint landscapes. Her finished canvases would look clear and precise as photographs - that is, they would look real... Like her stories, her paintings would be perfect in terms of craft, and as truthful as possible, and probably just a little boring… Still, I can never seem to pull myself away from a Munro story once I’ve started…

My minutes of research resulted in the fact that there does exist intelligent, well-read people who readily admit that Munro can indeed be boring, but nevertheless still enjoy her writing. So where does that leave me? I appreciate that Munro is a gifted writer, and amidst some of the dreary and/or droning descriptive passages, there are as many brilliantly written ones that really hit the nail on the head, like this passage that says so much about female self-esteem and a friendship grown apart:

Well-groomed girls frightened me to death. I didn’t like to even go near them, for fear I would be smelly. I felt there was a radical difference, between them and me, as if we were made of different substances. Their cool hands did not mottle or sweat, their hair kept its calculated shape, their underarms were never wet—they did not know what it was to have to keep their elbows pinned to their sides to hide the dark, disgraceful half-moon stains on their dresses—and never, never would they feel that little extra gush of blood, little bonus that no Kotex is going to hold, that will trickle horrifyingly down the inside of the thighs...  But what about Naomi? She had been like me; once she had an epidemic of warts on her fingers; she had suffered from athlete’s foot; we had hidden in the girls’ toilet together when we had the curse at the same time and were afraid to do tumbling… What was this masquerade she was going in for now, with her nail polish, her pastel sweater?

And some of the sex stuff is brilliantly written too, such as Del’s horrifying yet fascinating encounter with Mr Chamberlain in the woods. 

His breathing became loud and shaky, now he worked furiously with his hand, moaned, almost doubled over in spasmodic agony. The face he thrust out at me, from his crouch, was blind and wobbling like a mask on a stick, and those sounds coming out of his mouth, involuntary, last-ditch human noises, were at the same time theatrical, unlikely. In fact the whole performance, surrounded by calm flowering branches, seemed imposed, fantastically and predictably exaggerated, like an Indian dance. I had read about the body being in extremities of pleasure, possessed, but these expressions did not seem equal to the terrible benighted effort, deliberate frenzy, of what was going on here. If he did not soon get to where he wanted to be, I thought he would die.

I don't think I have ever read such vivid words about the simple act of jacking off in my life!

But then there are also moments that come across as ploddingly somber, like the time Del’s mother tells her daughter: “There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up till now has been their connections with men. All we have had. No more lives of our own, really, than domestic animals.

I also like to read people's opinions on Goodreads and one reviewer notes:

A lot of people find Alice Munro boring, even dated, but I like the fact that her stories are real - about real people and places, and never over the top.

And here is an interesting blog post that looks at why Munro is revered in Canada, but not as well-known outside:

None of that is earth-shaking stuff — Munro does not do earth-shaking. Everything in it, however, is something that every one of us experiences as we go through life. And great writer that she is, Munro has a way of exploring that in such meticulous detail that a reader — even an aging male like myself — can’t help but be touched.

Perhaps literate Canadian readers prefer their fiction to have a realness and seriousness to it.  But they should also respect the fact that there may be other well-read people who may prefer to have their fiction with a little more punch or action.  Why anyway is "serious literary fiction" considered so much more "worthy" than any other fiction?  It's the same mindset where readers found The Outlander too unbelievable for it be "real".  Much as Munro is respected and/or revered, it really boils down to a matter of taste, does it not?  If you’re a literary snob who’s afraid to admit that Munro is boring, then you might as well stick to your RealLit then.  You're probably the type of reader who now and then deigns to read speculative fiction (by Margaret Atwood), but never sci-fi.  But as someone who enjoys brilliant writing with equally brilliant pacing and structure (occasionally punctuated by the odd earth-shattering moment), Alice Munro is probably not for me.  And I'm not afraid to say that I find her a little too boring ;-)

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Book 25 – The Tourist

Olen Steinhauer

In mid-July, I found myself sans un livre a couple of days before my vacation and wanted something non-committal that I could easily resume upon my return home. The Tourist seemed like a good choice. Coincidentally, both Mount Benson and Kate had also read this book around the same time.

I had never heard of The Tourist before spotting a review copy on the freebie shelf at my work. At first I thought it was related to that silly Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie vehicle that came out recently.  Though it also features undercover agents in Europe, Steinhauer’s novel is a totally different animal. In Steinhauer’s novel, a Tourist is code for a CIA black-op agent with highly specialized skills. Somewhere in the CIA building on the Avenue of the Americas are secret floors stocked with Travel Agents who gather information from Tourists scattered “in all the populated continents”.

Like Kate and Mt Benson, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away or anything, but I did enjoy The Tourist. It had an interesting enough storyline, a decent amount of action and believable human drama, though the premise itself is far from original. If you’ve seen enough spy movies such as the likes of Mission Impossible or the Bourne series, you’ll recognize the tropes:

All Tourists know the importance of awareness. When you enter a room or a park, you chart the escapes immediately. You take in the potential weapons around you—a chair, ballpoint pen, letter opener, or even the loose, low-hanging branch on the tree behind Milo’s bench. At the same time, you consider the faces. Are they aware of you? Or are they feigning a forced ignorance that is the hallmark of other Tourists?

And you won’t be all that surprised who the “bad guy” turns out to be, like I wasn’t. But unlike a typical Hollywood action movie, there was a level of realism that I quite appreciated in Steinhauer's book.

There is definitely a bit of self-deprecating humour in the name given to Milo Weaver, the protagonist who is the Tourist in question. He could have been Mark Whacker or something like that – a tough, ass-kicking kind of guy whom you can escape - but not really identity - with. Whether he’s burned out by amphetamines, listening to France Gall on his ipod at the airport or longing to be with his family (again), there is a world-weary frailty to Milo Weaver that helps make The Tourist likable and fairly memorable.

The NYT review writes: Milo would be the kind of principled hero we long to believe still exists in fiction, if not in life. The only drawback to this warm close-up of the protagonist is that it skews the novel, rendering it more of a character study than a full-bodied espionage novel.

It’s not surprising (as Mt Benson already mentioned) that George Clooney has already optioned the book. The character of Milo Weaver would make a great role for someone like Clooney, though it would bear remarkable similarities to the tired assassin he played in the somewhat boring, The American. And The Tourist has the potential to be a much better movie than The American (as well as that Johnny Depp/Angelina vehicle of the same name, for that matter!).

The Washington Post writes: Much of the time, neither we nor Weaver has much idea what's going on, but we keep reading because he is likable -- a mess but still the most honorable man in view -- and because Steinhauer seems to know the world of spies and assassins all too well. In his telling, it's a nasty, duplicitous world, but it feels real. The question is whether our reluctant Tourist can get out alive and return to the wife and daughter who are counting on him to take them to Disney World. We are clearly being asked to consider which is more surreal: the spy world or Disney World.

One thing that rang false for me was how Milo met his wife, Tina. Olenhauer devotes barely any time to their first meeting, and assumes the reader will fill in the blanks regarding the reasons behind Milo’s near blind devotion to his wife and stepdaughter (whom he considers to be his own flesh and blood). It was on that day Milo had decided that his Tourist days were over, but there was no emotional explanation for how that fateful encounter with Tina changed the course of his life. It seemed rather lazy that the author avoided any exploration of this. Instead we have Tina explain to Homeland Security agent Janet Simmons how she and Milo bonded after seeing the World Trade Center collapse on TV when they were recovering at the hospital.  It was 9/11 that brought them together!

“When I figured out what had happened, I started crying, and that woke Milo. I showed him what my tears were about, and when he got it, he started crying, too. Both of us, in that hospital room, wept together. From then on, we were inseparable.”


That little snippet alone would be enough to make Olman stay away from this book!

But really, that was the only, if rather ringing, false note for me.

“It was a basic truth of Tourism,” Milo reminds himself, “that you trusted no one. Yet, if you had to trust anyone, it had better not be another Tourist.” 

I agree with the NYT reviewer who notes:   This is the kind of tough thinking (and strong writing) that surfaces whenever Steinhauer gets to what really interests him — the crippling disillusion and nerve-snapping paranoia that breed in closed cultures where trust is absent and internal intrigue rampant.

So yeah, I would definitely read the sequel, The Nearest Exit, if it ever appears on the freebie shelf at work!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Book 24 – What the Dead Know

By Laura Lippman

I don’t pay much attention to crime mysteries in general, but took note when reviews highly recommended What the Dead Know when it came out in paperback a couple of years ago.  This summer I happily found a pristine copy at a used bookstore in Halifax. The verdict? The book pretty much lives up to its critical praise, featuring an intriguing mystery, a nicely constructed storyline, emotional depth, solid characters and whip-smart dialogue. Though I didn’t love the book, WtDK did make a great vacation novel and a nice follow-up to The Hunger Games and The Outlander.

The story begins in the present day with a woman walking away after getting into a car accident.  The disoriented woman is soon picked up by the police along a highway. With no ID on her person, she claims to be one of “the Bethany girls”, two adolescent sisters who went missing from the area about 30 years ago.  From there an investigation is launched involving the retired detective who was originally assigned to the case, a younger jaded detective, and an empathic social worker, as they try to figure who this mystery woman is. The narrative is interwoven with flashbacks to 1975 which chronicle the days leading up to the girls’ disappearance as well as the disintegrating marriage of the parents. In many ways, the novel shares some similarities to The Lovely Bones, with its themes of familial grief and loss, the major difference being that WtDK has none of that wishful saccharine b.s. that made The Lovely Bones so cringe-worthy.

I don’t think I should go much further about the plot, but I will paraphrase what the NYT wrote:

Laura Lippman’s “What the Dead Know” is an uncommonly clever impostor story, so cagily constructed that it easily fulfills the genre’s two basic demands. First, Ms. Lippman is able to keep her reader guessing about the main character’s disputed identity until the very end of this book. Second, when the revelation comes, it makes perfect sense, and it has been hiding in plain sight. This is not one of those mysteries with a denouement that feels tacked on, half baked or pulled out of thin air.

I think what also elevates WtDK from its genre is the thoughtful attention to detail and well-drawn characters. Lippman did not have to go into how much Kay the social worker loves to read, but in this case, it was a nice touch. Not completely necessary, but still very much appreciated:

She took the coffee to a corner table and settled in with her emergency paperback, this one from her purse. Kay stashed paperbacks in every nook and cranny of her life—purse, office, car, kitchen, bathroom. Five years ago, when the pain of the divorce was fresh and bright, the books had started as a way to distract herself from the fact that she had no life. But over time Kay came to realize that she preferred her books to other people’s company. Reading was not a fallback position for her but an ideal of state of being. At home she had to be hyperconscious not to use books to retreat from her own children. She would put her book aside, trying to watch whatever television program Grace and Seth had chosen… Here at work, where she could have joined any number of colleagues for breaks and lunches, she almost always sat by herself, reading. Coworkers called her the antisocial worker behind her back—or so they thought. For all Kay’s seeming immersion in her books, she missed very little.

There were other nice little pop culture references, like how the Bethany girls snuck into an R-rated screening of Chinatown the day of their disappearance, and how the older sister Sunny loved the Anne of Green Gables books (rather fitting considering we had just visited PEI at the time). I suppose that sometimes it’s these little details that helps to make a novel memorable or not.

Even though Lippman has been writing since the 1990’s, What the Dead Know was her first book that made the NYT bestsellers list. Before that, Lippman was mostly known for her Tess Monaghan series about a Baltimore reporter turned private investigator. It’s funny cuz when I was reading about the Baltimore locales and the confident handling of police procedural in WtDK, I was wondering if Lippman ever wrote for the former HBO series, The Wire. It was only when it came time to write my review did I discover that Lippman is actually married to David Simon! Turns out they also used to work as reporters for the Baltimore Sun. Well, you can’t get any more made for each other than that.

More interesting tidbits gleaned from the Wiki: in episode 8 of the first season of The Wire, Bunk is shown reading one of Lippman’s books. And in the final season, the author has a cameo in the first episode as a reporter working in the Baltimore Sun newsroom. Makes for a great excuse to watch The Wire again!

Here is a very thoughtful review that sums up the novel nicely without revealing too much.