Monday, December 31, 2012

Year End Wrapper Upper

It is actually February 10th as I write this.  All I can say is... 26 books - not bad for a new parent!

I was my closest ever to 50 books the previous year.  And I really don't think I'll have a chance in a long long long long time to even come close to 41 books again.  But never say never.

2012 saw a wide variety of fiction (from upbeat to depressing to downright disturbing) and non-fiction, though the latter was comprised mainly of pregnancy and birthing books.  There will be a few child-rearing type books this year, but I would love to continue exploring a diverse range of fiction again. 

My output has definitely slowed, even though I'm on mat leave, it is no surprise what a time-consuming task this baby raising thing is.  But I'm finding time, whether it's taking a brief soak in the tub or just before going to sleep, even a couple of pages a day is something!




Thursday, December 06, 2012

26. My Friend Dahmer

By Derf Backderf

I don’t think I had ended up posting about having read the Green River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen, which I read last year (I think). Both GRK and My Friend Dahmer were loans courtesy of DS. Not counting From Hell, this is the second graphic novel I’ve read about modern day serial killers.

Obviously, comics about notorious serial killers have to tread carefully with utmost sensitivity for such a gruesome subject. It helps to have a personal connection, like how Jensen’s father was one of the lead detectives investigating the Green River Killer case that lead to the (very) eventual capture of Gary Ridgway, and how Backderf was a high school classmate and one-time “friend” of Jeffrey Dahmer. It also helps that both these comics were well-researched, well-written and nicely illustrated – gripping without being too sensational, and thoughtful without being too indulgently maudlin.

Both comics make a point of exploring how Ridgway and Dahmer tried to stop or control their dark compulsions. Ridgway would put rocks inside his victims bodies so he would not be compelled to go back to their corpses. Dahmer became a hardcore alcoholic by the time he graduated from high school in a desperate effort to dull his increasingly powerful urges. This is not to excuse their crimes but more to provide some modicum of humanity as Ridgway and Dahmer struggle vainly to battle their own monsters.

 Like most people, I’m mildly fascinated about serial killers. It’s not just about the horrific crimes they committed, but because I’m so freaking normal, I can’t help but wonder how they got that way. My Friend Dahmer makes a notable attempt to understand how a sad and lonely teenager who grew up in a bucolic 1970’s suburb became one of the most infamous serial killers in history. And frankly, Backderf’s graphic novel satisfied this morbid fascination of mine.

Friday, November 30, 2012

25. Beast In View

By Margaret Millar

I was following a yoga video while Olman was bathing the baby when all of a sudden there was a loud boom and then everything was plunged into darkness.

My eyes were immediately drawn outside the window where just across the street a bright shower of sparks rained down from above like fireworks. Oil splattered on our poor neighbour’s black Audi. Turns out that the transformer across our building blew up. Perfect timing too, since this was the first cold night of winter (I think it was supposed to drop down to -15 C)!

The reason why I mention this event was because I finished reading Beast In View by candlelight. It turned out to be a cozy evening where we went out for dinner (shared a steak at Burger De Ville) and came home to read since there’s not much you can do sans electricité. Beast In View was a great read, even though I probably did not love it as much as Olman did.

It was Olman who happened to borrow this book for me when he was at La Bibliotheque Nationale. Since I’m a newish parent, I’ll let Olman’s review speak for me as well. But in a nutshell, the book starts off with a very intriguing mystery:  wealthy spinster, Helen Clarvoe, receives a prank call one day that impels her to hire an investigator. The story then evolves into a twisted tale full about a deeply dysfunctional family and the psychological (and homicidal!) ramifications that can bring.

… Then Miss Clarvoe stretched out her hand and Blackshear took it. 
    Her skin was cool and dry and stiff like parchment, and there was no pressure of friendliness, or even of interest, in her clasp. She shook hands because she’d been brought up to shake hands as a gesture of politeness. Blackshear felt that she disliked the personal contact. Skin on skin offended her; she was a private person. The private I, Blackshear thought, always looking through a single keyhole.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

24. Beezus and Ramona

By Beverly Cleary

It’s probably a little bit ironic that I chose the name Ramona for my baby daughter, yet I have not read any of the Beverly Cleary books when I was growing up. Though I was quite aware of their existence, somehow I just missed out on them. Guess I needed someone to push these onto me, which never happened. Well, soon after Ramona was born, Olman’s Aunt V sent us a package that contained the first two Beezus and Ramona books.

Unfortunately, the first book had the cover from the 2010 movie, and since I’d rather not have to look at Selena Gomez, I replaced it with the book you see here (only $2 from BMV when I was in TO last – love that store!).

In any case, the first book turned out to be delightfully charming and sweet. It’s the perfect book for any girl (or boy) who has a sister, or ever wondered what it might be like to grow up with one. I’m looking forward to the day when I can read them to Ramona when she’s a little older.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

23. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag

By Alan Bradley

 I had acquired the first two Flavia De Luce books based on the assumption that I would be into the whole series. However, I was lukewarm about the first book, The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie, so it took me a while to read the second one.

Though I enjoyed it, more or less, as much as the first, I was still lukewarm about Alan Bradley’s creation. Like the Harry Potter books, it’s just not my thing. It’s just a little too cutesy for my liking. Or trying just a little too hard to create a charmingly eccentric and precocious young heroine who talks like an old English gentleman.

Basically, I found the second book to have the same flaws as the first.  Worse, I didn’t really care too much about the characters, nor was I dying of curiosity to find out the who, how, why and what of the plot development. At the best of times, I was only mildly intrigued.

Part of it is because the novel was rather long, about 343 pages, and the plot took a while to really get going, spending too much time in the setup. By the time the murder finally occurs, we’re almost halfway through the story at page 147. Sadly, I’m putting this my giveaway/trade pile, but thankfully this is one series I need not invest my time in, as I can read other books I’m more enthusiastic about, such as the next three Patrick O’Brian installments in my on-deck shelf!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

22. Last Exit To Brooklyn

By Hubert Selby, Jr.

This was my first Hubert Selby Jr book and, man, it was pretty intense. I watched the 1989 film many years ago so had a good idea of the subject matter I’d be encountering. Still, it has taken me several months to finish reading Last Exit To Brooklyn as I'd read bits of it at a time when in between other novels (and pregnancy books!). There was only so much I can take looking inside the wretched lives of lower class Brooklynites in the 1950’s.

Each of the six chapters focuses on a character and their personal turmoil with usually the same recurring characters in each story. The Queen Is Dead section featured the most pathetic portrayal of unrequited love I have ever read. Georgette, a transvestite hooker so lacking in self-awareness and introspection, that her irrational longing for macho douchebag Vinnie and her child-like internal monologue made me think of her as an adolescent chimpanzee.

The most notorious story of all was probably Tralala, in which the title character, a foul-mouthed prostitute and thief, falls into a self-destructive bender and voluntarily gets gang-raped. This was without doubt the most intense portrayal of pure, unadulterated female rage and self-hatred I have ever encountered.

And then there was Strike. All the characters in Last Exit to Brooklyn so far have been pathetic, unlikable losers in their own way, but Harry, a closeted homosexual and wife-beater, really took the cake. As a barely competent machinist and union rep, he gained temporary status and importance when his factory went on a several months long strike. I found him to be the most detestable creature in LEtB, a real nasty piece of work. The only bright side to Harry’s chapter was that it featured some of the more darkly funny passages in the book:

His stomach knotted, a slight nausea starting. He went into the living room. Mary dressed the baby and put him in the crib. Harry heard her jostling the crib. Heard the baby sucking on his bottle. The muscles and nerves of Harrys body twisted and vibrated. He wished to krist he could take the sounds and shove them up her ass. Take the goddamn kid and jam it back up her snatch.

!!!

All of the characters lacked any shred of insight into their own interior lives (let alone other people’s) that you wondered if they even had a soul. That and Selby’s unique stream-of-consciousness style made me think of the first-person narration of an adolescent chimpanzee from Carl Sagan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. I guess Selby had this exact thing in mind when he wrote Landsend where a group of women on a bench were giggling and grooming each other, actually looking for nits in each other’s hair!

Last Exit To Brooklyn was not exactly a pleasant trip, and it won't be easy to forget its raw, emotional energy.

Friday, October 19, 2012

21. Your Pregnancy Week By Week (6th Edition)

By Glade B. Curtis, M.D., M.P.H. and Judith Schuler, M.S.

 The great thing about borrowing a bunch of pregnancy books is that you can return them after your bun’s out of the oven… and then replace them with child-rearing books!


This was an informative week by week guide to pregnancy, and every weekend, I would read a new chapter up until Week 38 when my baby decided to arrive a week before her due date!

The weekly chapters include illustrations of how both mother and fetus are changing and growing, descriptions of fetus' growth and developmental milestones, information about a mother's average weight gain and what she might be feeling or becoming aware of, the medical testing that corresponds to the week in question, and helpful tips on nutrition, lifestyle and prenatal exercises.

Friday, October 12, 2012

20. HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method

By Marie F. Mongan

The Wikipedia sums up the theory of HypnoBirthing as follows:

Hypnotherapy during childbirth is based on the theory that to experience an easy and comfortable birth, women need to have an understanding of the way in which the uterus functions naturally during normal childbirth when unencumbered by fear, along with the ill-effects of the fear-tension-pain cycle on the birthing process. Birthing women and their support partners are taught non-pharmcological strategies, such as relaxation, meditation and visualisation, that allow the body to birth normally without restrictions to assist in pain free, easier, more comfortable birthing. 

What I found most interesting was how Mongan looked at the history of birth, drawing from historical sources like Childbirth Without Fear published in 1942 by obstetricians Grantly Dick-Read and Michel Odent.  In the past it was midwives who were responsible for helping the laboring woman give birth. At some point in the post-Industrial Revolution, the role of midwives were taken over by men and eventually became medicalized.

During this transformation, much valuable knowledge was lost or overlooked, and pregnancy and childbirth became a medical condition, mostly due to the belief that women’s bodies were imperfect. Worse, pain during childbirth was regarded to be normal and expected, and thus, the fear of childbirth was born. This becomes a self-fulfulling cycle since if you’re afraid, you’ll naturally tense up, which then greatly impedes the birthing process.

As much as I found HypnoBirthing fascinating, I did not read the later chapters which explains how to practice the breathing exercises and relaxation techniques.  It is just as well because now having experienced my own labour and birth, there was no way I was going to transcend the blinding pain that I went through!  Though I ended up having a medicated, non-natural birth, I did not feel cheated out of my expectations and had a positive experience, thanks to the top-notch care and attention I received at my hospital, which was already up on the latest trends, like recognizing the importance of skin-on-skin contact and breastfeeding your newborn as soon as possible.  It was just eye-opening to know that there are alternatives for expectant mothers out there.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

19. Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth


By Ina May Gaskin   

 A friend lent me this book as well as the following two books.   Before I ever conceived of the idea of becoming pregnant, my views on pregnancy was pretty typical of many modern woman of my generation who’s never given birth before:  that giving birth would be extremely painful and that the best way to deal with it was to be medicated.  Ina May and Marie Mongan helped open my mind to the idea that it is possible to have an unmedicated birth and transcend the pain of childbirth.  They helped me to view the female body in a positive light and the incredible physiological changes our bodies go through in order to bring about new life. 

In Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, May draws from her experiences as America's leading midwife and provides many anecdotes about the many labouring women she has helped at The Farm over the decades.  Some of stories she shares involve women who faced psychological, emotional and physical challenges during labour and managed to overcome them.  I found her theory about the mind/body connection and Sphincter Law very helpful and fascinating.  May also provides evidence that her techniques help women achieve better rates of success compared to general population figures found at hospitals, such as decreased average length of labour, lower episiotomy and cesarean section rates, and better emotional satisfaction from mothers who have given birth.

My doula is also a big fan of Ina May and I was looking forward to practicing some of the techniques and exercises described by May during my labour.  Unfortunately, my birth did not exactly go as planned, which wasn’t a bad thing, but I’m still glad I was able to read this very fascinating book.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

18. The Mother of All Pregnancy Books

An All-Canadian Guide to Conception, Birth and Everything In Between

By Ann Douglas

 I've been reading various pregnancy and birth-related books the past several months and finished them in a cluster shortly after giving birth to my dear baby girl. When I say "finished", though I did read these books from front to back, I only focused on sections which I found pertinent to my particular situation, skimming through sections that did not apply to me.

With The Mother of All Pregnancy Books, I received the latest edition non gratis as part of my company’s Employee Assistance Program for expectant parents. It turned out to be a highly informative book, especially due it being geared toward expectant Canadian parents, a rare commodity since the majority of pregnancy books out there are American.

I quickly skimmed through the conception part, focusing on the pregnancy and birth sections which were looked at from various perspectives, medical and alternative. The info and data were also very nicely organized and laid out. Douglas also interviews new and experienced mothers and provides many relatable “sound-bites”, as well as various Dad Tips and Facts & Figures, all thoughtfully scattered throughout the chapters.

Monday, September 17, 2012

17. Turn, Magic Wheel


By Dawn Powell 

Dawn Powell was a prolific and talented New York writer during the first half of the 20th century who had never really received the recognition she deserved in her lifetime.  Nevertheless, she was part of the literary “in” crowd, a beloved friend and drinking companion of many luminaries of her time.  By the time she died, almost all her novels were out of print and she languished in obscurity until some contemporary authors brought about a revival during the 1990’s and some of her novels were reprinted.

I had only recently heard of Powell when I came across a Goodreads article in which author Kate Christensen named Powell as one of her favourite writers:  “Her sharp insight into human nature is never moralistic or sentimental. She shows people as they are, not as she wishes they were or thinks they ought to be—she is never judgmental, but her eyes are gimlet and her tongue is razor sharp."

Powell’s 1936 novel Turn, Magic Wheel, a social satire about the New York literary scene, became the first work that received both critical acclaim and reasonable commercial success.  Dennis Orphen is a young writer whose debut novel is a thinly veiled satire of the relationship between a Hemingway-like writer (Andrew Callingham) and Callingham’s first wife, Effie.  Dennis’ main motive for befriending Effie Callingham (nee Thorne) was to provide fodder for his writing material, but becomes conflicted when his novel is about to be released, as he realizes how much he has come to actually value his unique relationship with Effie Thorne.

Though it took me a little while to get into the novel at first, I ended up very much enjoying Turn, Magic Wheel.  There were some wonderfully brilliant moments of insight and there were times I felt like I was a part of that whole scene.  Take for example, the skewering of a rich but stingy patroness who loves to throw parties for “the freshest of public names”:

He recalled rumors that Mrs. Meigs prided herself on a perfectly delicious punch made of pure alcohol and grape juice, which she declared fooled everyone, and enabled her to entertain at very little expense. The result of this shrewd fooling was that guests were always prowling about the basement in a game she had never thought to invent but which was the life of her parties, namely the Scotch Hunt.  There was invariably some old family friend or an intuitive type who knew the hiding place and since her private stock was very good indeed little groups of guests were always clustered in the laundry leaning over the electric mangle or in the coal cellar or the cook’s bedroom, contentedly sharing a glass with no gaily embossed red rooster on its rim at all but more likely the plainest jelly glass or even a half-pint cream bottle.

Here is a wonderfully written 1936 NYT review of Turn, Magic Wheel:

...a barbed and immensely entertaining satire on a certain phase of New York's literary life. Read about the young publisher who discovered the possibilities of proletarian literature; read Miss Powell's analysis of how to write quaint little prosies for the "Manhattanite"; read her deliciously comic descriptions of night-club binges and literary teas. Miss Powell's wit, if somewhat overexuberant, has a peculiarly sharp and ruthless edge. She has some deadly things to say about the cormorant aspects of the intelligentsia, and though her actual story--despite its moving moments--is a little synthetic, her book as a whole rings savagely true.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

16. Red Harvest

By Dashiell Hammett

 “I’ll give you nothing except a good job of city-cleaning. That’s what you bargained for, and that’s what you’re going to get.

If only we had The Continental Op to clean up the corruption that’s been going down in Montreal!

A “fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed” operative from the Continental Detective Agency is hired by a local industrialist to root out widespread corruption in Personville, a town so overrun with criminals and gangs that it’s better known as “Poisonville” to the locals. In no time, our unnamed protagonist, like a chess master, is able to play the various factions against one another, but as the bodies start piling up, he realizes this is becoming more than a job... he’s enjoying this way more than he’d like to admit.

This was only the second Dashiell Hammett book I’ve ever read, and lemme tell ya, this was quite different from The Thin Man, which was a gift from hubs several years back. The Thin Man was quite light and humourous, mostly due to the witty banter from Nick and Nora Charles as they cheerfully imbibe and solve murders. Red Harvest has its fill of witty banter all right, as well as imbibing, but it’s much darker and grittier. After reading a few chapters, I was a little surprised to learn that it was published in 1929, as some of the gritty subject matter seemed like it belonged in the 1940’s, during the height of film noir.

I also learned from Olman that Red Harvest was an extremely influential book, particularly for filmmakers over the years. The novel itself is a fairly straightforward crime thriller, but everything – the setup, the characters, the setting, the dialogue, the structure – is expertly crafted. And Hammett has such an awesome way with words. He says enough in a couple of sentences what a writer would struggle to say in multiple paragraphs.

     She grabbed my shoulders and tried to shake my hundred and ninety pounds. She was almost strong enough to do it. 
     “God damn you!” Her breath was hot in my face. Her face was white as her teeth. Rouge stood out sharply like red labels pasted on her mouth and cheeks. “If you’ve framed him and made me frame him, you’ve got to kill him—now.” 
     I don’t like being manhandled, even by young women who look like something out of mythology when they’re steamed up. I took her hands off my shoulder, and said: 
      “Stop bellyaching. You’re still alive.”

Friday, August 10, 2012

15. Under The Skin

By Michel Faber

I came across Under the Skin on the giveaway book shelf at work and was intrigued by the premise of the blurb. I had never heard of author nor novel (which was published in 2000) before, and a quick google search assured me that both were well-liked and respected.

Like this reviewer, I was expecting some sort of psychosexual thriller about a strange woman named Isserley who is obsessed with picking up physically fit male hitchhikers. Every day she drives all over the Scottish highlands in her “battered red Toyota Corolla” looking for prime specimens. What she does with them, I was curious enough to want to find out. So this made for my second public transit commuting book.

Under The Skin turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It was much better than I expected, and also one of the more unusual novels I’ve read this year. I would say that the character of Isserley should also be included in NPR’s 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900, if not rated as one of the most interesting female characters in fiction of all time, along with Mary Katherine Blackwood.

 It took a while (more than halfway through) before Faber’s novel gradually reveals the true purpose behind Isserley’s obsession with male hitchhikers. By then, the story becomes a kind of allegory critiquing why we kill animals for food, which, not surprisingly, gets a little heavy-handed in its symbolism. But Faber is a talented enough writer to keep the didactism under control, so it never got too annoying.

However, staunch vegetarians and vegans who enjoy unusual novels or sci fi will probably love this book, as its central theme advocates a call for moral vegetarianism. If you’re a staunch veg-head, you may have probably heard of the groundbreaking 1971 collection of essays, Animals, Men and Morals: An Inquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-humans, which campaigned for animal rights and raised issues concerning factory farming and hunting. One of the contributors, John Harris, advanced the idea of the immorality of eating meat by using “the Argument from Superior Aliens' Invasion”, which I believe was a definite influence on Faber. I am already giving too much away, but I wanted to call dibs on making this connection since I did not come across other online reviews that did.

There is a movie adaptation in the works by Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer. Sadly, if you read about the film’s premise, the media will reveal the unique twist that was previously kept hidden in the novel. Initially I was interested, but soon became skeptical when I learned that Scarlett Johansson got the role of Isserley. This makes no sense at all, since Isserley is supposed to be a very odd-looking woman – a peculiar cross between an old lady and a pin-up model.  And ScarJo - pin-up pretty as she is - is just not very distinctive looking. I would expect ScarJo to undergo an uglification treatment a la Charlize Theron in Monster, but early film stills reveal this is not the case. She’s not even wearing the coke-bottle glasses that Isserley uses to disguise her non-vodsel eyes!

Here is a nice review by ScotSpec which gives you a better idea of the quality of Under the Skin and the character of Isserley.  It also does a better job of hooking the reader in possibly picking this book up:

Upon the initial publication of his first novel in 2000, Faber was likened to such authors as Alasdair Gray and Irvine Welsh; unfortunate comparisons not insofar as the aforementioned are in any way unworthy, but because the only real similarity between them and the author of Under the Skin is their shared nationality. Welsh, of Trainspotting fame, is notable largely for his vulgarity, and Gray for his authorial verbosity, whereas Faber's strengths lie in altogether different arenas than either of these: what distinguishes his work, and not only from the likes of Welsh and Gray, is his lyrical prose, and moreover, his down-to-earth approach to unspeakable subject matter. 

Nowhere is that disarming frankness more in evidence than in Under the Skin. And nowhere in that novel will you feel the creeping unease that is Faber's stock-in-trade more acutely than when in the company of Isserley, from whose perspective the narrative unfolds. Isserley is "half Baywatch babe, half little old lady," with hands like "chicken feet" and a face "small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie's book." From the outset, her appearance feels... constructed somehow. And the more you read, the more keenly you feel the truth of that perplexing first impression. Somehow, Isserley is not right. She is other, in fact, similar but different - and not merely in her appearance.

Friday, July 20, 2012

14. We Have Always Lived in the Castle


By Shirley Jackson

Wow, Shirley Jackson sure knew how to write a good, proper story.  

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was the last book Jackson published before she died (somewhat tragically) three years later in 1965. And what a haunting, mesmerizing book it was… and it sat unread on my shelf forgotten all these years! The only reason I remembered it was because Olman had recently asked if I have a copy of The Haunting of Hill House. So I went to check and discovered that I did have it, along with WHALitC!

When I opened the jacket, I found an inscription addressed to yours truly from an old friend I once knew in university. We were roommates for years in a wonderfully decrepit old house (not quite like a Shirley Jackson house, but close) but eventually had a falling out. I guess I must have shelved our friendship like I did her gift!

It’s just as well. I don’t think I would’ve appreciated WHALitC as much back then. It’s not like the novel is that complex; in fact, it’s deceptively simple and short, as it could even pass for a novella. Most of you probably read the short story ‘The Lottery’ at school, and/or already familiar with The Haunting of Hill House. So you’ll see that a variation of Jackson’s well-known themes can be found in WHALitC, ie. female characters who do not conform to societal norms, who end up being persecuted by an ignorant mob.

The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, who via her internal dialogue, straight away seems like an unusual teenager. More childlike than her 18 years, it’s unclear whether Merricat is eccentric by nature or from the result of living in isolation during her formative years. Six years ago, the Blackwood family was poisoned with arsenic during a family dinner,the only survivors being Merricat, her older sister Constance and their uncle Julian. Constance was charged with the murder, then acquitted due to lack of evidence, and ever since, the three survivors have lived in the Blackwood mansion, shunned by the other villagers.

Twice a week, Merricat’s duty is to walk over to the village for supplies and every time, she is wary of the villagers, and for good reason, as they regard the Blackwoods with contemptuous curiosity and trepidation. To protect herself, Merricat concocts mental rituals which helps her to endure the scrutinizing eyes of the villagers. When Merricat is at home, she has a daily routine of walking the perimeter of the Blackwood property, checking her various magical safeguards are safely buried or still intact, since Merricat believes they protect her home from external harm. These talismans include things like her father’s notebook strategically nailed to a tree, or a box of silver coins buried by the riverbank.

Having read The Wasp Factory last year, I wonder if Iain Banks was influenced at all by Merricat Blackwood when he created the character of Frank Cauldhame (you’ll have to read both books to see what I mean). It wouldn’t surprise me since since Mary Katherine Blackwood is listed as No. 71 in NPR’s 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900.

Part of the appeal of the book is the way the author draws you into Merricat’s thought processes. There is a dreamy rhythm that lulls you into the narrative. Jackson proves you don’t need to write a long, complicated novel to make a lasting impression or explore interesting themes. I don’t want to write any further since it will reveal too much anyway. You should just check out her work (which I should’ve done years ago!).

Here is a nice review which gives just praise to both author and novel:

Shirley Jackson was born in California, but lived in Vermont. In her six novels you can see her working her way into the New England Gothic tradition, creating more and more convincingly a world that is both magical and contemporary. And she has the sharpest eye for evil of any writer I can think of. For Jackson, it doesn't come as buckets of blood and torture porn and it never comes unmixed; there are no monsters in her work. There is evil in the Castle, but there is also charm, humour and a particularly touching portrayal of sisterly love. And there is evil outside the Castle, too, in the villagers' hatred - understandable in its origin but always ready to go out of control. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle seems to have inspired intriguing yet creepy book cover designs over the years. Here are a few I came across in my internet perusal:


P.S.  This is also the first book I finished while commuting by bus & metro to work.  I stopped riding my bike a few weeks ago due to my expanding pregnant belly, and have figured out that taking the mellow No.55 bus down St-Urbain down to metro Place d'Armes makes for good reading time.





Sunday, July 01, 2012

13. South of the Border, West of the Sun

By Haruki Murakami

Used copies by Haruki Murakami are usually hard to find in my limited experience, but Eureka Books in California had quite a few of them. Sadly, most of them were a bit dog-eared, so I only ended up getting South of the Border, West of the Sun, which was published just before The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

This is only the third Murakami book I’ve read, so I was surprised at how there was little or no magic realism in this novel, but it has many of other Murakami tropes, such as themes of alienation and loneliness. And fleetingly transcending those afflictions by bonding with others through the love of books and music and cats.

The Complete Review site summarized the novel as a “thoughtful and nostalgic Japanese midlife crisis novel”, which I thought was funny because I was thinking how very emo SotBWotS was while I was reading it.

The male narrator, Hajime (another obvious stand-in for the author), was always a bit of an outsider growing up because of him being an only child (a rare occurrence in post-war Japan).  Now a successful owner of two jazz bars, he becomes involved with his old flame, Shimamoto, an enigmatic, beautiful woman who suddenly reappears in his adult life, at a point where he’s "happily" married with children. There are lots of listening to classic music, especially in the form of LP records and melancholic introspection throughout the course of the novel. There are also hints of surrealism because it’s ambiguous whether Shimamoto is a real person, or a figment of Hajime’s imagination, conjured up to fulfill his deepest yearnings to escape the trappings of his middle-aged life. My bet is that Shimamoto is imaginary because no real woman would want to just lick (and only lick) Hajime all over his body (especially his balls) when they first get it on together!

I’m not really doing the novel much justice with my tongue in cheek rundown.  Even though the story is not exactly my cup of tea, I still enjoyed reading it. Murakami has a introspective writing style that is very compelling, so no surprise he is such a popular writer. SotBWofS is interesting because Murakami gives his own deft, subtle spin on the very clichéd story of a soul mate lost and then found again, and how losing a loved one can make you hurt and/or betray yourself and/or others. It’s just not one of my favourite Murakami novels, so I'm not too concerned about spending too much effort writing a review on it.

So instead, here is a thoughtful review from Writer on Writer which sums up more articulately how I felt about the book.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

12. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

By Jacqueline Kelly

I’m generally fond of coming of age tales and 19th century naturalists, so when I heard about this YA novel about a 12-year-old girl in turn of the century rural Texas who bonds with her distant grandfather by studying the natural world around them, I couldn’t resist and requested this as a Christmas gift.

I’m also glad that I delayed reading this until my summer vacation in Northern California, where we explored parts of the Sierra Foothills, Lake Oroville, the Redwood Forests, and the coastal sand dunes. Our trip culminated in a stay at a lovely garden cottage, where we saw a variety of birds. The surroundings provided the perfect backdrop to read Kelly's passages describing how Calpurnia and Grandfather Tate observe the wildlife on their estate.

Kelly has an engaging, naturalistic style which suits the realistic character-driven story about a girl with a thirst for knowledge who is obviously torn between her duties as a dutiful daughter and striking out on her own in some way despite 19th century restrictions. There are no dramatic arches or life-changing revelations for Calpurnia that tend to occur in coming-of-age novels, and the young heroine, portrayed as innately curious, intelligent and observant, was also refreshingly free of the annoying trappings of the “precocious adolescent” found in way too many books of this ilk.  Calpurnia spoke, thought and behaved like a twelve year old girl would (instead of, say, talking like an old man in those Flavia de Luce books).

Certain readers who prefer a more dynamically constructed heroine, or something more plot-driven, might be disappointed at the lowkeyness of this novel. Even as a character-driven story, the protagonist Calpurnia evolves gradually. She is obviously in conflict with pleasing her mother and wishing to fulfill her dreams of becoming a naturalist, and you know that her progress will be a difficult one. I also appreciated the subtle and somewhat ambiguous ending. You’re left unsure as to whether Calpurnia will ever realize her dream of becoming a naturalist, or even be permitted to attend university. Events happen, but they unfold in a normal, everyday kind of way.

Wikipedia provides a very appropriate summary of the ending and theme:

Callie fears that her free-roaming days may be at an end, though, when she receives a frightening Christmas gift: a book from her mother entitled "The Science of Housewifery". 

Throughout the novel, Callie must learn to balance her own independent and curious personality with the restrictions placed on a girl at the turn of the 19th to 20th century. As new inventions are presented in Callie's life, she adjusts and evolves, first with the wind machine her brother brings home, then with a marvelous new beverage called Coca Cola. 

Ultimately, though, it is the introduction of the telephone in the small Texas town that symbolizes the changes ahead for Callie. As Granddaddy tells her, "The old century is dying, even as we watch. Remember this day.” As the book ends, the 20th century dawns, leaving the reader hopeful that it will bring with it new opportunities for the feisty young Calpurnia. 

A very thoughtful and engaging story overall.  This is the kind of book I would like to hold onto for my currently incubating daughter when she grows old enough to read!

Monday, June 18, 2012

11. The White Tiger

By Aravind Adiga

This 2008 Man Booker prize winner was a used bookstore find at Amy’s Books in Amherst, Nova Scotia, and was on my radar because I was intrigued by the premise of a lower caste, uneducated son of a rickshaw puller who becomes a driver in contemporary India and then ends up murdering his employer. It has also been a very long while since I read a novel set in India, with the very fine A Fine Balance having been read over a decade ago.

It took me a while to get into the story, as I was not fond of the conceit of the protagonist, Balram Halwai, narrating his tale in the form of a series of letters addressed to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Balram admires the Premier as the great leader of a country that, like India, is fast becoming a rising economic super-power, but unlike India, China has got its act together thanks to the tight control of the Communist regime, while India is still a huge mess. I suppose it is a given that the majority of murderers have a healthy dose of narcissism and need some kind of outlet to boast about themselves, as the faux humble tone of the narration is consistent throughout the novel. Take for example:

    Oh, I could go on ad on about myself, sir. I could gloat that I am not just any murderer, but one who killed his own employer (who is a kind of second father), and also contributed to the probably death of all his family members. A virtual mass murderer. 
    But I don’t want to go on and on about myself… 

Of course, Balram does go on and one about himself!

Once I got past his avid navel-gazing, the novel was quite good and very interesting. The White Tiger wasn’t quite the level of A Fine Balance, but it was still a rich read, quite dark and unflinching realistic yet also satirical at times. I even became sympathetic of Balram. At first, Balram was appreciative of his progress, having relied on his own wits to escape his poor village and transcend his sweet-maker caste to become the driver of a rich man in the big city. He is immediately drawn to his dashing and well-intentioned employer, Ashok, but eventually comes to despise him when he realizes that he is really a weak man who gets corrupted and domineered by his unscrupulous older brother, Mukesh.

As Balram drives Ashok and his family around the city, he witnesses the bribing of government officials, various indignities committed against the poor and downtrodden, the indulgent lifestyles of the rich, and the gradual disintegration of Ashok’s marriage.  The turning point comes one night when Ashok’s wife, Pinky Madam, decides to drive the car herself and hits a child by accident. With Mukesh’s influence, and despite the protests of his wife, Ashok decides to frame Balram for the hit and run in the police report.

The jails of Delhi are full of drivers who ar there behind bars because they are taking the blame for their good, solid middle-class masters. We have left the villages, but the masters still own us, body, soul, and arse.

Balram then decides that the only way that he will be able to escape India’s "Rooster Coop" (servant class system) is by plotting the murder of Ashok and robbing him of the bribe money during one of his “drops”.

...only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed--hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters--can break out of the coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.
  It would, in fact, take a White Tiger. 

As this Guardian review mentions, Adiga’s unflattering portrait of India as a society racked by corruption and servitude has caused a bit of an uproar in his homeland. And it does make you wonder if this middle-class, Oxford-educated ex-Time magazine correspondent turned debut author is being a kind of  a "literary tourist ventriloquising others' suffering and stealing their miserable stories to fulfil his literary ambitions?" As taken from the review, Adiga's response is:

"At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the west, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society. That's what writers like Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens did in the 19th century and, as a result, England and France are better societies. That's what I'm trying to do - it's not an attack on the country, it's about the greater process of self-examination." 

That, though, makes Adiga's novel sound like funless didacticism. Thankfully - for all its failings (comparisons with the accomplished sentences of Sebastian Barry's shortlisted The Secret Scripture could only be unfavourable) - The White Tiger is nothing like that. Instead, it has an engaging, gobby, megalomaniac, boss-killer of a narrator who reflects on his extraordinary rise from village teashop waiter to success as an entrepreneur in the alienated, post-industrial, call-centre hub of Bangalore. 

 I must say, I agree!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

10. The Pesthouse

By Jim Crace 

I put The Pesthouse on my list as it was a post-apocalyptic tale about America, albeit a literary one, and I had read good reviews.  The story plays out as a kind of reverse frontier tale.  In the historical past as we know it, America was the new land that Europeans emigrated to as pioneers and settlers.  Now in some distant future, some unnamed catastrophe has reduced post-industrial America to ruin and the generations that have survived have since regressed to a state similar to the 17th century colonial frontier, except without any Indians or abundant resources.  This backstory is given in incremental detail.  At the beginning of the novel, you’re led to think the setting is like the Old West.  But instead of traveling west, the two brothers travel east, their ultimate goal being to board a sailing ship towards Europe in order to seek a better life.

I had very mixed feelings about this novel, being mainly disappointed by the lackluster storytelling. There was quality to some of the writing as befits a “literary” work, as this novel is regarded as such, but I generally felt quite disconnected from the main characters and indifferent to the events that befell them.  

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road had a similar premise and it too had a distant narrative style, but as a reader, I was much better able to relate to the character’s desperate situation and immerse myself in that frighteningly black and lifeless world.  The Pesthouse, on the other hand, was like watching a mildly interesting TV drama.  The novel, as a wholle, was strangely and frustratingly low-ley. For much of the novel, the threat of violence was looming (when it finally comes it is rather PG-rated), and though blood-curdling violence is not always necessary in this type of story, the author never takes the narrative to a level that impacts the reader in any memorable way.  

This review from TheNew Yorker articulately summed up how I felt about the book.  It's evident that Jim Crace is a great writer, but The Pesthouse was obviously not the best pick to showcase his talent.

“The Pesthouse” is Jim Crace’s ninth novel, and the most self-consciously mythic. Certainly, it’s a far cry from the virtuoso fusion of high-concept fabulism and psychological realism you find in “Being Dead” (1999), which takes a pitilessly minute observation, as through a microscope, of the processes of organic decay in the lifeless bodies of a middle-aged married couple, and makes something unexpectedly romantic. Nor do you find the world-conjuring gifts that are on display in Crace’s “Continent,” “Signals of Distress,” “The Gift of Stones,” and “Quarantine.”

The new novel is almost purely conceptual, an idea-driven work that might have been more effectively executed in graphic-novel form, or in film. The post-apocalyptic landscape, though repeatedly described, is never more than generic wilderness, like the backlot set of a low-budget movie, and never acquires regional specificity. Where Crace’s first, Calvino-inspired novel, “Continent,” conjured an imaginary continent through the sheer poetry of language, “The Pesthouse” is blandly and perfunctorily narrated…

The book’s droll, mock-tall-tale tone soon grates: it isn’t clear whether Crace wants us to feel sympathy for his characters or laugh at them as fools who have brought their collective doom upon themselves. 


Although this review by the Guardian praised The Pesthouse as a “wonderful, wonderful book”, the reviewer also shared my opinion about the novel’s flaws.

At this point Crace's customary rigour and control desert him for a while: there are a number of rather pointless diversions and adventures, but they don't engage the reader. It is as though, by broadening his perspective to include America and the perennial American dream, Crace has gone a little beyond his natural inclinations and ventured outside the arena of his enviable talents. The endless attempts to find food and to escape capture or rape - particularly after Franklin and Margaret are separated and Margaret acquires a baby - become less and less interesting. After Franklin has been enslaved by bandits (who are very sketchily drawn), Margaret finds refuge with a strange religious sect, the Finger Baptists, near the coast. Now the story picks up again, and all Crace's imagination is brought to bear on the elders of the sect, the Helpless Gentlemen, who must be washed, fed and even pleasured by the women, as using their own hands is the devil's work. Somewhat improbably - even within the very flexible boundaries of what is permissible in a dystopian novel - Margaret and Franklin are reunited and the novel canters towards the finish. The couple find a row of abandoned cottages near the sea and make some sort of life there as they wait to emigrate. Here Crace is at his best, describing their sight of the ocean and its vast and alien character.


Some people might like this book, but I'm not going to recommend this to anyone I know.  There are some interesting ideas, but I have read more traditional PA genre novels that are more engaging and original than this one.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

9. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

By Max Brooks

If you already have a penchant for this genre, then WWZ hooks you immediately within the first few pages. The book is a collection of interviews compiled by a UN agent who travelled all over the world to meet with dozens of survivors to get a firsthand account of the decade long zombie war, beginning with the initial infection in China, the Great Denial when various world powers downplayed the situation, which segued into the Great Panic when the plague quickly spread throughout the rest of the globe and humanity realized it was seriously fucked, and finally, what each region or country did to survive and combat the hordes of the undead as they began to outnumber the living. Even though the interviews were conducted about ten years after the war had officially ended, many of the interviewees remembered it like it was yesterday. The survivors range from regular folk to doctors, scientists and key figures in the military and government, so it’s a diverse range of voices as they recount their individual experiences.

What surprised me was how well-written the book was. I was really expecting something on the pulpy side of things. There was plenty of action and violence for the zombie or PA afficiando, for sure, but Brooks also took great care in inhabiting the mind of the person relating his or her story. Unfortunately, it wasn't how he emulated their manner of speaking. English was obviously not the first language of many of the survivors, yet practically every interviewee had a very similar way of talking, which was perfect, articulatel American English with plenty of colloquialisms.  But it was more in the way Brooks took into account the context of each character’s distinct cultural history and background. It was evident the author did a lot of research while writing WWZ. You also get the sense that he’s a big history and military buff, as it really shows in the details.

The best thing about WWZ was that it was incredibly realistic and cynical. It’s clear that Brooks spent a lot time  envisioning a true hell on earth if ever a zombie apocalypse really did come about. Before reading WWZ, Olman and I had conversations where we’d discuss what we’d do if The Troubles came, often envisioning an adventurous escape to Mount Seven in the BC Rockies. It’s always like that in the movies - where you have city folk escaping to pristine forests with clean running water and no one else around. Brooks totally burst that bubble. When you think about it, if a zombie plague does hit all the populated major urban centres, everyone and their dog is going to run to the hills, even to places you thought were too remote.

We had this great campsite right on the shore of a lake, not too many people around, but just enough to make us feel “safe,” you know, if any of the dead showed up. Everyone was real friendly, this big, collective vibe of relief. It was kind of like a party at first. There were these big cookouts every night, people all throwing in what they’d hunted or fished, mostly fished. Some guys would throw dynamite in the lake and there’d be this huge bang and all these fish would come floating to the surface. I’ll never forget those sounds, the explosions or the chainsaws as people cut down trees, or the music of car radios and instruments families had brought. We all sang around the campfires at night, these giant bonfires of logs stacked up on one another.

That was when we still had trees, before the second and third waves started showing up, when people were down to burning leaves and stumps, then finally whatever they could get their hands on. The smell of plastic and rubber got really bad, in your mouth, in your hair. By that time the fish were all gone, and anything left for people to hunt. No one seemed to worry. Everyone was counting on winter freezing the dead.

That excerpt was from an interview with an ex-American who fled north with her parents to Canada since they, and everyone else, heard the PSA that the undead would freeze in the winter. But once they ran out of supplies, any concern for environmental conservation went right out the door when it came to surviving. Of course people didn't pack wisely and left a wake of useless junk.  Of course most people wouldn't know any wilderness survival skills. The living are not much better than their undead counterpartsm, they will just consume everything in their path.

What also gave WWZ more substance and impact was its sharp critique of human fallibility and the institutions that are an extension of that. I’ll let you read Olman’s review of his thoughts on the matter, since he's always going on about how soft our society has become.  And he is much more eloquent than I am in this regard.

 It’s great that can I just link to his review too.  Even though Olman had read the book after me, he was way faster at posting his review than I. The best I can do is to backdate mine!

--

I believe I first heard of World War Z from Mount Benson, and had it on my to-read list ever since. Months ago I had scooped up a copy from the freebie shelf at work and it’s been sitting on my on-desk shelf, waiting. What reminded me to pick this up was hearing about a movie adaptation sometime next year.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

8. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

By Susanna Clarke

Found this almost pristine trade paperback at Dark Carnival’s sidewalk bargain bin when I was visiting Berkeley one Christmas holiday, having already read the wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell earlier that year and aware that the short stories of Grace Adieu were set in the same universe as the novel.  Although the collection was published after Jonathan Strange, most of the stories were written much earlier, with the feature story, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu", being Clarke’s first published story.

This was also the same short story that impressed her creative writing teacher (now significant other), who secretly passed on the story to Neil Gaiman, who then showed it to another writer-editor, who then published it in an award-winning anthology. As I mentioned in my review for JS & MN, Clarke began her career as a relative unknown, writing in her spare time since her full-time job was editing cookbooks at a publishing company. So the talent that was evident in "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" really got events rolling which would lead to the long-anticipated publication of her debut novel. The Wikipedia has a great entry about Clarke as a struggling writer, which is a great story in itself -- full of adversity, romance and a happy ending. It also chronicles her creative process, as well as provides a helpful summary of the stories in the Grace Adieu collection.

I must admit that "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" was the best and most memorable of all the stories. As much as I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the short stories as a whole were like pale shadows in comparison, as they only give you a taste of the fully realized brilliance of the novel.  Light, enjoyable and whimsical, the stories were not particularly memorable. 

Like delightful, bite-sized pieces of candy, Clarke’s short stories provided a perfect distraction if I had finished a novel and was momentarily at a loss as to what to read next. The stories are probably best appreciated as a companion to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. If you haven’t read the novel yet, the stories may pique your interest, and if you’ve finished the novel, and like me, was very sad to leave the wonderful universe Clarke had created, then the stories will help prolong your immersion or provide another opportunity to be in that world again, albeit peripherally.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

7. The Ice Princess

By Camilla Lackberg

All the evil, pettiness, and malice was quietly allowed to ferment beneath a surface that always had to look so neat and clean. Now that Erica was standing on the rocks of Badholmen and looking back at the snow-covered little town, she wondered in silence what secrets it was guarding.

I had heard mostly positive reviews about The Ice Princess, part of the wave of Scandinavian crime thrillers that have come in the wake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books. I had originally bought this as a Christmas gift for my MIL, but she had already read it (and didn’t like it), so instead of returning it to the neighbourhood bookstore, I decided to read it for myself.

The Ice Princess is a murder mystery set in the coastal Swedish town of Fjallbacka, where the author hails from. Erica Falck is a modestly successful biographer of notable women who has returned to her hometown to sort through the belongings of her deceased parents’ house. While there, her old childhood friend, the beautifully enigmatic Alexandra, is found dead, her body frozen in a bathtub (the ice princess of the title) due to the furnace being broken on the day she died. Obviously, it’s a murder disguised as a suicide, since who would take a bath without hot water? Through various circumstances, Erica becomes involved in a personal investigation of her own. She also gets re-acquainted with Patrik, an old classmate and admirer, who also happens to be one of the local detectives on the case. As Patrik and Erica dig deeper into Alex’s history, they also discover that the quiet fishing town of Fjallbacka has dark, Lynchian secrets of its own.

An intriguing enough premise, I thought at first. However, I could see why my MIL didn’t like this book at all. For one, I was disappointed since I had expectations for a straight-up crime thriller, not a soap opera pretending to be one. The burgeoning background romance between Erica and Patrik was cringe-inducing, for the most part. For their first romantic date, Lackberg actually spoofed Bridget Jones. I suppose the intention was to be charming.  But for me, it came across as jarring and rather condescending, as if someone (the editor? the author herself?) thought some levity was needed in case the story was too dark and disturbing for general readers.

I did appreciate how Lackberg created a realistic, thirty-something female protagonist whom readers could identify with, someone who spent as much time worrying about her weight as she did trying to solve the mystery of her friend’s death.  Who was also human enough to worry about the ethical ramifications of exploiting Alex's story to make her breakthrough as a true crime writer.   That part was a little too self-referential for my taste, but at least Erica isn't without her foibles.

But then, when characters were not discussing serious issues at hand (in other words, making small talk), the dialogue was unbelievably facile. There were also a number of cornball moments which tended to involve Patrik. To demonstrate how psyched that a grown man is to be going out with "the woman of his dreams", he is either shown grinning “ear to ear” or singing out loud to “Respect” in his car. Some of the secondary characters were also laughably two-dimensional and/or convenient villains.  Llike Lucas, Erica’s wife-beating brother-in-law, or Patrik’s boss, Superintendent Bertil Mellberg, an overweight, sexist asshat with delusions of grandeur. He was basically a loathsome yet harmless character, but for reasons unknown, Lackberg thought it funny to bring up Bertil’s comb-over every time he appeared in the narrative.

At first I had thought the lack of sophistication and awkward phrasing was due to the translation to English. But I realized that Steven T. Murray also did the English translation for the Stieg Larsson books, which I thought was rather competent. So I can only attribute the cornball writing to Lackberg. Like Kathy Riechs, Lackberg can construct an engaging plot and a strong sense of place, but a clever wordsmith she is not. What I said about Déja Dead also applies for The Ice Princess, that the attempts at humour or irony are rather pedestrian, where [the author] comes across as more square than, say, hard-boiled. Bad writing is a liability in genre fiction since it prevents the reader from fully immersing oneself in the author’s universe. This is unfortunate because Lackberg has created such a vivid backdrop of this quiet seaside town with a tragic history. And she almost succeeds… until she tries to be witty.

What did save The Ice Princess was an engaging plot that was complex enough for me to want to find out what happens next. A number of times, when a character discovered some vital piece of information, the author relied on the device of withholding knowledge until a later chapter, but I was fine with that, as that wasn’t nearly as annoying as the terrible dialogue. It does not make for an efficiently paced novel, which is not a bad thing, as the narrative moves along at its own leisurely pace. Even though I was able to guess a few plot twists, the big reveal did come as a bit of a surprise for me. So it was satisfying in terms of plot construction and theme. As one reviewer noted, at the heart of The Ice Princess is “the concept of secrets, and how they will always end up coming to light, no matter how deep you try to bury them. Lackberg takes us on a twisty path to uncover those secrets, and it’s fun to be along for the ride.”

Sadly, however, Lackberg’s lack of style left me ice cold. At best, I would recommend this as an airport novel, as it definitely belongs to a lower tier compared to superior crime books of its ilk.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

6. A Complicated Kindness

By Miriam Toews

I was already acquainted with Toews’ second novel, The Flying Troutmans, which I quite enjoyed. Yet I was only semi-interested in reading her debut, A Complicated Kindness, uncertain whether I wanted to experience life inside an insular Mennonite community in 1970’s Manitoba.  A friend of mine highly recommended it though, saying it was way better than The Flying Troutmans, which she found rather disappointingly superficial in comparison.

In A Complicated Kindness, we see life through the eyes of Nomi Nickel as a teenager growing up in the stultifying confines of a tiny religious community known as East Village (a stand-in for Steinbach, Manitoba where the author grew up). With precision and humour, our narrator provides the reader with a quick intro to Mennonite 101 in just a few sentences:

We’re Mennonites. After Dukhobors who show up naked in court we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland, and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking , temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.

As we get to know Nomi, we also get a fairly intimate portrait of the idiosyncrasies and contradictions inherent in  an insular community that stubbornly refuses to adapt to the modern world, or is simply incapable of change. This is evident in the non-existent bus depot and long abandoned train station, where the only outside news comes as a partially ripped page of a newspaper carried by the wind from a nearby town and the only visitors are American tourists who come in droves during the summer to see how simple, “backwards” people live in the past. And the inhabitants of East Village play up to this illusion by hiring teenagers to dress up in bonnets and aprons, churn butter, and pose for photographs.

The younger Nomi starts off as a devout Mennonite and gradually becomes a kind of rebel without a cause, as she tries to look after her father and deal with being abandoned by her mother, Trudie (Gertrude), and older sister, Tash (Natasha). Her best friend, Lids (Lydia), a good Mennonite girl, is at the hospital wasting away from some unknown condition.  Full of misplaced anger and confusion, yet somehow able to express herself with clever phrases and poignant observations (ie. "Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing").  Nomi is nevertheless still too young to figure out what to do with her situation in life.

As the novel progressed, it became more and more difficult to fully engage with our clever yet naive protagonist.  Probably the biggest problem for me was how the novel was structured. The first person narrative is told in a very rambling, nonlinear style that is meant to mimic the thought processes of Nomi, as she recounts the collapse of her family after Trudie and Tash become excommunicated from the community.  We get the sense that Nomi is slowly growing up, but when I finally found out the reason behind Trudie's excommunication, it was like a non-event.  Nomi makes so many clever observations, but when it really matters to know how she really feels about her Mom, or whether she suspects that her dad plans to commit suicide, Toews seems to cop out emotionally.

Toews is great at making wry observations about life, and there's no doubt she's a talented writer.  Unfortunately, she is not as skilled at structuring her narrative, at least in ACK. Sometimes the writing resonates, other times it feels like the author is trying too hard and the writing falls flat. Or key passages that should build on story or character developement are missing.  Ultimately the structure was uneven, even messy. I think if the novel was more strongly edited, it would have succeeded much better.

This thoughtful review explains much more articulately what I thought worked and didn’t work in the book. Basically:

Throughout the book, Nomi's search for an ending becomes a kind of leitmotif. Teachers and parents tell her that endings often find themselves once a story has begun and at a certain point there is little control the author has over their story's outcome. Would that were true, but the book's climax comes too little too late and the repercussions of it aren't dealt with to satisfaction.

Like many contemporary authors, Toews strives to imitate the styles of her pillared predecessors. Salinger and Nabokov are referenced directly in the text and float around with a self-conscious awareness that is not quite stealing and not quite homage but rather something that wavers uncomfortably in the middle. Though A Complicated Kindness would benefit from it, it's impossible to judge books as though they were in a vacuum. One must acknowledge the influences and relationships to other very similar works and then ask if it is done well enough to be considered separately. To put it plainly, A Complicated Kindness is derivative, but it is derivation well-done.

I agree with my friend that A Complicated Kindness is a more emotionally complex novel than The Flying Troutmans, but because the stakes are higher, ACK is also a much more flawed work than TFT.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

5. Portnoy's Complaint

By Philip Roth

It was Redwing’s enthusiastic review that got me interested in seeking out Portnoy’s Complaint, and sometime last summer, when we were browsing at our fave thriftshop, Olman found me a cheap paperback copy. So even if I haven’t progressed much with the Aubrey-Maturin series, at least I have read one recommendation from Redwing this year.

As Olman pointed out, Portnoy’s Complaint provides some eye-opening insight into the East Coast Jewish mentality. Although this is my first Philip Roth book, I’ve read a few books by Mordecai Richler, who definitely treads similar ground. The only difference is that no Jewish cumming-of-age story has been as over-the-top as this one!

I also agree with Redwing that anyone who reads this book will relate to the universal struggles of growing up under parental expectations, the clash of New World versus Old World values between different generations and trying to find some (sexual) liberation from familial guilt. Many of these issues are not just specific to being Jewish in modern America. Growing up with immigrant parents from ANY culture has probably resulted in a whole generation of sexually stunted and psychologically doomed North Americans. Certainly my own Chinese parents have had both an oppressive and repressive effect on my childhood where I simply longed to fit in with my more liberal white friends.

What makes Portnoy’s Complaint uniquely Jewish is in its execution and style:  Roth's brilliant use of idiom and wordplay (“LET'S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!"), the neurotic sense of humour, and over-dramatic expressionism. That, and the explicit (and still quite shocking) sexual content, makes for an incredibly entertaining read.

Another personal eye-opening discovery was this:  for the longest time, I had thought that the "wanking with the raw liver and subsequent consumption of said liver at the family dinner" scene from the well-regarded 1993 Quebec film, Leolo, was completely original!  Now I know that the film was inspired by (if not ripping off) Portnoy’s Complaint which was written fifteen years before!

Although I enjoyed many aspects of this very funny novel, in the end it was not completely my cup of tea. True, Alexander Portnoy is a sym-pathetic character (“why, alone on my bed in New York, why am I still hopelessly beating my meat?"), but he still be a little hard to take in large doses. For me, the plot line was at times as “circuitous as a string of wasted 50-minute hours”! (from this interesting 1969 NYT review). Like with the constant use of ALL CAPS, it was difficult to lose myself in a narrative where the text is riddled with exclamation marks! Reading so many pages of hyper-neurotic, masculine whining left me feeling rather anxious and tense!! I found that I had to take frequent breaks from Portnoy’s rants and read something more calming!

As a fairly open-minded female reader, I enjoy explicit content in my fiction from time to time, but even I found the racism, sexism and misogyny quite tasteless and dated at times. But I also recognize that if any offensive content became excised it would also castrate the potency of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Now was THAT a clever Freudian metaphor or vat?!

Addendum:

Here’s an article I came across recently about Roth’s merit as a great writer. I think the critic makes some very valid points, though interestingly, she is also female. It’d be worthwhile knowing if there are any male readers who have a similar opinion on the matter.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

4. Emma

By Jane Austen

Another ongoing reading project of mine is to work my way through Jane Austen's oeuvre. So far, Emma is only my third, having already read Pride and Prejudice (twice) and Sense and Sensibility. I had meant to read in order of publication, since I had a copy of Mansfield Park, but mistakenly picked up Emma instead. No matter. Now that I've finally read Emma, I can now say that Amy Heckerling's 1995 film, Clueless, did a great job updating the 1815 novel!

Emma, the youngest daughter of the hypochondriacal Mr Woodhouse, is a bright, attractive twenty-year-old woman burdened with a bit of idleness and boredom, being somewhat isolated in the country estate of Hartfield. She decides to befriend a younger woman of lesser status named Harriet Smith and takes it upon herself to play matchmaker for her new pet friend. When a farmer of solid character proposes to Harriet, Emma intervenes, with the heartfelt belief that Harriet, though illegitimate, is still a "gentleman's daughter" and therefore, "superior to Mr Robert Martin."

... It was a bad business. She would have given a great deal, or endured a great deal, to have had the Martins in a higher rank of life. They were so deserving, that a little higher should have been enough: but as it was, how could she have done otherwise? - Impossible! - She could not repent. They must be separated...

Emma's meddling in Harriet's affairs naturally results in unexpected consequences later on in the narrative. It is also obvious that Emma is a terribly flawed character; her well-meaning efforts to improve friend's lot in life being rife with hubris. Worse, she refuses to listen to the sagacious advice of her dear friend and neighbor, Mr Knightley. Despite all these flaws, Emma Woodhouse is probably one of the more charismatic Austen heroines I've read so far. Emma may be overbearingly conceited and unwise, but she is also admirable for her independence, self-containment and unconventionality, which is evident in her conversation with Harriet:

   '... If I were to marry, I must expect to repent it.'
   'Dear me! - it is so odd to hear a woman talk so!' -
   'I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! But I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to chance such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of the husband's house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man's eye's as I am in my father's.'
   'But then, to be an old maid at least, like Miss Bates!'
   ...'If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than one-and-twenty...'

There are many character foils in relation to the titular character, which is part of what makes the novel so enjoyable. Emma seems fairly confident that she won't end up a silly old maid as Miss Bates, and she is more surely financially secure than Jane Fairfax, who is her equal in age, yet faced with a less certain future. Nevertheless, for various reasons that she confesses to Frank Churchill, Emma has always consciously avoided being friends with Jane Fairfax.

'I have known her from a child, undoubtedly, we have been children and women together; and it is natural to suppose that we should be intimate, - that we should have taken to each other whenever she visited her friends. But we never did. I hardly know how it has happened; a little, perhaps, from that wickedness on my side which was prone to take disgust towards a girl so idolized and so cried up as she always was, by her aunt and grandmother, and all their set. And then, her reserve - I never could attach myself to anyone so completely reserved.'

But it's not until she meets the vicar's new wife where Emma meets her true nemesis. It is not because Mrs Elton is the daughter of a wealthy trader (and therefore not gentry) that repulses Emma, but her utter lack of refinement and character, which induces Emma to rant:

'Insufferable woman!' was her immediate exclamation. 'Worse than I had supposed. Absolutely insufferable! Knightley! - never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley! - and discover that he is a gentleman! A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr E., and her caro sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery...

Since Mrs Elton is also a social butterfly, her ubiquitous presense in the village of Highbury sets the stage for a few awkward situations which tests Emma's sense of social obligation, and force her "to be always doing more than she wished, and less than she ought! ". A good example is when Mr Weston invited Mrs Elton to join their touring party that Emma herself very much wanted to go:

Now, as her objection was nothing but her very great dislike of Mrs Elton, of which Mr Weston must already be perfectly aware, it was not worth bringing forward again: - it could not be done without a reproof of him, which would be giving pain to his wife; and she found herself therefore obliged to consent to an arrangement which she would have done a great deal to avoid; an arrangement which she would probably expose her even to the degradation of being said to be of Mrs Elton's party!

Naurally, one has found themselves in similar predicaments as our dear Emma! Fortunately (or unfortunately), the novel has a conventionally happy ending where eventually Emma learns the error of her ways and even winds up marrying a man of high character who is suitable to her status and temperament. Ah, but what else can I say that has not been said before about Emma? The novel was immensely enjoyable, but it also lacked a narrative arc that P&P and S&S had. Not only was it denser, but it also felt longer, because it got rather bogged down in the middle. Despite its flaws, Emma was still a book that I'm so glad to finally read. And I'm beginning to understand how Austen's books can inspire such a devoted, near universal following. The charming romances and comedy of manners are definitely a factor in a kind of surface appeal. But when it comes down to it, Austen was, at heart, a keen observer of every day human foibles.

Last year, the Indo-British author V.S. Naipaul caused a minor stir when he proclaimed that there was no woman in the history of literature who was his equal - not even Jane Austen. Perhaps his chauvinistic ego had ample time to inflate since 2001 when he won the Nobel prize, but he also failed to recognize (had he bothered to read any of her books) that Austen had no equal in characterizing pompous asses like himself.

Although Naipaul's declaration was nothing short of embarrassing, it did inspire a wealth of spirited responses from the literary world. One excellent article I found was this book review:
"Like it or not, the reality on the ground is that Jane Austen benefits and suffers from being associated with women, and her status as a major writer has been complicated by gender issues since her earliest readers".

Bilger's insightful review also allowed me to discover William Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor who, twenty years ago, might have wholeheartedly shared Naipaul's attitude... until he started reading Jane Austen and came to the realization that she was - surprise! - a great writer. Looking back on the writers "whose heroes he had wanted to emulate", he found them "wanting by comparison". According to Deresiewicz, "[S]he didn't need to play the same game as the big boys. Her small, feminine game was every bit as good." He then became inspired to write a book about his experiences, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter.

Great. Another book to put on my ever growing list of books to read. But not before I finish Austen's entire oeuvre!