Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Reading Journal: Tishomingo Blues, by Elmore Leonard (2002)

A hilarious conceit from the pulp master: the Dixie Mafia. And the story's protagonist, a high diver at the casino in Tishomingo, Mississippi, witnesses one of their hits at the beginning of the book and spends the rest of it working his way out of trouble, with the help of some memorable no-goodniks, who are of course equal parts good ol' boys. The over-arching metaphor is a simple piece of genius, especially as the plot thickens, and much like trying to hit a pool that from atop the ladder looks as big as a quarter, our hero eventually finds himself with one harrowing play left. It's my first Leonard, and what they say is true: it must be about 80 per cent dialogue. He's indeed devoted to his 10 Rules of Writing, in which he quotes from Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks." It's almost a challenge to remember who's who, given the quick and scant descriptions he uses, but he's a truly self-effacing narrator, and he lets the characters give the reader the most important details, never in a heavy-handed way. Great fun.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Reading Journal: The Good Body, by Bill Gaston (2000)

A book about hockey, but not: the game has passed Bobby Bonaduce by, and now, experiencing the first signs of Multiple Sclerosis, he's returned to the University of New Brunswick, posing as a Creative Writing student, in an attempt to both get onto the varsity hockey team and to re-establish his relationship with his son, and maybe his ex-wife. It's a touching fish-out-of-water story punctuated by versions of his final workshop piece, and it's a well-observed, well-paced and often funny book - my favourite of Gaston's, so far.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Reading Journal: The Russian Debutante's Handbook, by Gary Shteyngart (2002)

Nicknamed "Little Failure" by his mother, Vladimir, an immigration consultant in his early 20s, takes on a client he can't help but assist: a Russian mobster fleeing the collapsing Soviet Union. For a book involving so much romantic failure, political turmoil and mafiesky run-ins, not only is it highly readable, it's surprisingly hilarious, lampooning not just the Russian side of the equation, but the American diaspora and all the ex-pats and, (of course), poets young Vladimir meets. A wonderfully ragged, picaresque debut from a writer whose stock has been steadily rising; on to Super Sad True Love Story next.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Reading Journal: The Journey Prize Stories, Vol. 23 (2011)

I enjoyed all but one of these 10 stories - I won't name the odd one out - and it was great to re-read Jessica Westhead, ("What I Would Say"), and Michael Christie, ("The Extra"), from collections previously discussed in this space. New to me, in particular, was the winner, Miranda Hill - a choice I agreed with, as opposed to Journeys past - whose "Petitions to Saint Chronic" incisively brings together three characters' stories in a hospital, viscerally and affectingly, in a work that will stay with you long after you've finished. I also found D.W. Wilson's "The Dead Roads" to be a spicy shakeup to the overdone Young Canadian Road Story. Fran Kimmel's "Laundry Day" was a delicious slice of dirty realist pie, and Michelle Winters's "Toupée" - on its face, about working in a restaurant - did the most with the least, and snuck up on the reader before its ending, subverting expectations you didn't realize were there and forcing you to go back to find out where she set you up. Though it's slim compared to previous volumes, it's a group well-selected by two Giller-nominated short story writers previously discussed here, Sarah Selecky and Alexander MacLeod, as well as Booker-longlisted novelist Alison Pick.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reading Journal: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)

One of the most sentimental novels I've read in a long time, and damned if Foer didn't, with all his MFA tricks, get away with it. Wearing his post-modern sensibilties on his sleeve, the many "touching bits" in the book come by way of letters, photos, diaries, notebooks and - most interestingly - edits to other documents that fill in the details as we follow our child protagonist, Oskar Schell, in his attempt to find out what a key left behind by his father - killed in the Twin Towers - will open. The premise is a fantastic one: from the moment that Oskar does the math to estimate how many locks per person are generated in New York city, I was hooked on his precocious voice, even - especially? - when the overall rendering of the child stretched credibility. And though I found that overall it was a wandering and by times stylistically jarring read, there is a love that shines through the work and illuminates everything in it, save for the title: though he overuses the adverbs "extremely" and "incredibly" throughout the book, I never picked up what exactly was loud and/or close; nonetheless, it's an important, thought-provoking and emotionally rewarding yarn that will be discussed for years to come. A worthwhile challenge.