Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reading Journal: Coming Attractions 09, ed. Mark Anthony Jarman (2009)

Oberon Press’s annual three-by-three – three short stories from three up-and-coming writers – includes Nicholas Ruddock, who has since published the novel The Parabolist; Alex Leslie, whose collection People Who Disappear emerged from Freehand Books in April, 2012; and Jeff Park, from whom no book has come out yet but who had all three of these featured stories published in The Fiddlehead. From Ruddock, I had already read (and liked) “How Eunice Got Her Baby,” a crash-and-burn account of a woman adopting her sister’s child, in Journey Prize Stories 19, and I also quite enjoyed “Sebald,” a story that was stylistically completely different from "Eunice" and told of a bizarre, time-bending encounter. Leslie’s stories all have a theme of loss, from an environmental, sociological or anthropological standpoint, taking us from a logging road in “Ghost Stories” to a night club in “Swimmers” and a domestic scenario in “Preservation” in which the protagonist’s dreams of being an archaeologist bubble to the surface. Finally, from Park, we get two great stories – the National Magazine Award Honourable Mention (2010), “Back to Disney,” about a graduate student who gets mixed-up in a grow-op, and the surprising “A Boat in Still Water,” about a sudden-onset love triangle after a visit to a military submarine launch – and one that was, unfortunately, the least enjoyable in the collection, “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Dog,” an account of a dinner with some serious “dog people” that ends in a (seemingly unfounded, by the characters and by the elements of the story) accusation of adultery. That said, one story had to finish last; Coming Attractions's 2009 edition, and this series in general, never fails to introduce three talented and interesting voices in Canadian short fiction.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Reading Journal: The Journey Prize Stories 16 (2004)

Selected by a trio of writers who have since become CanLit royalty - Elizabeth Hay, Lisa Moore and Michael Redhill - I might have anticipated that I wouldn't love these stories; I despised Late Nights on Air (Hay), was lukewarm to Consolation (Redhill) and I'm kind of dreading my upcoming Lisa Moore introduction (I've owned Alligator for at least a year but can't make myself crack it - I really didn't like her calling Dave Bidini a "lazy reader" during Canada Reads...). The best story here is probably "Isolettes," by Neil Smith, about coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, but I had already read and raved about it when I read his collection (Bang Crunch). I also quite liked the incredibly long "The Uses of the Neckerchief" by Lesley Millard - it tried to shoehorn in a bit too much in places, (an extra image here, an overwrought flourish there), but it really evokes the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on a friendship and it's easy to get caught up in. In general, though, I found these stories overwritten and in many cases so focused on style that the reason to continue reading - the "what happens next?" - was lost in the smokescreen. The prime offender here is the winner, "The Last Spark" by Devin Krukoff, which uses great images but doesn't make me care about the characters and the mundane party they're having - in fact, I wasn't convinced Krukoff was too concerned with them, either. The stories by Adam Lewis Schroeder ("Burning the Cattle at Both Ends") and Patricia Young ("Up the Clyde on a Bike") felt the same. But the collection wasn't without some realist hits: I thought Michael V. Smith's "What We Wanted" was an excellently-told story about a (gay) sexual awakening, even if the writing itself was clunky, and the final two stories - "Nice Big Car, Rap Music Coming Out the Window" by William Metcalfe, about who really owns land (and a young man interested in a young woman, too), and Elaine McCluskey's "The Watermelon Social" - were stories that I could actually be taken away by. McCluskey's, at the end, left me saying "I don't really know what to say that was about," but it reminded me of "Half a Grapefruit" by Alice Munro in the way that the disparate pieces all seemed to somehow fit together. In sum, though, every contest is only as good as its judges, and every anthology only as good as its curators; I'm sure these are among the best short stories by new writers in 2004, but overall, it just wasn't my year.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Reading Journal: Collected Novellas, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1990)

My first foray into the rarefied air around this Nobel winner, the collection contains three novellas: Leaf Storm, (1955); No One Writes to the Colonel (1961). and Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1983). The first - which is Marquez's first book ever, and, Wikipedia tells me, took seven years to find a publisher - tells of a man going against the people of his town to give an outcast a decent burial. The second is about a war veteran waiting day after day, year after year, for his army pension to start coming in. The final story's a reconstruction of the circumstances of a murder, stringing along the suspense and making you question how it will finally happen right up until the final page. As a group, I'm sure Marquez never intended for them to be interpreted as a group, (though he's still alive, we could ask him), but each story has an element of the absurd, an incredible level of pathos, less magic than the magic realist style he became known for after One Hundred Years of Solitude (I hear), and, most interestingly to me, a persistent sense that death is always in the room. My favourite - and Marquez's, too, (Wikipedia again) - was Leaf Storm; he liked it because it was first and in a way his purest and most personal work, but I enjoyed it most because of the shifting narrative voice: the story's told in turns by an old man, his daughter and his grandson, which keeps the account interesting because each of the three has a different opinion that colours the telling. My least favourite was the final story, I just thought it dragged on, but I have to say, that was the point: everyone knows that Santiago Nasar has been killed, and before that, everyone knew that he was going to be killed - the story's entirely in the lead-up, the foretelling and not the death itself. In all, I'm glad I started with three shorter works instead of one of the longer novels, as it was a chance to see his style varying and evolving as well as to get acquainted with his preoccupations... not to mention, a first visit to Macondo (in Leaf Storm), the town to which we will return in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Or I will, at least. Trans. Gregory Rabassa (LS, CDF) and J.S. Bernstein (NWTC).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Reading Journal: April Fools Day, by Josip Novakovich (2005)

I probably won't come up with a better descriptor for this novel than Francine Prose did when she called it the "Croatian Candide," but there was a second comparable I discovered as I read it, Kafka, which I hope wasn't only because the book has an Eastern European totalitarian backdrop. More than anything, what struck me about this was how humourously absurd everything was, right down to chapters titled "After a soccer war, Croatia becomes a banana republic," and (slight spoiler alert), the trifecta of "Ivan tries family happiness," "Ivan discovers the thrills of adultery" and "The joys of cuckolding come to a sorry end." The desire to laugh at this simple man's existence is juxtaposed with a very real account of growing up under Tito and the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and though the character comes of age with the country, bringing to mind a figure like Saleem Sinai in Midnight's Children, and the writing is dense, the work never feels heavy-handed or overly political, and the absurdities of this one man's life only paint the political realities with the same brush by implication. My enjoyment lessened in that book's latter third, which grapples with the metaphysical when Ivan is presumed dead and/or to be a ghost, but overall it's a remarkably pleasing read. (Full disclosure: Josip lead one of my fiction workshops at Summer Literary Seminars, Vilnius, in August, 2011... regretfully, I'm only now getting around to reading his novel.)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Reading Journal: The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers (2012)

I hate to do it, but sure, I'll say it: Tim O'Brien for the Iraq War. It gets a bit purple in places - one two-page sentence in the latter half, in particular - and it doesn't push the limits of recall versus recount in the way The Things They Carried does, but this is in a way a much-needed novel, one that imagines around the giant reality of this conflict. What impressed me most was that not a ton happened in the book: it alternates from scenes during, before and after our hero, John "Bart" Bartle, embarks on his mission, and other than him there are only two other major characters: his friend, the 18-year-old Private Daniel Murphy, and the battle-hardened sargeant, Sterling. It's compelling throughout and reads fast while being rather imaginative and stylized, telling a simple story in clear and plain language and earning comparisons to everyone from Hemingway and Stephen Crane to Cormac McCarthy, as in this Guardian article, written upon the book's snagging of the newspaper's first novel prize. Love it or otherwise, it will endure - I thought it was a very good novel.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Reading Journal: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (2010)

Another Pulitzer-winning collection of linked short stories (or "novel-in-stories"; see: Olive Kitteridge, which took the prize just two years before it), but one that seemed much less forced in its links between stories than Olivedid. It was compelling reading, as each story/section followed a different character, giving us multiple protagonists and plenty of action. I was frustrated, at first, because we don't hear from Sasha - the main character in the first story/section - for a very long time, but the result was an enjoyable yarn of a book that gave you just enough reason to believe she was coming back (and therefore, to keep reading). Plus - you may have heard - the book delivers a most notable stunt: a section told in PowerPoint slides that's absolutely devastating and that made me feel a little guilty about the way my own work leans toward minimalism. Am I only delivering the "key points" of the action? The book's dizzying but not difficult, pushing at the limits of form while still telling an entertaining story, and it's one I'll probably read again. I'm not sure I was amazed, but I can see why people think there's something special here.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Reading Journal: Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson (1923)

It's no surprise that this collection feels dated - the excesses of both the fin-de-siècle and modernism come to bear on Anderson's style, and he's not as talented a writer as those he imitates. In fact, in some stories, the action changes gears for no given reason, or the focus suddenly ends up on something entirely different than what the piece's first half was about. Some others read like clunking personal essays. And yet, the book's a worthwhile and often enjoyable read, especially given the post-Visit from the Goon Squad/Olive Kitteridge uptick in interest in the linked story collection. At its heart, Anderson's best-known book is a coming-of-age story with a commendable sense of place, telling of George Willard's youth in an isolated Ohio town. Each story is a tile in the mosaic, telling more about the environment into which George is born and his reasons for eventually leaving. It's a shame that the collection's best stories are those at the end, for to read them in isolation is to spoil the ending of the book. But not to worry, you've got me to do that for you. This passage comes from the second last one, "Sophistication":

"There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going into a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. Farmers with their wives and children and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaningless of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes."

Almost everything under the sun is covered in this little book: faith, idealism, living, dying, love, sex, family, social status, class, ambition, drinking and more. I'd classify "Sophistication" the pick of the litter, in which George and the woman he falls for rediscover the joy the rest of the story makes clear does not exist in Winesburg by acting as children in celebration of achieving adulthood. "Adventure" is an edgy portrait of a young woman holding out for a man who once made an advance, and "The Strength of God" is a cheeky story of a conflicted pastor who discovers he has a view into the schoolteacher's window - she of course spends a lot of time naked - but it's hard to judge each story on its own; when you reach the end of the final one, it's the whole group that leaves the painfully clear and affecting afterimage. It's required reading, even though it sometimes feels like it.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Reading Journal: Last Night, by James Salter (2005)

A writer I first read mention of in an interview with Steven Heighton, (here), James Salter's second short fiction collection - and first since Dusk, in 1988 - packs 10 stories into 132 pages and each one has an electric charge. The last of them, the title story, is a true show-stopper about a couple that makes a suicide pact with a shocking outcome. It was Salter's compression that I'd read the highest praise of, and a lot of stories are heavy on short-burst dialogue, sentences that rarely go over one line but fall exactly the right way, advancing the action and revealing character without a single extraneous word. The subject matter varies, but the group largely focuses on love and sex and the stories often read like a revealing conversation, the exact moment in which the entire world before and after this particular exchange sharpens into focus. My favourite might have been "Palm Court," a simple but crushing tale of old lovers meeting up later in life, and "Platinum" has as its defining action the borrowing of a man's wife's earrings by his mistress. These are two standouts, but each story stays with you as a kind of haze, one that you know you'll only clarify through re-reading. Though this would normally bother me, Salter's so good that you re-read because you know things can't be as simple as he makes them seem. Masterfully subtle stories from a big writer with a very low profile. More of his work will be on my list.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Reading Journal: I Hate Hockey, by François Barcelo (2011)

An entertaining novella that, because of the title and the depressed looking teenage boy in hockey gear on the cover, I was worried was YA when I took it out of the library. (Then again, I shouldn't be such a snob.) But diving into this book, there's a lot going on that's plenty adult: a man whose marriage is all but over gets called in to coach his son's hockey team - a sport you might have guessed he knows nothing about - and uncovers the secret sexual abuse that culminated in the last coach's murder. It's a book full of intrigue and sudden plot twists, and as a French speaker I can only pick out a couple of spots where something might have been lost in translation. (Shame on me, I should've read it in the original.) It's easily read in one sitting and there's a real surprise at the end - there wasn't exactly a resolution, and the characters seemed a little blasé about it all, but overall it was a decent read and good introduction to a prolific, Governor-General's Award-nominated Quebec author.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reading Journal: Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi (2011)

A beatiful magic-realist tale of a love triangle between a writer, his wife and his protagonist, and one that keeps you off-balance by changing points of view and flipping from the primary action to stories that the writer and the protagonist are writing back and forth to each other - the very game that so incenses the writer's wife. Oyeyemi takes the bold move, too, of having the affair blossom through a series of exchanged letters, a bit of an opening hump to get over but certainly a pleasurable one. I don't pretend that I knew exactly what was real and what was imagined, or what was going on in every scene, but I loved the simple style that made the work into an almost-fairytale, not to mention the 1930s setting. Most importantly, I knew the moment I finished it that I wanted to read it again. A brilliant novel.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The books in your home, and how to get rid of them

You might have gathered from my blog that I do a lot of reading. (So does my partner.) And on a particularly lonely or aimless day, not much feels as good as a trip to the bookstore, from which I can't ever seem to emerge empty handed. I love the library, and when I read a reference to a book that sounds interesting, I write it down and eventually put it on hold. When it comes in, it joins the pile of library books I already have checked out, from which I'm always already frantically reading, trying to get in under the wire on a nine-week loan limit, (three weeks at a time, renewable twice).

Christmas and my birthday usually mean an influx of about 10 books, and now I get the odd contributor copy of some books, and knowing as many fellow writers as I do now, I go to a lot of launches, at which not buying the book is what I consider a Real Dick Move.

As a result, none of the books waiting on my shelves ever seem to get read.

Sidonie and I share a store-top apartment with a square footage of about 685, a small floor that I worry will one day collapse under said shelves. The "book problem" has long been lingering, but it's only since early 2013 that I committed to tackling it. Here's the thing, though: I don't intend to just throw the books out on the street; any old idiot could do that. My plan also involves reading the books - which is slow even for a fast reader, which I think I am, at about five books a month.

What follows is the step-by-step approach to book-culling that I'm taking, and I'm already recommending it, because it's already working.

The non-fiction, drama and poetry shelf...
onto which a novel has crept regardless.
Step 1: Stop bringing books in. I know, I know: no more trips to the used bookstore on a wide-open Friday night. No more accepting that co-worker loan of the latest book you absolutely have to read. And worst, for me: a library moratorium. Keep making that list of books to read... but let them wait! You've got more than enough unread books in your home already.

Step 2: Loans. Got that 500-page brick that came highly recommended a year ago, from a friend? Your friend probably does intend to get it back... and what's more, the book was only supposed to be in your possession temporarily. The loans might not have been called in, but you can call them in yourself. These ones are easy to unload. Pile them, read them if you haven't yet, and return them. And if you haven't seen the person in a few years, and aren't likely to, don't hang on to these; the loan's already been written off, you can't redeem yourself now. Unless it's amazing, dump it.    
A shelf that's all unread books, including
(shamefully) some my friends have written. 

Step 3: Duplicates. In my own library, I don't have this problem, but I've heard of it happening to friends. Repeat after me: There is no good reason to own two copies of the same book yourself. And if your duplicate comes by way of your partner, unless s/he is royally territorial, be the bigger person and get rid of yours. Ask to borrow to reference or reread, should it come up. (It likely won't.)

Step 4: School assignments. When it comes to the "But really, will I read this again?" question, it's easiest to answer with a book you were forced to read. Textbooks, too; remember having to make sure you had the most up-to-date edition for your courses every year? How long's it been since you were in school now? That's what I thought.

Step 5: Trophies. We've all read some big, difficult books. But if you're not referring back to it regularly, you don't need to own it to be proud of having gotten to its end. Sorry, Midnight's Children, Booker-of-Bookers winner: take it outside. You take up as much space as Raymond Carver's whole career.

John Irving's one of my favourite writers...
but even if this is the best book I ever read,
it's going in the blue bin when I finish.
Step 6: Mass-market paperbacks. Books sold in train stations and airports aren't meant to last longer than the trip you're taking - just look at the poor quality of the paper and glue. Even if it's your only copy of, say, The Shining, let it go. If you really love the book, once you've succeeded in clearing all the space this program will clear, you can reward yourself with a more durable trade paperback, or better, a hardcover or a vintage edition.

Step 7: Books in poor condition. You thought you could recover it after dropping it in the bathtub. You can't. No shame in putting this lame horse out to pasture. Books get pulped all the time. That's why it's another name for most of the ones you unloaded in Step 6.

Step 8: Books you didn't love... or even like all that much. You won't reread them. No. You won't. And if you want to - once the project's over and the moratorium's lifted - you can go get them from the library. Why hang on to them if they might just suck again?

Step 9: No, really - will I ever read this again? This is where it gets hard. It might be the surprise ending, or it might be a depressing overall tone, but a lot of very good books just won't be fun to read a second time. I'm a big Steinbeck fan, but pretty much everyone else on Earth could throw out The Grapes of Wrath after reading it once: there's little subtlety to discover the second time through - I speak from experience - and the ending is so crushing and unforgettable that you can't really root for the Joads more than once. It's a great book, but it's probably just taking up space. You'll have more of these than you think. Don't feel bad. Your friends won't notice that you "haven't read" Jane Eyre, Moby Dick or War and Peace, because, hey: they haven't either!

The heart of darkness.
Step 10: The unread. This is of course the darkest and scariest section of anyone's personal library, and what has spawned the infamously growing Read-Once-And-Get-Rid-Of Pile. But here's the thing: every book you own but haven't read is in this pile. If you were really excited to read a given book, you'd have done it by now. You can keep the odd one from this group if you love it, but given how long you've put off reading it, you probably won't; at least, not compared to a book that survived Steps 1-9. I especially recommend taking two or three of these on vacation with you and leaving them... well... anywhere. Hostel book exchanges, or trains or airplanes (as a courtesy to the next passenger!), or maybe even with a friend you've visited on said vacation - as recently happened to me, in Hungary, where English books aren't the easiest to get a hold of, I managed to part with two before I'd even read them. I just gave them away.

See? Any old idiot can do it.

How do you deal with ever-increasing book piles? Leave any suggestions, tricks or even only-vaguely-related anecdotes in the comments below. Together, we'll defeat this wonderful affliction.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reading Journal: A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor (1955)

Opening with the outright spooky title story, which you've probably already read (it's about an ill-fated family car trip while a murderer's on the lam), O'Connor's debut collection remains a classic because, (among other reasons), she draws hypocrites the way no one else does, and often punishes them at the end of the story, giving many of her works a fable-like quality. My favourite story may have been the last one, "The Displaced Person," about a farm with a steady stream of unreliable, thieving, transient workers who come face-to-face with a Polish concentration camp survivor who works harder and better than any of them, which is refreshing until he begins asking to bring over more Poles, especially one cousin he wishes to marry off to one of the black workers, creating additional tension of the racist kind. Race is front-and-centre in most of the stories, in fact; another timeless piece, "The Artificial Nigger," tells of an old man and a 15-year-old boy who take a trip into Atlanta and try to prepare themselves for the black people they will see there. The stories are full of symbols and realist depiction of their time and environment alike, and they require your full attention, as O'Connor doesn't put the details up front, but drops them as she goes, sneaking up on you a few pages into a story you weren't sure about, when you find yourself suddenly desperate to know the ending. I didn't love every story, but they will bear - and, clearly, have borne - re-reading quite well over the years.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Reading Journal: Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now - As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It, by Craig Taylor (2011)

I'd call it an oral history - apparently, the approach recalls Studs Terkel, who wrote a similarly-styled book about American soldiers returning from World War II - but this mammoth collection of interviews edited down from an original length of almost a million words has such vitality that I want to say "oral present." Taylor speaks with Londoners - past and present, from all walks of life - and what emerges is a portrait of one of the world's most important and most-storied cities, one corner and one observer at a time. Sure, the author may have just transcribed the conversations, but what amazed me most is the way he held on to voices, so that everyone we heard from was clearly representing another perspective. I found it to be a slow read, but never dull, and I took my time with it, because to read more than two or three perspectives at a time risked having them blur together... kind of like the city itself does. The variety of experiences is what's most important to preserve when reading this, and though you'll feel like you've been reading it forever, you'll still wish there was more when you put it down. Super-interesting stuff.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Reading Journal: The Obvious Child, by Matt Shaw (2007)

Headlined by its Journey Prize-winning opener, "Matchbook for a Mother's Hair," this story collection is one of the most varied I've ever read, including everything from a sexual coming-of-age in this first story, a riff on a detective story ("Dreschl & The Obvious Child"), the metafictional "After the Doctor Died in his Novel" and the closer, "Jurisprudence," which approaches the magic realist. The prose is dense and the stories don't just encourage re-reading, they almost require it. One of the braver Canadian debut collections in recent years, and not your usual CanLit fare -  I didn't love it, but there is definitely some talent on display here.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Reading Journal: Stay Awake, by Dan Chaon (2012)

I admit, I got excited when I picked this book up, because I desperately wanted more from this writer after reading his chilling story "The Bees" in McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. In retrospect, I'd rather have been more reserved, because this opener - about a completely incorrigible alcoholic and his flight from the damage he's done - was by far the best of the collection. I read the whole group, I think, because Chaon creates characters that come with loads of baggage, and I wanted to see what they would do with it; unfortunately, most of the time, the answer turned out to be "nothing." I thought most of the stories seemed unfinished, and not just in their unresolved endings - which are perfectly acceptable when done well - but in their heavy use of adverbs and lazy language that ought to have been remedied before publishing. I did enjoy the narrative in several of the stories, though, and it's not like there wasn't any compelling material: in "Slowly We Open Our Eyes," two brothers approach reconciliation on a drive home when they hit a deer, and in "Shepherdess," a man waits in a hospital room unsure of what to do when an early-relationship date ends with the other party severely injured after falling out of a tree. For all the quality premises and damaged characters, though - none of them take care of themselves, smoking or eating poorly or drinking too much - I found that a lot of them read like "workshop stories." (See this great John Barber article in The Globe and Mail, in which Greg Hollingshead calls such stories "highly competent but dull," and goes on to say: "The rule is the telling detail, so you get all this surface information, but to no effect. You have a kind of aesthetic sheen on the prose but you're not getting enough ideas and you're not getting enough dramatic energy.") In several stories - like "Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted," which (too bad for it) comes right after "The Bees" - the dramatic energy dissipates slowly throughout the story until you find yourself asking what has kept you reading this long. Competent but dull indeed; though Chaon's previous books have been National Book Award finalists and New York Times notables, this one reads like something that was rushed out. I'll try him again, but this collection disappointed me.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Reading Journal: The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson (1948)

It's the only collection of her work that appeared during her lifetime, but Jackson can safely stake her reputation on this one volume; it contains the leanly-written title story, her most famous, about a completely absurd and horrific small-town ritual, but among the other 25 included here, there are almost no letdowns. "Elizabeth," for me, was the second-best, a story that explores personal, professional and other kinds of jealousy and competition between two women, both employees of a man who always tells them everything they want to hear. And the collection opens with a strong pair, too: a teenage girl has a bizarre conversation with a drunk guest of her parents in "The Intoxicated," and in "The Daemon Lover," we share in the painful and seemingly eternal wait for a meeting with a man who has expressed interest in the narrator but never shows up. In all, the stories are on the sardonic side, not always challenging but demanding your attention as Jackson attempts to show you the how and why of the way people act, and hints all the while at the underlying reasons. A signpost collection for anyone interested in the short story form.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Reading Journal: Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, by Stuart Ross (2011)

A short, episodic novel written in Ross's trademark, all-over-the-place style that takes you through the coming-of-age of its narrator and into his later life, where he is continuously confronted with a memory of his mother committing a murder. I preferred this novel to his short story collection, Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, (reviewed here in Winter, 2011), because of the restraint he showed this time around, making even some of the most "out there" chapters - such as the one written from the point of view of the bullet - into self-contained stories that also give you a new piece of information to move the narrative forward. A quick and engrossing read that I started and finished on the same bus ride, (Toronto to Gravenhurst), from an unorthodox Canadian writer everyone should check out.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Reading Journal: Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs (2002)

A creative non-fiction author who came onto the scene alongside the Three Funny Daves - Sedaris, Rakoff and Eggers - the cover of Burroughs's best-known book and several pages inside are plastered with superlative adjectives. I like his comparables, but for the lion's share of this book - about growing up (gay) in your mother's shrink's house, after she determines he'd raise you better than she would - I wasn't enjoying it. It's written in eight-to-ten-page episodes, and some are definitely more memorable than others, but beyond the inherent forward motion of a coming-of-age story, I didn't get behind any of the characters, so it just read like an "and then, and then," kind of list. I did enjoy the final three or four episodes, though, which are separated from each other by more time than successive chapters in the first part, and I think this is what revealed the book's weakness: a failure to select the best material. If Burroughs wanted a narrative, he could have only included those stories that kept us going somewhere - maybe like Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - or those that were the absolute funniest, like Sedaris in... well... pretty much everything he's written. I wanted to love Burroughs's work in the same way, but humour's kind of like that - it either strikes you or it doesn't. Wacky, wild upbringing, though; hard to imagine actually going through it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Reading Journal: Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, by Matt Bissonette (2007)

A chronicle of four friends in late 70s/early 80s Montreal who grow into and out of punk rock, more as a coping mechanism than for any other reason. The author - Matt Bissonette the Canadian screenwriter, not the Navy SEAL behind the tell-all about killing bin Laden - knows the scene and the fan-child types around it, and the book is full of manic action, always from different points of view, which keeps you reading. In the end some characters grow up and others don't, which is pretty gritty in and of itself, and the pages of sex and drugs and stupid stunts that kept you reading finally bring you to a place where you know that this kind of behaviour has to end... whether it does or not. Particularly successful is Bissonnette's choice to break up the "present" of the action with a road diary from the future from one character who ends up becoming a roadie, which lends a sense of "this too shall pass" to the more-or-less senseless action that we're reading. I found myself looking forward to the ending, perhaps because the immature punk rock life is the same day in and day out, (which was of course the book's point), but the writer took a lot of enjoyable stylistic risks - dream sequences, drug trips and more, rendered in stream-of-consciousness - which made the journey feel more important than the destination.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Reading Journal: Man in the Dark, by Paul Auster (2008)

A bizarre novel in which the narrator, late in life and confronting family secrets at the urging of his grand-daughter, tells of the story he tells himself when trying to fall sleep, a story of an alternate future in which the protagonist must assassinate the author. It's a book that's clever in its use of layers and that's briskly written for the first two thirds, until the dream story ends and we conclude with the long family history that the protagonist was avoiding telling us about, followed by a twee reconciliation, or something, when the family members recognize their adjusted roles. Some people love Auster and others revile him, and I think his "split" approach in writing this novel would be one reason. It's a feat to yoke such disparate stories together, but at the same time it almost felt like he was forcefully joining two aborted novels. I enjoyed it until the surreal dream piece ended, then limped through the last 60 pages to the finish line. I'll likely try something else of his, but this was not an ideal introduction to this prolific author and it felt like a rather disposable work.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Reading Journal: Got No Secrets, by Danila Botha (2011)

As someone whose first book is a collection of linked short stories, I put Matthew Firth's review of Got No Secrets (in his magazine, Front & Centre, no. 25) in my file under "mistakes not to make" when he wrote: "I wondered why Botha didn't merge these stories and write a novella or a novel instead, given how similar these stories are." Particularly in the book's first half, the stories have to do with with substance abuse as escape, and Botha writes well about "the rush" of it all, drawing clear portraits of compelling characters in a propulsive style that keeps you reading. My challenge, however, was accepting that nothing will really be resolved in most of them; while starting with a brash, declarative sentence can bring your reader in, throwing another at the bottom of the last paragraph does not an ending make. And to the back cover's claim that this book "takes us into the private lives of twelve different women," I ask, "Then why do both 'The Apple Falls Far from the Tree' and 'My So-called Date' reference the same fall from a bicycle that broke a leg in three places? And why does every narrator seem to like the same punk bands?" The stories move between Toronto and South Africa as the author says she has in her bio, and while I have no beef with basing fiction on one's own life, or even with thinly veiled-autobiography if it's captivating, I didn't buy that the narrator in each story wasn't the same as the last. That said, each of these stories does stand on its own merits, and though they're often unresolved, most have have something going for them: "The Pregnant Man" is a gender-bender about coming out and about determining the roles of "mother" and "father" in a lesbian couple. "Just, Quietly, Do It" and "My So-called Date" are survivor stories - child abuse and rape, respectively - and "Smacked" and "Just, Quietly, Do It" also reveal a lot about friendship, the former about the impossibility of being friends with your dealer and the latter about jealousy and betrayal. As a group, the sum is greater than its parts, and where Botha succeeds in her debut is in her mastery of a concentrated and exciting writing style and her evocation of down-and-out settings throughout. In the end, though, I agree with Firth: I can't help but wonder how much more of an overall impact the book could have made were the stories either truly linked or truly separate.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Reading Journal: Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston (2006)

A novel in four parts, each narrated by a six-year-old a generation after the last - 2004, 1982, 1962, and 1944-45 - and one that captivates right from the first page, when it breaks down the fourth wall and demands that you suspend your disbelief, much like Joyce's "moocow" in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "A      sunny     Sunday    sun     sun     sun    sun    king     Sol     Solly     Solomon    I'm like sunlight, all-powerful, instantaneous and invisible, flowing effortlessly into the darkest corners of the universe    capable at six of seeing    illuminating    understanding    everything". Huston's practically taunting her reader, saying "Yeah, my narrator's smarter than a six-year-old should be, but you're going to go along with it, aren't you?", and it sucks you in completely. As a reverse narrative, the chronological last moment happens at the end of Part One, which I of course had to re-read after I finished Part Four; and while the book's ending is powerful, it sends you right to the story's ending again and amplifies it, giving you the rush that comes with putting the pieces together. On top of this surprisingly simple trick, Huston's writing is clear, simple and engaging, which is a rare find for me among other writers who focus this much on the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters - usually I find myself wanting to skim those parts. And a final rave: in Part Three, in another rare occurence for me (though not for all readers), I heard a real voice talking to me as I read, an actual little girl speaking. Am I cracking up? I don't think so: I think Huston is that good. She has a Governor General's Award to her credit, but as someone who writes first in French then translates her own work, by the time it comes to English-speaking Canadian audiences I think it gets overlooked as a work in translation instead of praised as fine new Canadian literature. One book is all it took to wake me up, though - I'd put her with Steven Heighton among the most criminally undercelebrated writers in our country.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Reading Journal: Mumbai Noir, Ed. Altaf Tyrewala (2011)

The second I've read of the burgeoning number of Akashic anthologies, and one that I liked even less than the first one I tried (Toronto, previously reviewed in this space). I'm not sure I've got a strong enough grasp on what constitutes the noir genre to know a good story from a bad one, but in general I can recognize bad writing, and a few of these stories were cringe-worthy. The ones I liked most were in the book's second part, "Dangerous Liaisons," and beyond, where the stories most prominently take on that sexual charge I understand to be compulsory in the genre; most stories from here on involve a prostitute and a gender-bending relationship, with R. Raj Rao's "TZP" perhaps the most successful, a transgressive tale where a partner's dark past comes to light. Others worth noting: Avtar Singh's "Pakeezah," a simple story but incredibly well told from the drunk-guy-on-the-barstool-next-to-you-just-starts-talking perspective that I'm a sucker for; Jerry Pinto's politically-tinged closer, "They," about a series of robberies and a murder at a gym, and "The Watchman," by the editor himself, about a security guard who can't shake an ominous feeling about his workday. As a whole, though, the group of stories kind of bored me, which I think is too bad for noir; if nothing else, they're supposed to be page-turners that let the plot suck you in. And while I've been looking forward to reading the volumes set in cities I've been to (Seattle, and particularly, New Orleans), I've come into an old copy of the Las Vegas edition that I'll be pushing through first. If it also disappoints, I may throw in the towel on this series.     

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Reading Journal: Atonement, by Ian McEwan (2001)

Even after an epigraph from Austen, which should alert anyone that the book they're about to read will be a slog, I nearly gave up on this one around the 50-page mark. The omniscient narration, the static settings, the undue emphasis given to shadow and light and scents in the air were vivid, but they didn't seem to be going anywhere, and if not for his reference to Lady Chatterley's Lover, I might not have twigged to what was happening here: not only was McEwan writing a book set in 1935, he was trying to write a book written in 1935. Thankfully, once over that "hump" - a modernist trick Jonathan Franzen uses and calls attention to in The Corrections, as well - the action shifts to Dunkirk and the young lovers painstakingly (but increasingly compellingly) drawn in the first section begin coming to life as difficult circumstances push their limits: in the first act, a young girl accuses a family friend of sexual assault, and this friend is the one who goes to war in the second. I won't spoil the third, but the title should tell you the central problem that remains to be resolved. In the end, I'm very glad I didn't give up on it: it's high modernism, and yet it's a challenging contemporary read while being easy to understand. I think it will land on Contemporary English/British Literature course lists the world over, if it hasn't already, and will likely be read in high school, too - its opening is just "boring" enough - and from time to time, the narrator, through Briony, (the young witness who also wishes to be a writer), questions how to write a story, which serves as a steady reminder that there's still a point of view outside the frame, and the quest to find out where it's all coming from is what keeps you reading right through the almost unnecessary coda. (I'm not great with the vocabulary, but were the coda not provided, would the work have then been "postmodern"?) Some elements of the book weren't for me - mainly that it was obviously designed to be work to read - but you'll get out of this one what you put into it, and that's why it should endure, and will. Justly a "modern classic."

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reading Journal: Say Nice Things About Detroit, by Scott Lasser (2012)

Praised on its back cover by both a National Book Award winner, (Colum McCann), and a pulp master like Elmore Leonard, it was hard to know what to expect from this novel. It truly starts in media res, when our hero, David, returns to his hometown, Detroit, on exactly the same night that his ex-wife Natalie and her FBI agent brother Dirk - half-siblings, she white and he black - are murdered. Before long, David is taking up with his ex's sister, Carolyn - who's married - and re-discovering his home and the intrigue in both his family and Carolyn's. And while there is a murder mystery here - one that you know from the beginning must turn around Marlon Booker, a young man Dirk had previously taken under his wing - it's not front-and-centre, which lets the book focus on relationships forming and ending, and to an extent, the meaning of building a community in contemporary Detroit. You might think this would get disappointing or dry, but the opposite is true: a great deal happens in this rather short (260-page) novel, and it becomes about people that you care about regardless of the bad things they've done, or that other thing so important to Detroit stories: race. Incredibly believable and rooted in reality, it's a stark but uplifting read, and while I could have used more details about Detroit, and while some of the language could have been finer, this is a book that hits you in the gut and is impossible to put down. It's Lasser's fourth - I'll definitely be checking out his first three.