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.