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.