Archive for September, 2012

The Imposter Bride, by Nancy Richler

September 24, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The Imposter Bride starts off with promise. The setting is a banquet hall in Montreal, shortly after the end of World War II. Lily Kramer and her new husband are sitting on either end of a couch “on which she assumed they were meant to consummate their marriage”:

In front of the couch was a table laid with fruit and hard-boiled eggs. Her husband picked up a plum and rolled it in the palm of his hand. His name was Nathan and she had known him for a week. It was his brother, Sol, she had been meant to marry, a man she had corresponded with but hadn’t met, who had caught one glimpse of her as she disembarked at the station and decided he wouldn’t have her. Lily watched Nathan roll the plum in his hand and wondered what his brother had seen in her that made him turn away.

That set-up is not quite as strange as it reads. Lily is a Jewish refugee from the war, who made her way to Palestine where the marriage of convenience was brokered. Sol had been given “a small payment, a token of appreciation, nothing lavish, just enough to give him a start he’d been needing”. Canada did have a disgraceful limit on Jewish refugees at the time (Richler does not make a big point of this) and this was one way around it.

Nathan, by nature an adapter not an originator, was more than willing to step into the gap his brother Sol left when the original groom took one look at Lily and decided she was “damaged goods…a broken life, a frightened woman, a marriage that would bind him — however briefly — to grief.”

Lily Azerov Kramer is not whom she said she was. She had stolen that name and identity from a body in a village in Poland in 1944 (“nothing went unused” is Richler’s description of what took place then):

And here are some of the things that that someone acquired when she stole the identity of a girl she hadn’t known at all in life: the name, first of all, Lily Azerov; the identity card; a pair of woollen socks; a notebook filled with dreams and other scribblings; a single frosted stone.

The final establishing element at the wedding occurs as the ritual bride/groom handkerchief dance takes place and Sol sits down at a table with a pair of guests who, it turns out, were not invited:

“It won’t last,” said a voice beside him, a voice that emanated from the throat of a woman but had the weight and the gravity of a man’s.

Sol turned and saw that he had joined the table of a guest he didn’t recognize, a middle-aged woman who either was or thought herself to be a cut above the rest of the guests. Her dress, a blue satin, was more formal than those of the other women, her bearing more upright and severe. Her hair was pulled back from a pale, wide brow and lacquered into a shell. She had not left her table the entire evening and had placed a restraining hand on the arm of the teenage girl beside her — her daugther, Sol assumed — every time the girl tried to rise to join the dancing.

That woman is Ida Pearl, a relative of the real Lily, who had been alerted to the wedding by another relative in Palestine whom the imposter Lily had visited while she was there (trying to fix some background to her adopted identity). And, just to keep the plot tidy, the teenaged daughter, Elka, will marry Sol.

All of this is told by a narrator we don’t know yet, but soon will. Ida is right, the marriage lasts only about a year. Nathan and imposter Lily do have a daughter, Ruth; Lily abandons her and Nathan when she is three months old, thoughtfully leaving a shelf of prepared formula in the fridge to tide them over until other arrangements are made. Ruth is raised by her single father, Uncle Sol and Aunt Elka, grandma Bella and Ida, who becomes a friend of the family — Ruth, now in her senior years, is the book’s narrator.

One final establishing event sets the main part of The Imposter Bride in motion: on Ruth’s sixth birthday (April 27, 1953) a package arrives containing a beautiful rock and a cryptic note: South shore of Gem Lake, Manitboa, 08:45, Apil 12th, 1953, clear, 31 degrees F, light wind. Ruth’s mother has re-opened contact — other rocks will arrive in the future.

Regular visitors who have been following reviews of this year’s Giller longlist may be wondering at this point whether they have not read several versions of this review before — I certainly am feeling that I have written a number. This year’s Real Jury seems to have decided that “children of trauma” will be the theme of the 2012 prize. I have now read 10 of the 13 and it has been the central story line in five of the 10 — jacket blurbs promise it will also be at the core of two of the remaining three. It is also a prominent secondary theme in the three other longlist novels that I have read and featured in a couple of the stories in both longlisted story collections.

While I have nothing against books featuring abandoned or traumatized children, a steady diet is not my idea of rewarding reading and it is influencing my critical reaction. The Imposter Bride may well be quite a good book but I am afraid I can no longer tell since so many elements of it kept overlapping with others I have read recently. (If you do decide to read it, there are some very good set pieces and secondary story lines that I have not addressed here.)

So, yes, I am very grumpy with the 2012 Real Jury at this point. Last year’s longlist (you can find linked reviews to all of them in the sidebar) was exceptional: a wide variety of styles, approaches and stories, all of which had something to recommend them. Overall, it made for a great reading experience. This year, the Jury seems determined to give us 13 variations on a theme — and as much as the theme might have some appeal, it is starting to wear.

I’ll conclude with an apology to author Nancy Richler. This novel is probably quite a bit better than this review indicates — I’m afraid the frequent echoes that it raised during my reading effected my judgment so much that I can’t adequately evaluate the novel itself. I know that if it wasn’t for the Shadow Giller project I would have set it aside for later when I could have given it a fairer read and assessment.

The Sweet Girl, by Annabel Lyon

September 20, 2012

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Annabel Lyon arrived on the Canadian literary scene with a very large splash in 2009 with her debut novel, The Golden Mean. It was shortlisted for all three major Canadian fiction prizes (winning the Writers’ Trust), was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and has now been translated into fourteen languages.

Set in ancient Greece, the central story line of that novel concerns Aristotle’s role as a tutor to the youth who will become Alexander the Great — his job is to convince the headstrong son of Philip of Macedon that he needs to find the “golden mean” between action (read warring) and contemplation. That task is surrounded by unfolding global events, not the least of which is the conflict between the Macedonians and Athenians. Lyon was also true to the society of the times — a list of the cast of characters at the start of the book has 43 names, ranging from Philip and Alexander through Aristotle’s family to his extended household of servants and slaves.

The Sweet Girl returns to ancient Greece, some years later (and this novel’s cast of characters has 28 names). As the book opens, things are not going well for Aristotle. His wife, Pythias, has died — he now has a concubine, Herpyllis, a former servant by whom he has had a son. Alexander (now the Great) has been away from Greece for some years fighting wars in the East — while Aristotle writes his former student frequently, he receives no response. Aristotle is now in his sixties and the physical complaints of aging are increasing. He is a Macedonian in Athens; the Athenians resent their conquerors. Philosophical rivals treat him as a man who is well past his prime; he has always been an eclectic thinker but his interests now are seen as the wandering concerns of a distracted, doddering old man.

What does focus his attention is the potential of his daughter, Pytho, named after her mother Pythias. She is only seven when the book opens, but he is already teaching Pytho how to dissect a lamb — she has a collection of bones and skeletons from previous excursions into the scientific world. When we next meet her, she is eleven and her father has decided that she, rather than her younger brother Nico, should have a place at the monthly symposium meal where he gathers his academic colleagues — introducing a female, even if she is a bright child, is something that is simply not done:

In the past, I’d stand in the courtyard, quietly listening; perhaps creep to the doorway of the big room and listen from behind the curtains; then run fleet as a little doe back to the kitchen at the first quiver of that curtain. But something about tonight, about Nico giving up his place, about Daddy saying I should have been a boy, about Akakios’s kindness, and I find myself tripping with quite a clatter over a little table just outside the big room. A moment later the curtain wings aside and Daddy helps me up off the floor. Beyond, I can see all the men on their couches craning to see who it is.

“Please, Daddy,” I whisper.

Then I’m sitting in the corner that should have been Nico’s near Daddy, feet tucked up under me. The men are bemused.

“Getting eccentric in your dotage,” one of them calls to Daddy. “You want to watch that.”

But Pytho is smarter than Nico, despite the conventional wisdom that women belong in the kitchen. And Aristotle has always been contrarian — he has found a new project.

As in The Golden Mean, Lyon focuses her story on these intimate, human-based challenges. But she never loses sight of what is happening in the larger world around them. In this book, the big external event is the death of Alexander, a thousand miles away from Athens. Now the Macedonian conquerors in Athens are even more resented and perceived to be weaker. Aristotle and his family flee to the garrison town of Chalcis through rioting crowds who pitch stones at them — Pytho stands in the cart as a heroic child target to shame them to stop.

The flight is styled as a temporary retreat but Aristotle is fully aware he is unlikely to be making the return journey. Chalcis is a military town and his association with Alexander has long been forgotten by leaders there — the family is kicked out of the garrison after one night. They take up residence in a spacious, but run-down villa that Myrmex (a poor relation who showed up at the door in Athens and whom Aristotle adopted as a son) says he won gambling.

The philosopher has a farm in the area but it has been left in ruins by a combination of thefts and non-cultivation; the man of thought knows nothing about farming anyway. Tutoring Pytho, a far more receptive student than Alexander ever was, becomes his major preoccupation.

Material matters continue to get slowly worse, but the teaching revives him. He resolves to swim the nearby narrow tidal strait (diving down to observe the aquatic life midway through), but gets caught in the current. He is rescued, but catches pneumonia — and soon dies.

All of that takes place in Section I of The Sweet Girl and occupies almost exactly one half of the book. I will confess that as I started Section II I was already wondering how Lyon was going to cope without having Aristotle as the centrepiece for her narrative. The answer, for this reader at least, was not very well.

Pytho, still in her mid-teens, is now alone at the centre of the book. Aristotle has freed his concubine in his will, so she heads home and Pytho loses that support. Myrmex (whom she thinks she loves) turns out to be an unprincipled crook. In Chalcis, she is surrounded by a horde of people, both male and female, who want only to take advantage of a destitute young woman.

Most of the latter half of The Sweet Girl is a study in how to survive in the underground economy of rural ancient Greece, be it semi-legal or outright criminal. Pytho is more worldly than her father ever was, but that still means a lot of learning on the go — she is a quick student of life as well as thought, but that mainly means moving from one near-disaster to the next one.

I did wonder when I was reading that latter half if perhaps the fact that I had read and remembered The Golden Mean was the source of my problem with this novel. Aristotle so totally dominated the first novel, despite its large cast, that I found him a familiar and welcome character when I started this one — and may have been guilty of not paying as much attention to Pytho as I should have been in that first section. Whatever, she simply did not have enough substance for me to appreciate the final half as anything more than a chronicle of the trials and tribulations for an indigent, if well-born, woman in ancient Greece.

All of which suggests that not only do you not have to have read The Golden Mean to appreciate this book, it might better if you haven’t — my interest in Aristotle may have blinded me to what was happening with the young Pytho. On the other hand, I certainly found that memories of The Golden Mean were valuable in the first half of The Sweet Girl — for me, the portrayal of Aristotle’s challenges in aging was even stronger than the previous book.

I am sure a number of visitors here will have read that first novel and are looking forward to this one (it was released only two days ago). With apologies for my very ambivalent response to it, I am looking forward to comments both from those who have read The Golden Mean and those who choose to start their Annabel Lyon experience with The Sweet Girl. This may be one of those novels where the discussion is of more value than the original review. Yes, that is rather a plea for help.

Kimbofo reviews The Emperor of Paris

September 19, 2012

Welcome to the first 2012 Shadow Giller prize “guest” appearance at KfC — an excerpt from Kimbofo’s review of The Emperor of Paris with a link (right here) to her full review.

For newcomers (or those who have forgotten), here’s the Shadow Giller drill from now on: I will continue to offer full reviews here, but as the other three jurors move into full swing, you will find more references to their reviews here. Kim at Reading Matters was delivered a Giller package by hand by Mrs. KfC a few weeks back and this is her first review from that. Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes will again be taking on the entire shortlist once it is announced. And Alison, who doesn’t blog, will be featured with some guest reviews here and comments on the other two blogs.

We apologize again that we can’t offer more than an overview at the longlist stage: the back-end publication schedule of Canadian novels and the short period between long and short lists means it is just too hard to get books to the Shadow Giller international participants in time for longlist reviews. I can say that 12 of the 13 titles have now been read by at least one Shadow juror, so reviews will be flowing regularly from now on. And, as usual, the sidebar at the right will feature links to all reviews that have been published at all three sites. And, again as usual, reader comments are both encouraged and welcome on all three sites.

And so, the opening paragraphs of Kim’s review of CS Richardson’s The Emperor of Paris (and click on the link above to get the whole thing):

Available at Indigo.ca

I love Paris, I love cooking and I love reading. No surprise, then, that a novel about a Parisian-based book-collecting baker would have some appeal. But CS Richardson’s The Emperor of Paris, which has been longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, was a bit like a cake that fails to rise: flat and disappointing. And forgive me for spinning out the baking analogy even further, but the ingredients in this novel just didn’t work — for this reader at least — despite being packed with flavour.

Spanning a 50-year period between the turn of the 19th century and the Second World War, and covering everything from war to fine art, book-selling and story-telling, the tale largely revolves around the impossibly thin and illiterate baker Emile Notre-Dame; his rotund and religious Italian wife, Immacolata; and their son, Octavio.

In prose that is wistful and fable-like, Richardson tells the family’s history running the popular BOULA GERIE NOTRE-DAME (“the N having long since vanished”) in a narrow flatiron building (known as the “cake-slice”) in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.

In the untitled prologue, we discover that the bakery has burned down and that, somewhat unusually, it contained a vast collection of books — there are “shards of red leathers and frayed blue cloths, the curled and blackened edges of marble papers” floating in the air. We are left with that picture in our mind’s eye, but must read almost an entire novel — interspersed with “callbacks” as reminders of the fire — to find out how the bakery came to be transformed into one man’s personal library.

Y, by Marjorie Celona

September 17, 2012

Purchased from Indigo.ca

The bundled-up newborn who will grow up to be Shannon is left by her mother at the front doors of the Y in Victoria, B.C., in the pre-dawn hours when it is certain she will be found. In fact, Vaughn, an instructor waiting for the Y to open, observes the whole episode:

Now, in the parking lot, he is hidden behind the glare from the rising sun in the passenger-side window of his van. He sees my mother kiss my cheek — a furtive peck like a frightened bird — then walk quickly down the ramp to the entrance, put me in front of the glass doors, and dart away. She doesn’t look back, not even once, and the man watches her turn the corner into Quadra Street, her strides fast and light now that her arms are empty. She disappears into the cemetery behind the cathedral. It is August 28th, at five-fifteen a.m. My mother is dead to me, all at once.

The story of Shannon’s abandonment (actually, the first name she gets in the hospital is Lily and that will change several times before she becomes Shannon) takes up the first 10 pages of Marjorie Celona’s debut novel but, for the reader, it is an accurate harbinger of what is to come. Y may be (and is) a novel and the central character is always present — but, as is often the case with a first novelist, it is structured to read just as much like a collection of linked short stories.

The “abandoned baby” motif is a convenient device for that approach. Lily will go through a number of foster homes and names before she turns five. Each one gives author Celona a chance to explore a new set of adults and their circumstances as well as chronicle the development of her heroine — and each reads like a fairly well-done short story. Not only that, there is the back story of how Shannon came to be conceived and abandoned, supplying another set of circumstances and characters for another set of vignetteish short stories.

Y does acquire more continuing form on Shannon’s fifth birthday when she is adopted by Miranda (“a cinnamon-colored woman who works as a Molly Maid and was once married to a man named Dell”). Miranda has a daughter, Lydia-Rose, of about the same age and the biggest section of the book will feature these three as Shannon grows into adolesence.

There are rules here: no staring, no chewing with my mouth open, no sugar before bed, no wasting food, no talking back. I can handle most of it, but I can’t stop staring. I want to stare at Miranda forever. I am fascinated with her. She wears her hair in a tight bun at the top of her head and has a bright face, as if the moon itself walked into the room. After work, she pads around the townhouse in Chinese slippers and a plaid housecoat. She makes us lentil soup, then slides an ice cube into each of our bowls until it cools.

I’ll admit that the first half of Y frequently was reminding me of another popular debut novel recently reviewed here, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Both feature a short-story like approach with similar traits: each episode introduces tension with an “evil” character but somehow an “angel” is always on hand to tidily resolve it. In both novels, the sentimentality starts early and is layered on all too thickly — it is a credit to both authors that every time I was starting to say “enough is enough” they managed to surprise me with adept-enough writing that I kept on going.

And when Y reaches the halfway point, with Shannon now in her teens, Celona finally has a character who is capable of carrying the book. The structure of the incidents stays the same, but Shannon now has enough grit that it was impossible not to admire her and appreciate her growth. It is hard to illustrate, but here is an example after she has been returned to Victoria by police from her first runaway excursion to Vancouver (complete with exposure to drugs and possible sexual exploitation) and begun her “new” life with a goal of searching for her real parents:

I walk into Mac’s and get a hot chocolate, which is syrupy and gross, so I give it to a man playing the trumpet outside and we talk for a while. I like him. He’s always around, playing that crappy old trumpet. He has curly hair, lots of it, piled on his head like a wig, but today he’s wearing an orange toque. He tells me his name is Mickey.

“Mickey,” I say. “Got a cigarette?”

He looks at me like I’m nuts. The guys around here have not seen this new side of me. He rolls me one, lights it with a dog-eared pack of matches, takes a big long puff and hands it to me.

“Tastes weird.”

“Might be some hash mixed in there,” he says and winks. He’s got watery eyes and a deeply lined face and he’s short, five-four max. I like short people, short men. So fine, I’ll smoke this cigarette. I’ll smoke this hash. We lean up against the big glass window of Mac’s, and he picks up his trumpet and blows into it some more.

Almost-adult Shannon is an interesting character — she indulges in some outrageous escapades that are too long to capture in an excerpt and too good to spoil with a description. It still didn’t make for a great novel, but it was fun to go along with the development of an interesting character — Shannon’s no Holden Caulfield, but they share some similar traits.

Alas, Y is a novel and the author has to resolve all this. What follows is a spoiler but it is so obvious I don’t think revealing it will damage the book for anybody: she finds her birth mother and father. This was both so predictable and so sentimental that I was screaming “no, no, no” — again, it is to the author’s credit that I not only kept on reading, I had tears in my eyes during some of the final pages of the book. Sometimes good writing and character portrayal can overcome abysmal plot. :-)

Y obviously impressed publisher Hamish Hamilton and is getting the kind of marketing push that has become less frequent for first novels — three pages of blurbs at the start of the novel include endorsements from Colum McCann, Kim Echlin and a stable of established Canadian authors. And just as Harold Fry is experiencing substantial commercial success, I’d expect a fair number of Canadian book clubs will be taking this on in the 2012-13 season.

I also am not totally surprised that the Giller jury included it on the longlist — it is well-written and juror Roddy Doyle in particular has shown a taste for observant children as central characters (they create the opening for broader observations — Victoria in this book, Ireland in his Paddy Clarke). Still, for this reader at least, Y is more of a promise of what is to come than a complete success — I read it in one day, quite enjoyed it, but feel no desire to return for a second read to see what I missed. I will be looking for Celona’s second book, however; this book is a good start and she has a talent that I am sure will grow.

Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky

September 12, 2012

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away supplies a perfect illustration of the conundrum that I often face when it comes to reviewing short story collections.

Of the twelve stories in the book, four are quite good, four more than good enough and four didn’t land very well with me. From a reading perspective, that is no problem — two out of three is just fine and, with short stories, even disappointing efforts are worth the relatively little time it takes to read them.

I usually like to go into some depth on three stories when I am reviewing a collection so visitors here get a sense of style and tone rather than trying to briefly mention every story in the book. And hence my quandary: Should I pick one from each category? Or offer thoughts on three of the four I liked?

Okay, I’m a chicken (and perhaps a bit lazy). It is both easier and more satisfying to explain why I liked a story than to try to pinpoint what didn’t work in one that I have already pretty much forgotten. So what you are about to read are my thoughts on three of the better stories that I found in Wangersky’s Giller-longlisted collection.

I should also note that my favorite story in the collection, “McNally’s Fair”, is not a fair reflection of the whole book. Wangersky is a newspaper columnist and editor in St. John’s, Nfld and most of these stories are set in that province — this one, however, takes place in the foothills just west of Calgary where I live.

McNally’s Fair is an amusement park, designed to attract visitors headed to the mountains (and Calgary families with kids). There is a real version, called Calaway Park, that I know well from my own days in the newspaper business. It opened to much fanfare some years back and then proceeded to go bankrupt every two or three years until the purchase price finally got low enough that the owners had a chance to break even. Here’s how this story opens:

Dennis Meaney was painting The Thunder apple green — a brilliant green that would make the roller coaster stand out even when the spring had brought the prairie into that brief emerald flush before the sun got around to browning it over. It wasn’t the colour he would have chosen. Mr. Reinhoudt had picked the colour, even though Dennis told him just looking at the paint samples hurt his eyes.

“Is s’pposed to,” Mr. Reinhoudt said, pulling hard on his small white beard. “S’pposed to get yer attention from the highway, and getcha in the lot wit’ the kids.” He said “kids” as if it had a z in it.

Wangersky may not live in Alberta, but he obviously spent some time here at some point. The prairie does get that brilliant green for a few weeks every summer, before burning to dull brown. And you can see the Rocky Mountains stretching along the horizon from the top of the roller coaster that Denny is painting — he looks at them with some longing from up there. I drove past Calaway Park a few weeks after reading the story and can report that the roller coaster (which is not a very big one, it has to be said) is indeed painted a particularly bilious green.

In the story, Reinhoudt has been carefully building the park for twenty years, adding a new ride whenever he can afford it. Dennis is the only full-time employee (Reinhoudt’s daughter, Michaela, runs the ticket booth) and he fell into the job by chance twelve years ago, arriving on site literally as the previous employee took off. For six months each year, Dennis does maintenance, painting, electrical work, looking after safety inspectors, sweeping up garbage — whatever is required. For the other six months, the park closes, the Reinhoudts return to Calgary for the winter and Dennis has the “fair” to himself.

Dennis is from Newfoundland and was heading West looking for work when he pulled in. He has a wife, Heather, back home in the town of Renews — they kind of fell into marriage the same way he fell into his job after all their classmates had hooked up. And while he headed home in the off-season for the first few years, they continued to grow apart and Heather eventually told him not to bother any more.

The story does have a dramtic turn and it does involve Michaela, an eight-year-old when Dennis arrived who is now twenty and has attracted his attention. Wangersky uses the drama to supply the final touches to his central character, someone whom I found as well developed as anyone could expect in an 18-page story.

“Echo” is a more typical example. Kevin Rowe is five-years-old — his family lives in a small, single storey house in St. John’s:

Kevin’s father drove from St. John’s to Boston and back, big rigs with chrome wheels, and every time he came home, Kevin would come into the living room and be startled to find his father in front of the television or hear his father in the bedroom, snoring, like he’d never really left. For Kevin, it was like going into the kitchen and finding there was an extra fridge where there hadn’t been one before. It was a magic trick, as if his father could just simply appear, again and again and again. By the time the surprise of it wore off, Kevin’s father would be ready to head back out on the road, hauling fish to Boston and furniture back again.

His father’s return frequently brings another aspect to Kevin’s world: the youngster is sent out to the front deck (he has created his own little world watching the street from there — it is where we first meet him). He is sent out again a few pages into “Echo”:

Kevin’s father hadn’t said anything when Kevin was in the kitchen, but a few moments later Kevin heard the deep rumble of his voice from the kitchen, not so much words as a deep straight line, all one note. And over the top of it, his mother’s thin voice, growing higher and then falling away like a ball bouncing up and down, up and down. It was like they were singing together, each one already sure where the other was going and just exactly where they would eventually end up.

Wangersky does have a dark side to him (as the developments from idyllic prairie to drama showed in “McNally’s Fair”) and “Echo” gets very dark indeed — it succeeds because the author is consistent in viewing the entire story through the eyes of an intelligent, but still only partially comprehending, five-year-old.

Unlike those two stories, “Sharp Corner” starts out very dark (and gets darker):

John thought of the sound as a soft, in-drawn breath, a breath that was always taken in that last single second before the other sounds came. He heard it right before the shriek of tires pulling sideways against their tread. John would hear the police use the word “yaw” for the striated mark left behind on the pavement, and he’d start building it into his own descriptions almost immediately. “When you see yaw, you know they were going too fast.” Just like that.

The tires made a shriek followed by the boxy thump of the car fetching up solid, side-on, in a crumpling great pile in the ditch.

Then, the horn — and often, screaming.

John goes out to the scene of that first accident on the sharp corner where he lives as a good citizen and curious observer more than anything else, but it sows the seeds of an obsession. Whenever he and his wife are out visiting, he can’t resist telling the story — slowly but surely, embellishing it — despite the fact that his wife glares at him every time and his listeners frequently depart before he is done.

That first accident features only one death — the next two result in two and three respectively. John’s obsession not only grows with each accident, the increasing severity and his ability to observe the scene (and develop even more embellishments) grow in tandem. The tragedies at the sharp corner take over his life — even if he doesn’t really realize it.

There was some surprise when Whirl Away (incidentally, there is no title story) showed up on the Giller list — it has been a good year for Canadian short story collections and this one just did not seem strong enough for many commenters and reviewers (including me, I must say). I would hazard the guess that it is the way that author Wangersky plays with the darkness of his vision that got him there — both Roddy Doyle and Gary Shteyngart on the Real Jury are no strangers to the dark side and saw talent and success in the way that Wangersky explores it.

Inside, by Alix Ohlin

September 7, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Grace is a psychologist in Montreal. She keeps her professional and personal lives both well organized and well separated. When she leaves work each day she truly leaves work and moves on to other things (or so she thinks — that will change as this novel moves on). In the opening pages of Inside it is 1996 and she has left the office to go cross-country skiing on Mount Royal — Montreal has finally had one of those snowfalls that make that delightful escape possible.

Early on her route she comes across an obstruction: “He could have been a branch or a log, even a tire”. In fact, it is a body — someone who has tried to hang himself but has not succeeded. Grace, perhaps reverting to her comfortable role as a psychologist, not only calls Emergency, she sticks around and goes to hospital with him (forgetting both their skis). This is a longish quote from Grace at the hospital, but it illustrates both author Ohlin’s voice and the way she approaches plot development:

Maybe it was just because she wanted to know what happened. Regardless, she was sitting in the waiting room hours later, shivering each time the glass doors slid open with an icy draft. The linoleum was streaked with gray-brown slush people had tracked in, and she could smell car exhaust and cigarette smoke from the sidewalk outside. There was no sign of any police officer wanting to ask her questions. The man had been wheeled off, with a canopy of nurses over his still-silent body. Grace waited, though she wasn’t sure for what or whom. When she remembered the skis — probably long gone by now — she smacked herself on the forehead. Hers were practically brand-new. She looked at her watch; it was seven o’clock, completely dark on the mountain. She was tired and hungry and ready to go home. Before she did, though, she wanted to know that he was being taken care of. She walked over to a nurse at the reception area.

The detail that is present in that extended quote gives you a sense of the flavor of Ohlin’s novel — throughout, she likes extended passages that explore her characters as they experience the events around them. And I must say that I appreciated that aspect of her work — remembering that she had forgotten the skis is exactly the kind of thing that I would do if stuck in an Emergency waiting room in similar circumstances.

The body in this case is one John Tugwell — he will not only survive, Grace’s interest in him will turn into a version of love that fills up some of the emptiness in her own life. That is story line number one of the book.

The biggest part of Grace’s emptiness, and the second narrative stream of the novel, is the break-up of her marriage to Mitch, even though it did occur some years ago. Mitch is also a therapist and he and Grace did not so much fall in love as fall into living together and then fall into marriage by convenience. Both spend their working day listening to other peoples’ problems — they spend their private lives doing their best not to talk about their own.

Mitch’s narrative stream is set in 2006, ten year’s later than Grace’s. We first meet him in Iqaluit, above the Arctic Circle, where he has accepted an assignment to work with aboriginal people, mainly, it is apparent, to get away from his current relationship with Martine, a post-Grace flame who now wants to get married. It is no spoiler to say that Mitch obviously has not yet got over Grace — avoidance pretty much defines him. (Aside: I have a personal weakness for “avoidance” characters — no reflection on my own behavior I am sure.)

He’d met Martine on the day her divorce became final, a moment of sorrow and vulnerability that he wasn’t too scrupulous to take advantage of. Had he met her even a day later, he believed, she wouldn’t have had anything to do with him. Forty-five, sexy, and brilliantly smart, Martine took care of her job and her son with determined energy, and she dispatched her husband once he proved unequal to the task of having a difficult child and rebelled by having affairs. Only at night did cracks show in her independent daytime self; but even then she rarely reverted back to the crying woman he had first seen smoking a cigarette outside the Palais de Justice, choking and sobbing through the gray storm of her own exhale.

Grace and Mitch: Two professionals, both with “issues”. Both running into a life-changing event (Mitch has a version of the body on the ski trail as well) that demands they abandon their carefully-built avoidance of reality and engage with what is around them.

Inside has a third narrative stream as well. In the opening chapter, after Grace leaves the hospital where “Tug” is recovering, she has an appointment with Annie. Annie is a 16-year-old with identity issues (“I am rotten, she wrote. I am diseased.“). She is responding by scarring herself with razor cuts to both her belly and arms — her parents’ reaction is to put this all down to an eating disorder and make things even worse.

Annie will leave her parents soon after her sessions with Grace and that opens up the third storyline in the book, set in 2002 between those of Grace and Mitch, when we find her in New York.

It was January. She found an apartment on the Lower East Side through a guy she met in her acting class. Larry’s grandmother had lived in the apartment for decades, keeping the rent low; now she was in a nursing home, adrift in an Alzheimer’s haze, only occasionally convinced she would soon move back home. The family, having cleared the apartment of its doilied furniture and ancient knick-knacks, sublet it to Anne at what even she, new to New York, could tell was an insane bargain. This was because Larry hoped to have sex with her. She took the apartment and dropped the class.

So we have a lot of elements at play here. Two confused therapists who, however good they might be at their work, are hopeless at living life. And a lost soul who has found her way to New York (and will eventually get to Los Angeles).

First, the good parts about what Ohlin does in this novel. Grace, Mitch and Anne all come to life. The descriptive parts that are present in the excerpts work (although at times they are a bit overdone) and all three characters become three-dimensional.

Now, the not-so-good parts. While all three are interesting, none of them are particularly compelling. And the hurdles that Ohlin sets in their way are pretty ordinary — we could meet a version of any of them all in real life, but that doesn’t make for a great novel. As the book moves on, Annie’s world moves farther and farther from that of Grace and Mitch — I was wondering why an editor had not suggested her story be excised from this novel and developed into another one if the author liked the character so much.

Inside is not a bad novel — indeed, it has many very good aspects to it. Unfortunately, they tend to come in parts and never mesh into a whole. As much as I appreciated Grace, Mitch and Anne, they never really gell as the cast of an excellent book.

2012 Giller Prize longlist

September 4, 2012


The 2012 Giller longlist is out and the Shadow Jury has its reading agenda set. We’ve already reviewed three of the 13 — two here and one at Kimbofo’s Reading Matters (click on the covers below for links to those reviews). I’ve read two more (Inside and Whirl Away) and Alison has read 419 by Will Ferguson so those reviews will be up soon. The Shadow Jury promises that at least one of us will get to every book on the longlist before the short list is announced on Oct. 30 and you’ll be able to find a review or a link to one here.

First, the list — I haven’t supplied links here but the Scotiabank Giller site has links to the publisher of each book. I was able to find all but Fagan’s (which is on re-order) on the Indigo website this morning so Canadians should be able to get copies — international readers will face a greater challenge but we will have some thoughts here later. My opening thoughts on the longlist are found at the bottom of this post.

Reviewed by KfC

Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, by Robert Hough

Ru, by Kim Thúy


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Reviewed by Kimbofo

Our Daily Bread, by Lauren B. Davis

Reviews to come soon

Inside, Alix Ohlin


Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky

Y, by Marjorie Celona


The Sweet Girl, by Annabel Lyon

Reviews to come eventually

My Life Among The Apes, by Carl Fagan


419, by Will Ferguson


One Good Hustle, by Billie Livingston


Everybody Has Everything, by Katrina Onstad


The Emperor of Paris, by C.S. Richardson


The Imposter Bride, by Nancy Richler

KfC longlist thoughts

1. Four previous winners — Linden MacIntyre, Vincent Lam, David Bergen and M.G. Vassanji — are missing from the list, so we have a bit of a “rebel” jury at play here. I was lukewarm on MacIntyre’s Why Men Lie and even less impressed by Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager. The Bergen and Vassanji have not been published yet (I’ll get to them when they are) but it should be noted that in past years previous winners have usually been granted a pass to the longlist so I think it is fair to assume we have a bit of a “rebel” bunch here.

2. I’m somewhat surprised at the longlisting of the two books that I have reviewed. Kim Thúy’s Ru was interesting but I thought I had read better versions of the same idea. Dr. Brinkley’s Tower was an entertaining read, but not really my idea of a prize winner — I’d say its presence on the list reflects Doyle and Shteyngart’s tilt towards offbeat, plot-driven novels and expect to find more of that in the books that I haven’t read yet.

3. That tendency toward the narrative also shows up in the “whiteness” of the author list. Canada has a strong colony of immigrant and second generation writers (and a look at previous Giller winners shows how often they are the best in any given year) and it is a little surprising to see only one (Kim Thúy — whose novel was originally published in French, the only translated work on the list) on the longlist.

4. All in all, I’d say that we have a longlist that is great for readers who are willing to take a chance at reading books that might stretch the envelope of their tastes. I haven’t read an obvious winner this year. I can’t complain about any book that I did read that didn’t make the list — I would have liked to see Dave Margoshes’ story collection A Book of Great Worth there but that was a longshot. And there a few on the list that I had looked at but rejected (generally because I thought they might be somewhat “light” for my tastes) — I’ll look forward to being proved wrong. So while I have a few Booker books left to read, I’m delighted to be heading into Giller season.

As usual, your comments and thoughts are welcome. Alison will be contributing a guest review or two here and I’ll post excerpts and links when Kim and Trevor review books on their sites. We have had a great time with the Shadow Giller in past years and expect to have an even better time this year. Your participation is part of what makes it such a joy.

Communion Town, by Sam Thompson

September 2, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

Fair warning: The positive review that you are about to read of Communion Town is very much at odds with most reader response. Sam Thompson’s Booker-longlisted “novel” has been rated by eight readers at Trevor’s Man Booker discussion site: seven of the eight rank it last (a couple have even abandoned it) and the other has it ninth out of 12 — these are committed Booker readers so that is about as complete a rejection as you can get. Given that, my fourth place ranking (I liked the book, but didn’t love it) looks like a ringing endorsement.

Communion Town carries a subtitle (A City in Ten Chapters) and that points to part of the problem. “City” novels are a frequent theme — John Lanchester’s London in Capital, Teju Cole’s New York in Open City and Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Toronto in Ghosted would be just three recent examples reviewed here.

Unlike those three, however, Thompson’s city bears no resemblance at all to one that the reader might know and love. Sometimes it seems to be a version of London or Los Angeles. It has a port and fishing markets, bringing to mind Marseille or Naples. In yet other chapters, it seems Asian, even African. In short, this “city” is a composite, not a representation, so even lovers of “city” novels are going to experience frustration.

And then there are the 10 chapters. One reader observed on Trevor’s site that they read more like badly conceived essays on the urban phenomenon than short fiction, let alone a novel. While there is a certain consistency to geographic and civil society references, there are no common characters — we not only can’t identify the city, we have no notion of who lives there beyond the laundry list that is presented in 10 chapters.

My first step in departing from those negative critical assessments and putting some structure to the book is to cite the history of “the Flâneur”, a forebidding character referenced in a number of the stories but one who never appears directly in any chapter.

According to Wikipedia, Charles Baudelaire is credited with defining the flâneur:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world — impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.

Walter Benjamin described the flâneur “as the essential figure of the modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city. More than this, his flâneur was a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism.”

It took a few stories but it was clear to me that there was a good reason why the Flâneur never appears in the collection: each of the 10 narrators is himself or herself a flâneur, “a modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city.”

Consider the narrator of “Gallathea”, at 44 pages one of the longest of the 10 chapters. In some of them (perhaps more than I recognized) Thompson offers (not very good) parodies/homages to well known authors — a distraction that I suspect many may find annoying. In this one, the narrator is a version of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and the city seems a lot like mid-twentieth century Los Angeles.

The narrator, an investigator, is having a drink at Meaney’s when the Cherub boys, Don and Dave, call him over and mention the name of a girl:

‘I’m talking about the girl,’ said Don, slowly, watching me. ‘You telling me you don’t know her?’

‘Like I said. Can’t help you.’

Dave licked his plate, his eyes above the white disc rolling from me to his brother and back again. Don sizzled his cigarette down to the filter in one draught. My ribs felt him inhale but were in no position to raise objections.

‘Don’t signify,’ he said. ‘Fing is, we know this certain brass is looking for you. Got a job she wants done. We come here to tell you you ain’t to do it.’

The Cherubs drag the narrator out of Meaney’s and beat him up to underline their point. He meets the “brass” eventually and accepts the job. He gets beat up some more. Like Spade or Marlowe, the “contract” takes him into a complex environment (as a flâneur) that he can’t really come to understand, despite his best efforts.

Most of the stories are like that — characterized by absence, ambiguity and random violence more than anything else. A number feature the reacquaintance of individuals who know each other from some distant past, fell out for whatever reason and have met again by chance, or perhaps not. Whatever — even in those stories, neither character quite understands what is going around them. The prospect of “resolution” in any of these cloudy circumstances was summed up for me in a paragraph in “Good Slaughter”:

As I stood there, I felt future time crowding into the present moment. A kind of serenity came over me as I saw that by doing nothing I was agreeing to a burden of guilt that would not lessen for as long as I lived. It was all quite clear: how in this instant my sole chance to intervene was passing, and how bitterly, later, I would wish to turn time back and do it differently. One more breath and the city would sweep the waiting future away from me. I was making a choice. Stale in the back of my throat, I could taste the self-condemnations to come over years and decades: why did you stand there? Why did you not do something good when you had the chance? I saw what a tiresome riddle it would become, why I had bowed my head in apology, turned and continued to my lodgings.

POTENTIAL SPOILER AHEAD but it explains how the novel came together for me.

Communion Town was an interesting, if frustrating, collection of incomplete flâneur stories until chapter seven arrived: “The Significant City of Lazarus Glass”. Thompson plays with Sherlock Holmes in this one with the narrator, Cassandra Byrd, filling the role of Watson. Peregrine Fetch is the Holmes figure, the city’s most outstanding detective. The case at hand involves the murder on the previous evening of the city’s three other prominent detectives; they, plus Peregrine, have been jointly chasing the demon Lazarus Glass, someone they had all trained with before Glass opted for the other side.

One of those three, Electra Cavendish-Peake, had at one point in the past become entranced with researching a classical notion, the Art of Memory, and she had introduced the idea to both Fetch and Glass:

To convey to him what she had in mind, she read aloud the passage from the Confessions in which Augustine speaks of the ‘spacious palaces of memory where countless images are hoarded, brought in from all the diverse objects perceived by the senses’, and adds: ‘There too are hidden the altered images we create in our minds by enlarging or diminishing or otherwise transforming the things we perceive.’

That was the crux of it, Electra said: altered images. It was true that, with long and gruelling study, a practitioner of the Art could learn to retrieve all the lost junk and treasure hidden away in the attics of the mind, and to arrange everything in order: each image in its place, tidy and accessible. But it was also true that surprising things could happen in memory houses. To embody such ideas in such a fashion was to imbue them with unpredictable life. They might move around when you were not there; they might change and grow in ways you had not expected.

Electra abandoned the idea but Lazarus did not. Not only did he build a memory house, he built a memory city — this one. And in the process discovered that it not only reflected the past, it offered a map to the future.

The city of Communion Town is just such a “memory city”. Each narrator is a “modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city”. Like all remembered incidents, each story is ambiguous and incomplete but as they begin to accumulate, they start to build a semi-coherent picture.

I’ll need to read the novel again, but on the re-read I intend to position each of the narrators as an individual (and perhaps there is only one) embarked on the same pursuit — despite the varied genders and experience, each is involved in building a “memory city” that not only captures the past in all its forms but attempts to build a structure that will foretell the future. What does the crowd look like, how has it behaved and where might it be headed? That’s what makes Communion Town a novel, rather than a collection of ten stories or essays about some confused place — by definition, flâneurs are wandering through confusion, their role is to try to build some notion of sense. The parts need to be compiled into a whole.

Those who know the work of John Berger will find some familiar conundrums here — sorry, my reading of Berger pre-dated my blogging but you can find a number of excellent reviews of his work from Max at Pechorin’s Journal. Berger tends towards much simpler circumstances than an entire city but the idea of capturing the frustration of ambiguity and uncertainty (“impartial natures which the tongue can but clumisly define” to quote Baudelaire again) is a constant presence in his work.

I’d love to say that Thompson did this perfectly but my fourth place ranking in the Booker longlist (even if it is many ranks higher than others who have read the book) is indication enough that he did not totally succeed — perhaps a second reading will move the novel up in my estimation. Communion Town is definitely not a book for everybody, but for readers who are willing to join an author in an ambitious search, flawed as the results might be, it is a valiant and worthwhile effort, one that I was glad to have undertaken. I will let it steep for a while but look forward to a second reading — and a place on the Booker shortlist (juries often are out of step with readers) would provide the perfect excuse.


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