Archive for July, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman

July 30, 2014

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Author Tom Rachman gives the reader three starting points in the life of Tooly Zylberberg in this novel:

  • 2011 — Thirtysomething Tooly owns and operates a used bookstore in a converted pub in Wales, aided (sort of) by Fogg. Trade is slim by any measure, but it has its moments — and Fogg’s wandering philosophical meanderings are in themselves a source of some amusement. The shop is the kind of place a tightly-united community welcomes. A powerful symbol is the Honesty Barrel, “a cask of overstock”, left outside the store where passersby can take a volume (suggested contribution £1) and move on — the Barrel has to be taken in when rain threatens, which is a major decision in the quiet life of running the bookshop:

    Caergenog — just across the Welsh side of the border with England — was populated by a few hundred souls, a village demarcated for centuries by two pubs, one at the top of Roberts Road and the other at its foot. The high ground belonged to the Butcher’s Hook, named in recognition of the weekly livestock market across the street, while the low ground, opposite the church and roundabout, was occupied by World’s End, a reference to that pub’s location at the outer boundary of the village. World’s End had always been the less popular option (who wanted to carouse with a view of iron crosses in the graveyard?) and the pub closed for good in the late 1970s. The building stood empty for years, boarded up and vandalized, until a married couple — retired academics from the University of Bristol — bought the property and converted it into a used bookshop.

    That business plan failed, but Tooly has resurrected it, alas with no positive results to date. As the previous owners said, maybe “some youthful energy” could turn it into a break-even business “but you won’t get rich”.

  • 1999 — The 20-year-old Tooly, resident of Brooklyn, but self-directed student of Manhattan who is keeping a marked map of her excursions:

    Tooly intended to walk the entirety of New York, every passable street in the five boroughs. After several weeks, she had pen lines radiating like blue veins from her home in the separatist republic of Brooklyn into the breakaway nations of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, although their surly neighbor, Staten Island, remained unmarked. Initially, she had chosen neighborhoods to explore by their alluring names: Vinegar Hill and Plum Beach, Breezy Point and Utopia, Throggs Neck and Spuyten Duyvil, Alphabet City and Turtle Bay. But the more enticing a place sounded the more ordinary it proved — not as a rule, but as a distinct tendency.

    This Tooly has discovered a tactic that helps fuel her curiosity: if she knocks on a door and says she used to live in this very apartment and wants a look round to remind her, people tend to let her in. This thread of the story acquires momentum when she does just that at a suite occupied by three students near Columbia University and moves into their convoluted lives.

  • 1988 — Tooly is not quite 10 and she and her father Paul are about to land in Thailand. Paul is an IT expert whose job consists of upgrading computer access in minor U.S. diplomatic posts so they can dip into massive data bases to check on possible terrorists. He has just finished a contract in Australia and now the two are moving to Bangkok — even though most of his work is in outposts, he likes to operate from a base in a larger city.

    “Landing cards,” Paul said, thinking aloud, and grabbed two as they waited in line at the border control. “When were you born?”

    “You know that.”

    “I know that,” he acknowledged, filling it in. He looked around, startled at the slightest noise — he was rigidly tense in public with Tooly. A Velcro strap on his shoe had come unstuck, so she knelt to attach it. “What are you doing?” he asked irritably. “It’s nearly our turn.”

    The immigration officer summoned them. Paul was a man who followed rules — indeed, their absence unnerved him. Yet whenever he addressed authorities his mouth became audibly dry. “Good morning. Evening,” he said, sweat budding on his upper lip.

    We know from the other two threads (where Paul is absent) that Tooly got away from Thailand. We don’t know how, and that will become the dramatic dilemma of the novel.

  • For this reader, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the latest example of a new fiction phenomenon (I’m reluctant to call it a genre): authors who have been “raised globally” bringing that experience to their writing.

    Now authors have always travelled: Byron and Shelley headed to Italy; Fitzgerald, Baldwin, Hemmingway and a host of others Paris. But that used to happen after they started writing — now we see young (or at least youngish) authors, most of them currently based around New York it seems, producing “globally wandering” novels that capture their growing-up life. From just the last year, I’d give you Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. That’s a Pulitzer winner, a Booker winner and a New York Times 10 best, so you can hardly say the trend isn’t attracting attention.

    Rachman fits the profile: born in London (the English one), raised in Vancouver, attended the University of Toronto and Columbia in New York, headed off to Europe where he worked for the Associated Press in Rome and Paris. Indeed, his first work — the delightful The Imperfectionists — is a novel-in-stories that I absolutely loved centred on an English-language newspaper published in Rome.

    I only wish that I could say the same about this novel. Given that the 10-year-old Tooly stream is mainly a set up, I didn’t expect much from it.

    But 20-year-old Tooly in New York as the millennium comes to an end seemed to be fertile ground and 31-year-old Tooly running a used bookshop in Wales sure had promise — promise that kept looming on the horizon but never arrived.

    Part of the problem for me was the supporting cast. To keep his story together, Rachman needs to have “Tooly manipulators” and he never succeeded in making them three-dimensional — instead, they became plot advancers. And while I was quite willing to engage with Tooly herself (and often did), bouncing between the decades often left me more frustrated than satisfied. I should confess I had the same problem with Tartt and Kushner’s novels — maybe I am just a reader who wants more “stay at home” depth and less “wandering the world” panorama.

    Please don’t let that grumpy response put you off the novel. Rachman is a very talented wordsmith and some of the set pieces in this one are delightful — given my more positive response to The Perfectionists, it is easy to say that at this stage in his career the short story model remains his strength. While I don’t think The Rise and Fall of Great Powers succeeds, it is a step in the right direction — I am pretty sure that sometime in the future Rachman will produce a truly outstanding novel.


    God Telling a Joke and Other Stories, by Dave Margoshes

    July 27, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Oolichan Books

    Review copy courtesy Oolichan Books

    A few decades back (well, more than three, to be slightly more precise) Dave Margoshes and I were colleagues in the newsroom at the Calgary Herald. I was a political reporter (and not a bad one, if I can toot my own former horn) — his brief was pretty much everything but politics, so our day-to-day reporting paths didn’t often cross.

    Our journalistic paths did, if only in what I learned from one of the best news reporters with whom I ever worked. A reporter’s basic job is to collect all the information you can (not just the parts that serve your tilt on the story) — and Dave did that on every assignment. A far more important and difficult task is “selecting” the relevant bits that capture the story — I could do that with politics, but was in awe of the way that Dave could do it with almost any subject he was handed.

    And then there was putting it all together for publication — in as few words as possible. In the news business in those days, there were lots of people who could write a “good” story in 2,000 words. A few talented ones could take the same data and produce an even better story in 1,000. Only the best could take all that “stuff” and make 500 words tell the story — I could not do that very often, but Dave sure could. “Rewrite” is a task that has disappeared in modern newsrooms but it was very alive then — and it seemed that every morning, Dave was called on to reduce 2,000 words of someone else’s work to 500 and not lose a thing. The 500 almost always said more than the 2,000 did (okay, he rewrote my work on occasion and, of course, I always felt something had been lost, hence the “almost always”).

    I provide that lengthy introduction to say that those reporting/story-telling skills (I’d label them “observation” and “reduction”) are on full display in this new collection of 16 stories. We don’t get a lot of “big” plot events to help the author along here — we have human, humane incidents where observing, selecting and recounting show the writer’s craft. Anyone who has ever tried to write anything, be it a news story or fiction, would be well advised to get a copy and appreciate the result.

    Consider as a starter the third story in the collection, “Bucket of Blood”, and the way that it is introduced:

    The bar had no proper name but was known as the Bucket of Blood. The day that Archie Duggan dies there, two Wednesdays ago, and the following day, when his death was mentioned in the news, it was the first time that the place, which had stood at the corner of 11th Avenue and Osler Street for over a hundred years, had registered in the minds of most of the people of the city in decades.

    The bar was located in the basement of a rundown hotel that had once been called the Earle. The hotel had been built be a man named Louis P. Earle, a flamboyant former railway worker who had washed up in what was then still a town, not yet a city, after the construction of the CPR. In its heyday, the Earle Hotel was a good dignified address at which to spend a night or two, or even longer, though there was always a confusion, among both guests and the residents of the town alike who had not had the occasion to ever meet Louis P. Earle, or hear his name said aloud, as to the pronunciation of the hotel’s name: was it sounded Earl or Early?

    The second paragraph in that excerpt extends for almost another page, but I’m thinking that provides flavor enough. We know that Archie Duggan dies, but to understand that story we need more backstory. And, in good journalistic (and fiction) tradition, we get it. The bar has its aging regulars (Archie included) who show up everyday and its share of “other” trade, drug dealers included, but that has dropped off. Danny, the bartender and general manager, is a recovering alcoholic — and has sponsored a number of AA members from his customer base over the years, but Archie wasn’t one of them. Like Danny, Archie is also a recovering alcoholic who only drinks ginger ale — but they never discuss what brought both of them to this bar.

    On that day [the day Archie died] — the 17th of August, a Wednesday — Archie came into the bar, smiling to himself over the reassuring creak of the heavy door, at his usual time, more or less fifteen minutes after three in the afternoon. Danny O’Hara, who had a railroad man’s eye for detail, had often wondered about the significance of that time — never 3 p.m., never 3:30, but always 3:15, give or take a minute or two in either direction. Early on in their relationship — hardly friends, but bartender to customer, warmed by their mutual knowledge of the past they shared, the past they had, for different reasons, put well behind them — Danny had glanced at his watch as Archie took his preferred seat at one end of the bar, and Archie commented without elaboration “School’s out.” That was intriguing: was the man a teacher? A parent — or grandparent — of a school-age child? A student himself? From the looks of him, his neat but shabby suit, the Blue Jays ballcap on top a full head of snow white hair, his well-used face and rough hands, Archie was more likely to be a school janitor than any of the other possibilities. But when he died, the small write-up in the paper, the same story that invoked the name and reputation of the Earle Hotel for the first time in the public prints in many years, identified him merely as “a pensioner”, so Danny would never know.

    Margoshes is more fiction writer than reporter now, so “Bucket of Blood” does have a twist — I won’t be spoiling the story and we will move on to another one.

    “Lightfoot and Goodbody” was another personal favorite in this collection. Bob Klebeck is 77 and his life in a Winnipeg senior citizens’ apartment is too much for him: a pathetic schedule of activites (“the Globe and Peter Gzowski in the morning over two cups of coffee — no more — plus doctors’ appointments, counsellor’s appointments, poker games, chess games visits to the library…”), children who are too busy to care, etc. etc.

    So he decides it is time to become a modern-day tramp. First off, he adopts the name Lightfoot (yes, after the folk singer — we Canadians are devoid of imagination). Much as he would like to pack a bindlestiff, he opts for a knapsnack — underwear, socks, two knit shirts, a chunk of cheddar and a half loaf of Winnipeg-style rye, a bottle of water, reading glasses and a 95-cent used copy of The Grapes of Wrath — and decides to head west.

    The romantic image, too, called for him to shuffle off into the sunset. Instead, leaving early in the morning, the sun was still at his back as he headed west along the Trans-Canada Highway (a brief bus ride brought him to the edge of town), his thumb stuck out in the most desultory of fashion. The mountains, where he imagined himself laying his head beside a free-flowing stream, beneath rain-fresh resin-smelling pine trees, were many hundreds of miles away — he still steadfastly refused to use the word “kilometre” or any of the other metric vocabulary. They were surely too far to reach in a day’s tramping, maybe two, even with good luck and many rides. Between them lay miles and miles of undulating fields of amber wheat, sky-blue flax, bright-yellow canola — his mouth paused in sour annoyance at the made-up name for the perfectly legitimate rape his grandfather had once planted, some people’s sensitivities be damned; miles of grain, then equal miles of undulating rangeland where, if he was lucky, he might see an antelope in the distance and a hawk observing his progress disdainfully from high above. Many, many miles, far too many for any man to walk, let alone a seventy-seven-year-old man with bad knees, a bad stomach, and a stroke, mild though it was, only two years behind him. Still, what lay ahead, he knew — thought he knew, at any rate — was do-able, weighted down merely be discomfort. And with all this in mind, and a hundred and seventy-seven dollars, in various denominations and combinations of change in his pockets, a VISA card in his wallet, a pair of poorly fitting sunglasses perched on his nose, and a jaunty porkpie hat set on an angle on his almost hairless head, Lightfoot set out.

    He gets a couple of typical rides — a Mercedes-Benz salesman delivering a new car to Swift Current, a farmer on his way back to the homestead. And he stops for pie and coffee at the Pilgrim truck stop. And then he gets picked up by Doris Goodbody, a female version of Lightfoot himself, and the story really starts. Two finer people in fiction you cannot meet, I would say.

    As much as I appreciate my old friend Dave and those stories, I suspect I have done him no favor by choosing those two to highlight in this review. Most of the 16 in this book have far more substance to them (imagine how long the review would be if I’d tried to describe them?) and the author is very good at applying the distinctive twist that often features in good short stories. And while the two I have highlighted are set in Western Canada, let me assure you that the 16 in this collection go much father afield (and beyond worldly field in the title story).

    Whatever. This is a first-rate collection, from an old friend, that I would recommend to anyone. Margoshes last collection (A Book of Great Worth) was a novel-in-stories devoted to his father — this equally stunning collection is a series of observations and ruminations (and quite a few jokes) developed over a modern lifetime. It was a quiet joy to read — you won’t be disappointed.

    2014 Booker longlist and KfC’s plans

    July 23, 2014

    booker logoFirst, the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize:

    To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)

    The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)

    We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)

    The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)

    J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)

    The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)

    The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)

    The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)

    Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)

    The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)

    Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)

    How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

    History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

    Coverage of the annual Booker competition has been a feature of this blog since its inception in 2009 — if you scroll down the sidebar on the right you will find full long and short lists from the last five years, with links to my reviews. In the first few years, I managed to read every longlisted book. I gave up that completist chore a few years back (too many books that I knew going in would not interest me) but still have found that more than half the list interests me enough to read and review — and I’d say that will be the case this year.

    For those who follow the Booker, the question awaiting the longlist this year was “how many Americans will be there?” — this being the first year that the prize is open to American citizens. The answer is four — Joshua Ferris, Siri Hustvedt, Richard Powers and Karen Jay Fowler. That is about the number that I would have expected but there is a side effect that I lament: Commonwealth writers have virtually disappeared from the list (Australian Richard Flanagan is the only representative). I’m sure I’m not the only Canadian who rues this development — particularly since the Americans are hardly unknown talents that we have never heard of before.

    Indeed, I would say another side effect of the new rules is that debut writers have fallen by the Booker wayside. While longlists usually featured a couple — sometimes even more — there is nary a one on this year’s list. The U.K. vs U.S. duel is pretty much the only theme.

    I have not read any of the 13 novels, but ordered six this morning and intend to get to them as quickly as possible: Ferris, Flanagan, Hustvedt, Powers, Williams and Mukherjee. As far as I can tell five of the 13 have not yet been released (Mitchell, Smith, O’Neill, Jacobson and Nicholls) — Mitchell, Smith and O’Neill would have been on my list to read even without the Booker. That means there are four (Fowler, Kingsnorth, Jacobson and Nicholls) I don’t think I’ll be contemplating reading — your comments or a promotion to the shortlist could change those plans.

    The Booker shortlist will be announced Sept. 9; the prize winner on Oct. 14. I’ll update on both those events.

    And please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts — on Booker listed novels or those that did not make the longlist cut. With the new rules, this year is a brand-new experience. While I can’t say that I particularly like what I see so far, maybe that is just a case that the negatives are obvious and I haven’t discovered the positives yet.

    The Confabulist, by Steven Galloway

    July 16, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

    Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

    Steven Galloway struck a responsive chord with both critics and readers with his most recent novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008). In that book, he started with a real incident: a bomb attack in the destructive Yugoslavian war that killed 22 people waiting in a bread line and the decision by a cellist to return to the scene for 22 days in a row and play Albinoni’s Adagio as a memorial to mourn their fate.

    While that well-known, and evocative, event provided the over arching framework, Galloway’s attention was devoted to three “ordinary” individuals and how they were influenced by the conflict. One was Kenan; his story concerned his dangerous weekly walk through the conflict to fetch water for his family. A second thread was the story of Dragan and his equally threatening trek to a free meal. And the third was “Arrow”, the pseudonym for a talented female sniper whose task was to protect the cellist and his memorial concerts from a hidden sniper.

    The novel worked very well — it explored the way that destructive conflict has a profound effect on those who have the misfortune to be living where it takes place, even if they have no direct involvement in the hostilities and are just trying to get on with life.

    In his latest novel, The Confabulist, Galloway has again returned to a well-known real story: the life and, more importantly, death of illusionist Harry Houdini, arguably the most famous person in the world at his prime. That death came from a ruptured appendix, perhaps the result of an incident in Montreal where a visitor to his dressing room punched him several times in the abdomen, testing a kind of urban legend that said Houdini was immune to that kind of attack.

    There is a key difference in this volume however. While The Cellist of Sarajevo focused on the stories of three individuals who were impacted by the central event, in this one author Galloway’s interest is in three story lines which he speculates came together to create the “event”.

    Magicians are clever. They understand that a magic trick is all about turning illusion into substance in such a way that we never fully comprehend what happened, or what we think happened. They know that a trick loses its power once we understand how it was done, and also that it loses its power once we no longer wish to understand how it was done.

    There are four elements to this grand tug-of-war between substance and illusion. There is effect, there is method, there is misdirection, and finally, when it’s all over, there is reconstruction. Magic is a dance between these four elements. The actor playing a magician seeks to choreograph a way through the trick with these component parts. If he does so, he will have achieved magic. If not, he is a failure.

    The author uses those paragraphs to introduce an explanation that extends for some pages (and quite a good one, I must say) of how an artist produces his illusion/magic, but that is not why I have quoted them here. Rather, they serve as a précis of the elements that Galloway will keep in play in the novel itself: there’s effect, method, misdirection and reconstruction involved, we just don’t know which is predominent at any moment.

    Like the previous novel, this one comes with three narrative streams:

  • One is Houdini’s life itself, starting in 1897 when he and wife Bess are part of a travelling vaudeville show in the American mid-West. In the opening passage of this thread, Houdini, with Bess’s help, resorts to a cheap spiritualist trick that ends up disgusting him — it is the origin of his obsession to develop his talents as a craft, not merely some perverse show that produces commercial success.
  • The second is the story of Martin Strauss, set in 1926. While he is introduced as a McGill University student deeply in love with one Clara, that’s part of the author’s “misdirection” — he turns out to be the person who punches Houdini in the abdomen and ruptures his appendix.
  • The third is Martin in “the present day”, some decades on from that punch. We are introduced to him just after he has been diagnosed with tinnitus “where you hear a ringing that isn’t there…a symptom of other maladies, but the constant hum of nonexistent sound has been known to drive the afflicted to madness and suicide.” We also learn in that passage that he has also recently come into contact with Houdini’s daughter, Alice. And, with dramatic foreshadowing, “what no one knows, save for myself and one other person who likely died long ago, is that I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.”
  • The novel alternates between those three streams in both voice and time, but it also involves three contextual elements that become increasingly interwoven as it proceeds:

  • Houdini’s magic: Galloway has done his homework so we don’t just get that longish explanation of how it works, but also a number of detailed explanations recounting (and revealing) some of his most famous illusions — both those that he used frequently and memorable one-off events. If you like magic and don’t want it spoiled, give this book a miss on that front.
  • Spiritualism: The incident that provoked Houdini’s disgust turned into a life-long crusade against this gang. Even he admitted that both magic and spiritualism shared the four elements described above but whereas he was openly an entertainer charging admission, the spiritualists used them to create power and to abuse it. In a generation where prominent individuals ranging from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King to American cabinet ministers were acknowledged spiritualists, that abuse could have globally damaging effects.
  • State manipulators: Government intelligence and spying are based on the same four elements — so both magicians and spiritualists are attractive resources for national secret services in pursuit of their own devious ends. The CIA, MI5 and Soviet intelligence all feature in the book, determined to co-opt people like Houdini as agents for their own agendas of power.

    While all those elements and people were part of the real-life story, Galloway needs to severely adjust reality for the purposes of the novel as he hints early on with the “I killed him twice” reference. Since the author reveals the secrets of many Houdini tricks, I don’t feel particularly guilty about revealing his own big one here (albeit after an appropriate warning): in this book, Houdini did not die from that ruptured appendix. Rather, it was a ruse that allowed him to go underground and devote his life to pursuing his anti-spiritualist crusade.


    As you can probably tell from that summary, there is a lot going on in this novel — and that was the source of most of my problems with it. One of the problems with multiple narrative streams is that just when you get interested in the one you are reading, the author abruptly moves to another. In addition to the voices and elements that I have described, Galloway in each stream includes a wealth of personal detail and story designed to humanize his characters but which end up confusing the bigger story even further. While part of that may well have been deliberate “misdirection”, I found myself often uninterested in what the concluding “reconstruction” was — to use the author’s own words, “it loses its power once we no longer wish to understand how it was done”.

    That certainly did not happen all the time, but it came often enough that it was a source of frustration. Perhaps an even bigger factor in my ambivalent response is that I found the opening “tricks” much more successful that I did the later ones. While I’d give Galloway an A for ambition with this one, for this reader the execution falls well short of that mark.

    %d bloggers like this: