Archive for September, 2014

Kimbofo reviews The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill

September 26, 2014

1aaa oneillThe 2014 Shadow Giller review season is under way — and Kimbofo has beaten me to the punch with a review of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill. It is O’Neill’s second novel, Kimbofo had liked her first (Lullabies for Little Criminals) and had this one on hand when the longlist was announced.

Here are the opening paragraphs from Kim’s review — you can read the entire review at her newly redesigned website here:

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is set in the bohemian quarter of Montreal during the 1995 Referendum. The story is told through the eyes of 19-year-old Nouschka Tremblay, whose life changes dramatically over the course of the novel: she begins night school, leaves home, marries a schizophrenic and falls pregnant. She also — rather unexpectedly — meets her long-lost mother for the first time since she was a little girl.

It is, essentially, a coming-of-age tale, but it’s not your usual run-of-the-mill one. For a start, Nouschka has an unbreakable bond with her twin brother, Nicolas, whom she loves and loathes in equal measure. The pair still live at home with the elderly grandfather, Loulou, who raised them. They even share a bed (aged 19, remember), but have spectacular yelling matches and physical punch-ups, often in public view.

“The thing is that Nicolas and I were afraid to be without each other. And whenever you are dependent on someone, then you naturally start to resent them. Everybody is born with an inkling, a desire to be free.”

And that desire to be free is one of the key themes of this novel: Nouschka craves it, but is also terrified by it. Despite being raised in a relatively Bohemian household and working a full-time job (in a magazine shop since leaving school aged 16), she hasn’t really grown up and is very much repressed by her father’s fame.

Her father, Etienne Tremblay, was a famous Québécois folk singer in the early 1970s with a knack for writing witty songs (apparently their humour made up for his inability to keep a tune). He took Nouschka and Nicolas on stage and television chat shows with him all the time and made them “wave wildly at the audience and blow kisses and say adorable things that he’d written”. Now, 15 years later, the twins are still recognised on the street, which keeps them unwittingly trapped in roles they should have long grown out of.

I promise that I will be in action soon, with a review of Frances Itani’s Tell — I have one or two previously read books to review and then my own 2014 Giller season will be in full swing.


Orfeo, by Richard Powers

September 22, 2014

Purchased at

Purchased at

A lot of readers whom I respect have nothing but good to say about Orfeo. It received very positive reviews in the professional press. Just last week, it was named to the National Book Award longlist. Earlier, it was one of the first four novels by U.S. authors to be named to the Booker Prize longlist, although it failed to make the shortlist. And at Trevor’s Booker forum, five of the 10 people who read it at the longlist stage ranked it best overall.

I’ll cut right to the chase and admit that I am an outlier on this one. For this reader, Orfeo was difficult, disappointing and unrewarding — it was a real chore getting to the finish.

Powers introduces us to the book’s central character, Peter Els, in his home microbiology lab, “clad in mufti, protective goggles, and latex hospital gloves”, where he is engaged in his project to alter and reconstruct DNA:

No one thinks twice about the quiet, older bohemian in the American Craftsman at 806 South Linden. The man is retired, and people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement. They visit the birthplaces of Civil War generals. They practice the euphonium. They learn the tai chi or collect Petoskey stones or photograph rock formations in the shape of human faces.

But Peter Els wants only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future. He’s never wanted anything else. And late in the evening, in this perversely fine spring, wanting that seems at least as reasonable as wanting anything.

That quiet retirement is about to change dramatically. Peter’s dog, Fidelio, has just died. Obviously in the early stages of dementia, Els has called 911 — even though all he wants to do is bury his faithful companion wrapped in a treasured quilt in the back yard. While the EMTs tell him to call Animal Care and Control, they also take quiet note of the lab paraphernalia and pass those observations along to Homeland Security authorities.

booker logoEls is an adjunct professor at Verrata College, an avant-garde composer who still teaches a music appreciation course at a nearby senior citizen’s residence. It is while there that he hears his house has been surrounded by police and yellow tape, invaded by haz-mat-suited scene of crime officers determined to find out just what kind of terrorist science is going on here.

In fact, Els has just been pursuing a lifelong interest in the inextricable links between the roots of music and science. Rather than returning home to explain that, he chooses to take flight — one can’t help but think that dementia is having its way with him again.

Okay, that premise had promise, particularly in the way that Powers develops some of the background. One of the reasons that Els loved Fidelio so much was that “music launched her into ecstasies…when any human sustained a pitch for more than a heartbeat, she couldn’t help joining in.” For Els, music (and chemistry for that matter) isn’t something that is “composed” it is just “there”, waiting to be discovered. And we return to the young Peter, who even at age eight was equally fascinated by his clarinet and chemistry set.

While the investigation of Els and his flight will remain a constant backdrop in the novel, Powers soon reduces it to a secondary role. Els’ decision to flee is accompanied by a kaleidoscopic return to his past and how he has come to where he is — and it is the process of that where the author’s real interest lies. And while along the way we meet some worthwhile secondary characters in his wife and best friend (a musical director, rather than composer) from college, they too are only supporting factors in the novelist’s over-riding story.

Unfortunately for this reader, much of that is expressed in pages long explorations of avant garde classical music and the deeper meaning of its attachment to events. I am paraphrasing but Els comes from a school that feels that “beautiful” music is a trite travesty — they want atonal (you can insert other adjectives here — I love music, but I come from the beautiful is just fine school) compositions that disturb, not comfort, listeners. And for what it is worth, I like to make up my own mind about what music (or art for that matter) has to say rather than assuming there is some complex version of reality behind it that I have to discover.

Powers’ first excursion into a lengthy explanation linking music with harsh reality, how Messaien came to compose Quartet for the End of Time when he was a prisoner of war, initially sparked some interest on my part — but halfway through I was unconvinced and finding it a dreadful slog. Alas, that was merely a sign of more to come — we go through similar excursions into Els’ youthful compositions, a John Cage experience while at college and an opera that he was commissioned (highly improbably, since he is unknown with no established record) to compose for the New York City Opera.

Those who have an affinity for avant garde music undoubtedly might find something in these passages. I am afraid my response was much like that of his separated wife (who is one of the people he seeks out in his flight). While she was initially impressed and interested in his search for music, his failure to find anything eventually caused her to urge him to take up a real life — and when he didn’t, she took off with his daughter in tow.

Powers also indulges in some digressions into the relationship between music and chemistry (the search for a mathematical formula that results in both) which I found equally unrewarding. Again, as the reviews and response from other readers show, that negative response may well say more about me that it does about the novel.

If your response to all this is “well, KfC just wasn’t up to this one”, I’ll have to admit you may well be right. I did finish Orfeo, but after the opening quarter, it was an exercise in frustration.

2014 Giller Prize longlist

September 16, 2014

Here’s the Giller Prize longlist — if you click on the image it will take you to the publisher’s page with an extended description:

Waiting for the Man, by Arjun Basu

Waiting for the Man, by Arjun Basu

The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis

The Betrayers, by David Bezmogis

American Innovations, by Rivka Galchen

American Innovations, by Rivka Galchen

Tell, by Frances Itani

Tell, by Frances Itani

Watch How We Walk, by Jennifer LoveGrove

Watch How We Walk, by Jennifer LoveGrove

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, by Shani Mootoo

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, by Shani Mootoo

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O'Neill

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill

Paradise and Elsewhere, by Kathy Page

Paradise and Elsewhere, by Kathy Page

My October, by Claire Holden Rothman

My October, by Claire Holden Rothman

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, by Padma Viswanathan

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, by Padma Viswanathan

Okay, I will admit I am surprised by this list. I have only read two: Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors (review is here — I quite liked it) and Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows which has the distinction of being one of the few novels that so disappointed me I did not feel up to a review. I promise I will give it a re-read and post a review shortly.

What is most notable about the list is the absence of eligible titles from writers who I would say are on Canada’s A-list — Margaret Atwood, David Bergen, Ann-Marie Macdonald, Michael Crummey, Alexis Zentner, Kathleen Winter, to name just a few. I am only guessing, but I’d say we have a jury whose attitude is “let’s give some recognition to established, but overlooked authors”. I’d put Itani, Mootoo, Toews, Viswanathan into that category — I have read works by them all, but did not feel motivated to purchase these latest volumes when they were released. Certainly, they would fit my idea of midlist authors — I will be reading them because of the longlisting, but none fall into my “highly anticipated” category.

The Shadow Giller Jury will now swing into action. Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes is our short story expert and he will be reading the two collections, Galchen and Page. After I re-read the Toews, my plan would be schedule Bezmozgis, Mootoo, and Itani as next on my agenda. Kimbofo and Alison will be free to set their own schedules.

Let’s hope my surprise is a pleasant one. The 2014 Shadow Giller is now under way — by all means join us on the journey.

2014 Booker Prize shortlist — and 2014 Shadow Giller Jury plans

September 9, 2014

booker logoThe 2014 Booker Prize Jury has done it again: completely befuddled KfC with its shortlist. I had read six of the longlist (reviews of Orfeo and The Bone Clocks are still to come) and figured at least four of those would be on the shortlist. Not so fast, Kevin — only two, one of which I hated. Whatever, here is the official list.

Already reviewed here

2014 flanaganThe Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. A truly worthwhile novel that will likely end up being my choice for the Prize. Dorrigo Evans is an Australian doctor, the senior officer at a POW camp involved in building the Siam to Burma railway for the brutal Japanese. The highly dramatic POW experience is bookended with less satisfying (for me at least) sections on Dorrigo as a love-struck youth and as an unworthy, yet heroic, survivor of the war, damaged forever by his prison camp experience.

2014 ferris1To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris. I couldn’t understand how this disappointing novel made the longlist — a shortlisting is totally beyond me. Paul O’Rourke is a successful Park Avenue dentist — the rest of his life is pretty much a disaster. The downward spiral gets worse when a reasonably accurate website for his practice that he has nothing to do with suddenly shows up, soon to be followed with Facebook and Twitter accounts. That “identity theft” part of the novel is actually quite funny, but it heads into absurd (and thoroughly non-entertaining) territory when those social media accounts start to quote “scripture” from a long lost, forgotten Israeli tribe and the book becomes a cult exploration.

Reviews to come

2014 mukharjeeThe Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee. I have a fondness for multi-generational Indian sagas (Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance remains my favorite novel), so I was personally not disappointed to see this one on the list, even if it has met very mixed (actually, mainly negative) reviews from readers whom I respect. The Ghosh family starts out rich but is headed into decline as the novel opens. That produces a wealth of inter-family disputes. And when one son heads into radical politics, the door is opened to exploring the abuses and brutality of the Indira Gandhi era.

2014 fowlerWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. I had every intention of giving this one a pass, but a couple of positive comments here from visitors when the longlist was announced have convinced me it deserves a try. Still…the story of a 20-year-old whose parents decided to raise her with a chimpanzee for a sister? By the author of the best-selling Jane Austen Book Club? Doesn’t seem like my cup of tea, but I guess that on occasion I should try one of these more “populist” works.

2014 smithHow to be Both, by Ali Smith. I have respect for Smith’s work and planned on reading this one (it is just out) but early reviews from acknowledged Smith fans say it is not up to her usual standard, so I am somewhat concerned. The novel is actually two linked novellas — one set in Italy in the fifteenth century, the other in modern day Cambridge. Then again, I do like “art” books and there is an art theme to this one.

And one I won’t be reading

2014 jacobsonJ, by Howard Jacobson. I don’t like Howard Jacobson books (see my troubles with his Booker-winning The Finkler Question). And I loathe dystopian novels. So this dystopian tale by Howard Jacobson (promoted on its cover as a new 1984 or Brave New World — although there are rumors Jacobson writes his own blurbs) has no appeal whatsoever. Here’s a link to Mookse’s Booker Forum discussion of J for those who want more data — so far those who have read it seem to share my distaste.

All in all, I find this quite a bizarre shortlist. I thought Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World was an amibitious effort, even if it had some weaknesses. Niall Williams’ History of the Rain was an impressive “Irish village” novel. And I’ll tease my upcoming review of The Bone Clocks by saying it is my new favorite David Mitchell novel — and I have read every one that he has written. So I really can’t understand what the Booker Jury was thinking — perhaps the Booker and KfC are finally parting ways.

11shadow logo

On to a more positive note: the 21st Giller Prize Jury will announce its longlist one week from today. And that will open the deliberations of the 20th year of the Shadow Giller Jury, chaired by KfC. I’ve repeated the Shadow Giller story so many times here that I won’t be doing it again this year — if you are new to this site, here’s a link that tells the story.

For the first time in history, the Shadow Giller Jury last year was so unimpressed with the Real Giller shortlist that we were forced to “call in” an additional title for our own shortlist deliberations — and Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda emerged as the Shadow Giller winner. Let’s hope this year’s Real Giller Jury shows better judgment than their predecessors (or this year’s Booker Jury for that matter).

This year’s Shadow Jury will be the same as it has been for the last four years: Our American judge, Trevor, who blogs at The Mookse and the Gripes; Kimbofo, our London-based Australian ex-pat, who blogs at Reading Matters, Alison Gzowski from the Globe and Mail (who doesn’t blog but comments on the three who do) and KfC. We are even more international than the Real Giller Jury.

As is usual with only three weeks between longlist and shortlist, the Giller is a challenge for the Shadow Jury — we try to make sure at least one of us reads each longlisted book before the shortlist is announced, but our real action doesn’t start until then. Trevor and Kimbofo will be posting their thoughts on shortlisted titles on their blogs — I will offer excerpts from those reviews here and there will be a sidebar on the right where you will find links to reviews from all Shadow Jury members as they are posted.

And, of course, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Please join us for another exciting Giller Prize year.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

September 1, 2014
Purchased from the Book Depository

Purchased from the Book Depository

Richard Flanagan opens The Narrow Road to the Deep North with a series of literary snapshots that serve as a virtual executive summary of what is to come.

First we have a quick picture of Dorrigo Evans in the kitchen of his Tasmanian home in the 1920s. The five-year-old has dropped a rock on his thumb, creating a blood blister under the nail. While his mother pierces the nail to relieve the pressure, a visiting Jackie Maguire laments the disappearance of his wife the week before. The young Dorrigo remembers seeing his much older brother Tom with Mrs. Maguire the week before she vanished: “…his brother with his hand reaching up inside her skirt, as she — a small, intense woman of exotic darkness — leaned up against the shed behind the coaching house.”

Next, we meet Dorrigo eighteen years later, lying in bed with Amy in a third floor room of a run-down hotel in Adelaide — by this time, he is studying medicine at the University of Melbourne. The two have an idle lovers’ conversation that turns suddenly serious: “Will you leave Ella?…Will you leave Keith?” The conversation ends abruptly when Dorrigo tells Amy he is shipping out to the war the next Wednesday.

And finally we meet Dorrigo Evans, now 77, again in a hotel bed, this time with 52-year-old Lynette Maison, the wife of a close colleague:

Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that. And besides, he no longer had the energy.

Whatever they called him — hero, coward, fraud — all of it now seemed to have less and less to do with him. It belonged to a world that was ever more vaporous to him. He understood he was admired by the nation, if despaired of by those who had to work with him as an ageing surgeon, and mildly disdained and possibly envied by the many other doctors who had done similar things in other POW camps but who sensed, unhappily, that there was something in his character that was not in theirs which had elevated him far above them in the nation’s affection.

That memory arises because the Dorrigo has just finished writing the foreword for a book of illustrations that were done by a fellow POW in the camps and it has brought on a flood: “For good reason, the POWs refer to the slow descent into madness that followed simply with two words: the Line.” Flanagan concludes this extended overview of his story with some memories of incidents of brutality that were a daily feature of life on the Line.

booker logoWhat follows (and forms the bulk of the novel) are three extended sections that effectively flesh out the summary.

The first is the story of Dorrigo and Amy. He is doing his final training as an army medic in late 1940 when he receives a telegram from elder brother Tom urging him to visit their uncle Keith who runs a pub in Adelaide. Tasmanian Dorrigo knows almost no one in Australia, so he decides to make the trip. Shortly before, however, he has an enigmatic and entrancing encounter with a beautiful young woman at a book launch in Melbourne. Dorrigo is engaged to Emma in what is best described as a “contract of convenience” — his response to meeting this girl underlines the fragility of that engagement.

That woman is Amy — and it turns out she is the youthful second wife of Uncle Keith. Dorrigo does visit the pub/hotel and the two begin a passionate affair that means Dorrigo spends all his free time in Adelaide. This youthful life experience — and this section of the book — comes to an end with two near simultaneous events: Dorrigo’s shipping out to war and an explosion and fire that destroy the pub, taking four lives in the process.

Section two of the book is the longest and by far the most intense. The combat portion of Dorrigo’s war does not last long and we next find him in a POW camp. While the Brits had contemplated building a railway linking Siam and Burma (one version of the “narrow road to the deep north” of the title — Basho’s poetic travelogue would be another), they abandoned the idea as an impossibility. The Japanese, eager to invade India, have declared it a necessity and further that it must be completed in 18 months. It will be built by POWs and forced labor from Asian countries the Japanese have conquered.

All of this section takes place in the POW camp and be forewarned it is truly brutal. Dorrigo is the senior Australian officer in the camp and the Japanese masters respect hierarchy. Daily, it falls to him to determine which prisoners will be sent off to build the Line and who will remain in camp in the tents of the dying and near-dying — once he has “assigned” the work force (the Japanese decree just how many hundred that will be each day), Dorrigo spends the rest of his day trying to keep the near-dying as alive as he can.

I won’t go into detail, but this is definitely the best-realized portion of the book — I’d love to offer an excerpt, but I am afraid each incident goes on for pages and a paragraph or two would be an inadequate illustration. Flanagan develops three-dimensional characters of both prisoners and their keepers. A wide assortment of atrocities and brutalities are described in excruciating, painful detail. Certainly, there are examples of what would qualify as “heroism”, but mainly it is a picture of living hell.

And finally, there is the post-war section of the book. Dorrigo is not the only prisoner survivor — we also return to the stories of others who are every bit as emotionally damaged as he is. And Flanagan also follows the stories of some of the Japanese prison minders who managed to escape post-war prosecution, mainly because the Allied winners just didn’t have the time to get to them all. It brings us up to date with the Dorrigo Evans we met in the opening sketch that summarized the book.

As much as I admire the ambition and much of the execution of the novel, I have to admit that I have some disappointment with the overall result — basically, the POW section is so powerful that it makes the other two seem woefully weak in comparison. Dorrigo’s affair with Amy is a satisfactory presentation of youthful infatuation (and sexual attraction) when you read it — it seems empty once Flanagan gets to the prison camp.

The final section suffers from the same flaw. We know from that opening part that Dorrigo has become an Australian success as a surgeon, not to mention war hero — but that 50 year portion of his life is left curiously under-developed in the novel. Certainly the war has left him severely emotionally damaged but he seems to have recovered well enough to manage a string of recognized accomplishments — Flanagan just does not create the tension that shows how he managed to do both. Alas, the Japanese tormenters who were three-dimensional in the prison camp also become two-dimensional in this part of the novel.

I do realize that at least part of this was deliberate on the author’s part: war damages the psyche of all who are involved, be they temporary “winners” or the final ones, and all combatants live damaged lives from then on. But I can’t help but wonder if Flanagan was as emotionally exhausted in the writing following the powerful portrayal of the POW camp as I was in the reading. I was more than ready to discover how Dorrigo had become a nationally recognized, if personally conflicted, success — and that just didn’t happen. When I started that final section, I was quite prepared for The Narrow Road to the Deep North to emerge as a truly stunning novel; instead it slipped to being just a quite good one.

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