Sunday, June 15, 2008


Paula Spencer tells her own story of falling in love with Charlo, a bad boy, and her early married days of complete devotion and bliss. The present, however, is far less romantic. Mother to four children, a single parent of a year, Paula learns that her estranged spouse has been killed by the Garda, having murdered a bank manager's wife. The detail that upsets her the most, is not his death, but the fact that the woman's autopsy revealed that he had slapped her face twice. That gesture opens up a chasm of past abuse that Paula recounts matter-of-factly until she leads up to the day that her husband considered beating their own daughter. That was the tipping point for Paula.

Doyle creates tremendous sympathy and writes a convincing portrait of this working class woman who endured years of spousal abuse because she believed her husband still loved her.

THE DEPORTEES by Roddy Doyle (2007)

This collection of short fiction resurrects one of Doyle's earlier characters, Jimmy Rabbitte (of The Barrytown Trilogy). Here, in the titular story, Jimmy's got an idea for another band in post-Celtic Tiger Dublin. Every player has to be an immigrant--no white faces aloud, bejeesus.

Throughout the stories here Doyle explores race and prejudice and roots for the underdogs all the while.

A WOLF AT THE TABLE by Augusten Burroughs

Burroughs's most recent creative nonfiction is about his memoires of his father, a math professor at an east coast university. Slowly, the narrative wends its way to the kernel of truth that depends on whether or not you believe the lead that as a small child Augusten traipsed with his father into the woods to bury a body.

Typically unsentimental Burroughs reveals this story sentence by sentence and creates a sympathetic portrait of his older brother Chris, who when it matters most teaches the young Augusten a lesson he'll never forget.

Friday, June 13, 2008

BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS by Lola Jaye (forthcoming 2008)

Lola Jaye's debut novel confronts grief and the notion of continuing bonds with the deceased in a fresh voice.

Opening in 1990, seven years after the death of her young father, Lois Bates is at her mom's wedding to "some prick she met down the bingo." Lois is a typical twelve-year-old who receives an unexpected and atypical gift: "The Manual" her dying father wrote for her projecting the kind of advice he would have liked to have given her face-to-face as she grew up.

His instructions are clear: read each entry on your birthday from age 12-30; don't peep ahead; please flip back through past entries.

Through the course of the entries Lois learns a lot about her father's adolescence and young adulthood as he projects that his own preoccupations (like a first kiss, burgeoning sexuality, the job interview) will be hers as well. By having access to her father's narrative voice, Lois feels his presence all the more palpably in her life. His words begin to fill the void he created between them when he died when Lois was only five, an age when there "is the strange luxury of not recalling the actual moment it happened...the realization that the man who'd read me stories at night, kissed me good night, every night, was no longer breathing in the same air as me."

Lois is a plucky protagonist and it's a bit dreamy to snoop over her shoulder in By The Time You Read This.

Monday, June 02, 2008

AWAY by Amy Bloom (2007)

I haven't read anything by Amy Bloom, but picked up AWAY because my friend Joe (a discerning reader and all round nice guy) recommended it.

Protagonist Lillian Leyb comes to America in 1924 after her family has been destroyed during a pogrom in Russia. Determined to make a new life for herself, Lillian finds work as a seamstress in a Yiddish theatre company in New York. Soon she finds herself living with the handsome, but gay, leading man to serve as a cover for him while she beds his own father who is fully aware that his only son is a fagola.

Lillian's life is turned upside down once again when her cousin arrives and tells her that her 4 year-old daughter Sophie is believed to be alive and living with former neighbours who rescued her. That news leads to Lillian's determined departure and journey to find her Sophie that finds her relying on the kindness of strangers including a prostitute in Seattle, a widower in Alaska and self-proclaimed bachelor who tends to her wounds.

Lillian encounters such tenderness in the most unexpected places and it is that emotional truth that kept me turning the pages to the satisfying end.

MAD WEEKEND by Roddy Doyle (2006)

Written for the Open Door book series in Ireland that benefits the author's charity of choice, MAD WEEKEND follows the antics of three Dublin lads, Dave, Pat and Ben, who have been friends since childhood and who now, in their twenties, decide to go for a long weekend in Liverpool to support their favourite soccer team.

Dave and Pat chat up some local girls in a pub while Ben excuses himself to go to the bog (toilet). Problem is, Ben disappears.

If you haven't read any Roddy Doyle, this little book is a perfect way to dip in to his dialogue and to observe the shenanigans so many of his characters get themselves up to.

SPILLING THE BEANS by Clarissa Dickson Wright (2007)

This candid and unsentimental memoir by one of the "Two Fat Ladies" will take your breath away. Wright's childhood was spent in the shadow of her much older siblings and her tyrannical, alcoholic father (who happened to be a brilliant and sought after surgeon) who smacked Clarissa and her heiress mother around whenever it occured to him. Clarissa was also clever and totally determined and became the youngest woman ever called to the bar in the UK at the age of 21.

Her life falls apart when her beloved mother dies unexpectedly and Clarissa spends the following decade drinking herself into a stupour and partying away her entire inheritance. Only when she finally becomes sober does Clarissa find happiness and success with her unlikely partner in the Fat Ladies franchise.

There is no self pity in this book and it is rife with gossipy bits about the Royal family passed along as though it were mess hall conversation.

NINETY YEARS WISE by Doris McCarthy (2004)

Our pre-eminent landscape painter who happens to be a woman takes you into her summer embrace on Georgian Bay where you spend the season with her as she sketches, cooks and paints her legendary canvases. As with the two previous instalments of her memoirs, McCarthy is breezy and intimate immediately. She credits her good health and longevity (98 this year and still painting) to eating and drinking in moderation and to daily exercise with leg weights.