Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan (2010) Knopf

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD is my first exposure to Jennifer Egan, but it certainly won't be my last. I'll be shuffling through her backlist as soon as my local library branch can source each title. Her narrative is smart and her prose clean and sometimes startling.

The novel weaves together the stories of Bennie Salazar, a 60-something NYC record exec with a punk rocker past, with Sasha, his glamorous and competent assistant with a storied past of her own that includes kleptomania, anorexia and more than one attempt at suicide. And, although Bennie and Sasha are oblivious about the essential details of each others' complicated lives, we are party to every secret along the way from a family safari in Africa to getting lost and found in Naples, Italy to San Francisco's punk scene in the early 70s and New York City today.

There are supporting characters that move in and out of Bennie's and Sasha's lives and the gaps between their entrances and exits serve as musical rests in the symphony of each life. We come to understand that the silences are as resonant as the notes themselves. Sasha's 13-yr-old son Lincoln is obsessed with the pauses in songs and it is his obsession that leads Sasha to realize, "the pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn't really over, so you're relieved. But then the song does actually end because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL."

Egan uses a variety of narrative techniques that embrace and satirize contemporary forms including texting and PowerPoint. For me, each page was a revelation, a pause on each character's path to redemption. Isn't that what we all yearn for?

Friday, December 24, 2010

STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson (2010) Bond Street Books

After another masterful turn with WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS?, Kate Atkinson offers a new literary thriller featuring Jackson Brodie, her now retired detective who manages to find himself in the thick of it in Leeds while he's innocently researching a private client's mysterious past.

There are three narrative threads in STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG: Tracy Waterhouse is a retired Police Superintendent now passing the time as the chief of security at a shopping complex; Tilly is a septogenarian actress suffering the early stages of dementia and playing the heart-throb's mother in COLLIER, a t.v. show; and, Jackson Brodie is the familiar rough around the edges divorced and retired detective, "drifting, as a tourist in his own country" when he witnesses the cruel and unusual punishment of a lively little terrier and decides that a "small,helpless dog seemed like a good place to draw the line" about violence.

When Tracy makes a Faustian deal with a known prostitute and her transaction is witnessed by both Tilly and Jackson, their trajectories become entwined and all three soon come to realize that no good deed goes unpunished.

Atkinson creates credible responses to incredible circumstances for each of her characters and her command of storytelling sets her up to rival the best writing today. In Kate Atkinson's world there is wit and wisdom and fierce moral intelligence. You will always be satisfied by the way she weaves her tale.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

TOUCH by Alexi Zentner (from the ARC) due April 2011 from Knopf Canada

Alexi Zentner is one of Random House of Canada's 2011 New Faces of Fiction and if you are the kind of reader who yearns for a lyrical tale well told, this novel is for you. With such lush, sophisticated and haunting prose, it's hard to believe that this is Zentner's first one.

TOUCH opens in a logging village in Northern BC in the early 20th century where the narrator Stephen (now an Anglican priest with a family of his own) is his boyhood self watching his foreman father standing "at the top of the chute hollering at the men and shaking his mangled hand, urging them on." In that distant past Stephen shows us the heart of the loss of his childhood, an incident that resonates in every winter landscape. And, there we meet his grandfather Jeannot, a tough and mysterious giant in Stephen's memory, a man whose convictions hide behind Stephen's adult faith and doubt.

As I was reading, I couldn't help but think of Joseph Boyden's THREE DAY ROAD and the way that it honours Native spirituality and the healing power of stories through the tales Niska tells her nephew on their final journey home. Here Zentner does the same by giving equal measure to Jeannot's wild beliefs as he does to Stephen's more conventional ones, honed as a chaplain on the WWI Front from which he returned, "getting off the ship the day the Treaty of Versailles was signed."

The novel shifts seamlessly back and forth between past and present, a present wherein Stephen has returned to his childhood village to bear witness to his ailing mother's death, to deliver her eulogy, and to take over his stepfather's responsibilities as the pastor of the Anglican Church in Sawgamet. Stephen admits (and this is the heart of this marvelous book), "no matter how many times my thoughts returned to the winter I was ten, no matter how many questions I asked my mother as she lay dying, no matter how many stories I have heard about my father and grandfather, there are still so many things I will never know."

There are still so many things I will never know, but in reading TOUCH I am a little bit closer to their truth.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY by Steve Martin (2010) Grand Central Publishing

Is there anything this Renaissance man cannot do? He can go toe to toe with Alec Baldwin for Meryl Streep's affection in IT'S COMPLICATED, make a mean chocolate croissant from scratch, and date Liz Lemon as the pathological liar Gavin Velour in a guest starring spot on 30 ROCK. And, didn't he just win a Grammy for plinking his banjo and also publish a New York Times bestseller in the same year?

I've long admired Steve Martin's writing, having read both his fiction (PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE, SHOPGIRL, THE PLEASURE OF MY COMPANY) and his nonfiction (BORN STANDING UP), so was excited to see that he had a new novel out this fall.

AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY transports you into the idiosyncratic world of art collectors and offers an Art History 101 course replete with colour panels of important paintings while you're along for the heady ride.

Daniel Franks, who is true to his family name, is our reliable narrator who tells the story of Lacey Yeager, a one-time lover and longtime friend who is a clever and captivating student of the NYC art world into which she hurls herself in the early 90s. Apprenticing in the dungeons at Sotheby's, cataloguing, Lacey soon finds a way to move up the corporate ladder and then out into the world of boutique Manhattan galleries frequented by both the rich and famous who are eager to add to their burgeoning collections. With a shrewd investment of a Warhol that she purchases for a song and then parlays into real money, Lacey makes her way, toppling romantic entanglements that seem to take up just too much of her time.

Lacey is plucky and intelligent and not often easy to like in her narcissism, but as her former lover Patrice explains near the end of the tale, "I think Lacey is the kind of person who will always be okay."

Three things I did not expect and was delighted to find in this wonderful romp: a John Updike cameo, an allusion to HAMLET, and a renewed interest in the paintings of Rockwell Kent. If you are looking for a smart, elegant read that immerses you in NYC's tony art community, AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY is the novel for you.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

COAL DUST KISSES: A CHRISTMAS MEMOIR by Will Ferguson (2010) Penguin Canada

Will Ferguson has been awarded the Leacock Medal for Humour for previous books, including his travelogue BEAUTY TIPS FROM MOOSEJAW which has some of the most hilarious situational pieces you will ever read.

I am always on the lookout for little Christmas stories to use as stocking stuffers and was pleased to find his COAL DUST KISSES to add to my preferred collection that includes Alistair MacLeod's exquisite holiday fare TO EVERY THING THERE IS A SEASON. Like the MacLeod book that includes hand drawn illustrations, Ferguson's Christmas memoir has lovely complementary pen & ink drawings by Marie-Eve Tremblay.

In this charming little tale, Ferguson traces the tradition of coal dust kisses that originated with his Scottish grandfather and travels through the generations and across the continents where Ferguson finds himself building his own life first in the North, then in Equador, in southern Japan and finally in Cape Breton. COAL DUST KISSES is just the right elixir of nostalgia, forgiveness and storytelling magic.

SKIPPY DIES by Paul Murray (2010) Hamish Hamilton

Paul Murray's boys' boarding school bildungsroman, SKIPPY DIES, has been on my must-read list for several weeks now and on my radar since it made the Man Booker Longlist alongside Emma Donoghue's ROOM earlier this year. It's a brick at 600+ pages, so I needed chunks of dedicated time to inch my way through it--the first few days of our school break have afforded me that luxury.

Since I teach at a school for boys, I expected to find familiar territory between the covers, but not so much that I would feel Murray were writing directly to me. How often do you pick up a book and feel the author reaching out from the pages to make your particular acquaintance? That is what Murray has done for me in this big, sad, boisterous, beautiful book about the idiosyncratic community of teachers and students and the Old Boy network that supports both.

As its title declares, Daniel "Skippy" Juster dies and that death is no surprise as we see it played out in the opening pages. What is more surprising is the palpable tension with which Murray reveals the circumstances that lead to this athlete's unexpected passing that unravel over the remaining 650 pages.

As much as the story had me in its thrall, and the characters felt astonishingly familiar, it was Murray's language play and observations about human frailty that captivated me throughout the novel. When you spend your days in the company of teenaged boys, you will catch gems like, "Mermaids don't have beavers, you clown. Even if you were amphibious you couldn't have sex with them." Or, "If James Clerk Maxwell had said, 'more beaver, less maths,' we wouldn't have electricity. Maths and the universe go hand in hand." The president of Dublin's tony Seabrook School for Boys is "one of those sleek, silver-haired, ageless men who manage to connote prestige and power without having expressed a single memorable thought." And, working for a school where the parents are also the clients, you might agree with snarky Father Green, "Ah yes. Go easy: the motto of the age. For these children, as for their parents, everything must be easy." And, when Old Boys return to their alma mater for events, "each reintroduction repeated a truth at once shocking and totally banal: people grow up and become orthodontists." Yet, "once you've seen someone firing peas out of his nostril, it's difficult to take him seriously as a hedge fund manager." I know this to be true.

One of the final thoughts is given appropriately to Lori (Skippy's own dying wish involved her) who is puzzling out her existence: "Maybe instead of strings, it's stories things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories; once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken in a jillion different pieces, that's why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a life is try and weave it back together, my story into your story...until you've got something that...might look like a letter or even a whole word."

This novel is not for the weak of heart. There are genuinely loathsome characters that will make your smacking hand itch. But, the way that Ruprecht, Skippy and their peculiar coterie of boarding school chums struggle to find belonging will be familiar and make you grateful that that particular tumultuous time is decidedly in your past.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

There are some books that bear rereading over and over again. THE GREAT GATSBY is one of them. It resonates with me now in ways that I never could have understood when I first read it at sixteen. And, I am gobsmacked by Fitzgerald's prose--its rhythm and beauty.

About the original cover (pictured above) Hemingway wrote in A MOVEABLE FEAST: "It had a garish dust jacket and I remember being embarrassed by the violence, bad taste and slippery look of it...for a book of bad science fiction. Scott told me not to be put off by it, that it had to do with a billboard along a highway in Long Island that was important in the story."

Read each of these passages and marvel at their grace and accuracy. Kissing Daisy for the first time is a religious rite/ communion for Gatsby: "He waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her."

When Nick arranges for Daisy to drop by his little cottage for tea one afternoon in order to meet Gatsby, he wonders if "perhaps my presence made them feel more satisfactorily alone."

Of the multitude of strangers who find themselves the beneficiaries of Gatsby's outlandish summer parties, Nick explains, "they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came to the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission." And during those very fetes, "laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word." Isn't Fitzgerald's prose gorgeous?

Consider this Romantic notion chronicling Gatsby's reunion with Daisy: "A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain...and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor." Or that, "No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart."

Reading THE GREAT GATSBY with the subtext of Fitzgerald's complicated life with his wife Zelda (and Hemingway's portrayal of her in "Hawks Do Not Share" and "A Matter of Measurements") adds another layer to Gatsby's desperate yearning to repeat his past.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

APOCALYPSE FOR BEGINNERS by Nicolas Dickner, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (2010) Vintage Canada

"The future ain't what it used to be," provides Yogi Berra in the novel's epigraph.

High school student Hope Randall comes from a long line of magical thinkers who receive prophetic visions about the end of the world, and when those visions fail to materialize most go mad and find a way to end their own lives. In the summer of 1989, Hope and her mother Ann load up their Lada with ramen noodles and Bibles and head west until the little Russian car conks out near Riviere -du-Loup where they move into a former pet store that still stinks like the giant cage that it was.

Hope doesn't mind being an outsider (she's a mathematics and chemistry genius AND a girl) and it's while sitting alone on the stands at the local stadium, probably thinking about David Suzuki, her TV crush on The Nature Of Things, that Hope first meets Mickey Bauermann who intends to save Hope from her crazy situation.

Mickey and Hope become steadfast friends and predictably lovers, but when Hope's destiny is revealed by chance on a package of Captain Mofuku, she decides she needs to take charge of their future and seek out the source through a journey that leads her to New York City, Seattle and finally Tokyo, Japan.

APOCALYPSE FOR BEGINNERS is quirky fun, with a dash of melodrama and bildungsroman thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Carrie Fisher praises Julie Klam's writing by insisting, "if tragedy plus time equals comedy, [she] makes the most of that equation."

I knew I would find Julie Klam's memoir charming, predisposed as I am to champion canine narratives, but I did not expect to do such extensive time-traveling through my own life by her side.

At 30, Klam is single, working part time in a make-ends-meet kind of job, consulting psychics and tarot readers to assuage her fear that she might well end up alone since sitting on her sofa and watching tv seems to be her preferred way to meet eligible men. Enter Otto, stage left. Otto is a Boston terrier that Klam adopts as her first own canine companion who shows her that she just might be able to share her home and her life with another. Enter Paul, stage right. Six years later Klam is married and has a baby daughter, Violet, who completes her family with Paul and Otto. They become involved with a Boston terrier rescue organization and their modest one-bedroom NYC apartment becomes a revolving door for the needy and dispossessed dogs who are difficult to place.

As Klam reminisces about the mastiffs she grew up with and the lasting nicknames that her brother Matt gave each one, I remembered too our first family dog, Nikki, a real pet who at the local dog show earned the ribbon for "the dog that least resembled any known breed" (though she looked most like a little bouvier with a rusty beard) and was affectionately nicknamed "Stinkhead" abbreviated to "Stink" by my brother David because of her horrible breath. Then, Mad Max, another pound rescue who had "Springer's rage" and had to be euthanized because he bit our father's hand one New Year's Eve, damaging the nerves. Most beloved was Winston, raised from an 8-week-old pup, aka Mister/ Mist/ the Uncle/ Mon Oncle, David's constant companion who survived the crash that killed him and managed to get the rest of us through those early days of our keen untenable grief. You see what I mean about time travel?

Like Klam I dreamed the existence of my own dogs, too. Or, perhaps, realized them from a figurine that stood on a secretary in the entrance hall of my grandparents' Toronto apartment: two liver and white Springer Spaniels, their feathery tails uncropped. Along came Bronte and then Doolin, now both gone. And, now Finn, a darling of a chocolate lab with a heart the size of the Chrysler Building, stretches across the queen-sized bed, paws flicking, chasing dream squirrels.

I know exactly what Klam means when she writes: "From Otto, who showed me I could be in a reciprocal nurturing relationship, to Dahlia, who proved that life continues to surprise, each dog in my life has brought me something or taught me a lesson that improved the quality of my life. I am richer in every way because of the dogs I've known." There's even the scientific proof for the doubting Thomases/ Cranky McCranky's who just simply can't see the point of sharing a life in this way: "When a person interacts with a dog, the central nervous system releases several hormones that cause feelings of pleasure--included in that is oxytocin."

YOU HAD ME AT WOOF makes a wonderful stocking stuffer, even for the most curmudgeonly grinch on your list. Follow @JulieKlam on twitter or visit her website to learn more: http://julieklam.com/

Sunday, December 05, 2010

THIS CAKE IS FOR THE PARTY by Sarah Selecky (2010) Thomas Allen Publishers

THIS CAKE IS FOR THE PARTY caught the attention of this year's Giller Prize jury (Michael Enright, Ali Smith and Claire Messud) who shortlisted it in the excellent company of David Bergen, Alexander MacLeod, Joanna Skibsrud and Kathleen Winter.

I paced myself with this exquisite short story collection, sampling it slice by slice, and you should too. I know these characters. I am ashamed to admit that I've been some of these characters.

Selecky has a keen ear for conversational rhythm, both natural and forced and is able to draw attention to her characters' flawed attitudes through their gestures that are at once subtle and sometimes grand. Like Lisa Moore and Michael Winter, Sarah Selecky writes fiction that feels like nonfiction. And, I believe every word.