Sunday, March 28, 2010

SO MANY WAYS TO BEGIN by Jon McGregor (2006)

Named by GRANTA as one of the top writers under 30, Jon McGregor hits all of the marks with this second novel. As its title implies, there are so many ways to begin: relationships, careers, love.

Protagonist David Carter learns quite unexpectedly through the unintended disclosure of a secret by his mother's longtime friend, his Aunt Julia, (who thanks to early onset Alzheimer's no longer knows how to distinguish the past from the present) when he's twenty-something that he is adopted. His understanding of who he is and where he's come from falls away and he becomes obsessed with finding out who he really is.

Ironically, David's day job is as a curator and archivist at a local Coventry museum, so he is well-equipped to research the past. At the same time, David is struggling with the emotional loss of his wife Eleanor, who is wrestling with difficulties in her own past, one that she knows only too well.

What is interesting about the way that McGregor unravels their stories is his use of artifacts to drive the narrative. For example, we peer into their individual and shared lives by examining items such as "Shoebox of assorted domestic goods, bullets, shrapnel, 1953-60;" "b/w photograph of Albert Carter, defaced, c.1943;" Hospital admissions card, 1945 (discovered 1976);" and "Envelopes with Aberdeen postmarks, occasional 1984-2000." The tangible detritus of personal histories make David and Eleanor seem just like you and me.

I am looking forward to getting my hands on copies of McGregor's other books: IF NOBODY SPEAKS OF REMARKABLE THINGS and EVEN THE DOGS. He had me captivated from the opening page right through to the end.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


My neighbour loaned me this little novel--the first I've read of Auster's-- because he said that Auster is his favourite American novelist. I can understand why, knowing that he is also a fan of Camus and St. Exupery.

Mr. Blank is the protagonist, an elderly man who seems either to be suffering from early Alzheimer's or brainwashing. He is kept in a sterile room that might be a prisoner's cell and every moment of his life is recorded by video and sound. There are a variety of supporting characters who come and go from his room, claiming to be doctors, lawyers, former colleagues, possible lovers. Because Mr. Blank is never quite sure of their identity, neither are we.

To help pass the time he reads a manuscript in loose leafed paper that sits on his desk next to a pile of framed photographs that are supposed to trigger memories of relationships past, most of which haunt him.

The book is unsettling and induced in me panic, which I'm sure was entirely the point, but if TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM is typical of the kind of stories Auster tells, I won't be reaching for another one anytime soon.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

JULIET, NAKED by Nick Hornby (2009)

Most recently Hornby's screenplay for "An Education" was nominated for an Academy Award, but JULIET, NAKED revisits earlier interests of his previously explored in HIGH FIDELITY and FEVER PITCH: the influence of pop culture and loving relationships.

Annie and Duncan have been together for fifteen years and think they love each other. They are both keen on literature and the arts and music, but Duncan has become obsessively interested in a washed up 80s singer/songwriter called Tucker Crowe; both the real and imagined Tucker drives a wedge in Duncan's relationship with Annie.

Using email and blogposts in addition to the third person narrative creates an immediacy to the characters' voices and propels the narrative forward in a satisfying way. JULIET, NAKED is also a cautionary tale about trust and intimacy for contemporary times.


In this second whodunnit by Bradley , eleven year-old chemistry whiz and neighborhood snoop Flavia de Luce finds herself muddling her way through another mystery in 1950 Bishop's Lacey--the sleepy English town where she is to the manor born.

There are two deaths that demand Flavia's sleuthing attention: a 5 year-old hanging of a young boy and the likely electrocution of a famous visiting puppeteer who expires in full view of his audience.

While she pieces together the clues, Flavia is faced with the irritating teenish behaviour of her older sisters Daffy (Daphne) and Feely (Ophelia) that temporarily distracts her, though she is reassured in her quest by her father's faithful servant Dogger who acts as her conscience.

Again, Bradley has wound a tale that is intriguing and playful and mischievous: Flavia's precocity is just what the doctor ordered.

Friday, March 19, 2010

THE VINTAGE CAPER by Peter Mayle (2009)

This fly by night light read was perfect for the gym. Flitting from the excesses of Hollywood to the braggadoccio of the French Riviera, Mayle's wine heist caper is a vacuous and frothy tale about vacuous and frothy folk.

Entertainment lawyer Danny Roth has the ego to match his unmatchable wine cellar which he flaunts in a feature article published in the LA Times. While Roth is away at another home in Aspen over the holidays, the best bottles in his collection are stolen: 3 million dollars worth of wine, on the lam.

The insurance company hires Sam Levitt, a former corporate lawyer and wine connoisseur, to track down the missing vino. His journey takes him to Paris, then Bordeaux, then Provence and into the home of an eccentric billionaire collector who just might have had the wherewithal to spirit Roth's bottles away.

Though the plot is entirely predictable and the characters stock, I enjoyed learning about special vintages and being reminded of the splendour of the south of France. You'll enjoy it all the more with a piche of chilled vin rose within arm's reach.

ONE GOOD DOG by Susan Wilson (2010)

If you are a fan of Cesar Milan and his dog-whispering ways, this novel is for you.

Adam March is on the fast track to corporate fiefdom as the next in line for the CEO position. His daughter Ariel jumps horses. His wife Sterling spends her days planning the next best party and shopping for her designer-label wardrobe: it's a full life, rife with materialistic excess.

However, a telephone message Adam receives one morning, scribbled on a pink scrap by his PA essentially unhinges him and his made-for-tv lifestyle unravels in the blink of an eye.

Enter a pit-bull cross with a sweet disposition and an uncanny knack for knowing he's on death row at the local shelter. Chance, as Adam later names him, saves Adam as he spirals, but so does the new community at the homeless shelter where Adam has been ordered by the courts to do 6 months of service. Salvation comes in the unlikeliest of places.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

SUMMERTIME by J.M. Coetzee (2009)

The South African Nobel Laureate ( and novelist most famous for Disgrace) has written a gem of a book in his third installment of his fictional memoir.

Summertime finds a young British biographer working on a book about John Coetzee focusing on the years between 1972-1977 when the not yet world-famous writer was sharing a run-down home in Cape Town with his widowed father.

The book consists of a series of interviews given in the recent past (2007-2009) with some of the women in Coetzee's life including relatives and lovers. What is especially engaging to me is the remarkable emotional objectivity with which he describes himself in third person through these female perspectives. It feels almost like a very clever extended inside joke.

POINT OMEGA by Don Delillo (2010)

Framed by the viewing of a video installation called 24 Hour Psycho in which the film is slowed down to play over the course of a full day without any sound, this compact novel turns its inner eye on Richard Elster where he has retreated to the American desert. There, filmmaker Jim Finley joins Elster, a former government consultant who specialized in troop deployment and counter insurgency, intent on documenting his experience. Finley hopes to get Elster's permission to make a one-take film along the lines of Russian Ark, but instead of a sweeping pic, it would be singularly about Elster: "about a man and a wall."

Elster's daughter Jessica shows up part way and the three of them form an odd sort of family until Jessica disappears. It's her disappearance that provides the novel its narrative drive and its ambiguous conclusion.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

FEBRUARY by Lisa Moore (2009)

I read this novel in one gulp, marveling at the gorgeous prose and pacing every page that I turned. I can't believe that FEBRUARY was not on all of the book prize short lists in 2009, because Lisa Moore's style is breathtaking and her capacity for description and characterization unmatched by most of her peers.

Moore uses the events of Valentine's night in 1982 when all 84 men aboard the oil rig Ocean Ranger off the coast of Newfoundland died as the through line that unites her narrative that switches seamlessly from present to past as Helen O'Mara, one of those left behind when her husband drowns, reveals how she has endured in the quarter century since her grief began.

Richard Ford calls Moore "an astonishing writer....[with] a magnetizing gift for revealing how the earth feels, looks, tastes, smells and an unswerving instinct for what's important in life."

Don't wait any longer. Get yourself a copy of FEBRUARY and prepare to be astonished.

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE by Stieg Larsson (2006)

In this sequel to the immensely popular and riveting THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, Mikael Blomkvist has decided to run a controversial article in his magazine about sex trafficking in Sweden that will expose well-known and highly-regarded members of the establishment including journalists, government officials and dirty cops.

On the eve of the publication the two collaborating journalists are murdered execution style in the comfort of their own flat and they aren't the only ones--a lawyer who just happens to be the guardian of Lisbeth Salander is also slain in his bedroom, by his own gun, the smoking gun that is discovered in the stairwell of the building where the murdered journalists are found. And, the circumstantial evidence points to Salander as the killer.

While the first book in this Millenium trilogy found Blomkvist indebted to the peculiar and brilliant and socially challenged Salander for literally saving his life through her own determined brand of justice, the tables are turned in this equally adrenaline-filled sequel that left me gasping for breath on the final page.

THE FIFTH WOMAN by Henning Mankell (2000)

In this Kurt Wallander mystery, there are two murders that baffle and appal the inspector. An octogenarian bird enthusiast and self-published poet is impaled on sharpened bamboo poles in a ditch near his secluded home and the atrophied corpse of a missing florist is discovered strangled and tied to a tree where he is found by a runner.

As clues, Wallander has discovered a skull, a diary and a photo of three men taken in the 50s or 60s and it seems that at least one of the recent dead is implicated in former mercenary activity. Just as the team begin to understand what is happening, there is another corpse, this time a university researcher who is drowned in a hemp sack, and the pathologist is certain that he was alive when the bag hit the water.

What becomes clear is that each of these victims shares a sordid past and that in the present there is someone determined to expose those horrors, but not before a distinct brand of justice is served.

What I continue to appreciate in Mankell's storytelling is his ability to weave narratives so that each has a definite and important weight.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

LOVE AND SUMMER by William Trevor (2009)

This is the most recent novel by the prolific Irish treasure William Trevor.

It takes place during the middle of the past century in a small Irish town. A stranger cycles through Rathmoye asking for directions to the burnt out cinema which he plans to photograph. He happens to meet Ellie, a foundling raised by nuns who is newly married to her employer, the widower Dillahan, a man who is responsible for the deaths of his first wife and child, though we never discover how or why.

A romance blooms and then dies, leaving Ellie devastated as Florian arranges for a passport, sells his family home and tells her that they were only meant to have the summer.

LOVE AND SUMMER is a quiet gem-of-a-story that romanticizes farm life.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore (2009)

Marketed as a post-9/11 novel, A GATE AT THE STAIRS follows mid-Western university gal Tassie Keltjin as she navigates her way through the words and action of a post-racial America.

She is excited to have escaped the farm life of her upbringing to study Chaucer, Sylvia Plath and Simone de Beauvoir and finds herself taking a job as a part time nanny for a quirky middle-aged couple who are in the process of adopting a biracial toddler. Tassie peels away the layers in her relationship with her new employers to discover a dark and disturbing past at the same time that she worries about her younger brother who is considering enlisting in order to avoid his future as a farmer or a truckdriver, the only two options that seem available to him.

I read this book in one gulp, even though there were moments that I was ready to hurl it across the room because of the preciousness of some of the bit players, which I realize is entirely the point that Moore is satirizing.

THE HUMAN STAIN by Philip Roth (2001)

Having been so disappointed by THE HUMBLING, I reached for an earlier Roth novel to remind myself what it was that I so admire about his writing.

THE HUMAN STAIN follows that tragic (though not unexpected) trajectory of Coleman Silk, an aging classics professor who is forced to retire for allegedly racist comments he makes in one of his classes. The irony of this dismissal is not lost on Coleman or on the reader who quickly discovers the heart of Silk's secret that he has protected for 50 years.

There are the predictable Roth fixations like aging sexuality and contemporary American politics (it is the height of the White House scandal involving Monica Lewinsky and then-president Bill Clinton) that keep the plot simmering, but more importantly Roth unravels his protagonist's tragic self-awareness.

Nadine Gordimer called THE HUMAN STAIN Roth's "best novel," because in it "the impact of society on himself and the people around him, world contemporary mores, beliefs, prejudices, have come to full realization."

CAT'S CRADLE by Kurt Vonnegut

On a recent trip to Germany, I ran out of reading material and borrowed this Vonnegut from a student while I was stuck in a hotel ministering to a different one with the flu.

Of course I'd devoured all Vonnegut books in my twenties, but reading this one in my forties gave me a renewed appreciation for his satiric wit. I was also happy to refamiliarize myself with Vonnegut's voice before returning to Toronto because I had tickets for the new George F. Walker play AND SO IT GOES which features KV as the protagonist's imaginary shrink.

Not that I'd pick Vonnegut for my own shrink--I'm more liable to take advice from Tina Fey or Mel Brooks.

LIT by Mary Karr

What an adrenaline-pumping ride Mary Karr's most recent memoir is. LIT is a kick-in-the-ass, quick-upper-cut-of-a- read that had me gasping for breath in awe at its direct, unselfpitying tone and clean prose style.

Forget Hemingway: Karr is my new stylistic guru.

THE THIN MAN by Dashiell Hammett (1933)

I read THE MALTESE FALCON years ago when I was obsessed with all things Humprey Bogart, but only got to THE THIN MAN fairly recently.

What I loved about this book was how the language play between Nick and Norah Charles reminded me of my grandparents and their expressions like "tight" or "pansy." Though, how this glamourous couple managed to get anything done between all of the Manhattan high balls or martinis that they consumed is really beyond my ken.

THE FOREVER WAR by Dexter Filkins

Until I read this book, I'd only had a vague idea about the horrors in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Filkins is a top-notch New York Times journalist who manages to ground each piece in the ordinary, reminiscent of the fiction of Carol Shields.

He doesn't shy away from the honest truth about circumstances in which new normal includes children who run skittishly across minefields because that's the quicker route, the exploded ground-zero flesh of innocent civilians or the puppyish American soldiers who are meant to serve and protect.

I have a better understanding how covering war zones becomes a compulsion and causes irrevocable damages.

This is a brave and shocking book.