Friday, December 30, 2011

DARK BLOOD by Stuart MacBride (2010) Harper Collins Canada, 469 pages



When I heard Stuart MacBride on stage at an IFOA evening that featured his fellow Scottish crime fiction writers Denise Mina and Ian Rankin, I knew I'd find my way to his novels.

DARK BLOOD is my first exposure to MacBride's gritty, witty style. I have never guffawed aloud so frequently reading a crime novel as I did in response to the repartee between D.S. Logan McRae and his horny lesbian boss D.I. Steel. Their familiar patter is almost Shakespearean, putting me in mind of Benedick and Beatrice in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, more about noting than nothing.

At the outset, serial rapist Richard Knox (who fancied grandfather types) is being released, having served his time. And, it looks like now that he's found God he's deserving of a second chance to build a life anew. D.I. Steel is not so sure. She knows Knox "is an odious wee shite, and if anything goes wrong" in his reacclimatization with civilized society that she'll be "the one carrying the can." McRae is less than thrilled to be assigned to the team responsible for getting Knox settled into his Aberdeen home, or to be working with D.S.I. Danby, the one who put Knox behind bars for a decade. McRae, like his boss, believes that Knox is not a changed man. That he "didn't need an exit strategy" to protect him from the wrath of citizens who discover he's living among them. Rather, "he needed an exit wound. Preferably from a shotgun to the back of the head."

Knox isn't McRae's only headache, however. Edinburgh gangster Malk the Knife wants a slice of the mini-development boom in Aberdeen and local crime lord Hamish Mowat thinks he has McRae in his blackmailing back pocket. McRae tries to resist, but he can't help feeling dirtied by their thuggish rapport.

With subplots that feel entirely human, peopled by McRae's damaged colleagues and his accommodating girlfriend, DARK BLOOD kept me interested on many levels. And, although I'd hoped to witness retributive justice meted out on the entirely loathsome Knox, I do understand why MacBride gave him the ending that he did. Life is messy. It doesn't come with a guarantee for a satisfying conclusion. Plus, Knox is a sociopath, one who could give "a seven-year masterclass in how to get away with murder."

Because of the crafty, clever way MacBride tells a story, I'll be reading my way through all of his books featuring D.S. Logan McRae.

THE UNCOUPLING by Meg Wolitzer (2011) Riverhead Books, 271 pages



In the Fall during the International Festival of Authors here in Toronto a savvy editor (who works for a different publishing house) recommended Meg Wolitzer's books to me and I finally made my way to her most recent one THE UNCOUPLING during the Christmas holidays.

A social satirist with the aplomb of Richard Ford, Wolitzer enchanted me from her opening sentence: "People like to warn you that by the time you reach the middle of your life, passion will begin to feel like a meal eaten long ago, which you remember with great tenderness." Right? Right.

Enter Fran Heller, a new drama teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt H.S. in small-town New Jersey, a woman with the balls to select LYSISTRATA (the Aristophanes comedy in which women stop having sex with men in order to end a war) as the school play. Curiously, a spell seems to be cast over the women in the school, including Dory Lang, a happily married Literature teacher who is abruptly disinterested in sharing a bed with her longtime spouse Robby with whom she previously slept "together frequently, happily, and not just gently, but with the same gruff, fierce purpose as always."

Not only does Wolitzer satirize small town life and the politics of high school as convincingly as Tom Perrotta did in ELECTION, but she also shines the light on the inarticulate, hormonal messiness of adolescence through the actions of Dory and Robby's daughter Willa and Fran's son Eli, "their mouths having not yet opened onto the hot surprise of other mouths, their bodies still unfolded and unrevealed."

When Marissa Clayborn, the talented, gorgeous lead in LYSISTRATA literally takes to her bed in public protest, Fran Heller casts smart, shy chorus member Willa in her place, a decision that has both intended and unintended consequences.

Like the fictional reviewer of the Eleanor Roosevelt H.S. production of Aristophanes' comedy who praises Willa's "heady and almost breathless" performance as Lysistrata, I suggest that Meg Wolitzer is a novelist "who compels us with her urgency, integrity and beauty" in THE UNCOUPLING.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

THE END OF THE WASP SEASON by Denise Mina (2011) McArthur & Company, 404 pages



Denise Mina is a whip-smart lawyer-turned-crime-fiction-writer, and one of the finest of the genre. In THE END OF THE WASP SEASON, her eighth novel, millionaire Lars Anderson completes suicide by hanging himself from the oak tree on his sprawling Kent estate. Nobody seems at all upset by his death, including his wife and teenaged children. It's a bit of a relief to them all, truth be told, to be rid of the right bastard, who wrote in his final note to his wife, "I was a great husband. And in return you sucked the fucking life out of me. You fucking wizened bitch. I hope you're happy." And, no, he was not a great husband, as soon becomes clear. Nor was he much of a father to Thomas and Ella or to his secret second family shacked up in London, either.

What is more upsetting, however, is the apparently random murder of a young Glaswegian woman, Sarah Erroll, home to take care of the business following her own mother's death. She is bludgeoned by her young killers on the stairs as she tries to make her escape, wearing only a t-shirt--a source of embarrassment to the investigating officers who find her corpse indelicately sprawled.

DS Alex Morrow, pregnant with twins, and harboring secrets of her own, becomes the lead investigator in this case that points to a former classmate's sons and forces her to contemplate the nature of family and loyalty.

Through intelligent, character-driven twists and turns, Mina's multi-layered narrative reminds me stylistically of Kate Atkinson's CASE HISTORIES or STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG. I hope they'd both be chuffed to be in each other's storytelling company.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

EASY TO LIKE by Edward Riche (2011) House of Anansi, 293 pages



I enjoyed the warp and wit of Riche's first novel RARE BIRDS, so was pleased to receive EASY TO LIKE which promised a satire of a C-list Hollywood screenwriter Elliot Johnson whose true vocation is becoming a beloved vintner, wine snob that he is. However, like Icarus, Elliot swoops too close to the sun (in his case an influential producer whose wife he refuses to bed), and, although not plummeting to his own death off the California coast, is banished to become a tony bureaucrat in, of all places, Toronto, where he is hired to be in charge of English television programming for the mothership, the CBC.

Although I was mildly interested in the vineyard details and the business of running one that produced a wine that is more than "easy to like," I found the satire skewering the national broadcaster mostly mean-spirited.

What began as a vaguely amusing, watery episode of ENTOURAGE with empty-headed, silicon-breasted femmebots who tweak their own nipples (and, no, I'm not making this up) turned into a ridiculous parody of entertainment programming that included a pitch for LES LES starring "Sri Lankan and South Korean dykes." Oh, and don't forget that his ex-wife leaves Elliot for their Hispanic housekeeper, their former child star son is serving time in prison and there's a zebra escaped from San Simeon, nibbling Elliot's best grapes. I haven't even told you about the worst scenes, involving sex "with crooked arthritic claws," the former t.v. host-turned-hermit living in the Rosedale Valley Ravine, or the rich man's fatal ass-over-teakettle fall from the balcony of the Park Hyatt.

Ironically, EASY TO LIKE was not easy to like. Though, with reference to Vaucluse and Chateaunneuf-du-Papes labels, it did remind me of a splendid holiday touring through the wine caves in the south of France. Riche also used two of my favourite words--"chuffed" and "petrichor--" and raised the specter of the Amazing Kreskin. Remember him?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

SAY HER NAME by Francisco Goldman (2011) Grove Atlantic, 350 pages



I heard Francisco Goldman interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel during the International Festival of Authors here in Toronto and was impressed by his candor. He not only spoke openly about his vulnerability after the accidental death of his wife Aura two years after they married, but also about how writing this book because of its rawness helped him to face the blame that he continues to shoulder.

Judge this book by its cover as he invited us to do that afternoon. It is a photo of Aura's wedding dress, the same dress that he believed filled with her spirit as it kept him company while he wrote this mesmerizing novel.

What strikes me about SAY HER NAME, and it will you, as well, is how Goldman toys with the form of a memoir, encouraging each reader to reveal their shared experiences together, layer by layer. Like Michael Ondaatje, who similarly plays with the form in his recent and most accessible novel THE CAT'S TABLE, Goldman is winking a little here, dear reader. Yes, there are intimacies that actually occurred between him and his whip-smart, sexy young wife, but he has also used tools of the novelist's trade and imposed a narrative arc that is largely absent from life, to make your experience all the more satisfying.

Read SAY HER NAME, the novel Colm Toibin calls, "a beautiful love story, and an extraordinary story of loss." It is winsomely both.

Friday, December 09, 2011

JACQUOT & THE FIFTEEN by Martin O'Brien (2007) Headline, 532 pages



Set in France, Martin O'Brien's JACQUOT books are as much clever crime fiction as they are brilliant armchair travel through Paris, Provence and the Cote d'Azur.

At the outset, Chief Inspector Daniel Jacquot is just one of the boys at a reunion bash for his fellow rugby teammates hosted by their billionaire coach Pierre Dombasle at his opulent residence in the South of France. When one of the middle-aged lads appears to have committed suicide in the stables, however, Jacquot switches immediately into investigative mode, not trusting the casual attitude of the local constabulary.

There are soon other suspicious deaths as well: in a sex club, on a curving stretch of road, and in the comfort of a home. The coincidence is too much for Jacquot and he becomes driven to solve each apparently linked crime.

O'Brien knows about pacing. He could teach a master class in it, to be sure. With each whip-smart plot turn and new assumption, he'll have you flipping the pages of JACQUOT & THE FIFTEEN right through to its surprising and satisfying end.

Monday, November 14, 2011

ALICE BLISS by Laura Harrington (2011) Viking Penguin, 306 pages



Alice Bliss is fourteen and will experience a lot of firsts in the next year: she'll learn how to drive, she'll feel the blush of first love, she'll manage to nurture a garden on her own, and she'll figure out how to survive her father's deployment in Iraq where he is so many thousands of miles from home.

With experience I've had facilitating children's groups for Bereaved Families of Ontario, I know both Alice and her younger sister Ellie's behaviour to ring true. Alice wears her dad Matt's shirt to feel closer to him, a continuing bond. She's furious when her mom launders the shirt, because now it won't smell at all like her dad's unique blend of "Sawdust. Wood smoke...Aftershave. Linseed oil." There is also the need for these girls to protect the surviving parent from further hurt as the children often become the caretakers when the dynamic shifts.

Before his departure, Matt is pragmatic. He shows Alice an envelope with "some important numbers. The VA so you can get benefits, my lawyer, my life insurance" and assures her that this information is "like carrying an umbrella in case it rains, and then it doesn't rain." This gesture reminded me of these frank lines from Frances Richey's poem "Inventory" about her son serving in Iraq:

Officer Record Brief
Hazardous Duty Orders
Zero Your Weapon

He’s given me his dog-eared copy of Komunyakaa’s
“Neon Vernacular,” underlined:
“We can transplant broken hearts/
but can we put goodness back into them?”

Life Insurance: to be split between Mom and Dad
Emergency Records ... who gets called
battalion wants to know what to read
at your funeral, what songs to play

He looks up from the paperwork,
hard into my eyes:
“You said you wanted to know.”

Now, Alice does not want to know the details that Matt offers up, but she needs to know, especially later when she searches her memories for guidance about what to do when it becomes clear that she and her mom and her sister must accommodate Matt's loss in their lives. As they launch their fragile flotilla to commemorate him, Alice realizes, that like any life, they are mutable: "just for a moment, a moment longer. Here. And then gone."

Friday, October 28, 2011

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes (2011) Random House of Canada, 150 pages



After reading an excerpt from this year's Man Booker Prize winner in my Grade 12 Writer's Craft class a week ago, one of the boys bought a copy, read it in a gulp or two and loaned it to me yesterday. Like him, I flipped through this little tome on my travels to the International Festival of Authors here in Toronto last night and finished it on my commute to work today.

Before school this morning we had a little conversation about our sense of the ending, which neither of us had anticipated, in its soap opera-ish reveal. Like the protagonist Tony Webster, both Ben and I felt our outsider status because we "didn't quite get it"--entirely Barnes' point, I venture to guess. It took the kindness of a stranger in Tony's life to set him (and us, by extension) straight about the mutable facts of his past.

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING explores the unreliability of memory, its essential fickleness. And, although, I didn't really love this novel, Barnes has me flipping back through the pages, as if it were a mystery to be solved from clues I clearly missed.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

MIDSUMMER NIGHT IN THE WORKHOUSE by Diana Athill (2011) House of Anansi Press, 196 pages



In her preface to this collection of previously published stories, 93-year-old Diana Athill writes about "being hit" by her first story "one January morning in 1958." And, that in terms of her writing process, "I did not think about them in advance: a feeling would brew up, a first sentence would occur to me, and then the story would come, as though it had been there all the time." Consider the first sentence in "The Real Thing:" "I went to the dance with Thomas Toofat." Already you know something about the narrator and her attitudes. Or the one from "The Return" where she begins, "'Is bombs from the mountain. Not good,' said the man Christos, scraggy at the table over his plate of beans and oil, and wiped his fist across his mouth." It was this story that won a 500-pound prize from The Observer and woke her up to the fact that she "could write and had become happy."

The seductive quality of Athill's stories makes them feel contemporary, even though most of them were scribbled into existence 40-50 years ago. I knew she was a woman ahead of her time from reading her memoirs STET and SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END, so I should have expected the same progressive attitudes from characters in the stories collected here in MIDSUMMER NIGHT IN THE WORKHOUSE. She writes so convincingly about the distances between men and women and with a wry sense of humour. Take, for example, Cecilia's observation about Charles in the titular tale: "He went straight over to take off the record, assuming that she would prefer him to music." Or, the way she boldly teases him by suggesting, "Please do not sleep with the maids. It can cause pregnancy."

The stories are also rife with ordinary moments that stop your heart as in "For Rain It Hath a Friendly Sound" when Kate returns with her lover David for a last drink and "halfway up the stairs, he turned in the middle of a sentence to kiss her cheek...almost too natural to notice." Later, in "An Unavoidable Delay" Rose decides that "to go on with this architect would be worse than full skirts, flowered cotton and flat sandals, it would be too banal, not to be thought of."

Diana Athill is a wonder. Find your way to these stories. You will be charmed.

THE ANTAGONIST by Lynn Coady (2011) House of Anansi Press, 337 pages



"There will be time to murder and create." ~T.S. Eliot

Any writer who has the balls to begin their narrative with a T.S. Eliot reference has my attention. Unsurprisingly, Lynn Coady's protagonist Gordon "Rank" Rankin is a scrapper by nature and avocation when he's on the ice, a hockey enforcer, a beloved goon. Just like his old man, Gordon Senior, he's quick to flare. Until tragedy swipes by, that is, and makes a meal of Rank. It changes everything as Rank tries to disappear from university life and the hope of his east coast town.

Twenty years later Rank discovers that Adam, one of his closest university friends, has used the details of Rank's life to write a novel and THE ANTAGONIST forms Rank's impassioned response to that book in a series of emails in which he deconstructs their shared past as well as comes to terms with the sadness in his own.

Rank's voice is confident, clear and convincingly male. And, by the time you've made his journey with him, peering pruriently over his shoulder, you'll understand his apparently paradoxical apology/accusation at the end:

"And thank you for not putting it in your book.
And fuck you for not putting it in your book.
Your friend,
Gordon Rankin
"

Lynn Coady is a real talent, one whose words I'll be watching for eagerly.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

THE VIRGIN CURE by Ami McKay (2011) From the A.A. Knopf Canada ARC, 351 pages



Ami McKay's debut novel THE BIRTH HOUSE was a national bestseller and longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award. Her second book THE VIRGIN CURE has been eagerly anticipated, and with good reason.

Set in the 1870s in Manhattan, McKay unravels the tale of Moth Fenwick--the daughter of a Gypsy fortune-teller who sells her into service to the sadistic Mrs. Wentworth when she's only twelve. Before then Moth runs through tenements with local hooligans, whose "names were made from body parts and scars, bragging rights and bad luck." In order to escape to a better life beyond the abusive walls of the posh Wentworth home, Moth forges an allegiance with the butler, Nestor, who offers a kindness that "would require everything I had to give."

Moth does escape, but ends up being lured into an altogether different form of service as a whore in a brothel run by Miss Everett, who provides girls who might offer her incurable and tainted gentleman clients not only companionship, but also "the virgin cure." The one good piece of luck that befalls Moth at "The Infant School" is meeting Dr. Sadie, a progressive physician who has a social conscience and tends to the prostitutes and the poor in the Bowery. Dr. Sadie is the moral heart of the novel and based on McKay's own great-great-grandmother who wrote her graduating thesis on syphilis and the deadly myth that a gentleman with the disease could cleanse his blood by deflowering a virgin.

Interspersed with diary entries, advertisements, newspaper articles and period quotations (from songs, books and poems) that lend an enhanced authenticity to the narrative, THE VIRGIN CURE is a rapturous tale told from the perspective of a survivor who makes an indelible impression in your heart.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

GLASS BOYS by Nicole Lundrigan (2011) Douglas &McIntyre



Douglas & McIntyre, the little west-coast publisher that could, does not shy away from tough topics. Earlier this year they published Margaux Fragoso's harrowing memoir TIGER, TIGER, where she chronicles her relationship with a pedophile and through her exquisite pain gives that life full resonant voice in the telling. Nicole Lundrigan's novel GLASS BOYS is calibrated with similar intensity and rendered tenable through unflinching visceral prose.

All families have secrets, hidden away in dark places. None, however, are perhaps as upsetting as the one coveted by eleven-year-old Garrett Glass. When Garrett's stepfather Eli Fagan discovers the contents of his prized pickle jar, he flies into a blind rage, burning the evidence in a backyard fire-barrel.

At the same time, the Trench brothers, Roy and Lewis stumble drunkenly into Fagan's yard and their misstep ends up costing Roy his life. Faced with his own guilt at not being able to save or protect his brother as you would expect a local cop to do, Lewis stokes a life-long hatred against Fagan, the man he holds responsible for Roy's unexpected death. For a time Lewis hopes for a different, more loving future in a life that he builds with Wilda Burry and their two sons. However, when previous darknesses begin to haunt his family and cleave them apart, Lewis realizes that the past is not past. And, all roads, both literal and symbolic, lead back to Eli Fagan's place.

Nicole Lundrigan's GLASS BOYS is paradoxically dark and illuminating. Her strong prose reminds me of Michael Helm's, especially in CITIES OF REFUGE and IN THE PLACE OF LAST THINGS: the way they both unravel a tale about flawed characters is utterly riveting.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

THE LITTLE SHADOWS by Marina Endicott (2011) Doubleday Canada, 541 pages



Marina Endicott's debut novel, GOOD TO A FAULT, garnered my reader loyalty as well as a Giller Prize shortlist nod for her a few years ago. So, I was delighted to receive the ARC of her forthcoming book THE LITTLE SHADOWS, a story grounded in the fantastically rich world of vaudeville in the early years of the 20th century.

After the unexpected death of their father, the Avery sisters, Aurora (16), Clover (14) and Bella (13) take to the footlights to earn a living as a singing trio under the tutelage of their mother, a former vaudeville darling. They share stages with magicians, animal wranglers, and tired comedians across Canada and the United States from 1912 through 1917 always hoping that a future booking will provide them the independent financial security they crave.

Of course there are love affairs that each girl needs to navigate, in the wings and on stage, some of which are genuine and others that are relationships of convenience and cruelty.

Endicott's extraordinary attention to period detail will astonish as you become immersed in the lives and preoccupations of the Avery sisters as they come to realize the essence of a vaudeville life, "dancing, singing, dying, that is all of it."

This year's Giller Prize jury--Andrew O'Hagan, Annabel Lyon and Howard Norman--have plucked THE LITTLE SHADOWS out of the 150+ titles submitted for consideration and given it a place on their longlist alongside Michael Ondaatje and Guy Vanderhaeghe. Because of the grace with which the narrative unfolds I have every expectation to see Endicott's name make the shortlist as well.

Monday, September 05, 2011

THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta (2011) Random House of Canada, 355 pages



I always greet the news of the publication of a Tom Perrotta novel with excitement and delight. Even if you haven't already read his work, you've at least heard of the two movies adapted from his earlier books: ELECTION and LITTLE CHILDREN. And, if you've seen either of those films, you'll know that Perrotta does not shy away from writing about flawed people like you and me. In fact, through his exposition of their weaknesses, I've certainly come to recognize some uncomfortable truths about myself.

From the opening paragraph of THE LEFTOVERS Perrotta hooked me:

"Laurie Garvie hadn't been raised to believe in the Rapture. She hadn't be raised to believe in much of anything, except the foolishness of belief itself."

In Mapleton (read Anywhere, USA) on October 14th (3 years ago), something tragic occurred: "It was a Rapture like phenomenon, but it doesn't appear to have been the Rapture," because many of the people who disappeared were decidedly not Christian. The Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Mormons and Zoroastrians "hadn't accepted Jesus Christ as their personal saviour." It was a perplexingly (to the loud-mouthed entitled Christians expecting salvation) "a random harvest."

What matters, however, is not who was taken, but rather who is left behind to puzzle out what life means now in the wake of the Sudden Departure. Now that children or siblings or spouses are gone. About loss, Perrotta writes convincingly. When Laurie supports her friend Rosalie as she grieves the disappearance of her daughter Jen and explains to her husband Kevin that "Rosalie doesn't want to finish" the scrapbook about Jen, Perrotta gestures to the timeless quality of accidental death. And, later, when Rosalie decides to join the Guilty Remnant cult (whose loopy motto is "We don't smoke for enjoyment. We smoke to proclaim our faith."), Laurie doesn't pass judgment. She becomes, instead, mute witness both literally and figuratively.

Cut to the three-year-anniversary of the pseudo Rapture and certain departure of beloved friends, relatives and lovers in Mapleton and now Laurie's husband Kevin Garvey is the new mayor who hopes to shepherd along the collective grieving process to offer new hope to his traumatized community in which he has experienced direct loss himself when his wife leaves him to become a silent-vowing cult member of Guilty Remnant and his son Tom drops out of university to follow a sketchy self-appointed prophet Holy Wayne, "the most recent incarnation of that age-old scoundrel, the Horny Man of God," who establishes "the Healing Hug Movement." Unsurprisingly, Holy Wayne knocks up one of his teenaged acolytes, 16-year-old Christine, who is carrying the Chosen One. Really. And, Mayor Garvey means well when he pushes for the inaugural Heroes' Day Parade "to channel the grief into an annual observance, relieve some of the day-to-day pressure on the survivors." But, honestly, how helpful can that be?

There were moments in THE LEFTOVERS that had me guffawing out loud. For example, "Nora Durst hated to admit it, but SpongeBob wasn't working anymore." Imagine that. How could he offer succor or be taken seriously when his sidekick Squidward has "got that creepy phallic nose" that "just dangles there?" Even the pastoral caregivers are worn out, like Reverend Jamieson who admits to Nora that he's exhausted and it feels like his body is "full of wet cement."

Each of the characters in THE LEFTOVERS manages to scratch out a new beginning, through happenstance, deceit, determination or belief. Going home, however, is never a viable option for any of them. Tom Perrotta has written a startling book about love and loss and how to find meaning in a life that is empty of one and rife with the other.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

LONG GONE by Alafair Burke (2011) Harper Collins, 349 pages



I found my way to Alafair Burke's books a couple of summers' ago when my friend Jeff saw me reading THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN by James Lee Burke (which Ian Rankin claimed was one of his favourite novels that season) and told me his daughter also wrote fabulous crime fiction. So, first I read the Samantha Kincaid series and then the Ellie Hatcher series. Devoured them, really. Of course I was delighted to discover Burke's first stand alone novel, LONG GONE, published this Spring. I am a devoted and loyal fan of her smart and topical writing.

Set in New York City, ostensibly today, when long-serving neighborhood establishments seem to disappear overnight thanks to the fickle economy, LONG GONE grounds itself in the reality of losing your job without notice. Not because you did it poorly, but because the market no longer exists or because your boss is corrupt and feckless.

Months after a layoff from the development office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art--a plum post for any art history grad--Alice Humphrey finds herself in the remarkable position of being offered a job managing a new little gallery in Manhattan's trendy Meatpacking District. There is a catch, of course, according to Drew Campbell, the corporate rep who hires her: the first show must be by the untalented paramour of the gallery's eccentric, anonymous owner. Even with this caveat, Alice seizes the opportunity to carve a professional path for herself out from underneath the shadow of her famous father, a controversial actor.

In spite of the bizarre and controversial subject matter of the first show, work is going swimmingly for Alice, until the day she arrives at the gallery to find the walls stripped bare and Drew Campbell's corpse on the floor. And, when the police show her a photograph of what seems to be her and Drew in a clinch, kissing, Alice realizes that her world is about to unravel.

With twists and turns and compassion doled out in equal measure, LONG GONE had me flipping pages well into the early morning hours. Like Alice, I became increasingly alarmed by the long-hidden secrets that are gradually revealed. Those secrets involving Alice's family, it seems, might end up costing her her life.

A more discerning reader than me might have figured out the clues that Burke buries throughout the narrative. And, for her ability to make me feel almost up to the challenge of solving the enigmatic backstory, I give Alafair Burke full credit for producing such a compelling tale, so cleverly told.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

ONE DAY by David Nicholls (2009) Random House, 435 pages



Having just seen the film featuring Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway as Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morely, I was curious to read Nicholls’ novel to see what made the screenplay and what, out of respect for the visual form, decidedly did not. So, when my neighbour Jennifer proffered her copy, I happily accepted and then read the book over two evenings. As Nick Hornby (one of my favourite contemporary voices of fiction: ABOUT A BOY, HIGH FIDELITY, JULIET, NAKED) kvelled on his blog, ONE DAY is “big, absorbing, smart, fantastically readable.”

That the protagonists’ journeys mirror a timeline similar to my own (having graduated university in the late 80s) made the story feel all-the-more relatable as Dexter and Emma find their way both independently and then together over two decades, both professionally and personally. Shakespeare was right: “the course of true love never did run smooth.”

If you’ve seen the film, then you know that the narrative is built on the conceit that we peer into the lives of Dexter and Emma on July 15th over the course of 20 years from when they graduate from the University of Edinburgh in 1988 to where they are in 2008.

What I especially enjoyed in the novel were the breezy missives that the two pen to each other because of the intimacies they reveal and the epigraphs for each section where Nicholls relies on beloved work by Philip Larkin, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy to set the tone. I am, after all, essentially a literary nerd.

If you’ve ever wanted someone you couldn’t have (and, honestly, who hasn’t?), then ONE DAY just might be the zeitgeist story for you.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

THE CAT'S TABLE by Michael Ondaatje (2011) McClelland & Stewart, 265 pages



Perhaps I should have cottoned on to the fact that this might be Ondaatje’s most personal novel to date with the epigraph from Joseph Conrad’s YOUTH:
And this is how I see the East…I see it always from a small boat—not a light, not a stir, not a sound. We conversed in low whispers, as if afraid to wake up the land.” For, it is a cannibalized part of Ondaatje’s own youth that we read about between the pages of this unexpectedly intimate narrative that reads oftentimes like memoir.

It’s the early 1950s and an eleven-year-old boy named Michael boards a ship in Colombo, bound for England. It is “not the magic or the scale of the journey” that concerns him, but “that detail of how [his] mother could know when exactly [he] would arrive in that other country. And if she would be there.”

He is assigned Table 76 for all of his meals: “the cat’s table…the least privileged place,” far across the dining room from the desired Captain’s Table. There he meets two other boys, Ramadhin and Cassius, as well as an eclectic group of eccentric and fascinating adults who help him to pass the time as the ship sails across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and finally to the coast of England where a new journey awaits him.

Michael discovers a cousin on board, the beautiful and elusive Emily who becomes his confidant, as well as the mysterious night walks of a shackled prisoner that he witnesses with Rahmadhin and Cassius while they are hiding in the darkness near one of the lifeboats and one evening “it was as if he was conscious of us there, that he had picked up our scent…He gave a loud growl and turned away.” Breaking curfew, the boys smoke piece by piece a cane chair on a forbidden deck, slide into the swimming pool, float on their backs and feel as though they are “swimming in the sea, rather than a walled-in pool in the middle of the ocean.”

One morning Michael is persuaded by a man known to him as Baron C. to help with a project. That project involves being greased in black oil and slithering through little barred windows of other passengers’ cabins in order to open the door for Baron C. to pillage valuables. It is during one of these excursions that Michael catches sight of himself in a mirror: “the first reflection or portrait that I remember…the image of my youth that I would hold on to for years—someone startled, half formed, who had not become anyone or anything yet.” In the blink-of-an-eye I can conjure a similar moment for myself as I’m sure you can as well. It is paragraphs such as this one that reminded me of Coetzee’s little novel YOUTH. You wouldn’t be amiss in comparing the two men of letters there.

One of the great charms of this story is the interspersed and seemingly random snippets of overheard conversation that Michael dutifully records in school examination booklets he carries with him:

“I thought she was a blue-stocking, at first.”
“Pickpockets come out during a storm.”
“I told your husband when he offered me a three-day-old oyster that it was more dangerous to me than having a sexual act when I was seventeen.”
“Trust me—you can swallow strychnine as long as you don’t chew it.


Though, I did wonder how an eleven-year-old could puzzle out the correct spelling for strychnine.

Those who are already committed Ondaatje fans will delight in THE CAT’S TABLE and those who are new to this Booker-Prize winning author and accomplished poet will find eleven-year-old Michael’s voyage between the two worlds of his youth an enchanting one.

YEAR OF THE KING: AN ACTOR'S DIARY AND SKETCHBOOK by Antony Sher (1985) The Hogarth Press, 249 pages



My friend James suggested I read Sher's memoir about the year leading up to his performance in the titular role of RICHARD III for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984, because he insisted it "read like butter." Well, James was right about that.

Sher's prose is smooth and I quickly lost myself in his narrative that begins in the summer of 1983, the year after he played the Fool to Michael Gambon's Lear in Stratford during which he ruptured his Achilles tendon, "up the back of [his] leg like a venetian blind." That injury led to 6 months of recovery that included physiotherapy sessions at the Remedial Dance Clinic and the luxury of hours at his easel working on paintings and sketches that he just simply hadn't had time for until this forced rest. Indeed, one of the delights of Sher's book is the inclusion of many pen and ink renderings of his colleagues and his evolving vision for his Richard-the-humpback. There is an ease of line in these sketches and a passion for each subject.

YEAR OF THE KING is an unabashedly honest behind-the-scenes look at how one actor builds a character from the inside out. At one point as he is struggling to find Richard's voice, Sher notes, "it does help me to think of Richard's verbal style throughout as that of a tabloid journalist, that brand of salivating prurience." Of course, Sher is not alone on this journey. He's accompanied by his director, a physiotherapist, a voice coach, a dresser, the costume department, his partner Jim, his fellow actors, all of whom believe they will help him build a unique version of "the shit" that will rival Olivier's watermark performance.

One of my favourite moments occurs when Sher goes to Chris Tucker's home to have a cast made of his back in order that Tucker be able to design a custom-made, lifelike hump. Tucker's masterpiece was John Hurt's head for THE ELEPHANT MAN, which he has displayed "on a little plinth in gruesome three-dimensional technicolour...The bony bits are hard, the pendulous sponges of skin soft and clammy." Next to it stands Gregory Peck's head from BOYS FROM BRAZIL, "with dog bites in the neck" that "looked much better when it was bleeding, of course." Of course.

You will feel Sher's nerves alongside him and feel compelled to applaud with the rest of the audience in Stratford as they regularly call the players back, standing and cheering "for a third time." He's a little star-struck himself when celebrities start flying in to see the show: "Michael Caine, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Peter Brook, Donald Sutherland, Charlton Heston...Charlton Heston? I was making plasticine models of him when he was in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and I was in nappies."

YEAR OF THE KING: AN ACTOR'S DIARY AND SKETCHBOOK is written with such intimacy that you will feel as if you know Sher, almost as well as he has come to know his Richard III.

Monday, August 08, 2011

THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern (from the ARC, due September 2011) Doubleday, 387 pages



Even the cover art/text on the ARC is entrancing:"THIS ADVANCE READER'S EDITION ENTITLES THE HOLDER TO UNLIMITED ADMISSION/ NOT FOR SALE/ VIOLATORS WILL BE EXSANGUINATED." You might think that the threat is an idle one, but you would be wrong about that.

When you peer between the covers of THE NIGHT CIRCUS, prepare to leave your assumptions about magic beyond the pale and have your imagination take heady flight above the narrative that Erin Morgenstern has spun into filaments of the finest gold.

Set at the end of the 19th Century and moving across two decades, the story begins in early 1873 when Prospero the Enchanter receives an envelope addressed to him at the New York theatre where he is performing. It "contains a suicide note, and is... carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl," his daughter Celia, to whom he snarks, "she should have named you Miranda." Later that same year, Prospero (aka Hector Bowen) takes his daughter to the UK to meet another magician who calls himself Alexander and it is there that the gauntlet is thrown down for an ongoing duel between Celia and another young magician where the winner will take all, including, perhaps the other's life.

In his desire to prepare Celia for this life-long competition, Hector treats her brutally, almost sadistically, as she learns the power she has to repair inanimate objects and to heal her living, breathing self.

So much mysterious happens under the striped tents at Le Cirque des Rêves and you will find yourself breathless with each new discovery as you trail memorable characters like outsider Bailey and his delightful true friends the twins Widget and Poppet who are born into that night circus dream life.

As the competition escalates between Celia and Marco, and you believe in each of their remarkable imaginative powers, you will wish alongside them that they may find a way out of this battle that is rooted in their instructors' egos.

THE NIGHT CIRCUS will entrance you. Just be prepared to pay its heady emotional price of admission.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL BEGAN AFTER by Simon Van Booy (2011) Harper Perennial, 396 pages



There are rare books that conspire to make you part of their narrative, to not only draw you alongside the characters, but also to draw you in as if you are a character yourself. I felt that tug from Simon Van Booy from the opening pages of EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL BEGAN AFTER, a novel that is irresistibly enchanting.

Our reliable, omniscient narrator insists: "For those who are lost, there will always be cities that feel like home. Places where lonely people can live in exile of their own lives--far from anything that was ever imagined for them."

Beautiful, haunted Rebecca moves to Athens to develop her skills as a painter after years of flying "around the world serving meals and drinks to people who found her beauty soothing." In Greece she plans to "live in exile with her desires...as she imagined them on canvas, like faint patches of starlight; hopeful, but so far away" Van Booy's prose already has you in its thrall, doesn't it?

Not long after settling into her small corner of Athens Rebecca meets George, an American from the South "who looked the sort of man who had read all of Marcel Proust in bed" and whose grandfather was a character in GONE WITH THE WIND (which Rebecca read in French), a minor one in the background, "riding by on a lazy horse." The two become friends and Rebecca kisses George on the cheek "again and again, until her kisses, like empty words, carried only the weight of consolation." Soon Rebecca meets Henry, an archaeologist, at work on a dig, and a man whose allure she cannot resist. As they walk along the Panathenaic Way, Rebecca is drawn to him as "Henry described the statues as though they were part of his family."

Through a series of chance meetings (or, the heavy hand of fate), all three are thrown together and fall headlong into a summer that will forever define them. An unexpected event changes the trajectory of all of their lives, and, as mute witness, you will find yourself entirely caught up in their separate loneliness, which Rebecca explains "is like being the only person left alive in the universe, except that everyone else is still here."

In a narrative that shifts between omniscient third person, limited second person and first person correspondence (charmingly printed as if typed on an old standard typewriter in courier font), Van Booy will startle you with his deft grace and insight.

Do not miss being completely immersed in EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL BEGAN AFTER.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving (1989) Lester & Orpen Dennys, 543 pages



I read A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY annually as a way of maintaining a continuing bond with my brother David who died in 1994. I gave him this copy for his birthday in May of 1992 and it is one of the novels that he enjoyed, set as it is in a boys' boarding school, a milieu in which he was himself immersed from ages 14-18.

The novel opens in the present of the late 1980s when Ronald Reagan is the President of the United States and embroiled in the Iran/Contra scandal and our narrator, John Wheelwright, is teaching English Literature to teenaged girls at the Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.

When I first read this novel, I was also teaching literature to 16-18 year old girls at another private school in Toronto, some of the very titles that Wheelwright teaches (including WUTHERING HEIGHTS, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and THE GREAT GATSBY) and I was living in a flat that was walking distance from Winston Churchill Park, so that familiarity hooked me even more.

What is the greatest appeal of this story is its Dickensian narrative approach (and I know from interviews with John Irving that he admires Dickens tremendously), whereby character is revealed layer upon layer by what they say, what they do and what is said about them. It is impossible not to fall and to fall hard for Owen Meany, Harriet Wheelwright and Hester-the-Molester, so fully realized as they are throughout the tale.

Structurally the book owes a great deal to Robertson Davies’ iconic novel FIFTH BUSINESS. And, while its narrative is driven by a stone hidden inside a snowball (the great prime mover in Davies’ tale), here it is a baseball that deals the hand of fate. A baseball that Owen Meany remarkably hits.

From the opening paragraph Irving has you onside as Wheelwright confesses, “ I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” Don’t you want to hear that wrecked voice? Understand how the smallest person he ever knew became the instrument of his mother’s death?

Irving is a master of his craft. Not only are the voices distinct, but each symbol and image woven into the tapestry of the tale--from a taxidermy armadillo, to a dressmaker's dummy, to Owen's obsession with amputation and nuns that give him "the shivers"--is intentional and rife with meaning. From a literary perspective, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY is worthy of close textual analysis. And, from a personal perspective, I cannot think of another book that makes me feel so viscerally a continuing connection with my little brother, when we too enjoyed the easy and devoted camaraderie that Owen and John demonstrate throughout Irving's incredible novel.

Friday, July 29, 2011

THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL by Lawrence Block (2004) Harper Collins, 294 pages



Go ahead. Add Bernie Rhodenbarr, Manhattan Antiquarian bookseller by day and burglar by night, to the pantheon of favourite criminals. He's one of those guys you are willing to forgive their occasional felonies because they are so appealing and only marginally morally questionable.

Block hooked me in THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL with the opening word nerd exchange between Bernie and his friend Marty Gilmartin:

"The man is an absolute...a complete...an utter and total... Words fail me."

"Apparently, nouns, anyway. Adjectives seem to be supporting you well enough, but nouns--"

"Help me out, Bernard. Who is more qualified to supply le mot juste? Words, after all, are your métier."

The man in question is Crandall Rountree Mapes, "a worm, a rat...a bounder, a cad... a rotter... a thoroughgoing shitheel," who has just happened to woo Marty's mistress Marisol away from him and into Mapes' perfectly manicured surgical hands. Of course, it's personal. And, of course, Mapes deserves to be taken down a peg or two and Rhodenbarr is just the man for the job that involves cracking into a personal safe hidden behind a painting in Mapes' bedroom, a passable painting of "your basic generic sailing ship." It's a "neat, uncomplicated bit of vengeful larceny that will reap a tidy profit," an offer that Rhodenbarr cannot refuse, especially for a friend.

While waiting to burgle Mapes' upscale abode on a night that he is sure to be out with his wife at Lincoln Center, Rhodenbarr gets restless and to assuage his spilkes he goes out on the prowl, a decision that he begins to regret when it lands him smack dab in the middle of several murders for which he is not responsible, but to which he is irresistibly drawn because of unlikely coincidence. And, Bernie, is never one to let sleeping dogs lie.

With trademark wit, playfulness and respect for the game that successful suspense requires, Block delivers the goods in THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL. And, isn't it fun that well-mannered Bernie gets the girl, even if it's only for now.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick deWitt (2011) House of Anansi Press, 325 pages



THE SISTERS BROTHERS is one of three titles published by House of Anansi Press that made it to the storied Man Booker Prize longlist this week, a prize that rewards the best book of fiction published in the Commonwealth. Canadian novelist Michael Helm (one of my favourite contemporary writers) has this to say about DeWitt's book:

"In perfect measures of light, darkness and firelit reflections, THE SISTERS BROTHERS engagingly renews the comic novel in a spirit by turns lawless and corrective. This ever-surprising story is dead serious fun."

Narrated by Eli Sisters, this picaresque meets the Wild West tale is all that Helm gestures to and more. There's a hit out on the life of Hermann Kermit Warm, ordered by the enigmatic and threatening Commodore who has hired Eli and Charlie Sisters for the task. They are on their way to San Francisco, where the Commodore's scout, "a dandy named Henry Morris," has gone ahead to gather information about Warm who "pays for his whiskey with raw gold dust that he keeps in a leather pouch worn on a long string, hidden in the folds of his many-layered clothing." Charlie is heartened by the news and tells his brother, "It's a good place to kill someone, I have heard. When they are not busily burning the entire town down, they are distracted by its endless rebuilding."

And, so begins their cross country journey in the company of their horses, Nimble and Tub, a journey that is complicated by toothaches and tempers and temporary fits of loneliness throughout which you'll meet eccentric hoteliers, doctors, hookers and ordinary folk trying to get by. All the while, you will wonder, like Eli "about the difficulties of family, how crazy and crooked the stories of a bloodline can be." And, you will continually redefine your notions about good and evil as the tale unwinds to its unexpectedly moving conclusion.

Find out what the fuss is about and pick up THE SISTERS BROTHERS, marveling at DeWitt's muscular prose and respect for delivering a tale well told.

SHELTER by Harlan Coben (from the ARC, due September 2011) from Penguin Canada, 304 pages




You may be familiar with Harlan Coben’s protagonist Myron Bolitar, the Manhattan-based sports agent turned exquisite bad-guy ass-kicker, in his crime fiction series. In SHELTER (Coben’s YA debut) Myron acts in loco parentis for his estranged teenaged nephew Mickey, who is trying to accommodate the very different losses of his parents in his life: one to accidental death, the other to addiction.

For a while it seems as though Mickey’s complicated life is improving, until his new girlfriend Ashley goes missing and he is drawn into a nefarious circle to try to find her, a seedy underworld where it is uncertain if he will be able to escape. When he sees the legendary Bat Lady for the first time, he is creeped out by two facts: she calls him by name and tells him that his father “is very much alive.” But, standing there, bearing witness, Mickey knows that “what she was telling me wasn’t true. Because I had seen my father die.”

Navigating the social hierarchy of a new high school is another challenge that Mickey faces, and he ends up making genuine friends with a goth girl called Ema and a geek he nicknames Spoon, “outcasts who… had been sitting alone for so many years that it wasn’t so much cruelty as habit.” Because Spoon’s dad is a janitor at the school, he has access to keys that will enable them to snoop for clues that might lead them to uncovering the secrets behind Ashley’s enigmatic disappearance.

The title gestures to missing pieces: The Abeona Shelter in Africa, an NGO from which Mickey’s dad Brad resigns in order to provide Mickey a chance to call “one place home” and “pursue his passions, especially basketball;” and, Mickey’s predisposition to protect the disenfranchised. As a tattoo artist tells him, “You, like Ema, have a pure spirit. You have blessed energy centers and true balance. You are a protector. You look out for others. You are their shelter.”

If you know a reticent teenaged reader, then SHELTER is the book you need to thrust into their hands. Coben’s authentic depiction of high school foibles, rife with recognizable bullies and jockeying for social status, will have them feeling right at home and the breakneck twists and turns of the narrative will have them flipping pages right through to its satisfying end.

In this first of a YA series, Coben will hook a new generation of readers with his trademark wry humour and masterful plotting as they cheer on courageous 15-year-old Mickey Bolitar.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS by Michele Young-Stone (2010) Crown Publishing, 372 pages



Becca Burke and Buckley Pitank live worlds apart in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Mont Blanc, Arkansas. Raised in the 60s and 70s on different sides of the country both are drawn together through their common experience of lightning strikes. When Becca was eight she was struck down in her driveway and when Buckley was a young teen he witnessed his mother's death as she was seared by a bolt on a family excursion.

Becca's Mom Mary is a drunk. A beautiful drunk. Her father Rowan is a philandering chemistry professor who looks like Cary Grant. Buckley's Mom Abigail is his best friend and he loves everything about her "from the strawberry bumps on her legs where she dry-shaved with her Gillette to the way her black hair knotted at the nape of her neck." He never met his father.

In parallel narrative arcs we follow Becca and Buckley from their childhoods through adolescence and well into their adult lives. Buckley has an especially challenging time as he deals with his odious grandmother Winter (a character who would be at home among Dickensian villains) and his mother's predatory husband, the Reverend John Whitehouse, whose congregation is dwindling so much that he turns to selling Amway as the way of truth and light. While Becca's parents adore her, she senses her own mother's issues with her father, not only senses but feels viscerally the abuse her mother suffered when she, herself, was growing up.

Buckley may be not only one of the most resilient characters you'll meet in contemporary fiction but also one of the kindest and Becca's pluck and determination to hone her craft as a visual artist will convince you that the creative impulse is a balm. And, when they meet through a mutual friend at a gallery vernissage in New York, you will be as relieved as I was that they come face-to-face with someone who entirely understands who they are and doesn't pass judgment.

THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS heralds a savvy new voice in American letters. Keep your eyes peeled for the work of Michele Young-Stone.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

HIT AND RUN by Lawrence Block (2008) Harper Collins, 280 pages



What is not to like about Block’s hired killer Keller, a devoted philatelist who takes “so many precautions” in his paid job that he trips over them? Just imagine what might happen to him if he weren’t the adorable paranoid that he is. And, as he insists to his colleague Dot, this one is definitely the last job (paid up front, of course) he’s going to do before getting out of toxic waste disposal racket.

Keller is in Des Moines, Iowa, awaiting the go-ahead from his client, minding his own business at a stamp shop where he can’t resist adding to his burgeoning collection a few Scandinavian “official reprints. Mint, decent centering, and lightly hinged” that he bargains down to $600 cash. When the background music on the radio is interrupted by a news bulletin with the announcement that the visiting charismatic Governor of Ohio has been gunned down, Keller understands immediately that he’s going to be made the patsy, even though he has an airtight alibi in the shopkeeper.

Like the characters in The Wire who understand “the game is the game,” Keller plays it cool for a while, puzzling out how he’s going to be able to make it back home to New York safely. Dot insists that Keller, “lay low as long as you have to, if you’re sure you’re in a safe place. Don’t even think about doing the job for Al, not as long as there’s the slightest chance that this might be a setup.” Soon enough Keller sees his face plastered on CNN with the caption, “THE FACE OF A KILLER.” And, then, he receives a computer-generated voicemail message, “completely uninflected and straight out of a science-fiction movie” that “pronounced a series of words one at a time: ‘Ditch. The. Phone. Repeat. Ditch. The. Damn. Phone.’” And, just like that, Keller’s on his own.

There are many obstacles that get in Keller’s way as he tries to remain under the radar on his way back to his New York apartment. There is the matter of his appearance, of course, that he only temporarily hides under the peak of a Homer Simpson ball cap; also, the fact that he can’t risk using credit or debit cards whereby his cross-country progress would surely be traced and he’s getting low on cash. If only he hadn’t bought those precious stamps! When Keller comes face-to-face with two great losses in his life, “that filled him with pain and regret,” he realizes that eventually, “you didn’t have to forget things, not really. You just relaxed your grip on them and they floated off all by themselves.

After driving away from New York with no particular plan, Keller finds himself in post-Katrina New Orleans where strolling one evening he ends up acting out a Tennessee Williams kindness-of-strangers turn and saving a life. And, the fates, for once, find their way and smile kindly upon him in return. There he is able to begin again, hired on by an enterprising contractor, to renovate those devastated spaces and in the process to find out the kind of man he truly is.

Smart, witty and unabashedly take charge, Lawrence Block’s Keller is my newest crime-fiction crush.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

THAT SUMMER IN PARIS by Morley Callaghan (2006) Exile Editions, 217 pages




Originally published in 1963, Callaghan's memoir of 1920s Paris was republished in 2006 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Exile Editions. Callaghan’s memoir of his heady time in 1929 Paris in the select company of Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Robert McAlmon is a succulent treat for a literary nerd like me who has always considered that particular expat community the most desirable one with which to ingratiate oneself. It is why I have so adored Woody Allen’s recent cinematic confection MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, too—the impossible imagined delight of being party to that particular passionate coterie.

Due to circumstances that are still a little beyond my ken, I was at Morley Callaghan’s 86th birthday fete in Toronto, so it is more-than-a-tad amusing for me to reconcile the gentleman I met that night in 1989 (who, after we sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” insisted, from his perch at the top of the stairs, his false teeth clacking about in his mouth, “I have never ever been. A. Jolly. Good. Fellow.”) with the nascent novelist so certain of his own place among the greatest writers of the 20th century.

In the early Twenties, Callaghan and Hemingway met in Toronto while they were both working for the Toronto Daily Star. The Hemingways were in Canada for Hadley to give birth to their son because they had heard the health care was excellent, and Callaghan was trying his hand at journalism before finishing his law degree at U of T. When Hemingway determined that young Morley had tried his hand at fiction, he offered to read his stories in exchange for a look at the proofs of IN OUR TIME which Callaghan referred to as “a series of long paragraphs, little vignettes… so polished they were like epigrams, each so vivid, clean and intense that the scene he was depicting seemed to dance before my eyes.” Hemingway offered Callaghan this gift: “You’re a real writer. You write big-time stuff. All you have to do is keep on writing… Whatever you do, don’t let anyone around here tell you anything.”

When he was only 22, Callaghan had a story (thanks to Hemingway’s kind introduction), “A Girl With Ambition,” published in the 2nd edition of THIS QUARTER in Paris and his fellow contributors included James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, all of their names in bold black on its cover. That became a charm and the confidence boost he needed to keep writing. Soon enough Scribner’s in New York signed Callaghan on for a novel and a collection of stories to be edited by Maxwell Perkins, who also was responsible for Hemingway and Fitzgerald, so his literary pedigree was established early.

Once in Paris that summer of 1929, it feels as though you are the third that walks beside Morley and his wife Loretto along those Left Bank streets, sitting in the cafes or at Les Deux Magots, waiting for Scott or Ernest to poke their heads in and scooch beside you to warn you of the dangers of Pernod. You’ll meet Joyce and his Nora, Sylvia Beach (his great protector and publisher at Shakespeare and Company), Scott and Zelda, Ford Maddox Ford, Robert McAlmon, the painter Miro and other luminaries of the Quartier at that time. And, you will be charmed by them all, even when they are badly behaved and irascible or insecure and easily bruised, egos wounded by reviews or a lucky punch in the boxing ring.

One of the sweetest moments for me was when Fitzgerald offered Callaghan his wallet, insisting, “Here, Morley, keep this wallet. I’d like you to have something of mine.” Callaghan accepts: “All right. Write your name in it then.” But neither one of them had a pen. So, Fitzgerald (then struggling his way through the manuscript of TENDER IS THE NIGHT), “put the wallet against a lamppost, and taking out his knife he scratched his name on the leather.”

What a keepsake from “those dreams” Callaghan had of Paris as “the lighted place” where he got to know “Hemingway in his prime…perhaps the nicest man I had ever met.” And, he could “say the same for Fitzgerald.

Having spent that long ago evening in Callaghan’s company, I feel a little closer to them all after reading THAT SUMMER IN PARIS.

FAITH by Jennifer Haigh (2011) Harper Collins Canada, 318 pages



If you read and adored Linden MacIntyre's Giller Prize-winning THE BISHOP'S MAN, then you are definitely going to want to pick up a copy of Jennifer Haigh's most recent novel FAITH.

All families tell stories about themselves, stories that become mythic in the re-telling, but there are other tales that remain secrets until someone, intentionally or not, provides the great reveal. For me one of those long-kept truths was offered to me on my first trip to Ireland. There, my cousin Billy took me to a family plot and pointed out not only his parents' graves and that of his brother Eric who died at three, but also the grave of "Aunt Peg's baby." I was gobsmacked. When I returned to Toronto and asked my grandfather (Peg's older brother) about that baby, his first response was an angry, "who the hell told you about that?" With further probing he went on to unravel the shame the family had felt when Peg, unmarried, got pregnant during WWII. Although a nurse who ought to have known better, Peg tried to hide the fact of her growing womb by wrapping it tightly in bandages. The result: a stillborn child and permanent damage that meant she would never be able to get pregnant again. Underneath my grandfather's anger was a profound sadness for what might have been for his little sister.

In FAITH, narrator Sheila McCann returns to Boston when her older half-brother Art, a long-serving parish priest, finds himself at the centre of a scandal that rocks the foundation of their family, not to mention the extended Roman Catholic community. Their mother remains in denial, while Sheila's brother Mike has already convicted Art in his heart and Art himself refuses to defend himself against the perplexing charges.

What is extraordinary in Haigh's unravelling of Art's tale is the insider intimacy with which she writes about the monkish existence of RC clergy. Throughout Sheila doubts her brother's decision to choose a life with such "elaborate privations." His incredible response: "It helps to be a child with little understanding of what he is forfeiting." Sheila confides that it is her "penance to tell this ragged truth as completely" as she knows it--an antidote to the "canon of approved stories" that "are told in the manner of repertory theatre: hang around long enough and you'll hear them all." With such an invitation to the reader to sit a little closer to listen to the likely prurient and certainly upsetting details, Haigh grabs you by the hand and insists that you bear witness to all that has occupied Sheila since her brother's public disgrace a few years' previous.

Father Arthur Breen's story is a complicated one, made all the more difficult by long-protected secrets that have been the source of his own personal shame. By all accounts he is a devout priest and a kind man to whom "even a single life seemed a towering accomplishment." When presented with the opportunity to serve as a father figure to his housekeeper's grandson Aidan, Art takes on that responsibility in earnest, ensuring that Aidan have a place in the second grade at Sacred Heart while his reformed drug addiction mother Kath tries to get her grownup act together.

Like Sheila and her brother Mike, I found myself vacillating between being convinced that Art was guilty of the oblique crime of which he is accused and just as firmly believing that he could not possibly have made such a transgression and that was why he never defended himself against that very accusation. And, when an unintentional and initially enigmatic slip of the tongue clarifies the villain of the tale, you will be outraged. As Sheila confesses, "although they may not forgive me for it, I write for my mother and Mike. If they don't wish to know certain truths about themselves and each other, they should at least know" what we have lost. She writes Art's story "to open the curtains, and let in the sun."

Isn't that what all good fiction does?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A GOOD HARD LOOK by Ann Napolitano (2011) Penguin Press, 326 pages



The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” ~Flannery O’Connor

So begins this gorgeous novel that through the interior lives of vibrant and memorable characters shows how we might live our lives to the fullest.

There are three sections: Good, Hard, Look. And, with those simple and declarative monosyllabics, Napolitano neatly parses the experiences of Cookie Himmel, Melvin Whiteson, Lona Waters, Miss Mary Treadle and Flannery O’Connor through 1963-64 in NYC and Milledgeville, Georgia.

The narrative opens on a hot summer’s evening as “the peacocks tilted their heads back and bellowed and hollered their desires into the night… They didn’t care that there was a wedding tomorrow, or that the groom who had just arrived from New York City, was lying beneath a lace canopy at his in-laws’ house, paralyzed with fear.” And, while the rest of Milledgeville startled awake, the peacocks (like their spirited, uncompromising owner) “were out to do what they liked, when they liked.

Southern writer Flannery O’Connor (“Good Country People,” Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away) is both muse and character and the pulse at the centre of the narrative. She is connected to Cookie through their shared past, to Miss Mary as a neighbour, to Lona as a client and to Melvin as a friend on equal footing, unabashed about offering candid truths. It is her address delivered as an honoured guest at Cookie’s high school graduation that gives the novel its title and both the characters and the reader the challenge: “Take a good hard look at who you are and what you have, and then use it.” Sage advice for all time, don't you think?

Diagnosed at 25 with lupus, Flannery is now 37 and focused on her writing as she tries to keep her constant pain and attending exhaustion at bay. One of the many aspects that I love about this book is how Napolitano so convincingly inhabits O’Connor and offers insight into her writing process: “Flannery gripped the pen in her lap like a baseball she wanted to throw. The two main characters in her novel…stood in the centre of her mind. One was made of flesh and blood, the other was two-dimensional…Rayber, wouldn’t come alive and no matter how hard Flannery pounded the letters on her typewriter, she couldn’t make him so.

After Melvin reads “Good Country People,” he asks Flannery, “ I wondered what it says about you, that there are no happy endings…All of your characters are left in some kind of pain.” Her response is brilliant: “Maybe I left them on their way to a happy ending…I’m sure you didn’t consider this, but it’s possible that the characters are closer to grace at the end of the stories. Grace changes a person, you know. And change is painful.” Later, when he reads Wise Blood, Melvin thinks, “each sentence felt like a balled-up fist, intent on knocking him out.” Flannery “trapped tiny disappointments, tiny hopes, tiny frustrations, and pinned them down with sentences.” Flannery, herself, knows how to be patient with a scene, “waiting for the violence to start.” She discovered that “she had to go a little mad herself, in order to get the story right, in order to pin him down like a butterfly.” And, in the heart of this tumult, she was tempted to push away from her desk: “a life was coming to a brutal end beneath her chattering fingertips and she wanted to be anywhere but where she was. She wanted to be anyone but who she was.” That total disappearance of self that Flannery strives for in her writing, all of the other characters yearn for as they make meaning of their lives.

The tragedy that closes the first section and transitions to “Hard” cleaves all of the main players, and even though you may see it coming, it is no less awful when it happens. It is through the aftermath of that event that the surviving characters puzzle out not only what it means to live their lives as fully as possible but also how that might happen now that “all has changed, changed utterly,” to reference Yeats.

There’s much I have not revealed about this book, because I want to be mindful of letting Napolitano’s accomplished storytelling wash over you, when you find yourself in her richly evoked world-- a world where the peacocks mirror the uncompromising spirit of their mistress, Flannery O’Connor, and, in the end rise up, feathers spreading, “sea green, inky sapphire, specks of yellow…shimmering.”

Ann Napolitano's literary star is rising. Get yourself a copy of the luminous A GOOD HARD LOOK and prepare to be startled.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Guest post: PETER BEHRENS (author of THE O'BRIENS) on the editing process



The editing process

To write fiction I need a kick-start, and that usually means letting myself write raw, unedited first drafts in pencil. This is when my subconscious turns loose (I hope!) imagery and scenes my conscious mind has not processed yet. I will spew out a first draft with pencil and paper, and it is messy and ridiculous. I try to do as little self-editing at this stage as possible. But I usually do have a sense of the direction I want to go, a sense of the emotional/tonal/dramatic place that I want the scene/chapter to reach — a place I need that scene/chapter to get to.

When I have that raw and ugly first draft of a scene or chapter down — even if it is unfinished and open-ended, trailing all kinds of loose threads, I usually stroll out of my office feeling exhausted, with a sense of accomplishment. I'm also wondering at the strangeness , ridiculousness, and inefficiency of my process. I leave the raw draft alone for a night. I need some distance from it. It's like it's too hot to handle.

I go back to it in the morning, read over what I've written, and begin seeing how I might make it clearer, better, sharper. From that point on I want to unpack the raw draft, follow all the hints my subconscious has left for me. And eventually I want to be as clear and simple as possible. I try to make my prose glass so you can see through it. I want the reader to feel the roundness of scenes and characters, though literary “realism” is an illusion, of course. The “reality” I'm creating is as structured, composed, and unreal as any other sort of fiction — but I still want the reader to feel they know these characters, I want readers to inhabit their houses and rooms and know the smells, and the quality of the sunlight outside . . . I want to persuade readers to inhabit the characters and their worlds as wholly as possible.

Editing becomes almost endless. It feels endless. Takes months, years. Near the end of it I'm just putting in and taking out commas. Of course it's never really over. When I read the book as a physical book, for the first time, I catch knots in the syntax and grammar that I've missed . . . I see how structure could be improved . . . but it's too late! Time to move on to the next book.

I learned about being edited as a screenwriter where I was paid to sit in a room and listen carefully while people told me everything I had done wrong in my screenplays. One important thing a screenwriter must learn is to LISTEN. You may disagree, and shelve the criticism, but if it's coming from a source you respect, LISTEN TO IT FIRST. Think it through. Don't get defensive; listen. Then, later, make up your own mind whether it makes any sense. Good editors can point out clearly when something is not working, then they leave the fixes to the writer.

THE O'BRIENS by Peter Behrens (2011) House of Anansi Press, 548 pages



In this sprawling Irish family saga that spans six decades from 1900-1960 you will meet a symphony of voices from the ambitious and resourceful patriarch Joe O'Brien to his philanthropically-minded photographer wife Iseult to Joe's brothers Grattan (an ace pilot) and Tom (a priest) to Joe and Iseult's passionate children Mike, Margo and Frankie and you will feel party to their dark secrets, private agonies and dreams.

The epigraph, a poem by established Irish poet Nuala NiDhomhnaill, is Joe's emotional touchstone:

The storm came
blew with force,
I heard your voice
calling me through thunder.


From the time Joe assumes the role of man of the house when he's only thirteen to the time he navigates himself safely to the Cape Breton shoreline through the calls of his granddaughter Madeleine, he relies on the people he loves best to moor him through storms literal and figurative and there are plenty of both.

Raised in poverty in rural Quebec in the late 19th century, Joe and his siblings accept the kindness of the local parish priest, Fr. Lillis, who "knew he had to help them all, so he began inviting the whole bunch to stop at his house after school for lessons in geometry, table manners, and German... And he taught them the waltz... What he was trying to teach was courage." When news reaches Mrs. O'Brien of her absent husband's accidental death in South Africa, "Joe understood that his father had left his power behind, and that he, as eldest son, had inherited it... He would use it to protect them all." And, protect them he does, though years after he has trusted his sisters Hope and Kate to a convent where they had taken their vows as Soeur Marie-Bernadette and Soeur Marie-Emmanuelle, Joe worries that "in his greed and hurry to escape and seek his own freedom, they were the ones who had paid the price."

While Joe O'Brien is making a name for himself with railroad contracts, Iseult Wilkins is reconciling herself to a new beginning as a recent adult orphan. She decides to move to Venice Beach, California and it is there in the realty office that she meets Joe's younger brother Grattan and "felt her cheeks flushing with thoughts that weren't words, just burrs of feeling, inchoate, startling." In the little Linnie cottage that she decides to purchase with her inheritance, Iseult resolves "she might find clarity and calm, she might find her own purpose." Amid that clarity and calm appears Grattan's older brother Joe, who courts Iseult with fresh flowers and letters in a whirlwind 5-week romance that leads to their marriage about which Iseult believes is " a road, not the place where the road stopped."

In the years of the Great War, there are letters from the Front from Grattan with such vivid and unfiltered detail that it feels almost prurient to be reading them. Joe and Iseult's son Michael is born in early 1914 and he's joined by a little sister Margo, two years later. The family has settled in Montreal in a massive stone home on Pine Street from which Joe continues to oversee his burgeoning business empire and Iseult begins to involve herself in philanthropic work with poor single mothers and their children. There are some trying moments after the war, especially for Grattan, who has a difficult time readjusting to married life with his wife Elise and their daughter Virginia.

When another war appears unavoidable it is the next generation of young men who enlist, Joe's son Mike and his son-in-law Johnny, both of whom write honest, heart-breaking letters home to their families about the kill or be killed nature of life on that Front. In those years, Frankie, Iseult and Joe's youngest daughter, confesses that "doorbell dread was like a sliver of ice entering the intestinal tract." All families feared that knock on the door that portended the loss of a loved one.

Next to his younger brothers Tom and Grattan, over the years "it was as if Joe had taken the weight of his family onto his shoulders and it had shortened, thickened and bent him." Fiercely loyal, but emotionally complicated, Joe O'Brien remains enigmatic throughout the novel; yet, it is the puzzling out of his character that drives the narrative and kept me flipping through right through to its satisfying denouement, anticipated way back in the epigraph. For, in the end, Joe realizes that "All his life he'd needed their voices--outside himself, bright and alive, to take a bearing on, to find his way." In the symphony of voices that Behrens has created in THE O'BRIENS, you, too, will find your way.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

NATURAL ORDER by Brian Francis (from the ARC, on sale August 23, 2011) Doubleday Canada, 384 pages




At a launch for another author’s book earlier this year, I chatted with Brian Francis’s editor who gushed about this forthcoming novel. So, I asked her to send me an ARC once it was available. Hearing a little about its plot and themes, it sounded to me as though it would be a novel along the lines of Stewart O’Nan’s most recent triumph EMILY, ALONE--a book I adored.

NATURAL ORDER opens with an obituary for John Charles Sparks dated July 27, 1984. He was only thirty-one when he died, allegedly of cancer. And, although John’s story is at the heart of the narrative, it is told many years later through the eyes of his mother, Joyce, now an 86-year-old widow living out her remaining days in a nursing home where the buzzers keep her awake at night and she laments the problem of getting old as “time bends and shifts. Memories spring up, uprooted.”

Joyce is spunky and has a dark sense of humour, one of her pieces of emotional armour. When her snoring roommate irritates her, she dreams of hurling the Yellow Pages at her, “never at her head, though I’ve been tempted. Only at her feet.” And, when she is exasperated by one of the many health care aides, she muses, “I could have told her I was pregnant and she would have asked me if I wanted ice in my glass.” One day, a new volunteer, Timothy, drops by for a chat and Joyce is startled by his hands that remind her of her son John’s: “They’re nice. Strong… I feel my heart fold up like a piece of paper.

Over the course of seven decades, Francis has Joyce unfurl her tale, from the summer she was seventeen and working in the local ice-cream bar with her musical-loving, tap-dancing friend Freddy Pender (who channels Robert Preston as Harold Hill in The Music Man) to her early married years raising her son John to the devastating years after his unexpected death to her widowhood when she “didn’t want to face life without [her] son and husband” to her final days spent in the company of strangers where she finally finds redemption.

In Joyce Sparks, Brian Francis has created an authentic and memorable voice of a woman who has spent her lifetime wrestling secrets to the ground, and who finally comes to terms with the healing power of facing the truth and making amends before it’s too late. What impressed me most about this book was Francis’s keen, clear understanding of a parent’s grief at the loss of a child, where, as for Joyce and her husband Charlie, “things either happened before or after John’s death. The world was cleaved in two.” It is not the natural order to bury your child. He is meant to bury you.

By balancing Joyce’s complicated grief journey with the realities of aging, Francis offers up lessons for all time. I hope very much to see NATURAL ORDER on the important fiction long lists this Fall. It deserves to be there.