Sunday, April 24, 2011

VACLAV & LENA by Haley Turner from the ARC (forthcoming May 31, 2011) The Dial Press (Random House), 285 pages

Do you remember your first crush? Mine was inexplicably on Scott Campbell, a neighbourhood kid in my Grade 4 class who stabbed me with his thick soft leaded pencil. I remember confiding to my little red diary with its tiny gold lock and key in my careful schoolgirl script, "I love Scott Campbell." It was the first of many unrequited loves and I am doomed to remember his name because I carry that piece of lead with me, under the pad of my ring finger on my left hand.

Vaclav and Lena meet when they are 10 and 9 years old at P.S. 238 in Brooklyn as ESL students who carry the immigrant burden of being obviously different among their American-born English-speaking peers because of their thick Russian accents and their stilted developing language. Vaclav is completely obsessed with the idea of becoming a magician like David Copperfield or Harry Houdini, expecting that Lena will be his assistant because she "is necessary for all the illusions." He is an inveterate list-maker and for me that is part of his charm:

1. One day being a famous magician
2. Lena being lovely assistant
3. Perseverance towards those goals in spite of any and every obstacle"

At the beginning, Lena buys into Vaclav's fantasy and supports him as he practices simple acts of prestidigitation. However, Lena's troubled home life becomes all consuming: "Vaclav does not know that to Lena, he is a place to go instead of nowhere. If he knew, he might be happy to be her somewhere, but he does not know."

Vaclav's mother takes the two children to Coney Island and to Lena, for the first time in her young life, "it looked as if the world had been coloured in." In that moment there is such hope. But, there is little room for that yet in Lena's world and soon Vaclav's doting mother Raisa makes an alarming discovery and Lena vanishes from Vaclav's life without even a whisper.

Vaclav is devastated, but determined, and many years pass before Lena re-enters his life like a balm.

VACLAV & LENA is a genuine love story. Once you meet both of these quirky, resilient characters, you won't soon want to leave their remarkable world. Haley Tanner has penned a sparkling debut about trust, betrayal and enduring unconditional love.

Monday, April 18, 2011

THE LONG GOODBYE by Meghan O'Rourke (2011) Riverhead Books, 297 pages

As soon as read the excerpt from THE LONG GOODBYE in The New Yorker, I knew I would have to read this memoir. I had been carrying the excerpt around with me as a talisman, a charm to force me back to the pages of the manuscript I am revising about my only brother's accidental death many years ago.

In O'Rourke's epigraph she refers to an Iris Murdoch quotation, "The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved," and nothing could be truer, except perhaps the one attributed to A.S. Byatt, who wrote, "grief turns you to stone."

This harrowing account opens gently with reminiscences about bucolic childhood summers spent as a family in Vermont where "the days seemed created for our worship" and "there were words even for the weeds: goldenrod and ragweed and Queen Anne's lace." Days that were "holy and lazy and boring." Remember those? Then there is O'Rourke's intimation of mortality: "When we are relearning the world in the aftermath of a loss, we feel things we had almost forgotten, old things, beneath the seat of reason." Like the time when her mom sent Meghan and her brother out to catch fireflies in jars with poked holes in the lids and she remembers,"the air was the temperature of our skin." Beneath the seat of reason.

O'Rourke's account of her mother's diagnosis, treatment and death as a result of metastatic colorectal cancer is not only frankly personal, but also a profound meditation on loss itself and how the rituals of public mourning have mostly fallen away. I found absolute belonging in her admission that, "In the months that followed my mother's death, I managed to look like a normal person. I walked down the street; I answered my phone; I brushed my teeth, most of the time. But I was not OK. I was in grief. Nothing seemed important. Daily tasks were exhausting....I felt that I had abruptly arrived at a terrible insistent truth about the impermanence of the every day." There is the public mask of coping and there is the private reality of feeling completely rudderless.

And, people become impatient with your grieving. Platitudes are dealt, and advice doled out, by well-meaning friends, relatives and neighbours who are invested in feeling better themselves about your sorry state rather than trying to understand why your loss is so profound and enigmatic to them. To try to make sense of her grief, O'Rourke, admittedly at her nadir, cuts herself, suggesting, "I did not want to hurt myself or die. I just wanted to create some embodiment of the heartbreak eating me up."

What moved me most about THE LONG GOODBYE were the moments remembered in flashes of brilliance like the time her mom gave her a Dick Francis novel when it wasn't Christmas saying, "Why do we wait for holidays to give gifts?" And O'Rourke writes, "her voice was shaky, and it was the first time as an adult that I really felt that one day she would be gone." Such flashes hurt. "They light up your stomach. Then you breathe, look out again. At a party you say my dead mother...It hurts...You are learning the narrative. You are establishing the catechism, responses to the questions."

The death itself was familiar to me, having witnessed as I have the final extended raspy, rattling breaths and pauses between them of both my grandmother and my friend Richard. It is both ordinary and extraordinary: a moment that is essentially awesome. Full of awe.

On Christmas Day 2008, Barbara Kelly O'Rourke died at home: "In the beginning was the wind, the wind made by breath, the word of the wind, and in our hearts we kept telling the story over and over of how we loved her and were there, there, there, once we were all there, and she took a breath like a gasp and her eyes opened and took us in, all of us there, and then she breathed once more, the last breath, and we were there and she was not..."

Her only daughter Meghan bore witness then and bears witness now in this heartbreakingly beautiful book that demystifies what it is to mourn fearlessly and well.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

EMILY, ALONE by Stewart O'Nan (2011) Viking Penguin, 255 pages

Even before I began the story proper, O'Nan's sweet nostalgic dedication, "For my mother, who took me to the bookmobile" and the Virginia Woolf epigraph: "Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life-- startling, unexpected, unknown?" drew me in.

EMILY, ALONE explores the ordinary day-to-day intimacies of widow Emily Maxwell, now well into her seventies, whose remaining companions are her sister-in-law Arlene and her aging Springer Spaniel Rufus.

Under O'Nan's storytelling spell, each sentence seems like a prayer about aging and memory at once familiar and slightly foreign: "Often she searched for words, trailing off in midsentence, then waving away the incomplete thought, one hand flapping." Remembering formal occasions "trying to pinch open the clasp and marry it to the tiny eyelet" of her necklace, Emily is nostalgic about Henry, her dead husband, who when alive "would stand behind her like a valet...She'd find him admiring her in the mirror and while she discounted his adoration of her beauty--based as it was, on a much younger woman--she also relied on it, and as time past she was grateful for the restorative powers of his memory." Isn't that restorative power of memory what we all yearn for as we age, often messily, inconveniently, ungraciously?

Emily waxes philosophical too, especially during the bleak midwinter, resigning herself to the notion that the past is another country and admitting the paradox that "Time, which had her on the rack, would just as effortlessly rescue her. This funk was temporary. Tomorrow she would be fine."

I suppose the great appeal of this novel is that everyone can relate. Each one of us has an Emily in our lives, an aging mother, or sister or great aunt or grandmother who is determined to be independent and not a bother or a burden to daughters or sons, and determined to "wait through everything else to do the thing you wanted." In Emily's case that means "Easter, her garden, Chautauqua." Though, "she thought there should be more to live for."

As soon as she's able to get out and putter in her garden, Emily feels the relief of time lifting from her: "She and the bees and the worms--even the spiders--all had their jobs to do. Left to her work, she forgot everything but the task at hand, falling into reverie." Even now I know how that feels, to be completely absorbed and to be outside of time, totally immersed in place. For weeks Emily avoids visiting her husband's grave and "finally it was only by writing his name down on the calendar as if they had a date that she made herself go."

EMILY, ALONE is a beautiful beautiful book. Make time for it and O'Nan's spell in your busy life. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

TEN THOUSAND SAINTS by Eleanor Henderson from the ARC (forthcoming June 2011 from Ecco) 383 pages

Remember how Jennifer Egan's A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD set book lovers abuzz in 2010? Well, get ready for Eleanor Henderson's TEN THOUSAND SAINTS to shake you up and leave you breathless in 2011.

It's the end of 1987 and full-time friends, frequent stoners and all-time slackers Teddy McNicholas and Jude Keffy-Horn are celebrating Jude's 16th birthday beneath the stadium seats of the football field in small-town Vermont, sharing "the dregs of last night's bowl" that they had stolen from the glove box of Teddy's mom's car. Although they only have $140 saved between them, the boys hope to "save some more money and when they were both old enough to drop out (Teddy would be sixteen in May), they were going to buy bus tickets to the Port Authority and stay with Johnny [Teddy's eighteen-year-old half brother] until they could find a place of their own."

Enter Eliza, the daughter of Jude's absentee father Les's Upper Westside girlfriend Diane. Eliza is on her way back to Manhattan from a holiday ski-cation with friends and she stops in Vermont ostensibly to meet Jude and his sister Prudence face to face. A party girl herself, Eliza not only gets Teddy high on cocaine, but also encourages him to have sex with her. And, it's the consequences of that decision that turn everybody's world upside down in a cascade of "what ifs" and drive the plot forward for the next three hundred pages.

Teddy's fatal overdose is not a secret-- you know from the opening page of his death--however, what happens as a result leads to the heart of the novel where there are secrets kept and told by all of the main players, secrets about paternity, true love, AIDS and abortion. Yet, being young, they continue to dream. Eliza imagines "Annabel Lee" growing inside her, Jude believes he can really form a good punk band that will get gigs, Johnny's determined to remain "straight edge" and do the right thing to honour his brother's memory, and Rooster hopes that he will live to see another day with his true love by his side.

There is not a misplaced thought or gesture in TEN THOUSAND SAINTS. With impeccable pacing and enviable prose, Eleanor Henderson has written a lasting portrait of two generations struggling to understand each other in the modern age. I believed every word.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

RAVEN STOLE THE MOON by Garth Stein (1998) HarperCollins, 441 pages

I came to Garth Stein through his most recent novel THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, featuring Enzo, a canine protagonist with an obsession for race car driving and the uncanny ability to scent cancer. How I loved that book and wished that what transpires in it could possibly be true.

His earlier novel RAVEN STOLE THE MOON proves to me that Stein is not a one hit wonder. He's got storytelling legs. And, like literary thriller wunderkind Kate Atkinson, each book is different from the last, yet equally accomplished and satisfying.

On the anniversary of her young son's death, Jenna Rosen abandons her materially comfortable Seattle life by skipping out on a networking party she'd been barely tolerating with her ambitious husband Robert. She's tired of his tired jokes and decides on a whim to get in his car and drive until she can clear her head. That drive takes her to the ferry docks where she offers to buy a young couple a ticket to Skagway because they've lost one of theirs. Through this kindness of strangers gesture, Jenna finds herself also drawn to a northern journey back to Wrangell where her son Bobby disappeared two years previous. And, the young couple offer her a gift of a handmade necklace featuring an Indian spirit called a kushtaka. Jenna is both touched by their gift and intrigued by its enigmatic symbolism.

A mother's grief is fierce. Once Jenna returns to the site of her only child's death, she is determined to find a way to assuage his restless spirit. With the help of local strangers in the Alaskan wilderness, Jenna tries to sift through the terrifying beliefs of her ancestors, the Tlingit. What she must face is bone-chilling and Stein will have you believing that each heart-thumping turn is the genuine article. By mixing Jenna's emotions with her Native cultural inheritance, Stein challenges the power of grief to set things right.

RAVEN STOLE THE MOON is an engrossing tale about loss and redemption and the work essential to turn grief into something more lustrous.

BOSSYPANTS by Tina Fey (2011) Little, Brown and Company, 275 pages

Tina Fey's BOSSYPANTS is a collection of personal essays (some familiar if you read The New Yorker), lists, anecdotes, work advice as well as 30 ROCK and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE script excerpts that will make you feel as if she were sitting in your living room blithely recounting the unexpected and remarkable trajectory of her life.

The cover artwork will either amuse you or creep you out. With perfect makeup and sporting a flattering haircut (both of which she defies in most of the other photos included in the book), Fey's head is photoshopped onto the torso of a middle-aged man. It would truly make me happy if those arms turned out to be Alec Baldwin's--Fey's inspiration for 30 ROCK's antithetical Baldwin: Jack Donaghy.

Tina Fey is at the top of her game. She was the youngest person to be given the Mark Twain award for Humour, has an armful of Emmys for 30 ROCK which she produces, co-writes and co-stars in on NBC, has been on the big screen with her pal Amy Poehler in BABY MAMA and Steve Carrell in DATE NIGHT, and written for the big screen (MEAN GIRLS) and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE to which she returned to play Sarah Palin opposite Poehler's Hillary Clinton. What is obvious about all of these successes is that Fey takes none of them for granted.

Although I'm a bit older than Fey, I do share with her the horror of the YOU ARE A YOUNG LADY NOW pamphlet, secreted in my underwear drawer when I was ten and other mortifying coming-of-age milestones like publicly trying on a bra outside of my clothes in a department store. While I didn't work as YMCA receptionist as my first grown up job post-college, I did work as a temp for a social services agency in Toronto, where it was common place to witness tattooed street youth convulsing in heroin withdrawal while I answered the phones and set up appointments for them with their social workers.

At the end of the parody list "Remembrances of Being a Little Bit Fat," I could kiss Fey for writing, "We should leave people alone about their weight. Being chubby for a while (provided you don't give yourself diabetes) is a natural phase of life and nothing to be ashamed of. Like puberty or slowly turning into a Republican." Also, about surviving in the workplace, she sagely intones, "don't waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions...Do your thing and don't care if they like it."

By the end of BOSSYPANTS I was happy to know that Jack Burditt wrote the line from the episode "Rosemary's Baby" starring Carrie Fisher (herself surely a smartypants script doctor as well as the iconic Princess Leia) as a crazy former-era comedy writer about whom Donaghy snarks, "Never go with a hippy to a second location." Most of all, however, I would like to meet Don Fey, her dad, the man to whom powerful men like Lorne Michaels and Alec Baldwin "stand down." After meeting him Fey admits, "it rearranges something in their brain about me...What are they realizing? I wonder. That they'd better never mess with me, or Don Fey will yell at them? That I have high expectations for the men in my life because I have a strong father figure?" Right on both accounts, I hope.

The best advice before reading BOSSYPANTS: have a prophylactic pee. You'll need to read this romp on an empty bladder. Or else.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

MY DEAR I WANTED TO TELL YOU by Louisa Young (from the ARC, forthcoming May 2011) HarperCollins Canada, 325 pages

If you are already a fan of Pat Barker's REGENERATION trilogy and her novel LIFE CLASS about the confluence of visual art and emerging reconstructive facial surgery as a result of injuries on the World War One front, then you will be completely predisposed to be entranced by Louisa Young's MY DEAR I WANTED TO TELL YOU.

In 1907 as a young boy in working class London Riley Purefoy happens to be insinuated into the lives of the posh Waveney family when patriarch Robert Waveney suggests he be a face model for a painting by Sir Alfred: "He wants to put it in a painting, on top of a goaty-legged faun. What do you think? Could you sit still long enough for him to paint you? He'd probably give you a shilling." There, under Sir Alfred's tutelage over the course of 7 years, Riley goes from brush cleaner and occasional model to becoming a painter himself, one his patron refers to as "a miniature Roger Fry." In the studio, Riley meets Nadine Waveney, the educated and beautiful daughter and dreamily falls in love, half-knowing that theirs was an untenable one because of class.

Nadine and Riley are 18 when the war breaks out and both are determined to make a genuine contribution. Riley enlists and is an ideal soldier, ready to be told what to do and to do it. Nadine also does not shy away from what is required of her as a volunteer nurse; she applies herself with equal measure to both the drudgery and the emotional aspect of the work, admitting, "When no one was looking she kissed the dying, their cheeks, their foreheads, their mouths...They whispered, 'I love you.' 'I love you too, darling,' she whispered back. Because in the face of death, really, who cares about love?"

While serving on the Front in France, Riley sustains a ghastly injury and is invalided home to England where he comes under the care of the progressive physician, Major Dr. Harold Gillies. Gillies is a pioneer of plastic surgery and specializes in facial reconstruction. (See his seminal 1920 text, "Plastic Surgery of the Face" for actual details.) At the heart of this novel Young shows how Gillies not only rebuilt faces, but also lives. When he is strong enough to contemplate writing a missive to his mother and to Nadine, Riley lies about the severity of his wound--it is that form letter that gives the book its title.

In truth, Riley admits (in an inspired extended analogy), "he looked like a scarlet crater, rimmed with a half-formed pile of earthworks, a fallen-over pile of dirty sandbags. Grey bruising and purple swelling and black scab, hanging loose over nothing. The metal chin support, like revetting. Seams between pads of flesh running across his face like trenches, swelling like sandbags. A few loose stitches like barbed wire. I look like fucking no man's land."

Because of his deformity, Riley decides to protect Nadine from what he now perceives to be an impossible love. Yes, he is a decorated soldier, but he is a decorated soldier without a face. He enlists his nurse Rose Locke's (cousin of Riley's Commanding Officer Peter) help to perpetuate the lie; she willingly obliges. And, because Nadine believes the lie, she asks for a transfer out of London to France where, "Everything was as wrong as she felt. She was glad. She took all the dirtiest jobs. She didn't complain. She didn't join in...Night and work were her blankets...Death had a happy ending every time. Peace. She liked their poor corpses, safe on their way to a numbered grave, cosy within the system built and created for them. Not lying out there, in the dark, alone."

After many surgeries, when Riley has the opportunity to meet Mrs. Ainsworth, his fellow soldier Jack's widow, that moment is transformational. Her kindness and lack of judgement sets Riley on the path of real healing.

MY DEAR I WANTED TO TELL YOU held me in its thrall, even during moments that I felt squeamish from the brilliant surgical detail. In the end, you will realize that all of the characters bravely faced wars of their own.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

THE BIRD SISTERS by Rebecca Rasmussen (2011) Crown Publishing, 287 pages

Rebecca Rasmussen's debut novel (to be launched to the wider world on April 12th) will tug at your heartstrings. Guaranteed. The tenderness demonstrated by her characters had me weeping by page three when protagonist Twiss receives an injured goldfinch from a little girl after her mother's minivan "severed one of the goldfinch's wings and crushed the other one." Here is what started my tears:

"She'd offer the goldfinch a teaspoon of millet and peanut butter and hold him up to the window so he could see the sky. Once a bird lost his ability to fly, not much else could be done in the way of mending him. Losing a wing was a little like losing a leg and the freedom of movement, of spirit, it granted you; most people could live without the former but not the latter."

THE BIRD SISTERS is a fully formed narrative. From the beginning I thought of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and how the summer that Dill came to Maycomb County, everything changed in Jem and Scout's lives. Something akin happens here when Twiss and Milly's older cousin Bett comes to stay in the summer of 1947 and changes the course of all of their lives forever. Each of the characters you will meet seems like flesh and blood relatives from a less complicated, albeit occasionally harrowing, time.

The spinsters, now in their seventies and still living together in the home in which they were raised, carry talismans with them as comfort: worn advice from their mother who repeatedly told them, "Bone china is like your heart. If it breaks, it can't be fixed," and a copy of The Curious Book of Birds, inscribed, "For Milly, Because."

Rasmussen carefully balances the heartache with moments of levity that surprise and delight, often found in comments from each of the teenaged girls who are 14, 16 and 18 or through their candid observations about the limited small-town world in which they live. Fourteen-year-old Twiss asks her 16-year-old sister Milly, for instance, "How would you like to be stuck with someone like Adam?" And, instead of waiting for Milly's response, offers up her own: "I would have eaten that apple too. Just to get away from him."

When Henry the parrot suffers a bout of insomnia before his musical debut at the town fair where he sings "Ave Maria" in Latin, his human companion Mrs. Bettle tells the girls that he "says the most appalling things after a night of no sleep." Of course, I imagine Henry swearing a blue streak and needing to go to confession to be absolved of his instinctive naughtiness. The faithless Father Rice would certainly be amused. When a pushy parishioner demands, "What if I refuse to live in a godless world?," he counsels, "Then, I'm afraid you'll have to shoot yourself, my dear. Either God doesn't exist or He's too busy to do it Himself."

Like Carol Shields, Rasmussen manages to show what is extraordinary in the ordinary lives lived by ordinary folk. There are well-placed stones along the narrative path that gesture towards what is to come: a fortune teller's advice; an almost drowning; the heady promise of first love; the agony of betrayal; an unexpected proposal; forged letters; a ride in an airplane; bars of lavender soap shaped like seashells; a tractor-shaped buttercream cake; purple prairie happiness tonic; secrets kept and told; a book shaped like forgiveness. With each deft reveal, the story will have you in its luminous thrall.

And, there is wisdom woven through. Teenaged Twiss realizes, "Maybe it was easier to tell your life to someone you didn't know than to tell it to someone you did." At the same time, from her perch atop the Ferris wheel at the county fair, her older sister Milly sees "that everything below her...was too good to be true and, like the Ferris wheel, would eventually have to come down." Most importantly they both know, and this knowledge binds them just as much as their blood, that "You can't always explain why you love the people you love." You can't.

In "Anthem" Leonard Cohen wrote, "there is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." Make room for the light in THE BIRD SISTERS. It will split you open and fill you up. It is a blindingly stunning debut.