Tuesday, May 24, 2011

UP UP UP: STORIES by Julie Booker (2011) House of Anansi Press, 219 pages

Lisa Moore's cover blurb for Julie Booker's debut collection promises that the "stories will transport you." And they do. You'll be transported in time and place.

In "Geology in Motion" you'll open water sea kayak alongside longtime friends Lorrie and Katie "where the glaciers calve all night like thunder;" then, take at turn at the piano bench in "Every Good Boy" (remember the mnemonic device drilled into you about the treble clef staff?) and meet the piano teacher's husband, Mr. Acker, the shoe man at Eaton's to whom "saying hello was as important as a size six pump, a size nine in black," and for whom each lady dangles "a shoe like an unlit cigarette."

Try your turn at "Breakup Fresh's" speed-dating in a "Singles' Night at the museum" and experience that "moment before possibility" with Tracy, riding the beat of her anxious heart. Prefer the rugged outdoors? Pull on your climbing gear and journey with Didi to Tibet where she lugs her backpack, called Bradley, "in and out of every truck and bus, infuriating our tour guide," filled as it is with "the Elgin Marbles of her upscale London life."

And there's more. So much more. You'll spend uncomfortable time in an eating disorder clinic, date a tree man "who abseiled from his upper loft bedroom, back down to the living room," experience a clowning workshop that "is nothing like real life," date a mod with "long eyelashes that signalled monarch migration with one flutter," steal tomatoes from an irascible neighbour, cutting them triumphantly "into slices as thick as medals," and finish your journey in Toronto's Don Valley where "the ending will surprise" you.

Each one of these stories is a workshop in how to write fiction. Whether it is two pages long or closing in on fifteen, the story has tension, narrative drive, believable diction and figurative language that will challenge the way you see your world.

Each story is a well-cut and polished gem to which you will return over and over again, breathless in admiration.

MR. CHARTWELL by Rebecca Hunt (2010) HarperCollins Canada, 217 pages

Winston Churchill is 89 years old and finally retiring from his vocation as a public official in July 1964. MR CHARTWELL chronicles the days leading up to his departure and the weight that that decision bears on him. It is no secret that Churchill struggled with depression and in fact often referred to it as a black dog. Here, in this remarkable debut novel, Rebecca Hunt personifies that dog in Black Pat and through the miracle of magic realism you will come to believe, as I did, in his palpable panting form.

When you first meet Black Pat, he's waiting impatiently for the elder statesman to wake up and when Churchill speaks "in a barely audible whisper....'Bugger off,'" it grins "filthily in the blackness...with unsuppressed relish, 'No.'" Miles away in Battersea, Esther Hammerhans, recently widowed is beginning to question the reason for her husband Michael's death when her thoughts are interrupted by a visitor, a Mr. Chartwell (aka Black Pat), come to rent a room as a lodger. Esther flinches, only barely when she realizes that "Mr. Chartwell was unmistakably a dog, a mammoth muscular dog about six foot seven high....the horror of him mesmerizing." No sooner has Mr. Chartwell offered Esther an extraordinary sum to board, than Esther shows him what will be his room, Esther's husband Michael's former study.

With their distinct forms of depression set against each other for cosmic balance, Churchill's lifelong determination to K.B.O., "keep buggering on," helps to provide a context for the circumstantial depression that Esther will temporarily suffer. And, when they meet when she is sent by the House of Commons to his Kent home to take dictation for his final public speech, he is able to provoke her into believing that she has a choice.

The sweet rapport between Winston and his wife Clementine is obvious throughout. They have pet nicknames for each other, "Mr Pug" and "Mrs. Pussycat," and after 55 years of marriage Clementine knows "when to leave him to the thorns of his solitude."

In the heart of the story, the repartee between Churchill and Black Pat is the stuff of Shakespearean comedy:
"The work you have done is the measure of you as a man..."
"I know what you are scavenging for, vulture."
"And you will be quantified accordingly."
"Are you listening, you rustic ignorant?"

Back at Esther's place Black Pat is performing his daily toilet with a tea towel and a wooden spoon that he has stolen from the kitchen to provoke her and to aspire to have "the smile of Tess of the D'Ubervilles...like roses full of snow." And, at the end of the work day, swigging the fetid water in a vase of wilting flowers, he sings, "with a crooning tilt to his forehead, 'A bone in the fridge may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl's best friend.'"

Hours later he's back in Kent with Churchill and they parody the famous exchange Sir Winston allegedly had with Lady Astor:

"You're drunk!"
"And you're naked," Black Pat shouted through towels trying to remember the quote, 'But in the morning I will be sober.'
"Obnoxious guinea worm. In the morning I will be clothed....But you will always be a bastard."

Isn't this great stuff? Truly.

When Churchill is in fine form, good naturedly responding to questions from the press about his retirement during which he pledges to "delight my wife with my unabated company" and crush champagne grapes at the Pol Rogers' chateau in Epernay, Black Pat behaves like a petulant child, his power over Churchill for the moment waning.

MR. CHARTWELL feels like the genuine article. You will believe in this version of Churchill and admire the strength of his character when facing losses no parent ought to endure. Rebecca Hunt has written about depression from the inside out, scaffolding it through Black Pat's gestures and behaviour and both Churchill's and Esther's responses to him. This is a brilliant book and I am so grateful that it crossed my path.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

THE BEAUTY CHORUS by Kate Lord Brown (2011) McArthur & Company, 430 pages

My grandmother's baby sister Elsie served in the Canadian Women's Army Corps during the Second World War, so I've been curious to read THE BEAUTY CHORUS because it focuses on the lives of three young women who meet because they volunteer, just as Elsie did, to make a unique contribution to the war effort by being trained by the Air Transport Auxiliary Unit to fly and ferry planes between the air bases in England, the existence of which I previously knew nothing about.

In selecting "High Flight" by 19-year-old Spitfire pilot John Gillespie Magee, Jr. to serve as the epigraph to THE BEAUTY CHORUS, Kate Lord Brown establishes the mood for the novel even before the narrative unfurls:

"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds--and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of...

It's New Year's Eve, 1940, and the lithe and winsome debutante Evie Chase finds it difficult to join in the celebratory fun at her father's annual fête while the war rumbles on about her. Raised in great privilege and provided the finest things her indulging father could offer, twenty-year-old Evie is beginning to understand the dissonance such a life provokes as bombs fall nightly in nearby London. Evie realizes that her life ought to be about more than parties and picnics and riding her horse Montgomery and she dreams of making a real contribution to the war effort. When her childhood friend Peter introduces her as "a very good pilot" to Captain Eric Bailey who helps to run the Air Transport Auxiliary at White Waltham just down the road, Evie is thrilled.

When Edie appears at the ATA training centre wearing her full length mink and high heeled shoes, she turns more than a few heads and assumptions are made about her character, but those assumptions are wrong. Edie is strong-willed and prepared to do what it takes to prove that she is worthy of the task, especially in the eyes of sexist men on the base. Edie suffers no fools and finds herself bunking with two other young women in a modest cottage close to White Waltham. Like Edie, Megan and Stella have an abiding desire to participate in the war effort. Megan's a hardworking Welsh farm girl who has suffered the loss of her only brother in the war and Stella says she's a widowed single mother whose only child has been evacuated to Ireland where he is staying with her in-laws for safety. All three young women are plucky and resourceful and totally supportive of each other, especially during difficult moments, of which there are many.

They have a model female pilot in Amy Johnson, an actual historical figure who ferried many planes for the ATA until she crashed into the Thames Estuary, as she does in a flashback sequence. Amy functions as a ghostly presence in the novel, the philosopher queen waxing about her passion for the skies and her mortal ingratitude for life's little pleasures and her intention to "not leave these girls" and "be their guardian angel, flying beside their Spitfires' wings. When they are looking for a break in the clouds, I shall be the wind that parts a safe course home." And, for the most part, you would do well to place your faith in the spectre of Amy Johnson. It is only when an engine is intentionally sabotaged that her ghostly presence is ineffective and the consequences are dire.

To keep the subplot sporting, Lord Brown includes love triangles for each of the girls. Megan has Bill and Peter angling for her affection; Stella is tethered to the idea of her dead husband Richard while she's also drawn to the artistic kindred spirit of Michael; Evie is engaged to Jack, an American pilot who adores every inch of her, yet also is drawn to "Beau," the complicated instructor who trained her.

I was impressed by Lord Brown's fanatical attention to the mechanics of flight and felt that although the girls were very comfortable with the idiosyncratic language involving gauges and dials, that I, by contrast, remained a dullard.

The final fifty pages of THE BEAUTY CHORUS are riveting. Through private letters Evie discovers some upsetting information not meant for her eyes that alters her perspective on what really matters, Beau's secret assignment leads him into dangerous territory both physical and psychological and Stella receives news that will change the course of the rest of her life. As each of these narrative threads resolves itself, your heart will be adrenaline-pumping alongside the characters, hoping beyond hope that they make it safely home.

Grab a copy of THE BEAUTY CHORUS and settle in to your favourite reading spot as you immerse yourself in this wonderful story, convincingly told about a group of women whose contribution to the war through their dedicated service to the Air Transport Auxiliary was essential in its support of the Allied effort.

Follow @katelordbrown on Twitter and be sure to visit the blog "Ask Evie" that provides news about the book at http://thebeautychorus.blogspot.com/ and to drop by Kate's personal blog to find out "What Kate Did Next": http://katelordbrown.blogspot.com/

Friday, May 13, 2011

STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett (from the ARC, on sale May 27, 2011) HarperCollins Canada, 353 pages

I've long admired Ann Patchett's prose from her memoir TRUTH AND BEAUTY about her extraordinary friendship with Lucy Greely to her Orange Prize and PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel BEL CANTO to her gem-of-a-graduation-address WHAT NOW? It seems to me that her literary star has already risen and secured itself in the heavens, but her most recent book STATE OF WONDER has proved me wrong. It is her most accomplished book to date and her apotheosis is yet to come.

Here's the brilliant, beguiling opening:

"The news of Anders Eckman's death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world."

Years ago, Dr. Marina Singh traded a frenetic, tension-filled life as an ob-gyn for a less stressful life of research in a pharmaceutical lab. At Vogel, she met both Anders Eckman, her lab mate, and Mr. Fox, its CEO and her current lover, a liaison about which she remains guarded. When the letter arrives from Dr. Annick Swenson in the Brazilian jungle where Anders had been sent to report on the progress of an extraordinary drug in development and Swenson pens, "I will keep what little he had here for his wife, to whom I trust you will extend this news along with my sympathy," Mr. Fox knows he must be the one to break this devastating news to Anders' wife Karen. He is the one, after all, who put his life at risk by sending him to the Amazon on Vogel business.

Marina accompanies Mr. Fox to the Eckmans's home and recognizes right away that the family dog, Pickles, a golden retriever, "would have to stand in for their minister if they had one. The dog would be Karen's mother, her sister, whoever it was she wished was standing next to her when everything came down. The dog would have to be Anders." Later that same night Karen phones Marina and challenges the news: "But say he's not dead. I know you don't believe it but just say. Say that he's sick and needs me to come and find him." And, because Karen cannot leave her young sons, she asks Marina if she would go in her place. Marina agrees.

To prepare for her journey into a remote part of the Amazonian jungle, Marina takes antimalarial medication. The Lariam leads to recurring childhood nightmares of being separated from her father in a crowd in India when she was just a little girl: "the people around them rose up like a tide and she was then forced to let him go...her deepest fear, her father's hand slipping from her hand." Before Marina leaves, she visits Karen to read Anders' most recent letter to Karen for clues and it's then that Karen knowingly confides, "Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody just keeps pulling it and pulling it."

Arriving in Brazil, Marina is met by a local fixer called Milton who is gracious and welcoming and sets her up in a hotel room in Manaus where she must wait for either Dr. Swenson to come to town to pick up perishables or for Dr. Swenson's protectors, the Bovenders, a young married couple who seem to have the job of preventing access to the very person Marina needs to see. While waiting for either to appear, Marina immerses herself in Dr. Swenson's writing about the reproductive endocrinology in the Lakashi people, an isolated Amazonian tribe "whose women appeared to give birth well into their seventies" or she reads the Henry James novel she brought to distract herself from the upsetting business of finding out what actually happened to her friend.

In one of her few phone calls home to Mr. Fox, Marina learns that the Lakashi "chew some sort of bark while it's still on the tree" and that is why they remain fertile well past the expected years of any other women. With that information, we have a hint of what might be to come and why Vogel pharmaceuticals continues to pour an endless supply of money into the mind-blowing research that Dr. Swenson is conducting in the heart of the jungle.

Throughout STATE OF WONDER there are plenty of allusions to Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS and Kingsolver's THE POISONWOOD BIBLE and your reading will be all the richer if you have those two novels in your mind's eye. However, the reverence for the natural world is the novel's watermark:

"The quiet that was left without her was layered, subtle: at first Marina only heard it as silence, the absence of human voices, but once her ear had settled into it the other sounds began to rise, the deeply forested chirping, the caw that came from the tops of trees, the chattering of lower primates, the incessant sawing of insect life. It was not unlike the overture of the opera."

And, there are equally terrifying scenes: one that had my heart thumping involved an anaconda. Yet, Patchett, being Patchett, pens this wondrous strange moment with grace.

So much of what happens at the heart of this remarkable book must not be revealed. You need to peel back the layers yourself and marvel moment to moment alongside Marina as she discovers truths about the jungle and herself.

When I first heard the title STATE OF WONDER, I immediately thought of Glenn Gould's landmark recording of the Goldberg Variations. And, it is a rather apt analogy for a book in which lives are improvised from variation to variation using humanity as the bass note.

STATE OF WONDER is sure to be one of the most talked about books of 2011. You must read it.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

UNTOLD STORY by Monica Ali, from the ARC (forthcoming June 28, 2011) Simon and Schuster Canada, 259 pages

In a turn grounded in magical thinking, Monica Ali explores what might have happened had Diana, Princess of Wales, not been killed in the car crash in that Paris tunnel in August 1997, pursued by paparazzi as on every other day of her very public private life. What is the price of fame? What would a person desperate to reclaim more than a shred of her privacy be willing to do? Imagine having a secret so precious that you cannot disclose it, especially to those you love most.

The opening caveat, "Some stories are never meant to be told. Some can only be told as fairy tales," is the perfect set up for what follows as you peel back the layers of the death and rebirth of an individual as famous and charismatic as the former Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, at one time the most recognizable face on the planet.

Using a masterful mélange of third-person omniscient narration, private diary and personal letters, Ali forms a convincing portrait of her protagonist from those whom she has allowed to know her best. In the present, it is April 2007 and three girlfriends, Suzie, Amber and Tevis have opened a bottle of Pinot Grigio and are waiting for their friend Lydia to arrive to celebrate her birthday in one of their homes in sleepy little Kensington on the east coast of the USA. When Lydia's co-worker Esther arrives for the party and explains that Lydia took the day off from her job caring for dogs at the local shelter, the women are appropriately alarmed that Lydia has not shown up. The Lydia they know is always on time.

Flipping back the clock, Ali sketches in the details about Lydia's quiet domestic life in small town America and gestures to her much more lavish and demanding past life through the diaries of Princess Diana's Private Secretary Lawrence Standing, whom we quickly discover was responsible for organizing her "death" and "rebirth" a decade previous. Through his diaries and their conversations, we learn how committed he was to protecting her and how much she literally trusted him with her life. Even when Standing unavoidably disappears from Lydia/Diana's life, she continues to correspond with him in a series of letters that help her to make sense of the world around her.

The stakes are raised when she realizes she is being trailed by a photographer she recognizes from life before, John Grabowski, who through a stroke of extraordinary luck (because she had stopped wearing her brown contact lenses and he matches up images of her world famous baby blues) manages to trail her and capture her new life on film. Yet, Grabowski has his doubts, "for an instant it was hard to believe that she wasn't just what she seemed to be."

What I found compelling about the narrative was how Ali included so much of Diana's vulnerability. Lydia is paranoid, she's worried that she's simply not smart enough, she is especially kind to those weaker/needier, and she is at ease with the broken animals in the shelter, recognizing in them her own human frailty.

Reminiscent of Curtis Sittenfeld's AMERICAN WIFE that re-imagines an authentic sympathetic and fictional life for Laura Bush, Monica Ali's UNTOLD STORY convincingly portrays the possibilities of an alternate ending for a cultural icon who "broke all manner of rules," and "was a gorgeous bundle of trouble." Add this marvelous, heartening tale to your pile of summer reading. It will be out just in time.

THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain, 2011 audiobook, Random House

THE PARIS WIFE is Hadley Richardson's perspective on her life with Ernest Hemingway and what a fresh, compelling voice Paula McLain has created for her. We meet the dashing newspaperman as Hadley does at a party in Chicago in 1920. She is the archetypal older woman, though only by a handful of years. Through a courtship of letters and train journeys, they confide their dreams to each other and at times it feels as if you are eavesdropping on their lives, even moreso for me since I listened to the audiobook, convincingly read by Carrington Macduffie.

For anyone who has read either THE SUN ALSO RISES or A MOVEABLE FEAST, the life that the Hemingways share in Paris and in Pamplona will feel very familiar. McLain masterfully uses setting and circumstance to create the entirely credible backstory for both of those books, so I was not surprised to hear that Hemingway filled handwritten journals in 6 weeks with the first draft of the manuscript that offers the wistful sentiment, "isn't it pretty to think so." And, your heart will crack a little when thirty years later (when they're married to other people), "Tatie" calls up his true love and reminisces about those heady days they shared in Jazz Age Paris with "Mister Bumby," Miss Stein, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Beach as he tells Hadley about the collection of personal essays he's working on. They were published posthumously, after Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun in the same way that Hadley's own father had.

Hadley Richardson may indeed have been Hemingway's PARIS WIFE, and it seems here, in this rapt telling of her tale, that she's the one who mattered most.