Thursday, March 31, 2011

THE HIGH ROAD by Edna O'Brien (1988) Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 214 pages



Edna O'Brien is considered by Alice Munro to be perhaps the finest short story writer anywhere. THE HIGH ROAD is a mid-career novel set in a Spanish enclave where there is a circle of women who yearn for loves past and present.

You'll meet Charlotte, a former debutante who has chosen a life of withdrawal; Iris, an imperious aging self-absorbed harpy; and Anna, the narrator, who senses in hotel maid Catalina her chance to defy social expectations of suitable relationships and renew hope for true love.

It seems to me that O'Brien was trying to push conventions of the day aside and establish herself as a writer who experiments with boundaries both stylistic and sexual. Reading the novel almost 25 years later, it feels decidedly dated.

Monday, March 28, 2011

SANCTUS by Simon Toyne (from the ARC forthcoming May 2011 UK, Sept 2011 Canada) HarperCollins, 474 pages



Are you a fan of smart literary thrillers? Think of Andrew Pyper's LOST GIRLS, THE WILDFIRE SEASON, THE KILLING CIRCLE and THE GUARDIANS or titles by Kate Atkinson including CASE HISTORIES and STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG. Well, Simon Toyne is a sparkling new voice in the genre. SANCTUS is his debut novel and has already sold to 40 countries, is due to be translated into 23 languages and the enthusiasm continues to build worldwide. It will be published by HarperCollins Canada in September 2011.

I am lucky enough to have been given an Advance Reading Copy. It arrived on a Friday and I shirked social commitments that night to read it in two sittings. Toyne's storytelling is seductive and addicting. You'll see.

Set primarily in contemporary Turkey on a mountaintop above a tourist destination, SANCTUS also travels to Rio de Janeiro and New York City to landscapes more familiar both physically and emotionally. The epigraph, "A man is a god in ruins," (Ralph Waldo Emerson) exquisitely gestures to the crux of the story. But, tempting though it is, I will not reveal that here.

What you may know, however, is that there is a secret society of monks who live a reclusive life in Ruin, Turkey where they protect their Sacrament with a ferocity and determination that borders on sociopathology. No one outside of their cloistered community knows exactly what the Sacrament is, though one brave soul, Brother Samuel, risks his life to show the world clues to the rebus preserved inside their Citadel. When his dangerous, symbolic act is witnessed not only by tourists milling about, but also through the transmission of that very act through hand-held devices and lurking media, the world soon knows about this extraordinary moment.

There are immediate rippling effects that only a few folks understand: development aid worker Kathryn Mann and a handful of her intimates dare to hope that a new beginning is at hand; New York City reporter Liv Adamsen wonders if perhaps what might be the reappearance of her long lost brother will help her to solve lifelong questions she's had about herself.

The chapters are short. The pace lightning-quick. I found myself putting off routines like preparing meals and walking the dog to keep reading.

Simon Toyne has penned a gripping, taut narrative that will have you questioning everything about the characters, about yourself, and about the true nature of faith. You don't want to miss this brilliant debut, the success of which will surely herald more books to come.

Friday, March 25, 2011

SONGS FOR THE MISSING by Stewart O'Nan (2008) Viking Penguin, 277 pages



What strikes more fear into a parent's heart than a missing child?

It's the summer of 2005 and for high school senior Kim Larsen, "It was the summer of her Chevette, of J.P. and letting her hair grow. The last summer, the best summer, the summer they'd all dreamed of since eighth grade... an extension of their best year." In what turns out to be their last conversation, on the day before Kim disappears, she takes her bookish younger sister Lindsay to Dairy Queen and tells her, "You know, dude, I'm really going to miss you." Lindsay, in typical teenish disbelief and pitch perfect mumbling monosyllables, retorts, "No you won't."

Once the police are contacted, Lindsay's mom bends under their constant questioning and admits out loud, "I think someone took her." At first it's the extended neighborhood and church community who gather and form teams to comb through areas that Lindsay was known to frequent. Their well-intentioned but limited searching soon gives way to a media frenzy and the investigative support that leads to real answers.

Throughout this harrowing ordeal, Lindsay's parents Fran and Ed don't sit passively waiting for her miraculous return. They turn their attention to schedules for the volunteers, make earnest pleas for radio and television audiences, appear at Lindsay's high school, trying to get her story out to the wider world any way they can. Months pass as the family tries to carve out a new normal--a life without Lindsay in it, though they dare yet to hope for her return.

In a Tennessee Williams turn, it is the kindness of a lonely stranger that finally offers the Larsens the only succor left to them.

SONGS FOR THE MISSING is my first exposure to Stewart O'Nan. His prose is powerful and rife with emotional resonance. Already, I've got his newest novel, EMILY, ALONE, lined up to read next. If it hadn't been for Washington Post Book Critic Ron Charles' enthusiasm for O'Nan's work, I may never have found my way to his books. And, what a shame that would have been.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

THE BIG WHY by Michael Winter (2004) House of Anansi Press, 374 pages



Abandon any preconceived notions you have about historical fiction and leap headlong onto the ride that Michael Winter provides in this richly realized imaginative portrait of American painter/engraver Rockwell Kent. (He provided the illustrations for Moby Dick) Although the father to young children and husband to the lovely Kathleen Whiting, Kent is totally feckless. He leaves his family in New York City because he has tired of the superficial art world that has become his bread and butter and travels to Brigus, Newfoundland just before World War One where he dreams of establishing an artists' colony. There he plans to get a house in order and to bring his wife and children from New York once the weather improves in this tiny coastal community.

Winter has breathed real life into Kent and all of his supporting characters, characters from an intimate community where everyone is sure to know each others' business and heartache as predictable as the tide that thrashes against the shore. Always suspicious of any outsider, especially one who dines out on a story of being invited by the Prime Minister, the locals keep a watchful eye on this suspect vegetarian womanizer even as his family settles in for a time.

Kent is surely his own worst enemy, something that he comes to realize after he has hurt those he has loved the most. It is Kent's friendship with Newfoundland's fabled explorer Bob Bartlett, however, that leads him to his existential heart when after disclosing a long-kept secret Bartlett insists, "the question is not were you loved. Or did you love. Or did you love yourself. Or did you allow love to move you, though that's a big one. Move you. The question, Rockwell, is did you get to be who you are. And if not, then why. That, my friend, is the big why."

Did you get to be who you are? It's a profound question. You might begin to form the answer to it by looking in the mirror with Rockwell Kent in Michael Winter's extraordinary novel THE BIG WHY.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

ALONE IN THE CLASSROOM by Elizabeth Hay (from the ARC) forthcoming from McClelland & Stewart, April 26, 2011



I am predisposed to like Elizabeth Hay's writing, having adored A STUDENT OF WEATHER (2000), GARBO LAUGHS (2003) and the Giller Prize-winning LATE NIGHTS ON AIR (2007). Plus, she is warm, engaging and attentive in person.

ALONE IN THE CLASSROOM flips back and forth in time between 1929, 1937, 1982, 1999 and 2007 as narrator Anne Flood, driven by curiosity and a need to define herself, explores the lives of the women in her family, especially her father's sister Connie whom she has always admired the most, because of her independence, intelligence and style.

In this early paragraph, Hay offers up the heart of the Anne's story:

"You touch a place and thousands of miles away another place quivers. You touch a person and down the line the ghost of relatives move in the wind....So interwoven are the strands of human life and so rich is the loam in which we lie that the same cemetery holds my grandmother and Ethel Weir and the man accused of her murder and the principal who knew them all, the bane of Connie's existence and therefore an abiding interest of mine."

Yet, we don't begin at the beginning. ALONE IN THE CLASSROOM opens in the Ottawa Valley in August 1937 when "the whole landscape was a painting come to life" on the day that 13-year-old Ethel Weir goes to pick chokecherries, berries "abloom with ghostly light that erased itself" and does not return home. Soon the town has picked a suspect, the young man who "almost stumbled over the corpse." Connie, now a journalist, has recently returned to Canada after working in Europe. In the town library she meets Hannah Soper (Anne's mother) who offers up her mother's boarding house when asked about renting a room. Click click. Part of the unknown future comes into focus.

Time travel back to Jewel, Saskatchewan in 1929 where Connie begins her career as a schoolteacher, working for a seemingly sophisticated but creepy principal, Mr. Ian Burns, known as "Parley." As Anne enigmatically hints, "Given what Parley Burns did and what happened to him in the end, Connie never tired of mulling over what kind of person he was deep down." You'll spend most of the novel puzzling out what Burns actually did in that prairie classroom and wondering whether or not what happened to him in the end is mete and just. Two things galvanize Connie's relationship to Jewel: a devastating fire and her blossoming trust from Michael Graves, one of her students who has been made to feel less than all of his young life. When Connie discovers in 14-year-old Michael what special talents he has and publicly praises him, he offers her a miniature gift: "One afternoon he pocketed a piece of blackboard chalk and returned it days later, setting on her desk a minute bird carved like the tiniest of lilies."

For those of you who have spent time in a classroom, you will know the following to be true as it is for Connie when she awakens in Michael a desire for learning: "A child lies like a grey pebble on the shore until a certain teacher picks him up and dips him in the water, and suddenly you see all the colours and patterns in the dull stone, and it's marvellous for the stone and marvellous for the teacher."

Flash forward to Christmas 1982 where Connie is visiting her brother Jimmy (Anne's dad) and his family in town from Boston where she is back teaching. On Boxing Day, Michael Graves drops by the house to visit with her. Connie's 71 and Michael's 67. Anne, herself married with young children, observes "I had never seen sex mow everything down before. His eyes stayed on her face, assessing, measuring, saying everything for her benefit, waiting." And, later, when Anne shows Michael her mother's paintings, he remarks, "They're beautiful, mysterious and full of meaning."

Many months later Anne and Michael reconnect and she is entranced by his way of interpreting the world."'We forget nothing,' he said. 'It's all there, waiting to be triggered...The facts don't matter....It all blurs and merges and contributes to a way of seeing the world.'" And a decade later at a funeral Michael explains, "A tender, tender thing comes over you when you get this old. It's a marvellous thing when you learn how to live. As my mother said, you give over."

Anne knows what Michael means: "A dead child becomes a flower. A gardener weaves her back into the tapestry of life. It doesn't lessen the tragedy, it makes it resurface every spring, a little shock to the heart."

That is what ALONE IN THE CLASSROOM is in its secrets kept and told. It is a sublime little shock to the heart.

PIGEON ENGLISH by Stephen Kelman (2011) House of Anansi Press, 263 pages



Narrator Harrison Opoku, a recent Ghanaian transplant to London, lives with his older sister Lydia and their mother in one of the housing projects that is bursting with new immigrants and native residents on the dole. Harri is only eleven, but, with his father back in Ghana supporting his grandmother and his baby sister Agnes, he feels he's the man of the house, responsible for the welfare of the women in his life.

PIGEON ENGLISH opens with the discovery of the corpse of a neighborhood boy familiar to Harri. Harri observes that "the dead boy's mama was guarding the blood. The rain wanted to come and wash the blood away but she wouldn't let it. She wasn't even crying, she was just stiff and fierce like it was her job to scare the rain back into the sky." Harri remembers another death he witnessed in Ghana: "An orange lady got hit by a trotro, nobody even saw it coming. I pretended like all the oranges rolling everywhere were her happy memories and they were looking for a new person to stick to so they didn't get wasted." The way Harri processes death is true to my experience with children his age puzzling it out through symbol and analogy that makes sense to them. However, in the projects, in spite of the police appeal for witnesses to come forward, the community responds with complicit silence.

Harri is wide-eyed and keen to absorb the world around him. As a kid, he feels the pressure to try to fit in culturally, so he draws Adidas stripes on his generic running shoes and tries to fill his head with unfamiliar slang: "In England there's a hell of different words for everything. It's for if you forget one, there's always another one left over. Gay and dumb and lame mean all the same. Piss and slash and tinkle meal all the same (the same as greet the chief.)"

Not much escapes Harri's curious gaze and he is as entranced by the idea of the CCTV cameras as extra help for God "for the places where the devil is very strong" as he is by the pigeons who make the housing estate their home, birds he plans to befriend because he admires their ability to fly. If he runs fast enough, he'll be "just like a spirit."

When it's his sister Lydia's birthday, Harri gives her the unexpected gift of being remembered in the future when he spots wet cement that they can jump in and make their mark, then sign their names: "The footprints are there to tell everybody we were here."

Throughout PIGEON ENGLISH, Harri's ebullient attitude towards the new world of which he is now a part reminded me of Baby's matter-of-fact wonder about her equally challenging life in Heather O'Neill's LULLABIES FOR LITTLE CRIMINALS.

The novel is broken down into five sections, marked by the months March through July and each of those sections is affiliated with an emblem that helps Harri interpret the significant changes in his life: airplane, fingerprint, closed circuit camera, waves, and pigeon. Those icons may seem enigmatic to you now, but when you read this tour de force fresh-voiced narrative, you will weep with their resonance.

If my word is not enough, consider what Emma Donoghue wrote about PIGEON ENGLISH. It's "a wonderful novel with a Ghanaian-Londoner child narrator you'll never forget. Simultaneously accurate and fantastical, this boy's love letter to the world made me laugh and tremble all the way through." It's a triumph.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

THE MURDERER'S DAUGHTERS by Randy Susan Meyers (2009) St. Martin's Press, 307 pages



Randy Susan Meyers (@randysusanmeyer) joins the list of fabulous women writers whose work I've discovered through the heady cyber company of the book community on Twitter: @AmyMacKinnon @rosannecash @clairecookwrite @robin_black @angie_abdou @julieklam and @EmilyMandel--I've reviewed books by all of them here on my blog.

I've been especially keen to read Meyers' novel knowing that it explores that complicated relationship between a father and his children after he commits a heinous and violent crime.

My mother was raised to believe her father was dead when the truth was he was in prison for fraud, a fact she discovered quite by accident when she was in her early twenties when she met his brother. I know how deprived she felt when the prison chaplain returned her letter insisting that she was better off not knowing the man her father had become. And, though she forged a relationship with her uncle, she never did meet her father, even after he had served his time, because he was too ashamed about abandoning her when she was just a child. It is heartbreaking even now many decades later.

When THE MURDERER'S DAUGHTERS opens in July 1971, Lulu is nine going on ten (her birthday is the next day) and her younger sister Merry is almost six. One night their estranged father pounds on the apartment door and demands that he be let in to talk to their mother. Lulu explains that her father "wanted things he couldn't have" perhaps most of all "he hungered" for her mother and her "pin-up girl façade." Knowing that she's not supposed to let her father into the apartment, Lulu weakens when he reassures her using her pet name: "Don't worry, Cocoa Puff. Mama won't get mad. I promise."

What transpires as a result is shocking and traumatizing. Not only does their father kill their mother, but he also wounds Merry, who spends swaths of time alone in hospital because of the narrow-minded attitudes of her mother's relatives. For a time the girls are raised by their grandmother, but when she dies and no relative will saddle themselves with the responsibility and stigma of the murderer's daughters, Lulu and Merry are put in an orphanage, where they learn to fend for each other at all costs. Even when the girls are fostered out to a wealthy New York doctor and his social worker wife, they realize that they can only really rely on each other.

Told over the course of 30 years, THE MURDERER'S DAUGHTERS is an unconventional bildungsroman that offers what feel like emotionally true perspectives from both the victims and the criminal who tries desperately to make amends.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS: STORIES by Robin Black (2010) Random House, 268 pages



Richard Ford says that in literature he found belonging. That literature made him believe in a better place.

His statement has never been truer for me than between the pages of this debut collection of short stories. There were moments that I felt as if Robin Black were whispering in my ear truths about my own life, both those obviously known to the world around me and those I hold secretly in my heart.

In each of the pieces in IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS there are characters coming face to face with real transitions in their lives, moments that are tender and agonizing. For example, in "The Guide" a protective father must offer up to his blind daughter on the cusp of college an opportunity to forge independence; in "If I Loved You" a middle-aged couple struggles with terminal illness and the complication of telling a developmentally delayed son; in "Immortalizing John Parker" a portraitist mourns the loss of a love affair while realizing her subject is dying and wonders about letting go of her past; in "Tableau Vivant a mother worries about her adult daughter's infidelity; in "The History of the World" a recently separated woman finds herself in crisis after an accident while traveling in Italy and discovers through the kindness of a stranger that her lifelong assumptions about herself just might not be true.

Black's hand tapped me on the shoulder and swiveled my head when she wrote in "Divorced, Beheaded, Survived,"

"The truth is that sometimes even more than a day goes by before I remember to think of my brother. It's only natural, I've told myself, time and time again. It's human nature, I've thought--as though there's consolation to be found in that. And maybe there is. Maybe it's a gift to be able to let go of the remembering."

Just as the rare faint scent of Fleurs de Rocaille (my grandmother's perfume) will turn my head on a street, in a theatre, in a bookshop, hopeful in that olfactory moment that she'll round the corner even though she's been gone for 16 years, Black's words bring me to my only brother and how my life "changed utterly" (to reference Yeats) after his accidental death in 1994.

In a recent post Black wrote for Beyond the Margins she explained that there is "the point at which an author gives the story to the reader. Here, I am finished. It belongs to you now. Do with it what you will." That leap of collaborative faith between the writer and the reader is part of the magic of fine fiction. Fiction that helps you find belonging and believe in a better place.

Robin Black's exquisitely drawn portraits of flawed people like you and me in IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS will indeed give you pause. Your heart will skip a beat, or two, and you'll feel all the finer for it.

DEAL BREAKER by Harlan Coben (1995) Random House, 343 pages



Although this is Coben's first Myron Bolitar novel, it's not the first time I've met Myron or his psychotic, but critically helpful, former university roommate Win because I haven't been reading the series in order, but rather as each book finds its way to me.

Myron is building his business as a sports agent and he's guided ably by his assistant Esperanza, a former wrestler known as Pocahontas on the ladies' circuit, who suffers no fools--especially the ones who are bullies. His current high profile client is Christian Steele, a football star whose fiancée Kathy Culver mysteriously disappeared from her university campus 18 months previous. The Culver family recently suffered another unexpected loss when Kathy's father Adam was murdered in his own home in what the police regard as a botched robbery. Myron is not so sure that there was a robbery at all or that Kathy and Adam's cases are unrelated. The cases are complicated by Myron's previous relationship with Kathy's sister Jessica and by his undercover instinct to set the record straight.

One of the aspects of Coben's character building that keeps me hooked is his playfulness with popular culture references. In DEAL BREAKER I was continually amused by the Broadway musical theatre posters that decorate Myron's office walls and Myron's ability to reference a song or a moment from one of those very shows as a way to test his closest friends.

As I have come to expect with Coben's novels, DEAL BREAKER is rife with wit, tension and a messy protagonist's need to make things right.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

HOLDING STILL FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE by Zoe Whittall (2009) House of Anansi Press, 296 pages



Don't you just love it when you find a new-to-you writer whose first book is such a treat that you can't wait to get your paws on the next? Even though HOLDING STILL FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE is not Zoe Whittall's first novel (BOTTLE ROCKET HEARTS is), it is the first one of hers that I've read.

An unconventional love triangle between a paramedic (Josh), a former teen-sensation (Billy) and an emerging filmmaker (Amy) is at the heart of this gritty, urban narrative that roams streets familiar to me from the different lives it feels I've led here in Toronto. Though it is decades since I enjoyed my twenties like these three, Whittall triggered memories of what it was like to feel on the cusp of something good and new and true. When every moment felt like a possibility.

In addition to the palpable tension between the main players, I enjoyed the behind the scenes peek at a working life for Emergency Services--the adrenaline rush and necessary emotional distance required of medics and police and firefighters on the front lines of trying to keep us safe from ourselves and each other. It's not only the story Whittall tells that had me hooked, but also the way she tells it. Sentences thrum with the rhythm of life and there are many that reveal her poetic heart. Consider "Canadian art movies" that "exist as though poured from the rusty taps of the local indie rock bar," or "Memories run through her brain like the soft strokes of a watercolour brush." Fantastic, right?

Like Russell Smith, Zoe Whittall slices the piece of the Toronto pie that she knows and loves so well and serves it up in style.

CAUGHT by Harlan Coben (2010) Penguin Canada, 388 pages



High school senior Haley McWaid is a model student, sister and daughter, but when she doesn't return home one night, her parents are right to worry in earnest. Reporter Wendy Tynes is on a mission to identify and confront sexual predators through her nationally televised program Caught in the Act . Dan Mercer is a divorced middle-aged man who works with troubled teens. Their three paths cross unexpectedly and the result is enough to tear a community apart.

With what I have come to regard as trademark intelligence and tension, Harlan Coben has the courage to inhabit each character convincingly so you are kept just enough off balance to second guess yourself about who the actual villains/victims are. Some are obvious, but others are not. Criminal Defense Attorney Hester Crimstein returns in CAUGHT and she is as irascible and sharp-tongued as ever. She will never suffer fools gladly, even if that fool is her own client.

Having read many of Coben's crime novels by now, I continue to be amused by his ability to weave social networking into his plot, so that it is not only a plot device and a tether to our real world, but also a character itself. Here he reminds us how easy it is to fake cyber identities on Facebook and blogs wherein damaging rumours are handily perpetuated.

What I like most about Coben's stories, though, is how he leaves room for the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. As Leonard Cohen wrote, "there is a crack, a crack in everything/ that's how the light gets in."

Sunday, March 06, 2011

TIGER, TIGER by Margaux Fragoso (2011) Douglas & McIntyre, 320 pages



Picture this: you are an only child of a phlegmatic jeweler father and a mentally ill mother. You are used to tip-toeing around on figurative eggshells in your own home because tempers flare. Frequently. One day you're swimming at the local pool and introduce yourself to a father figure who seems so much more fun than your own and your mother agrees. Later, your mother will even suggest that maybe he was Jesus in a former life. You are seven when you begin to spend time with this charismatic and caring man who has a house filled with exotic pets he lets you tend and the most lovely and tender mutt named Paws who becomes your friend. His place is a paradise that encourages your imagination to run wild. And you do run wild. And so does he.

Like most pedophiles, 51-year-old Peter Curran preys on the most vulnerable children. Children like Margaux Fragoso who are willing to trust all too easily in a stranger who shows them that he loves them and does not threaten to beat them when they disagree or disobey.

I'm not sure that any book has made me feel so viscerally ill as I read it as TIGER,TIGER did. I kept thinking about my own fortunate childhood and how I didn't have to think about the choices Margaux makes to stay close to Peter until I was well into my twenties. I still can't quite grasp how she was able to write her story of horrific sexual abuse (that lasted 15 years and only ended with Peter's suicide--not a spoiler, by the way) without a whiff of self pity. Her prose is strong and vibrant and her approach unflinchingly honest. And, she is a compelling narrator.

By the end of this harrowing memoir, I felt emotionally gutted, just as I did after watching BLUE VALENTINE. Both have taken exquisite pain and given it full resonant voice in the telling.

THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS by Jess Walter (2009) HarperCollins Canada, 290 pages



I'd read a lot of enthusiastic comments online about Jess Walter's most recent novel and decided to pick up a copy to see what all the fuss was about. I was predisposed to like the book because of its loopy premise: finance journalist decides to quit his day job (at the worst possible economic moment) and tilt at the windmill of his dreams by creating a website devoted to such journalism written entirely in blank verse. Plus, the epigraph, attributed to Saul Bellow, "Poets have to dream and dreaming in America is no cinch," clinched it for me.

Matthew Prior and his wife Lisa have been circling the debt drain for months now, since Matt quit his job and Lisa embarked on an E-bay buying binge that resulted in boxes of unsellable stuffed animals and figurines piling up in their garage. In addition to their own obvious financial stress, they have two young boys to raise as well as Matt's increasingly demented father who lives with them.

One night, a fateful one it turns out, Matt heads out after midnight to the local 7/11 to pick up a jug of milk so his sons will have it for their breakfast cereal. There he meets some neighborhood stoners who lure him into sharing some of their stash. He complies and soon finds himself drawn to the tantalizing possibility of selling for profit to turn what remains of his 401K (whittled down to a measly 9K and change) into an amount that might allow him to produce a balloon payment for his overdue mortgage that will permit his family to stay in their home.

Matt loves his wife Lisa. He loves their sons. He's a responsible son to his increasingly confused father. However, he hasn't been truly honest with anyone and he keenly feels how everything that matters in his life is slipping away. And, really, it's his fault. So, as Lisa moves to her side of the bed and texts her high-school quarterback ex-beau, Matt plots how he can win her love and affection back. And, his plan isn't all that complicated, but it is illegal.

Soon Matt finds himself knee-deep in a drug cartel and then, more upsettingly, on working terms as a narc. All the while, he worries about his wife's growing attraction to gainfully employed, handyman-about-town Chuck the Lumberland King and processes situations that upset him by expressing his social satire through poetry. One of my favourites is the one spawned by a Costco visit where he sees a MILF with her "four kids/ little stepladders, two-four-six-eight" and she's wearing a thong and he wonders aloud, "When did Moms start wearing them?" And it seems to him "the Fabric of America/ would be just fine/ if there was little bit more of it/ in our mothers' underpants./ And that is the issue I will run on/ when I eventually run: getting our moms out of thongs/ and back into hammocks/ with leg holes." You're smiling, aren't you?

If desperate financial times call for desperate measures, it is no surprise that Matt has to hit rock bottom before he's able to see his way clear and find a route back to all he holds dear, when he is finally "broke but free."

Thursday, March 03, 2011

COMBAT CAMERA by A.J. Somerset (2010) Biblioasis, 255 pages



Protagonist Lucas Zane is a burnt-out war photographer who finds himself making rent money working for an odious impresario of low budget pornography, Richard Barker in Mississauga. When an incident with one of the young actresses, Melissa, moves Zane to action, the two of them begin a journey that could possibly lead to their salvation.

The opening of COMBAT CAMERA hooked me. The prose is visceral and clean. Somerset writes like Hemingway by way of Richard Ford, and any of you who know me know how much I admire Ford's work: there's no finer social satirist writing today. Read the first paragraph and you'll understand what I mean:

"The most alarming development now confronting Zane was his suddenly frangible reality. Even his routine moments had become fraught with risk. Suppose, for example, a glint of sunlight was to catch the crack traversing his grime-smeared windshield; a disturbance as trivial as this could inexplicably fracture the entire tableau, could set fragments of his past tilting and sliding through his mind like pieces of coloured glass in a broken kaleidoscope. Things finally come to rest in a jagged landscape of unwelcome memories, and then where in hell are you?"

On almost every page of COMBAT CAMERA there's a found poem, like this one:

frangible reality
routine moments

fraught with risk
could fracture

the entire tableau
could set fragments

of his past
tilting and sliding

like pieces of coloured glass
in a broken kaleidoscope

Somerset never wants for narrative drive nor does he resist describing the horrors that haunt Zane from his experiences as a photographer on the fronts of civil wars in Liberia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone. Each flashback comes in a thoughtfully framed image and I felt as though I were peering over Zane's shoulder daring to take a closer look at each moment with him. Several times those photos brought to mind the work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange--photographers whose visual perspectives defined moments.

Somerset's writing is not surprisingly filmic. He is able to turn a visual image into such convincing prose that it felt consistently as though I were working my way through a photo essay.

Consider the final paragraph as well:

"Zane stood at the window in the failing light and looked out over the freight yard, over gulls wheeling above steel and crushed stone, over wooden railway ties slick with rain, the river beyond sliding and eddying down to meet the sea. A lone man in a rain slicker walked between the rails. He carried a plain aluminum lunch box and a thermos, and with every step his feet slipped in wet gravel. The man walked with his head down, plodding, and Zane watched him until he disappeared behind graffiti-scarred cars that still stood patiently rusting in the endless rain, long after discharging their loads of mysterious freight."

Fantastic, isn't it?

I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Canadian novelist Ray Robertson calls it "a lean, mean piece of story-telling machine" and COMBAT CAMERA won the 2009-2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award.

A.J. Somerset is a writer whose trajectory I am keen to follow. And, to do my bit in promoting his work, I plan to put COMBAT CAMERA on my curriculum for Grade 12 Writer's Craft for 2011-2012. It will be a perfect compliment to Dexter Filkins' series of personal essays in THE FOREVER WAR.