Category Archives: book reviews

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt: A Review

I have a good reason for reading mostly short stories, aside from the fact that my leisure time is limited (and I thoroughly enjoy them). It’s also that I have trouble focusing on novels. Few of them keep my attention for long, and I don’t say that to be snotty or judgemental of the writing or story: no, it’s likely the self-diagnosed attention deficit disorder that I’ve acquired over the last couple of years. I struggle daily with this issue; it’s a wonder I get anything done at all.

Goldfinch

The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius, 1654

Along comes the hugely intimidating, then, Goldfinch, touted ecstatically by some and emphatically loathed by others. I think that’s a good sign, myself. A book that polarizes opinions so strongly has to be worth checking out—at least, if you like to participate in book chat. And I do have a thing for fat books, mainly the look of them, I admit. As an editor, I also fear them. Will I find that at least 100, 200, pages could have been cut?

But like McCarthy’s The Road, which I avoided for a while because the first paragraph annoyed me (in the end the book made me so enthusiastic for McCarthy that I bought and greatly appreciated much of the rest of his stuff), I finally bought The Goldfinch, hardcover and all, because I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was keeping me up, even not in hand. I barely knew what it was, beyond the tweets I’d seen. I hadn’t read a review (still haven’t). The night I bought it and took it home, I actually felt a huge sense of relief. Some might say there’s a sense of Fate in that—indeed, it’s a major theme in the book.

The next morning, it won the Pulitzer (just like The Road!). Rather than putting me off, as some awards can, the accolade only inflamed my curiosity. Still, I’ve read a grand total of only eight Pulitzer winners, not counting the ones I tried and couldn’t finish. I was yet iffy about the whole thing (What if it’s stuffy? What if it disappoints me? How big is the text? How wide are the margins??).

Christ: this is an awfully long preamble to my “review,” but I tell you all this because getting past one’s often rational fear of big, potentially dense books is the first significant step to allowing oneself to experience something truly good. I opened “Fats” to the first page and began to read, even though I was in the midst of three other, quite good books, though sadly I didn’t miss them when I put them down at night.

The Goldfinch begins with an immediately intelligent, engaging, descriptive first-person voice that at first glance made me apprehensive again (Dickensian narratives, which once enthralled me as a child and teen, can lose me now) but then tricked my wariness into rapt attention by starting near the end of the story (ooh, mystery!!) and then with the questionable line: “Things would have turned out better if she had lived.” I say questionable because who knows if this would have been true, considering all that follows? And how full is this line of guilt, regret, and loss? Thus begins the beginning, when our narrator, Theodore Decker, is thirteen. We understand he’s telling this story years later, which works well.

The structure of this book, how carefully constructed it is, is one of its best features. Without the plan, we would perhaps not be so intrigued at first bite. Secrets would lose their potency, surprises would unravel before their time. I cringe to be so cliché, but The Goldfinch is beautifully, thoughtfully wrought—like a painting with its layers.

Within minutes of starting, we have a clear sense of Theo’s relationship with his mother, and their social status—just before the museum they are visiting together on a school day (Theo has been expelled) explodes. Bombs: a terrorist attack, they later say. Theo is left crabbing through the debris, disoriented, only to meet a dying elderly man who mysteriously gives him a ring and a destination and entreats him to take with him the titular painting that has fallen off the wall—its own grand character throughout the book right to the last words. This, together with the loss of his mother, ultimately turns our narrator’s life upside down. And this is where the questions of Fate and choice apply.

What follows is an unmoored young man’s anarchic journey into adulthood, fuelled as much by his obsession with The Goldfinch (which he has kept paranoically hidden) as by drugs, alcohol, and his friendship with inimitable Russian street urchin Boris.  Blackouts and casual sex and dodgy art and furniture dealings, and more death…but also passion and love and knowledge and wonderful, wee Popper (Popchik), the dog who doesn’t die, contrary to my fears of what role this dog would play throughout. Themes of guilt, belonging, social status and self-identity, desire and obsession, and honesty are intertwined, but not so heavily that one might get lost or overwhelmed. Most of all, the story explores the human condition through obsession, the quest for identity, and the power of human weakness. We can all relate to some degree.

How could I resist such a compelling narrative related by a young, modern-day storyteller so extraordinary in his classical personality, with his intriguing philosophical angst, and even so typically prone to dizzying self-destruction? How could I roll my eyes at Boris, the bestie who provides the sometimes laugh-out-loud humour with his manner of speech, and, we discover, orchestrates the twists in the novel? And what about Hobie, who, while somewhat stereotypical, warms the cockles with his affable demeanour, elbow patches, cologne of furniture glue and varnish, and dimly-lit hodge-podge of a house full of antiques?  Yes, the names too are slightly stereotypical, but they work because they seal the characters’ personalities appropriately, in the same way a banana peel seals in its fruit.

You can read the synopsis of The Goldfinch here. But even if you’ve read other lip-smacking novels about books or art or antiques or mysterious or nefarious goings on, or musing, philosophical orphans, or all of the above combined (I was reminded of a modern-day David Copperfield sometimes)—even if the story sounds familiar in any way, you won’t feel as though you’ve read The Goldfinch before. The voice and mood are…different.

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt. Img from the BBC You Tube interview

I couldn’t help but be in awe of the writing as well as the story. Tartt struck me as some kind of prodigy. (Granted, I haven’t yet read anything else of hers, but having read the synopsis of The Secret History, and an article on its cult following, I’m getting the gist of where her intelligence and propensities lie and am willing to bet her other books betray such a glut of worldly knowledge as well. I mean, she’s either exceedingly well-versed in literature and art and culture or she’s damn good at faking it—and I very much doubt the latter.)

In fact (I find this out while writing this post), Barry Hannah, a writer-in-res at the University of Mississippi while Tartt attended, accepted her into his graduate short story class while she was only a freshman. “She was deeply literary,” he said. “Just a rare genius, really. A literary star.” She published The Secret History to major critical acclaim in 1992 (it sold out its first print run) when she was twenty-nine.

Watching an interview with Tartt and looking up images of her, I peg her as a compelling, intense woman, deep and thoughtful, seemingly reserved (her clothes and hair, her pose on the back of the book). But at the same time I get the impression that her exterior is housing a bit of a ruffian, perhaps Boris-like even, the country-raised child with sagging socks who maybe smoked behind the shed at nine and always has a swear on her lips that she has to stop herself from letting fly. Tartt says that she wants people to find reading her books fun—and that, I think, along with how she says it, is telling.

As a reflection of Tartt’s knowledge and research, The Goldfinch is also enriching, which for me is partly what makes it so much fun. It truly delivers on that literary promise of taking you out of your bed or armchair and dropping you in various countries and worlds (underworlds too) the likes of which you probably won’t otherwise experience. Amsterdam is as visceral as Vegas and New York. We learn how to restore antique furniture, and the history of, well, a great many things. Foreign languages grace the pages (very few, thankfully), and references to artists and their paintings, especially, can send you Googling (they did me, anyway).

But don’t let me give you the impression is book is work. It’s not, I tell you. Though Theo’s time in Vegas with Boris does run somewhat overlong, there is yet a point to it. Though sometimes you may feel that Tartt might have got somewhat authorially rather than storily (I think I made those two up, but you get the gist) lost in her writing, you come to appreciate it because she’s just so damn good at writing. It’s like, I was thinking, when you’re emailing someone you really enjoy, and thus you take the time to include all the details, all the thoughts. You compose rather than dash off. So in the end, while I did feel there were bits that made me feel I was losing my grip, I appreciated them too because they rounded out things. The reader has a full experience. She took the time to make sure of it.

It’s not often, by the way, that you may feel impatient. Generally, I had to force myself to slow down while I read, and not because I had felt tempted to skip parts, but rather because it was so exciting I wanted to cram it all in at once. I brushed my teeth with it. I read it under streetlights while waiting to pick up my sister from work. I took it out for the five minutes I had a smoke break. This ADD brain of mine was at least temporarily cured, my reading funk ended.

What I’m trying to say is that Tartt’s writing is beautifully crafted. She has an excellent, intuitive sense of which words to use that will properly evoke a sensory reaction. Nothing about this book is unskilled or lazy. It’s masterful, really, both in its scope and craft. It’s kind of like the Bible: you know how people say the Good Book’s got everything? In The Goldfinch, there is mystery, intrigue, humour, love, death, friendship, betrayal, history, and vivid characterization. But it’s all knit together so well it’s not overwhelming. You don’t even notice the page numbers. What you come away with is not a sense of your own triumph (OMG I MADE IT THROUGH!!) but rather a sense of Donna Tartt’s impressive coup. And that you were gone for the duration of this book and now must resituate yourself in the real world. Don’t worry if you feel like Theo emerging from the explosion or his fever-soaked delirium in Amsterdam.

You will be all right.

The Bear, by Claire Cameron. A Reaction

The Bear, by Claire Cameron

The Bear, by Claire Cameron

Perhaps even more so because it’s based on a true story in a place I’m well familiar with, The Bear by Canadian author Claire Cameron absolutely devastated me. A family of four goes camping on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park, at Bates Island. In a horrifying and chaotic sequence of beginning pages, the parents are attacked, killed, and—yes, as is naively, gruesomely witnessed by Anna, our narrator—eaten by a black bear. The children, a five-year-old (Anna) and her toddler brother (Alex, aka Stick), who have been shoved into a Coleman cooler by their father in a desperate effort to protect them, do not comprehend what is happening. When they finally emerge from the Coleman, Anna takes tear-inducing instructions from her dying mother to canoe off the island to be safe. Run aground on a nearby island, the children struggle to survive as their young psyches compute what is happening only enough to get by. I should say here: while the children in this book are added (the true story involves only a man and woman), we are never asked to suspend our belief for the sake of the story: the children’s experience and the narrative voice are wholly acceptable. Anna’s sentence structure and thought process set a pace that never falters, even as she struggles to make sense of her surroundings and what is demanded of her; her many tangents serve as anchors with which we she keeps herself moored, things she can still identify, recall, and depend on.

Very rarely do I read a book in one sitting, but last night I picked it up at 10:30 and finished it in just over two hours. I actually went back through, thinking I must have skipped things in my eagerness, but everything I looked at I remembered. After the first few pages, I had wanted to stop. An almost overwhelming feeling of resistance to the book made me close it, at first. I’m not sure whether it was the point of view of a young child, which did take a little getting used to, or something else. Maybe that other feeling you get at the same time as being morbidly fascinated. Maybe fear.

But I opened it again, obviously, and tore through it (let’s not make the comparison to a hungry bear through a campsite). An excellent choice, the ending. Very well done. While it has a necessarily different tone, Cameron manages to make it flow seamlessly from the previous part and finish on a hopeful note.

Still, The Bear made me cry and subject my husband, when he came to bed, to my reflections on life and death especially, but also empathy for the kids (I won’t subject you, too. I was blubbery and went on about how this couple went through life, making choices, growing up, meeting, being together, deciding to go camping, and then BAM! they’re attacked by a bear and eaten. La fin. One day you’re there and then you’re not. I said, so fine, maybe we don’t all live to a hundred, but why can’t we all just die in our sleep, whatever age we’re meant to go? Why so many terrible ways? Eaten by a bear. It’s so utterly horrific and sad and overwhelming. I mean, this really happened: I remember it. It was 1991, and I remember, because I was both fascinated and freaked out).

It may be inevitable that this book gets compared to Emma Donoghue’s Room, but it would do the reader well not to hold up one against the other. It wouldn’t be entirely fair. While both are based on true stories and told from the perspective of a five-year-old who experiences a traumatic event, the voices are quite different. Like Room, though, this novel is going to stay with me a long time. I hope I can go camping in Algonquin again…

PS. As a bookseller, I met many people who were afraid to read Room. I dare you to read The Bear. These kinds of books: they’re not just reads, they’re experiences. What books are meant to be.

Year’s End and Then Some

2012 was a great year for Bella’s Bookshelves. I found good friends, albeit mostly online, who helped me understand and forge my place in this world and who allowed and encouraged me to give back to it in several ways. Yes, this world, not just the literary one. These new friends are mainly bookish—authors, publishing professionals, book bloggers, book lovers in general. It is not amazing when you think about it—rather, it makes sense—that books bring people together in intimate ways.

I’m utterly grateful for these friendships, for the warm exchanges between us, for the scores of books, some so beautifully inscribed, that I have received over the past two years, for the important and fun copy editing, proofreading, and writing work that publishers have entrusted to me, for the contributions I’ve been invited to make to the Quill & Quire and the CBC, and for the joy I find in recommending books to you. I’ll say it again: it was a fabulous year for me and for Bella’s Bookshelves, and the kindness, generosity, encouragement, and support constantly surprised and buoyed me.

And I needed that. At the same time, I was experiencing severe anxiety and mild depression. I had it for about fifteen years, but in 2012 things came to a head. I started to have panic attacks every day, wherever I was: in the car, behind the cash register at Greenley’s when a customer approached, even while just out enjoying a walk with Lucy and my husband. I avoided going on busy streets, and then streets altogether, because even one person on the other side could make me feel crowded. Instead, I took sanctuary in the nearby woods. I was afraid to take the train to Toronto (though money is more the issue there). I had panic attacks as soon as we hit the 401, or certain intersections or areas of town, particularly the street on which I worked. I physically struggled to get out of the car to go to work. Some attacks were so severe my limbs contorted and froze, I shook and cried uncontrollably, and I couldn’t get enough air. If we were in the car, my husband would have to pull over. I was always petrified that I was going to barf.

Finally, I hit my limit, not just of panic attacks and anxiety and being unable to do anything but also of hearing myself bitterly complain that I was incapable of change regardless of my efforts. It’s amazing how much we can put up with, though, how avoidance makes our agony greater, yet we continue the way we always have. But by March, I couldn’t make myself do anything, except get to work (and then barely). Thanks to the last shred of tenacity in me, I made an appointment for therapy. Along with medication, another thing I was phobic about, it has helped tremendously.

Erin Balser, me, and Michael Enright chatting on the Scotiabank Giller Stage at WOTS Toronto.

Erin Balser, me, and Michael Enright chatting on the Scotiabank Giller Stage at WOTS Toronto.

In April or May I quit my job at the bookshop and started freelancing full-time again from home. That action in itself changed so much, especially since I love the work and it’s coming in regularly. I also started writing short stories again and have had some truly life-changing writing coaching. And my posts on this blog have given me great opportunities. I’ve been on the Giller stage with Michael Enright and Erin Balser at Word on the Street, I’ve done CBC radio interviews about Canada Reads 2013, I’ve posted on the CBC blog, I’ve worked with Esi Edugyan and Sarah Selecky on discussion questions for Half-Blood Blues and This Cake is for the Party, I’ve edited Ann Patchett for Kobo, and I’ve submitted a book proposal to Anansi Press (fingers crossed!).

The direction I’m confidently taking now, one dedicated to helping authors and publishers produce their best work and sell as much as they can, as well as pursuing publication of my own stories, is good. I feel that in my soul. I know what I’m doing. I know where I belong. I’m happy. And busy. Now that I’m freelancing full-time, it takes more of my time than a regular job. Then there’s my creative writing (writing, being part of a writer’s group, doing Sarah’s Story is a State of Mind course, and mentoring with her soon!). I’ve recently started reading more, though not nearly as much as I want to. I also like to be connected to all of you on FB and Twitter. I love this blog, and I love being in the bookish loop.

Where Reviewing Comes In

But it’s obvious that my reviewing on Bella’s Bookshelves has fallen off. Partly it’s because I’ve been tied up doing other things. But also I haven’t felt an urge to do it, and this has been a great cause of stress, not least because so many have kindly and generously and excitedly sent me books for review and I’ve accepted them.

Read but not yet reviewed

Read but not yet reviewed

Someone suggested that perhaps I haven’t been inspired to review here because now I am writing my own stuff, or that reviewing for the Quill, for money, has taken away my desire to do it for free. The former is possible, I suppose. Not the latter: money is a bonus but not a determining factor for me; with the Quill, it’s about fulfilling a goal and contributing to what I think is Canada’s greatest lit mag. And reviewing for them is different than the kind of reviewing I’ve done here.

No, I think it’s more that I find reviewing here exceedingly difficult. It takes me an entire day, at least, to write a review for this blog—because I want to make sure I include everything, because I have such strong feelings about what I want my reviews to be, because books are hard work to make and are thus not to be taken lightly, because I want my writing to be my best, and because I suddenly have no idea why, considering the over-abundance of reviewers and reviews, I should do it. I have been struggling with this question for a couple of months now.

Then today I came upon Saleema Nawaz’s post called “The Art of the Elegant Review.” I read it three times. I cleaned the house and while I was sweeping I thought about it. I’d been composing an “I can’t do it, I’m taking down the shingle” email, believe it or not, when her post showed up.

Not yet read, for review

Not yet read, for review

There have been plenty of essays and posts on reviewing, some even heated. The right way to review, the right things to say, the way you mustn’t write a review, the way you must…I don’t much care for most of them because I have enough shoulds in my life and I don’t like being told what to do or what I can’t do. But Saleema’s post, even more than the bookcase of books I’ve been sent making doe eyes at me, answered my question as to why I should continue to review, as much as I’ve felt resistant, scared, dubious, guilty, and overwhelmed.

Saleema describes author Joan Thomas’s review of Atwood’s Robber Bride as “not some kind of boldly negative exposé (that’s at least what some people (not me) mean when they wish we had more ‘real’ reviewing), but an insightful and elegant take on the novel.” She talks about the value of longer, explorative reviews over “brief reviews, star ratings, Likes and +1s.”  She quoted a sentence she appreciated for its craft. And then she tweeted to me, “I know I’m elated to find long, excellent reviews everywhere they turn up, online or offline.”

And I thought, hey. I’ve written the kind of reviews she likes. There is a place for them. There is value to them. People read them in their entirety.

More not yet read, for review

More not yet read, for review

And that’s what it took, not much but enough, together with the terrible thought of disappointing everyone who’s sent me books for review, for me to finally change my mind.

I’m a slow reader. I’m a very slow reviewer. I feel I should apologize for this to all those wonderful people who have sent me books with the hope of a thoughtful review in a timely manner. There are about a hundred books now, and I badly want to read every single one of them.

So then. The reviews will continue, but in order for me not to dread them, they have to be when I can and when I feel ready to put my best effort into them. If you can be (very) patient, I promise they’ll be worth it.

Masha’Allah and Other Stories, by Mariah K. Young: A Review

MASHcover-200x290Yes, it’s been a long while since I’ve posted a review. I’m genuinely sorry. I haven’t been able to get much reading done for the blog lately. But I have read this collection of short stories for a blog tour. And it’s not even Canadian! (gasp!)

There are several cool things about Masha’Allah and Other Stories. The main one, aside from the stories, is that it’s published by Heyday (in CA), “an independent, non-profit publisher and unique cultural institution.” That’s exciting, eh? They promote “widespread awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures, landscapes, and boundary-breaking ideas,” and state, “Through our well-crafted books, public events, and innovative outreach programs, we are building a vibrant community of readers, writers, and thinkers.”

I think it’s amazing. They have over a page of major supporters who’ve provided funding for their publications and programs, and another page for those who support their James D. Houston Award, of which Mariah K. Young is the first recipient.

It’s not Young’s first award, though, and it’s easy to see why. The nine stories in Masha’Allah are well-written and well-crafted; they are compassionate and astute portrayals of cultural diversity, glimpses of lower-middle-class citizens in East Oakland who are working hard in their own ways to overcome their limitations and achieve their goals.

The collection begins with a two-page story called “Mr. Felix,” in which a young kid and his neighbours stand on the curb and watch the funeral procession of a well-known criminal pass by. Even in two pages, what little is narrated is so telling that one has a strong sense of the tightly-knit neighbourhood, their culture, a time in the past, and of what might be the future for the narrator (you hope not), as seen only in a subtle choice.

At first, and as many stories can, “Mr. Felix” leaves you with an abruptness that makes you question the point, or the brevity, but like many short stories, when you give it some time, you can hear what else its saying. While I do think it works as is, then, I still feel this particular story is only a taste of what could have been a longer one—yet thinking on this further, the fact that we come upon this scene and this scene only here makes me waver: perhaps it’s precisely this snapshot and how it’s cropped that makes this story more effective. And we are, I think, awarded a further look into the neighbourhood’s characters in another story, called “Studies in Entropic Beauty.” It too is strong, but even with its length it didn’t stick out for me as much as the first story.

In “Litters,” which takes place in rural Patterson, not far from Oakland, Della Marino learns the true story behind her cousin’s abrupt leaving and rebels against her mother’s practice of unethical dog breeding. This story is all powerful imagery, and we have as much sense of the characters and setting as we might in a novel. I could sense something, perhaps emotion, underlying the writing, something betrayed only by the sharpness of the details, and that might have stemmed from the author’s own observations or imaginings of low-class dog breeding for money, perhaps also her own feelings towards dogs. But I could also sense a writer’s licence and daring to make not only herself but also the reader uncomfortable. This didn’t feel at all forced. And it’s true, I found this story difficult, tense, to read because it’s so effective. It is thus one of my favourites.

In the title story, a tautly-written and fast-paced piece, a young woman dreams of becoming an Arabic translator, while her uncle experiences a stereotypical fare: a pregnant woman suddenly about to give birth in his car. And this is not the only common situation in this collection, but what Young manages with her writing is to remove the triteness and weave around these real-life occurrences the meanings that can be found in them. This story, like the others, explores not only culture but class: the uncle’s fare is a wealthy woman who screams in protest when he wants to take her to the closest hospital: “Don’t you dare take me to Highland! I’m not giving birth next to some junkie in the waiting room!”

We also find out that Masha’Allah means “What God wills” (or “God has willed it”). In an interview, Young said,

All of the stories revolve around work, and all of my characters, regardless of where they come from or who they are, are all bound by the sense of what they think they can do with the opportunities before them. Sometimes they accept their fate, sometimes they resist it, but they all make choices to try and push for something better for themselves, their families, their futures. All of the stories are about labor and love, but they are ultimately about how people negotiate their options in life, and how they both make do and press for more. I felt the phrase “Masha’allah” summed up that sense of both acquiescing to a higher power, but also working around it or against it in the hopes of something better.

“One Space,” another of my favourite stories, is narrated in second person, an usual point of view we’re yet seeing more of these days, and though it can be a difficult form, Young succeeds in fitting us in the shoes of a young man from Poza Rica, an illegal labourer who competes for odd jobs so he can send money home. He lives with other workers in undesirable conditions, and his life revolves entirely around the goal of finding enough work each day to survive as well as save for his family. Cracks are beginning to show in his resolve as he tires, and are tested one evening when his wife doesn’t answer the phone back home even though the call has been planned.

I marvelled at this story, at the masculinity of it, both in character and in mood, portrayed so aptly by a woman who has likely never experienced such a life yet could relay it so vividly as to make us empathize and understand. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition to a rather “feminine” story called, “Chinta’s Fabulous Traveling Salon,” definitely another favourite. A hairdresser who dreams of having her own salon has a second job cleaning houses for her real estate agent sister before their showings. What her sister doesn’t know is that after Chinta cleans the houses, she uses them  as her secret salon: “she put the word out to her compadres and the handful of people who have become her regulars: she’ll be in the lower Fifties today doing a house, and if they need a cut, she’ll be free in the afternoon. Chinta’s Fabulous Traveling Salon is open at the brown house on Fifty-third Street, this afternoon only.”

This story is a fun one, the air charged with danger as Chinta’s friends enter the house that’s for sale and she proceeds to cut and style, hoping to finish before her sister arrives. The dialogue is light, the vernacular humorous.

“Where you at today?” David says. Chinta can hear the clicking sounds of office work in the background. “You doing the thing?”

“You know it.” Chinta turns off the vacuum and lets it slide out away from her before pulling it back into place. “I’m at the corner of Fifty-third Street off International. Come through around six.”

“That don’t work for me, girl,” he says.

“I guess you outta luck,” she retorts. “And some bootsy barber can mess you up again.”

David does that nasally chuckle—quiet in the office. “Fine. I’ll gun it back to the town when I get out. You better touch my fade up right.”

She smiles. “Come through and I got you,” she says.

What is best about this story, though, is the sparkle in Chinta’s demeanour as she does what she truly loves, cutting and styling, bantering back and forth with clients, raking in the tips. Chinta is a character who, unlike the protagonist in “One Space,” is going to emerge from obstacles unbroken.

In each piece the focus is a person’s occupation, what they do and how it affects not only them but others. The labourer working for his family and to survive in the city; the girl who vows not to work any longer with her dog-breeding mother; the kid whose main obstacle in navigating life is his hard-to-pronounce last name; Chinta with her haircutting; the chauffeur and his niece aspiring to be a translator. It was Chinta I related to most as a freelance editor, and it was her dream, her creating her own options rather than letting herself be limited, the joy she had doing work she loved and making clients happy, that made me reflect on my own occupation, how I fortunately, contentedly, finally spend my days at home. I thought about what I’ve done to get here, what my work means to me (much happiness and satisfaction), and what it means to others (relief, confidence, also satisfaction). We may not be what we do, but it does take up such a huge part of our lives.

What really makes these nine stories, though, even more than their interesting cultural diversity and storylines and their well-rounded characters,  is their clarity, their truth. What I noticed most about each piece was the odd sensation that I was familiar with what I was reading, the cultures, the people, the way they spoke, the city, their experiences of driving a cab, learning Arabic (I even recognized some words and knew their meanings, since Arabic is quite close to Maltese), standing with others who are competing with you for labour,  growing weed—things I’ve never before come close to experiencing first-hand. This is what happens when a writer “storifies” what’s in front of her. When the leap from reality to her imagination, to her craft, and ultimately to us, is not at all far.

***

Special thanks to Natalie at juliadrakepr.com for sending me Mariah’s book and asking me to be part of her blog tour. 

Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt: A Review

This is my sister’s copy. I made her buy it at the Anansi booth at Word on the Street in Toronto.

***

So the one thing I want to clear up first thing, because it comes up almost every time I recommend it, is that Ablutions is not Patrick deWitt’s new novel. We’re still waiting for that! It’s his first novel, published by Anansi (2009), labelled “brilliant,” “intense,” and “remarkable.” I’d never heard of it either until after The Sisters Brothers, but I bought it because of the description (“a dark, boozy, grimly funny tale of the sodden depth of the Los Angeles underworld”) and because Anansi published it. They’ve never let me down, not once. I also bought it without having yet read the major award-winning SB. In fact, I still haven’t yet read The Sisters Brothers, though I’ve sampled the writing more than once.

Ablutions, though—oh, I’ve more than simply read this book. I swear to you, reading it is living it. I had to look up from its pages now and then to re-situate myself because it felt so real, because I was so emotionally invested. And I don’t think that had much to do with the fact that it’s a second-person narrative (which has never worked for me until this book). It’s the way deWitt paints the scenes, the bar, the night, the haze of pills and gut rot of too much Jameson Irish whiskey, the interior of a magical 1971 Ford LTD (you never once get caught driving drunk). It’s also his writing style, clean and direct, no superfluous punctuation and adverbs. There are witty and unexpected similes (“the pills congregate in your fingertips like lazy students in an empty hall”). The cadence, much like poetry, is hypnotic and emphasizes with its perfect pitch and language both beauty and darkness.

While Ablutions is a significant title, the subtitle—Notes for a Novel—is equally important, and is also, together with the style and narration, what makes deWitt’s novel original even though the idea of a person who hits rock bottom and seeks redemption is not. This is, after all, an almost quintessential human experience, yes?

But deWitt finds a rather ingenious way to tell the story. A bartender (“You”) in a once famous now seedy Hollywood bar is fascinated by his quirky patrons, and in observing them and their behaviour makes notes for a novel he hopes to write (new sections often begin with “Discuss…”). But as deWitt’s readers are apt to fall under the spell of his writing, so too does the barman begin to find himself sucked into the grimy underbelly of Hollywood barlife as he befriends some of the regulars (his characters for his novel). His curiosity but also his own vulnerabilities cause him to fit in too well. Soon, he’s swallowing pills like candy and drinking more whiskey than he serves his troubled customers. He’s vomiting silently in the toilet at home to mask his drinking and hangovers. When his wife leaves him, he descends further, spiralling into a liver-aching stupor and going on a casual sex bender. And at his lowest point, when all seems lost, he realizes he is trapped—by his job, his lifestyle, the desperate and needy oddities he spends too much time with—and will not survive if he does not break the spell of the underworld and his cycle of self-destruction.

Whiskey or no whiskey you are drunk and angry at yourself and you wonder why you are unable to help yourself and your mood is desperate and no pills will change this and so you take no more and you do not stop for single cans of Budweiser and by the time you pull over to sleep you are sick and in pain.

Crafting a rather dangerous but lucrative plan to escape, the barman thus brings the book’s title into play: he vows to go on a trip, away from the sinkhole of a bar where he works, the draining patrons, the stink of his life, and to abstain from substance abuse all the while. He means to perform ablutions, to cleanse himself and thus be free.

In fact this was its [the trip's] grand if overly dramatic purpose: To travel and see the world without any alcohol and to think of what was broken in your life and wonder clearheaded about the mending of these broken things.

This is, of course, easier resolved than done.

This is the story, then, of a man who struggles with not only the “impossible assistance” the bar patrons need and the depressing truth of their lives but also the realization that he is the same as they are and must somehow make the choice to change. His observations of characters tell us this (he sees through them), and deWitt’s use of the second person “You” reflects to us, the readers, the message that change is necessary. In turn, a story within a story, our barman, who is “You,” passes on this message when he writes to another barman (also “You”) on a napkin:

You are forty years old, a bartender in a bar in the desert. You hate the customers and the work but are trapped in the life as you have no other skills and have had no schooling or training of any kind. You have wasted your life drinking and doing drugs and sleeping beside women with hay for brains. You are alone and of no use to the world, save for this job, the job you hate, the job of getting people drunk. What will you be doing in five years? In ten years? There is no one who will look after you and you could die tomorrow and the only people who would care would be your bosses, and they would not be sad at your passing but only annoyed about having to interview new staff.

Your hair looks impossibly stupid.

The character sketches in this book are so vivid and true you’d swear deWitt sat at bars and simply wrote about the people he saw, but with uncanny compassion for even the strangest or most annoying among them. Each is like a Seinfeld character, all a bit off in some way: the guy who has a law-enforcement fetish, the cougar who wants to become your bosom buddy and seal the deal with a spit-enhanced handshake, the woman whose “pores emit a smell of chili dogs and french fries dipped in mayonnaise,” Junior the crack addict, Merlin, the geriatric fortune-teller. DeWitt’s descriptions of the regulars are like nothing you’ve seen since Dickens: they are rich and fantastic and funny and sad.

Discuss Merlin. He is seventy years old, with close-cropped white hair, a long white beard, and desperate, deep-set grey eyes. He chain-smokes brown More cigarettes; they tremble in his spotted, hairy hands or hang from the corner of his lipless mouth and he speaks from behind a screen of smoke, his fingers interlocking like puzzle pieces, a visual aid to some astrological peculiarity or possibly a dirty joke. His teeth are jagged, yellow, and rodent-like, and when he laughs his neck is all veins and tendons and you force yourself to look for no reason other than it is a difficult thing to do.

His vocation is mired in the pall of alcoholic fiction but he claims to be involved alternatively in movie-making, real estate, stock speculation, and something called life coaching, which as far as you can tell is an ugly cousin to psychology requiring considerably less schooling. … Despite his many professions, he is usually broke and twice has asked you for small loans to tide him over until the banks open. “No,” you said flatly, and he bared his teeth and retreated like a crab into the shadows of the cold, smoke-filled room.

He is a man in crisis. He favors futuristic, multibuckling sandals and brightly colored nylon jumpsuits, but he is known to wear for business purposes a voluminous double-breasted sharkskin suit and tasseled wingtips. These meetings invariably go poorly and Merlin complains of his clients and investors, christening them chickenhearts and babyhearts and yellowbacks. On such nights as these he grinds his fangs and slaps at the bar, cursing the cruel machine called Hollywood with mounting venom until complaints are made and Simon is forced to intervene … [Merlin] is envious of Simon’s good looks and accent and he spreads a rumor that Simon was not born in cosmopolitan Johannesburg but the squalor of a desert scrubland, surrounded by “yipping pygmies and hippo shit.” Merlin was born in Cincinnati but affects an English accent while drinking.

(Forgive the amount of quoting. I can’t help it. My copy has more sticky notes jutting out of it than pages.)

At a mere 164 pages, Ablutions is heavily, imaginatively populated with the regulars at this Hollywood bar, but this isn’t simply a litany of character sketches. It’s through these people and the narrator’s observations of them—at first they are rather like circus freaks until the barman realizes his life mirrors their own—that we understand the plight of human inadequacy. These characters are strange because they’re longing, they’re making up for not measuring up, they’re dreamers, liars, desperate, lonely, mad. They are grown men and women, sad and pathetic, and we see this not only through our own compassion but that of the bartender.

Ablutions is purposefully raw. It is visceral. It is bad teeth, bad sex, gut rot you can smell, and apricot-coloured bile. It’s bloody and druggy and saturated with booze. At times it made me nauseated. Yet it is also funny and I often caught myself laughing aloud at the casually stated humour. I call this novel pure genius—for its structure, its characterization, its style, its message—which never comes across as preachy, by the way. I loved it. Aside from the writing itself, there was enough search for truth, enough realizations of truth in it to make me want to keep reading.

Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a bar or tasted Jameson’s or had shitty cheap sex or popped four or five pills to numb the pain; even if your spouse has never left you and you don’t have hepatitis and you have never met or loaned money to a crack addict; even if you’ve never done a thing You did, you’ll get this. You’ve thought crazy things you’d never admit aloud. You’ve done things you’d rather not say. You’ve been stuck before. You’ve proclaimed resolutions, performed ablutions. In a big way, You as a narrator works: You is Everyman. You’ll see in the end.

On Marriage and Convention and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed

Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert, Viking, 2010, pp. 280

This isn’t your regular Bella’s Bookshelves post, it’s true. It’s not a review of Committed, because reading the book was such a personal experience that I feel less inclined to critique it and more inspired to reflect on some of its points as they pertain to me in particular and us in general.

I’ve read all of Elizabeth Gilbert‘s books except The Last American Man. Pilgrims, her collection of short stories, is so good it made me Rumpelstiltskin-mad with jealousy. Stern Men, her first novel (her second, “The Signature of All Things,” is in first draft stage), is humorous and smart and excellent. Eat, Pray, Love made me feel as though I was reading myself, but not—as though I’d found my twin, but my more articulate, talented, brave twin, and I loved her so deeply it astounded me.

It’s possibly 100 percent truthful for me to say I’ve never read anyone else, in the entire lengthy history of my reading life, who has caused such questioning, such stimulating thought, such deep emotion—or such range of emotions in quick succession. Apparently, that’s one of the signs of an excellent writer—plus, it takes a very talented writer to make me read non-fiction—and you would be hard-pressed to make me say Gilbert is not one, regardless of what evidence you might think to drum up. (You’d be hard-pressed to find it, I dare say, though that opens up the subjectivity of such a discussion: what makes a good writer, or even a writer in the first place, and what constitutes good writing. Reading is, after all, ultimately a personal experience, in which enters taste, life experience, how we perceive things, etc. I do know people, much to my consternation, who do not love and could not finish Eat, Pray, Love or Committed, and some who have stated the reason I love EPL is that I don’t have children and thus can’t understand how selfish and whiny the book is. My answer to that is a dropped jaw at the ludicrousness of such an ignorant statement. They have clearly missed the point.)

Anyway.

Of Love and Other Demons (Like Marriage?)

To sum it up more concisely than it deserves, Committed is a book about marriage. For the purpose of coming to terms with her obligatory and impending (and I mean that in the imminent rather than menacing sense) marriage—her beloved was not allowed to live in her native United States unless they were married—Gilbert documented the history of matrimony and its sociological implications as well as explored the concepts and purposes of marriage in different societies around the world. She interspersed this with her and Jose’s (aka Felipe) own story of exile, years of trying to get the necessary papers and dealing with policies and other legal obstacles, and their traumatic marital pasts that made them reluctant to get remarried in the first place. Committed, then, is a memoir of sorts besides a sociological, anthropological study, an experiment in placing herself and her partner within the societal constructs and constraints surrounding us, and thus we see the process of her development in “making peace with marriage.” It’s a fascinating read, easy because of Gilbert’s knack for writing engaging non-fiction, challenging because the studies on matrimony and committed relationships apply not only to foreign societies but also to our own North American tendencies.

My own story was one reason I decided to read Committed, and it was while reading a particular chapter called “Marriage and Women” that I began to take notes and even feel agitated. But this was not the kind of agitation that makes you want to throw the book you’re reading—unless it’s at convention regarding traditional marriage and child-bearing, and at annoyingly persistent perceptions surrounding these societal norms. It was the kind of agitation that stimulated deeper thinking, that caused questions. And as I read about women giving up so much when they get married, and then about women who are expected to be a certain way or to do certain things when they are married, it became the sort of agitation that is caused by a sense of indignation and injustice. To be fair, Gilbert discussed what men give up as well in traditional marriage. Astonishingly, that didn’t raise my hackles quite as much.

It’s true that marriage in North America is a choice. It’s also true that compromise is crucial in a marriage and mostly inevitable, and if one gives up anything, be it career or personal space or whatever, it is ultimately a matter of choice rather than force. Yet when those decisions seemingly must be made based on what is expected by others, or based on the unwillingness of others to compromise, I start to have a problem. Even if those choices are ultimately made out of love.

This chapter of the book got me thinking about what I’ve given up in both my marriages (very different things) and why I even got married for the second time. The answer, it might surprise you (it might also surprise my husband), is not love. Love does not require a legal ceremony to be valid or true, just as the lack of an engagement ring does not invalidate a couple’s betrothal, as some seem(ed) to think. I had already got married for love, and by an unfortunate turn of events, also got quite painfully divorced. I did fall in love again, but my idea of marriage was much changed by then; I came to believe that the business of being human overrides any promises and sacredness or legal signature.

Interestingly, my situation is different from Gilbert’s in that she left her first marriage, while I was left, yet our questions about what marriage means with regard to being remarried are similar. When people ostracised me for dating my husband before I was officially divorced from my ex (a process which took a year and which we hadn’t started immediately after he left), when they brought legalities into the equation, I began to question why the legal system (and religion, for that matter) had anything to do with marriage, my marriage, in the first place. At this point, what purpose did they serve but to judge me, or keep me tied to the person who was no longer around?

As ignorant as it sounds, it didn’t make any sense to me that I couldn’t date before my divorce was final. My ex had left with as much finality as he could muster. He did not occasionally visit and we did not occasionally try to talk it over, because he insisted no words would change his mind. He acted as though he wanted (indeed needed) me, at least, to disappear so that proof he had ever been married and that he had left would not haunt him. He needed me to smoke a cigarette and stop crying so we could move on and be friends. As quickly as the couple of afternoons it took to take what he wanted, we no longer lived in the same city, let alone under the same roof.

But my point is not in fact to “monsterize” anyone. It’s good that he left, that we had no kids, that he was brave enough to leave when I wouldn’t have been. We had grown apart from each other, had made each other feel claustrophobic—because love does that to a couple. It’s binding, just like marriage. It can mean less independence and freedom. We are no longer able to make decisions without having to consider the other. And when that reality doesn’t also come with the realization and implementation of how to counter the squeezing, grasping, clutching feeling, or the desire any longer to compromise or find a solution or change how one thinks about it, a marriage disintegrates. And people panic and flee. I get it.

My point is, after my ex went, what part of what was left constituted a marriage? For us, with an apartment and no children, splitting was relatively simple. I can see why law may have to enter a situation when people are uwilling to be cooperative in a split and there are houses and children and vehicles and valuable possessions involved. But to me, with him gone, I had no marriage, not by my definition or even by dictionary definition of the word. In my eyes, I should be free to conduct myself as I wanted. Suddenly, that single piece of paper that everyone insisted on referring to meant nothing to me at all. Nevertheless, it bound me to the man who had now become a complete stranger, until we were able to divorce.

It seemed grossly unfair. Love, after all, does not warn you of its coming. It does not ask you if its arrival is timely in terms of legalities or morals or life’s events, or even if you’re emotionally ready. It simply comes, in various forms, unbidden, and often, as people say, when you least expect it. Love does not answer to pieces of paper. Why, then, did I even need the piece of paper? Why could I not be free to love whomever I wanted, whenever I wanted? Why, later, could I not commit myself to whomever I wanted, and have that count as marriage? (Gilbert struggled with these very questions when family members and friends insisted on a “real wedding.”)

Social convention, that’s why. And religious convention as well.

The reason people were so concerned about my dating before I was divorced was not that they were afraid I might be rebounding or doomed to repeat a mistake. Instead, they feared I wasn’t following the rules—religious rules, that is—and would later suffer the consequences. Which brings me to my answer of why I did get married for the second time.

I didn’t want to remarry. After my divorce, I wasn’t keen on the idea of my 28-year-old self making promises for the person I was going to be at 40, 65, 80. Or going through the words that made me swear and him swear while I knew that no amount of swearing could keep it together if it went off the rails. Marriage is a daily choice, and one I can make without legal binding.

But I married for the second time because my husband had not married before and still believed in the institution of it. And because according to our Christian families it was not morally right or acceptable to simply commit to each other and live with each other, without going through the ceremony of marriage before a minister or priest and witnesses.

I distinctly remember the conversation C and I had in the living room of my apartment one afternoon over ten years ago. He was on the couch and I was on the floor facing him. Both of us were discussing getting on with our lives, trying also to find better-paying jobs so that we could pay our ridiculous student loans and have the kind of life we wanted. “We have to move to Ottawa,” I said. “There’s more opportunity there than there will ever be here.”

But the decision could not be made autonomously. As always (because this is true of almost every decision you have to make, whether it be regarding your wedding ceremony, where you buy your house, and even, in our case, sometimes what we buy for ourselves), there were the families to consider, particularly his, which lives twenty minutes away and is very close-knit. Both of us knew our families and their religious values were looming in that living room with us. Both of us knew our families would never approve of us going to Ottawa and living together without first being properly—that is, legally and religiously—married.

That’s why C and I don’t have a sweet proposal story. It was a matter of consensus. “We’ll have to get married, then,” we eventually agreed that afternoon. This wasn’t some on-the-fly decision, of course. We’d known for some time already that we wanted to exclusively commit ourselves to one another. It’s just that for me, well, as I said, I was fine with just that knowing. I had different views of marriage at that point. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to ever go through another legal divorce (though I don’t) but, rather, that I didn’t see why I had to make anything legal to make our relationship and our commitment valid. And getting married again, and a mere two years after my divorce,  seemed somewhat akin to making a joke of the whole affair.

Just as Gilbert had the law and families and friends requiring her to remarry, I had religious law and families and friends, and that in addition to my husband. If I wanted to be with him, and if I wanted to be enveloped in a happy group of friends and families, there were some sacrifices I was going to have to make.

And so it came to pass that we got married on a rainy day in June 2002. In trying to make at least the wedding our own, and to make me feel better about cementing our decision to be together this way, plus save me the embarrassment of getting married in public for the second time (because when you’ve been married once and it’s failed, it is really, really weird to invite all those same people for a second wedding. I would have felt like a fraud), and to save money, we risked pissing off many in both families and our friends and held the wedding in his parents’ backyard, not in a church, and with immediate family only, all twenty or so of us crammed under a blue and white striped canopy.

I rented my dress—a real wedding dress because it was, as it was pointed out to me, C’s first marriage and that was only fair. (I promptly changed out of it as soon as the casual, mosquitoey ceremony and the photos were over and cared not whether I ever saw it again.) I emerged from the garage into the rain with my mom and dad, one to each arm, my veil caught under my dad’s elbow, but before I reached the tent, my sister-in-law shouted she wasn’t ready with her camera and I was quickly sent back to start over. My sister thought she lost our rings and ran into the house during the ceremony to check for them under couch cushions (they were on her hands the whole time). Blasts from nearby trains interrupted the minister as he tried to proceed. Cheap cameras the kids owned clicked like paparazzi (and later we found they’d taken off to Wal-Mart before dinner to develop and frame a photo of us kissing, which they gave us before eating.) There was much laughter. We posed with beer bottles and cigarettes hanging from our lips, like Mafioso. We barbecued shishkebobs, and a friend showed up with a surprise cake, and we ate buffet-style in the garage, a canoe precariously hanging overhead. My sister wore a Roots sweatshirt over her pretty skirt and blouse ensemble after all had been sworn and the families dug in. In short, as little semblance of pomp and circumstance, law and religion, as possible, but still legit enough to placate the families.

I wouldn’t change a thing of that day. We have a shaky homemade video and unprofessional photos that capture the occasion. It was a lovely day, and I’ve since learned to accept the fact that some things you can’t fight against if you want to be together and happy—which includes allowing family and friends to share in that happiness, and accepting that some people need convention as much as you may not—like that piece of paper that binds you together, which happens to be very important to my traditional husband, along with that dreaded joint account. I’ve learned to pick my battles, even though I will always struggle with convention.

It is a gross overarching summary of all the valuable and interesting information in Committed, and an unfair glossing over of her long, sometimes humorous, sometimes painful transformation with Jose to say this, but this is more or less the kind of acceptance that Gilbert comes to when she and Jose finally get married in an even more casual but no less joyful or special ceremony in their new house and by a Republican mayor. In other words, she, a skeptic, made peace with marriage.

Committed is a thorough and highly readable (sometimes even funny, as is her way) history and exploration of matrimony. Gilbert talks about expectations, variations of love, autonomy, subversion, ceremony. Her experiences in different villages and cities talking with the natives about marriage are intriguing and wise. While her personal experience and questions colour the book, she presents the facts as objectively as possible; the point is not to sway you against or for marriage but rather to stimulate questions about convention and human behaviour. This is a different species of book, a different kind of journey, than Eat, Pray, Love.

For me, reading Committed has been an enriching experience. I’ve learned of other cultures’ views, I’ve learned the whys and wherefores, the multiple purposes of husbands and wives. And I’ve made my own kind of peace with that piece of paper, that commitment in the eyes of God and in front of family. Within the convention, we decide on our own rules, what’s acceptable between the two of us.

Luckily, for example, there is no part of our marriage certificate that makes us promise we’ll have kids now that we’re married. I have absolutely no desire to have children. But that’s enough shocking anarchy for one day. My defence for not having kids is another post (but if you want, Gilbert covers this decision to great effect in the “Marriage and Women” chapter).

Besides, the breadmaker is beeping and it’s time to move from my office to the kitchen, from intelligent autonomy to joined domesticity. In a marriage one must balance these things, after all.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce: A Review

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, Bond Street Books (Random House), 2012, 336 pp.

I miss England (particularly North Yorkshire). It’s been three years now since I was there, though I remember it with uncanny precision, something completely uncharacteristic of me but indicative of my being present in every moment I was there. It was a short but life-changing two weeks.

I spent the majority of my time there walking, dressed in gaiters and waterproof clothing and hiking shoes. I drank most of my tea from a thermos. With the absence of stress came clarity, and I found myself examining my ordinary life in Belleville. Walking will do that to a person, apparently. And after several day-long hikes in the dales, I wanted to do the longest walk in Great Britain, from Land’s End to John o’Groats. It’s about 1,900 kms and takes a couple of months at least, on foot, in unpredictable weather. I remain optimistic and undaunted. I once walked for three days, from Paris to Chartres in France, which is 72 miles, through woods and fields and over blacktop highways and up and down country roads, carrying all my supplies on my back. I camped out in forests and miraculously did not suffer any blisters or ailments. So of course I feel invincible. What’s another few hundred kms?

Like me, Harold Fry lives a small life. Unlike me, he’s recently retired. He sits around or mows the lawn, and that’s about the extent of his activities. Also, he is in a loveless marriage to Maureen, who mostly says in response, “I think not.”

Thankfully, sometimes opportunities come about to make an ordinary life extraordinary (this is actually happening to me, too):

The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelled of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast he wasn’t eating. …

“Harold!” called Maureen above the vacuum cleaner. “Post!”

… They both looked at the letter as if they had never seen one before. It was pink. …

Harold studied the mysterious envelope. Its pink was not the color of the bathroom suite, or the matching towels and fluffed cover for the toilet seat. That was a vivid shade that made Harold feel he shouldn’t be there. But this was delicate. A Turkish Delight pink. His name and address were scribbled in ballpoint, the clumsy letters collapsing into one another as if a child had dashed them off in a hurry: Mr. H Fry, 13 Fossebridge Road, Kingsbridge, South Hams. He didn’t recognize the handwriting.

So begins the story of what a difference several hundred kilometres can make, of how Harold Fry’s life drastically changes. He writes a short response to the devastating contents of this pink envelope—a letter telling him a former coworker, Queenie, to whom he hasn’t spoken in twenty years but to whom he was close, is dying of cancer—and when he goes to drop off his note at the post box, Harold finds he can’t deposit it. So he continues to the next one, and then the next. Feeling liberated as he walks, it occurs to Harold to just keep going, all the way to the letter’s destination, Berwick-upon-Tweed, about 500 kms away. So long as he is walking, he comes to believe, Queenie will live. Come on: it’s a beautiful, endearing sentiment; sometimes I too think things like this.

The journey, either metaphorical or literal, is probably one of the oldest and simplest devices in literature to facilitate a character’s development and change in circumstances. Nevertheless, I find the idea for this particular journey rather magical, as hope often is. And it really isn’t your typical story. Yes, Harold is on a type of quest. Yes, along the way he encounters help and hindrance. And of course there is internal conflict and growth as Harold examines his traumatic childhood, turbulent relationship with his son, and his difficult marriage. But Harold is not your average journeyman. As the title suggests, he’s definitely not one whom you might expect would on a whim decide to traverse the country, being elderly, not especially fit, and dressed in only a light jacket and yachting shoes. As many of us have perhaps wished to do, maybe from work, say, Harold leaves with no plan, without saying goodbye or telling anyone. He simply passes by his initial destination and rather than being equipped with anything reliable to guide his way, is running solely on hope.

Much like a person on a quest, though, Harold is a man we feel deeply sympathetic toward, from as early in the book as the first few pages, during which he responds to Queenie’s letter. I was taken in right here:

[Harold] said nothing. He drew up tall with his lips parted, his face bleached. His voice, when at last it came, was small and far away. “It’s—cancer. Queenie is writing to say goodbye.” He fumbled for more words but there weren’t any. Tugging a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, Harold blew his nose. “I um. Gosh.” Tears crammed his eyes. (5)

So we approve of and accept Harold’s decision, even though we haven’t a clue who Queenie really is yet and even though it is indeed so unlikely a pilgrimage. And we commit even further as we become privy to his inner workings, mentally, emotionally, and even physically, all of these appropriately, intimately revealed as the journey progresses. We learn of his past, about his deteriorating relationship with Maureen, the truth about their son, David, and of course about Queenie, the friend whom he’s determined to visit. The unravelling of this history is masterfully done, though at times I felt the device of revealing backstory through memory overused. Still, how else to tell it in this story? “He no longer saw the distance in terms of miles. He measured it with his remembering.” While you’re walking, particularly alone, time to reflect is unlimited. This is indeed what you do—you continally remember things. Add to that the meeting of various characters along the way who remind you of your past, and there’s a lot of reflecting going on. What makes it readable in this book and in fact compelling is that you find out more truths as the book progresses, and sometimes these truths are shocking twists. Joyce is careful in her writing not to acquiesce to possible expectations.

There’s also a captivating tone to Joyce’s storytelling, emphasized by title chapters like “Harold and the Barman and the Woman with Food,” and “Harold and the Physician and the Very Famous Actor,” “Maureen and the Telephone Call,” “Harold and the Dog” and “Maureen and the Publicist.” Fairy-taleish is how best to describe it, I think, and also slightly mysterious, and this, along with the way we come to know the backstories, sets a good pace for the book and the walk itself.

A strange thing: being on this journey with Harold made me feel reluctant to close the book, as though doing so would leave him alone, lying awake under the stars or sitting in a tearoom, not only lonely but detrimentally paused. Time is of the essence here, after all; we’re racing against Death. So when I had to stop reading, which I was reluctant to do, as it felt as though turning the pages kept Harold moving, I actually never closed the book; I always left it lying open. Harold and his walk struck me as so three-dimensional that closing the book was acknowledging they weren’t, in fact, real. I would have felt, as I did at the end, rather like Bastian, closing the Neverending Story.

As a reviewer, though, I can’t just read for pleasure. I paid attention also to balance of the journey, and whether elements were unrealistic or not (they were not), whether characters Harold met along the way were too conveniently placed. But they were not. While one or two offer shelter, more often, Harold is burdened by these meetings, as people confide their troubles to him and he learns that the encouragement on his journey needs to come as much from within as from others. The focus in this book, both for Harold and Maureen, is less on external influences and more on introspection, and the contrast between Harold’s extreme actions and Maureen’s cloistering herself at home while both move forward is a wonderful way to say that anyone can change, regardless of where they are.

I also questioned when Harold’s walk seemed too easy for who he was and as unprepared as he was. But just as any questions arose, Joyce answered them. And when hard times fell on Harold, most heart-breakingly near the end, they seemed to mirror exactly how life goes. Sometimes we experience smooth sailing, and sometimes everything becomes so frustrating you could cry or give up. When a group of well-meaning but misunderstanding and waylaying pilgrims decides to join Harold on his mission to Queenie, I feared the book would be utterly ruined if they didn’t disband or Harold was unable to escape them, and I thought of them as intruders, as one might feel when one is interrupted while reading something good. But this turned out to be an appropriate response, and thus could not be a criticism, because their overlong stay and my desperation to keep moving were exactly the intention. As much as I remained vigilant, I could find nothing, really, to complain about.

While it is a rather feel-good story, it is tempered by tragedy and conflict. Thankfully, it doesn’t give way to cheesiness or unrealistic predictability. And Harold, but also Maureen and Rex and the silver-haired gentleman (oh, that chapter!), is so sympathetically portrayed, you must grieve a little that he is only a character in a book. The way he observes and interprets his surroundings fleshes out both him and his journey.

A cracking of branches sent him scurrying forward, only to look back, with his heart wildly beating, and discover a pigeon regaining its balance in a tree. As time passed and he found his rhythm, he began to feel more certain. England opened beneath his feet, and the feeling of freedom, of pushing into the unknown, was so exhilarating…. He was in the world by himself and nothing could get in the way or ask him to mow the lawn. [...]

Life was very different when you walked through it. … There were so many shades of green Harold was humbled. … Far away the sun caught a passing car, maybe a window, and the light trembled across the hills like a fallen star. How was it he had never noticed all this before? Pale flowers, the name of which he didn’t know, pooled the foot of the hedgerows, along with primroses and violets.

(Later, Harold actually buys a guide to wildflowers so he can identify the ones he comes across on his walk. How can you not love this man?)

While sometimes the writing betrays that this is a first novel, in general it is like molasses in your mouth. Joyce often found new and wonderful ways to say ordinary things (and I’m annoyed at myself for not remembering what they were. Something about a nose pulling at the air, for example…). I admit, too, that her English way of phrasing things made me love the writing all the more.

One might perhaps accuse the book of being too precious, but I argue that it is, rather, a deeply compassionate tone that might be mistaken for such sentimentality. The end in particular may be thought of as too neat and happily-ever-after, but it is not an easily attained end nor an unlikely one. The Unlikely Pilgimage of Harold Fry is charming, yes. But it’s much more than that. In it we encounter both humour and pain. It is an insightful exploration of regret, grief, and marriage; also joy, benevolence, and compassion for others (family, friends, and even strangers). It is about human weakness in its copious forms, happiness in the many, often quiet or seemingly small acts of bravery. Ultimately, this novel is beautiful, and deceivingly complex, and while it may not end a Man Booker winner (I say that based only on past winners), it’s not difficult to see why it has been longlisted.

The Journey of Harold Fry to Belleville

Dear Steph,

Attended this Chatelaine Book Club event tonight (Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), & thought it sounds just like your kind of book. So I just snagged you a copy and got it signed. Also stuck in a button (“badge” as Rachel called it before correcting herself) that they were also giving away.

[...]

In the meantime, hope you enjoy this book! I’ve been wanting to read it since RHC compared it to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, one of my go-to handsells at NH. Rachel is absolutely lovely in person & Harold Fry has just been longlisted for the Booker. So—enjoy!

[...]

In other news—the event featured fish & chips in paper cones. Super greasy goodness & very, very English. :)

Love,

Jaclyn [@jacqua83] [literarytreats.wordpress.com]

Thank you, Jaclyn, for your thoughtfulness and overwhelming kindness, which added to my enjoyable experience of this book and makes me treasure it, and to Chatelaine Books and Random House for your generosity. 

A Short Note on Long Blog Posts

Like some of you, I’ve been struggling with my blogging style. I know my reviews are long, of course, and that as a result, people may only skim them. I’m painfully aware, in retrospect, that the posts sometimes digress or lack a tightness I much desire in others’ writing. As a copy editor and writer, this shames and disturbs me, and as I compose 350-word reviews for the Quill, I realize with chagrin how much my “real”-reviewing skills need honing. The last words I want anyone to use when describing my writing, no matter what I’m writing, are “over-dense” and “larded.” (See Jennifer Egan’s review of Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. Ouch.)

This blog, though, is not the New York Times. The thing about personal blogs is they allow us unlimited, nonadjudicated  space in which to also relate our experiences, reading or otherwise. This is, after all, why reading is so subjective, why judges pick books we may not agree on, why one reviewer raves about Telegraph Avenue and another considers it seriously flawed: because we bring to a book who we are.

As we noted in an impromptu (excellent, too-short) blogger meet-up session at yesterday’s BookCampTO, while we’ve been labelled amateur and irrelevant, non-professional blogger reviews are becoming increasingly popular and valuable, particularly among authors—so long as we write with substance and truth, I add—precisely because of our conversational, revelatory material (by revelatory, I mean of us as readers). Our reviews, whether positive or negative, aren’t cold treatises that, while they have their place, perhaps cause us to envision the reading experience as preparation for an exam. (Nor are they as lazy [hopefully!] as some newspaper reviews). We can be analytical, too,  but in general, we bloggers are more like booksellers than critics when we engage with books. It’s important, this distinction between book blogger reviews and newspaper ones. Seeing it helps us find and become comfortable with our voice.

Being personal doesn’t necessarily mean long reviews, of course. Mine are long for other reasons first. But they’re even longer because instead of deleting what I’d like to share with you in the interest of revealing the person behind the blog, things that may not have direct bearing on the book being reviewed but may tell you why I responded to a book the way I did, I’ve decided, finally, that it’s okay not to trim the fat as much as I would have to on another platform. Layered with my exploration of a book’s intentions and merits and shortcomings, there’s going to be a little lard. I might relate a personal experience at the beginning or during a review. I might mention my day or how I feel. I’ll engage with the book, that’s certain, but I also want to engage with you. If that means being the “fat” girl, so be it.

Tomato Red, by Daniel Woodrell: A Review

Tomato Red, by Daniel Woodrell, Bay Back Books, [1998] 2012, 224 pp.

You ever have when an author comes along and winds his way around your heart like a cat to legs and you feel like he’s the only author ever for you? You feel like this is it, you’ve found the one. And you wouldn’t ever like to hear anyone say malicious things about this person or their writing. In fact, where their work is concerned, you quit respecting that other people are entitled to their own opinions. You turn vigilante, a paladin for prose.

I felt that way about Carol Shields in university after reading The Stone Diaries and declaring hatred for it, and then reading it again and buying every one of her books at once. I still enjoy her writing. I cried when she passed. And I’ve felt that deep appreciation for other writers, too, like Sarah Selecky. This isn’t just about great stories: these people produce writing that speaks to my soul for whatever reason.

I can’t say any one of those other loves is being pushed aside, because that would hurt my heart. But I feel like telling you that Daniel Woodrell‘s got the conch now, and there’s no one else I want to speak. I’d hate to read that he’s like another writer, wouldn’t accept it, but it’s okay if some other author is compared to him.

I started going with Woodrell when he first got up to speak at Picton’s IFOA event last year.  I’d never seen the man before in my life, or heard of him, but his books kept beckoning me over to the table, giving me the side eye, enticing me to caress their covers and nuzzle their pages. I did go over and we made love a bit, but I was cheap and didn’t pay. I needed proof of commitment. And when Woodrell opened his mouth and read, well, I was done like dinner. Head over heels. I still didn’t buy his books, though, not one, and that’s because money tends to be boss around here and I was short. To this day I kick myself for not getting a book signed. Instead I shot him meaningful looks he likely didn’t notice and felt badly that few lined up to see him. We were all dumb. But Hachette kindly sent me a copy of The Outlaw Album, and if you read my review, you’ll know what I thought. (Next up, Winter’s Bone.)

Impossibly, Tomato Red is even better. Of the novel, which was written in 1998 and the winner of the ’99 PEN USA award for fiction, Woodrell says, “It got some nice reviews but actually got far more nasty reviews than all of my other books combined. And most of them were from the South, which I couldn’t figure out. I thought, Is it the gay kid or what? I don’t know what it was.”

I figure those people wouldn’t know good writing if it sidled up to them and whispered sweetly in their ear, and everyone knows what flirting is.

Sammy Barlach hails from low places. He’s been dealt a poor hand in life, and he figures there isn’t any way out worth pursuing; he kind of accepts his lot and keeps on living it, seemingly helpless when it comes to doing wrong. When we meet him he’s high on crank and performing the most hilarious break-in you’ll ever read.

I slithered inside, uncut, and tumbled among the riches. … I’d judged I had further to fall, but huh-uh, and the pain jangle spanned from my elbows and knees to my shoulders and toes. I squealed and rolled and chop-blocked a high-back chair in the dark there and sent it tumbling.

You might think I should’ve quit on the burglary right then, but I just love people, I guess, and didn’t. …

When I wobbled inside that lit-up room the wind jumped from my chest. I gasped, groaned, mewed. My legs folded beneath me and I fell face first to a soft carpet that smelled sweeter than my ex-wife’s hair and brought to mind sheep in a flowery meadow high in the Alps or Japan or Vermont or some similar postcard spot from out there in the world where the dear goods I’ll never own are made.

A small-time criminal and drifter who can’t sleep unless he knows there’s food nearby, desperate to belong, Sammy finally finds a bunch that’ll have him (rather, the bunch finds him, having broken into the same house), down in Venus Holler. The houses here are shacks, with “bail bondsmen’s phone numbers taped on every refrigerator door.” Jamalee and her pretty brother Jason, and their mother Bev, a woman known particularly by all the men in town, adopt Sammy as one might take in a stray dog. He gets food and drink and to lie in their beds. In fact, Biscuit the dog does feature often in Sammy’s narration, and one can’t help but feel there’s an unspoken bond between the two, a comparison that’s left for us to make.

Jamalee has high aspirations. Unlike Sammy, who’s possessed only by the simple need to be loved, to be someone’s hero, Jam sees the legacy her mother leaves her, does not accept her lot, and wants most of all to escape the low life and start fresh, a proper woman. You want to admire her spunk, this tiny woman with that tomato red hair and gigantic dream. But her desire is her real motive for welcoming Sammy: he’s a means to her end, and part of that plan ironically doesn’t ascend higher than the life she lives now. Learning the hard way, she finds that people judge you by who you appear to be and are bound and determined to keep you there. All Jam knows is one side of the coin, and things take a turn for the worse. When Jason, the other means to her end, turns up dead, declared drowned, though they know better, and they’re bribed by the law to keep their mouths shut, Jamalee takes matters into her own hands, which leads to an inevitable ending that’s difficult to bear. The closing sentences, they’ll do you in.

It’s hard to believe Tomato Red is such a slim novel. While the prose is admirably sparse, there’s much that can be unpacked. This book has it all: distinct, well-developed characters, concrete setting, clear plot, superb dialogue, but also an offbeat commentary on class struggle and human need and choice and how our actions define us and imprison us and free us—all this masterfully tied together like it was preordained. It’s like reading a perfect short story, if you know what I mean; it carries that punch, the tautness, a kind of impressionistic feel that invites you to read between the lines.

The best books are the ones I find hardest to review, yet I feel desperate to do a good job: as much as Sammy wishes to belong, I want Woodrell to think I get him. At least, I hope I do. It’s hard to pull up that feeling and lay it out on screen. I’ve read him tell that there are many people who say they don’t see any of the humour in his books, but I laugh aloud and roll around in delight like a dog in fish guts. However, I don’t know anything about this “expressionism” Donald Harington says describes his writing. I have no clue what that means, or if it’s the same as the Wikipedia definition. Maybe I have to go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to know.

Of expressionism, Wiki says: “Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality.” First of all, is there any other way than to present the world solely from a subjective perspective? Could be I’m ignorant about these things, but I don’t really believe in the possibility of being truly objective. But maybe I don’t understand. I also didn’t think the perspective was distorted radically, though Woodrell has a way of saying things different from everyone else, and I don’t just mean the way he composes his sentences, the similes he uses, or the lower perspectives he chooses. And it’s through the emotional experiences of his characters and the way they express themselves that we see the reality of things; this is what good writing is. So I don’t know if I get Harington’s meaning, but I still feel I understand Woodrell’s writing—at the very least I deeply appreciate it—if not exactly what he may be trying to achieve artistically or purposefully.

All I know for sure is there is no one on this planet who can put words together like Daniel Woodrell. I don’t just mean he tells a great story, either. It’s the way he tells it. People say nothing is new under the sun, that stories now are simply variations on a theme. Maybe so. But Woodrell strays from the pack and sets himself apart: he tells the lesser-known stories, and through voices that rarely get heard. The way he describes things, so differently from the way others say them, it makes your brain explode. He ferrets out the darkness in places few people go, he lets in light in ways few people do. There are no filters, and as a consequence we’re not distanced from anything he writes. They say writing is a lonely craft. I disagree, for several reasons, but in this case, when you’re Woodrell, you engage, with your characters but also your readers. Not in a bad or invasive way, Woodrell’s originality is evident—it’s not just Sammy’s unique narrative voice that gets through to us, though his is a compelling, observant, poetic, endearing voice even while it lacks refinement and grammatical know-how (which by the way is one of the best things about it. His vocabulary and the way he uses it is pure gold). Much is made, still, of Holden Caulfield’s voice, say, and I love Salinger, but Caulfield’s got nothing on Sammy. I could pick every sentence of this book out to prove it.

And that’s the thing: I can’t pick which sentences in particular to quote for you. This whole book is one perfect example of mighty fine writing. It’s best if you just read it to know what I’m talking about.

A Matter of Life and Death or Something, by Ben Stephenson: A Review

A Matter of Life and Death or Something, by Ben Stephenson, Douglas & McIntyre, 2012, 254 pp.

Not since Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise have I read a more compelling quirky voice, I think. Yet Oddly Flowers and Arthur (who is perfectly named) Williams are quite different.

Arthur is ten, an intelligent boy who while seeming somewhat wise for his years (though not inappropriately; I’ve been around enough kids who’ve shocked me with their insight) is also consistently endearingly childish (and not in a bad sense) in his endeavours and with his wildly creative imagination and exaggerative manner of speech. He’s also convinced his boring father Simon is not his father, and has “in the meantime” fantasies about what his read dad might be up to, such as founding the quietest city in the world, in which they all wear moss on their boots, and that other cities emulate so that the world becomes so quiet they can hear the stars. (This, by the way, was one of the most beautiful passages in the book, and there are many.)

The one thing we all look for in narration by a child, as we did with Room, say, is authenticity, and Ben Stephenson has Arthur down pat. You will wish you knew Arthur, you will recognize in him someone you already know, perhaps even yourself. Certainly while I was reading, his voice reminded me of countless journal entries I’d written at his age. Looking at the author photo of Ben, who’s just over twice Arthur’s age, it’s easy to imagine how he managed to create such a compelling, humorous, sweet, sensitive, and ultimately winning voice in Arthur.

When Arthur is in the woods behind his house one day, he finds a worn notebook under the leaves, written by a man named Phil. Arthur reads this notebook, all the way to page 43, the last page, where something terrible happens. He reads about Phil’s questions, his relationship with E, his happiness, his sadness. But what exactly happened on page 43, Arthur needs to know, though he is pretty sure he already knows. And so, donning his rubber boots and packing a tape recorder in his backpack, Arthur attempts to interview his neighbours to find out what they might know about Phil. The top-secret investigation proves more difficult than he had thought, as none of the adults gives him a straight answer or is helpful—until he meets the hermit.

Part of the beauty of this novel is that we are given the story from three perspectives, that of bewildered, searching, sympathetic, and also hilarious and plucky Arthur, who admits when he’s scared or cries, and through whom we see the painful frustration of feeling small and unable to help, but who also has astute observations of adults. How many a child has called us out, after all? With chapter headings like Part of the Reason Why It Rains and Accidentally Teleported, and complete with Stephenson’s own illustrations, Arthur’s voice will win you over.

Someone once told me that our bodies use a language that is a million times easier to understand than when we talk with words. I figured that it didn’t work on doorknobs, but still. With my eyes I told it the whole story. It stared back at me, but not with eyes, obviously, because it was a doorknob. Still, it its metal way I thought I could hear it saying, well, I think it said, “Open sesame.” So I turned it with the carefullest fingers I had, and I pushed on it. The door opened smoothly and completely silent.

“Thanks, doorknob,” said my eyes.

“No problem, brother,” whispered the doorknob …

I opened the top left drawer with silence, which took about two ice ages … I pulled on the bottom drawer and it squeaked. I turned into an ice sculpture of myself. The squeak was really loud, and on top of it I probably squeaked too. I waited. There was still snoring. I thawed myself out …

I felt like a bank robber. The moon glow from the window blinds made stripes on my black sweater like it was a bank-robbing sweater on TV.

… “Good luck, brother,” said the doorknob, and I closed the door with him, giving him a quiet high-five.

We’re also given Phil’s notebook entries interspersed throughout, a different, struggling, searching, but also poetic voice, the voice of a soul on the outside. Whatever similarities there are between Arthur and Phil were, to me, indicative of what we humans have in common, particularly our need to question as well as imagine something better. Phil’s existential voice is so real to Arthur that the notebook becomes the man (he calls it Phil), rather than just his words.

It’s raining inside the bus now as much as it’s raining outside, and I can watch my chest filling and emptying and feel my heart’s kicks get further apart, the rain is warm but tastes like a glacier. I see Ecstatic Phil tilt his head back and open his mouth. Piano music softly plays and Phil looks up front and it’s the driver, he’s playing the three Gymnopédies, waiting for the light to turn, the windshield wipers as metronome. And every atom of Phil wants nothing but to surrender to this rainy hope, this rapture of the crowded bus and of finally loving every person on it so completely …

And soon Enlightened Phil will have to get off this bus and he will but whatever breakfast diner soon holds him he’ll make sure to bring the bus with him in his pocket… he will remember the boundless joy of life and the communion of everyone so alone—the euphoria of a crowded bus taking you and everyone just where you need to go. And at night when he forgets it and sees himself sitting on top of his own head kicking spitting and howling HE WILL NOT FORGET and he will LIVE IN that joy and EVERYTHING WILL BE OK.

Finally, we are given the perspective of the trees in the woods who watch them both. These sections, few but important, are simply beautiful. The collective voice of the trees is a lovely way to show us what we otherwise could not know or to provide backstory. In this passage, however, which begins as they observe Simon and a younger Arthur playing in the treehouse they’ve built in between the trees, they give us the very nature of themselves:

We don’t mind this, this use. As much as they confuse us, we trust the humans. What reason would they have to let us go to waste? They can sense our value, in some way they must feel it. However, one thing we do find confusing. Sometimes after we are cut, they will count the rings exposed on our cross-sections. They count our layers, and this counting seems somehow important. Is it a game? “This one is fifty years old,” they say. “This one is almost a hundred.” Is it a joke? Surely they know that we, who have seen nearly every age, who have been here for so long, passing our vision through time in all directions, we who live in all time as in a single moment—surely we are not years old. Why do they want the rings’ number? Do they even notice their shape?

A Matter of Life and Death or Something is not simply a cute story of a young boy who finds a notebook and embarks on interviews with a green towel tied around his neck like a cape. It is not only that and the story of a struggling young man who keeps and loses a journal and how the two intersect. It is an exploration of how we as humans interact, affect each other, essentially are connected. It is about life and death and everything, everything! in between. It is so much to think about. It’s insightful and curious and marvellous.

And the end, oh, the end. Oh, Arthur. In complete disagreement with the wholly deflating and unfortunately adult National Post review of this book (when I become an author, I am never going to review another book), and also with the Quill, where it’s suggested that Arthur and Phil are not distinct enough, I say that A Matter of Life or Death or Something is—and here I’m going to quote Ben quoting Holden Caulfield—“…a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” It’s a heartbreaking, heartwarming, beautiful, funny, and imaginative offering. This book! I thought last night when I finished. This gorgeous gem of a book! Why isn’t Ben Stephenson on everyone’s list?

Read the interview with Ben

Thanks very much to @bookpromogirl at Douglas & McIntyre for seeing a tweet that I wanted to read this book and for sending it to me for review.

A Blessed Snarl, by Samuel Thomas Martin: A Review

A Blessed Snarl, by Samuel Thomas Martin, Breakwater Books, 2012, 288 pp.

In Newfoundland nature is a blessed snarl, humans an imposition. You have to want to come here; you have to want to fight to stay. You are not seed on fertile ground. You are a fish washed up on a rock. – Kevin Major, New Under the Sun

You may already have read how I feel about Sam Martin’s writing; I wrote a review of his debut, a collection of short stories called This Ramshackle Tabernacle. In sum, excellent writing, powerful imagery, palpable setting, details that have stuck with me since. Also, TRT is about finding light in the dark, a darkness that is often raw and upsetting, brave in its honesty. How many ways darkness and light and our struggles from one to the other can be expressed is boundless. In A Blessed Snarl, Sam Martin explores this theme even further.

Several stories are at play in the novel, though all are joined not only by themes but also by association. Patrick Wiseman, a pastor, has moved his wife, Anne, and son, Hab, back to Newfoundland to start up a new church, but Anne is miserable and one day leaves Patrick and Hab for another man, in Ontario, with whom she’s reconnected on Facebook.

Hab moves out of his parents’ home to live with his girlfriend Natalie and a couple of other friends, whose stories, both past and present, we also come to know. Throughout the novel, then, we are with Patrick, Anne, Hab, Natalie, their friend Gerry, and a few others, and learn not only their stories but also those of the people they interact with. Thus, rather than having a focused plot, though there is a storyline, we have greater character development; we’re given more of a wide-angle view through which we essentially witness the struggles through darkness in its many forms into redemption, hope, love.

As exemplified in both of his books, Martin, who is a newly minted doctor of English Literature (just this week!), has a certain knack for writing out and excavating the things in life that are difficult to read, let alone experience. In A Blessed Snarl, we have a significant, symbolic fire that leaves some dead, others both physically and emotionally scarred (and this is not the only important fire in the book); a young, destructive and dangerous sociopath; a man searching for meaning in his wife’s abandonment and reconciling that with his belief in God; a young man’s struggle in reaching out to and loving his troubled, alcoholic girlfriend; a burgeoning writer whose issues with his degenerate father leak out into his life and cause a misguided act of brutality for which he later seeks forgiveness.

There are several significant father/son relationships in this book, all of which, while somewhat different, are troubled. This theme is also explored in This Ramshackle Tabernacle; Gerry’s story in ABS is similar to that of Doug in “The Hammer.” Both sons struggle to come to terms with fathers who are sexually deviant, and each is led to an act that ultimately gets them into trouble.

There is also an overriding theme of backstory, of history, in this novel, as is seen not only in the telling of these stories of the characters but also in the format of the book. Each part of the novel (there are four) is preceded by an art image: a lithograph, a sculpture, a drawing, and a photo. These images are integrated into the story.

However, especially noticeable is that, more than events happening in the present, we are often given a character’s reflections on their memories, or, in Gerry’s case, he also delves into Hab’s grandfather’s suspicious history by asking him questions and finding evidence in his shed. At some points, I felt impatient with this seeming passivity, with characters going off into reverie and often spacing out as whatever they were doing reminded them of something in the past; it occasionally felt like an overused vehicle to divulge information and I felt that this sometimes made the novel feel loose—yet the introspection is also telling and not an inaccurate way of portraying how we deal with unresolved issues from our past that also affect our present.

This introspection did help flesh out the characters, though as Martin proved in TRT, his characterization skills hardly need much help. This novel’s characters are fully realized, particularly the unfortunate Rod, a grossly misunderstood man who awakens compassion in us when we might otherwise show disgust, and who cannot go without mention here. Patrick is bumbling and frustrating, though simultaneously pitiful and even beautiful. While sometimes I felt the religiosity overmuch, some associations seeming somewhat forced both with him and Hab, I would have liked to have read more about Patrick, especially as the novel begins with him and leans heavily toward him in the first part. This focus swings to rest on Hab, Natalie, and Gerry, and as such the novel felt somewhat unbalanced, but Patrick’s story does come to a sort of resolution.

Also well realized is Anne’s mortifying meeting with her Facebook acquaintance, Gerry and Rod’s encounters, Natalie’s dealings with a disturbed boy at the group home, and the ending bonfire, during which there is such tension (you know something major is going to happen) that one (needlessly) panics seeing how few pages are left.

CanLit is notoriously about setting, and as we’ve seen in Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, Newfoundland is one place that not only drives plot but also exists as a palpable background for character development. Martin’s skill in rendering The Rock as real as though you were there is remarkable. As in This Ramshackle Tabernacle, setting is not only background but also just as much a character in A Blessed Snarl as anyone, and it becomes apparent just how much our surroundings affect us. Setting is often a powerful force humans find themselves sometimes fighting. In this case, Newfoundland is also partly what drives a wedge between Patrick and Anne. Rocks, stones, cold, ice, wind, snow, fire…one gets a clear sense of the land and its intrusive personality in this novel. (It goes very well with Martin’s excellent, balanced use of the vernacular in some characters.) In one tense scene, Patrick acts on the suicidal urge to cross the cracking, moving ice floes from one end of the bay to the other. Another time, Hab and Gerry struggle to survive the cold and wet in Hab’s grandfather’s cabin in the woods not far from the water, a place where Hab’s grandfather, father, and these two young men have felt not only the presence of history but of spirituality and religious and emotional struggle and discovery.

As in TRT, winter, cold and raw, crackling with energy and power yet also bleak, takes hold and serves as a fitting background for the darkness, whether spiritual, emotional, or physical, through which the characters must wend their ways. This human struggle, what Martin seeks to portray most of all, is explored in a remarkably sensitive, observant manner, and is often gritty, disturbing, nerve-wracking, and heartbreaking but also breathtakingly satisfying.

Released only two years after This Ramshackle Tabernacle, A Blessed Snarl clearly demonstrates that Sam Martin is on a thrilling roll. Even with his work as a professor of Creative Writing and finishing his PhD, among all his other endeavours and travels, this novel comes out a strong contribution to CanLit, worthy of attention. Martin is definitely an East Coast writer to watch. I expect, in return for his dedication to English literature, his own books will end up the subject of students’ university papers.

Click to hear Sam read from A Blessed Snarl

Special thank you to Breakwater Books for sending me my copy for review and for being so patient in waiting for this to show up.

Inside, by Alix Ohlin: A Review

Inside, by Alix Ohlin, Anansi, May 2012, pp. 258. As usual for Anansi, a gorgeous, attractive cover and layout design!

Not long ago, Sarah Selecky recommended Alix Ohlin’s short story collection, Signs and Wonders, to me, which she’d read in order to write an endorsement. For the back of the book, Sarah wrote, “This collection is a gift — Alix Ohlin writes about intimacy with elegance and wisdom. These stories transcend questions of human happiness or unhappiness and reveal, with the delayed intensity of a sonic boom, the wonder of the insolvable, beloved, complicated mystery that is love.”

Happily, and not knowing I wanted to read her, Anansi recently sent me Inside, Ohlin’s latest novel, and I’ve read it before Signs and Wonders (that’s next). I’m positive that it is not inaccurate to say that Sarah’s words work equally for this novel.

Released the same month as Signs and Wonders (May 2012), Inside begins with Grace, who’s skiing alone in the quiet woods on Mount Royal in Montreal when she comes across a man lying prone in the snow. “At first glance,” the book begins, “she mistook him for something else. In the fading winter light he could have been a branch or a log, even a tire; in the many years she’d been cross-country skiing on Mount Royal, she’d found stranger debris across her path. People left behind their scarves, their shoes, their inhibitions: she come across lovers naked to the sky, even on cold days.” Unexpectedly meeting this man — rather, rescuing him — changes Grace’s life forever.

Told mainly from the perspective of three protagonists, Grace, Mitch, and Anne, and partly and significantly by the man whom Grace found (Tug), all whose lives intersect over ten years in influential ways, Inside is an exploration of how those whom we know, look to, rescue, split from, and love, change us. It’s a study of human behaviour, how we navigate or look for independence, acceptance, and love, and how we each respond to certain stressful circumstances, not exclusively our own experience, like trauma, suicide, unwanted pregnancy, the demands and needs of others, and particularly failure. Most of all, aside from examining the choices we make as we grow into ourselves, and how those choices carry us both toward and away from those people who are important to us, Inside has at its heart the meanings and importance of truth, in relation to others, to what we tell ourselves, and to what we want to believe. (Often, the line, “she believed him” shows up, and it’s amazing how much that simple sentence can say.)

Ohlin’s writing is first of all compelling and insightful, which serves to deepen the experience of the story — a good thing, since the book is narrated, it seems to me, with a sort of observant distance from the characters. Yet you feel close to them, understand them, empathize with them, wish for them. The graceful yet incisive way Ohlin explores and portrays the complexities of characters both peripheral (yet important) and main is truly nothing short of breathtaking.

Therapy is a major theme in this novel — both Grace and her ex-husband Mitch are therapists, and both struggle with how to help but also with how to maintain both focus on their clients while in appointments and dedication to their profession. Both have also unexpectedly come across significant people who need their help and end up changing their lives (Grace finds Tug, but also has Anne, a teen in crisis, as a client; Mitch goes to the Arctic where a young man, Thomasie, thrusts himself at him in desperation; Anne, later a successful actress, rescues a homeless woman who imposes herself, her unborn baby, and her boyfriend on her).

I was curious about the therapy theme and decided to see if Alix had mentioned it somewhere in talking about her book. In a short video on Goodreads, Ohlin says that “therapy, like writing and reading, is a process that takes place entirely through language.” People go to therapy, she surmises, because the story they tell themselves about their own lives isn’t working, and the job of the therapist is to try and get them to make themselves a different sort of character in their own story. As someone who goes to [and really enjoys] therapy, I think this is a very accurate and insightful way of looking at therapy but also people in general and how they present themselves to others. In relation to the novel, I think specifically of Hilary (the woman Anne rescues) and Tug here, whose stories are revealed slowly and evasively, and whom we can never entirely trust. Also nestled in the quest for truth — their own, of those with whom their lives intersect — is how both Mitch and Grace respond to their responsibility as therapists as well as the results of the choices they make in dealing with their clients.

Important, too, are the many facets of love, shown mainly throughout the book as romantic (both heterosexual and gay), familial, filial, for suffering humanity, and as friendship. Love of occupation is also explored.

I really want to talk about the various possible meanings of the title, to discuss the characters’ sometimes unpredictable, even distressing responses to what they were faced with. But I feel as though if I write more about this story, I’ll give everything away; it feels almost like telling you everything about someone without letting you discover them for yourself. The characters are so real in this book I keep feeling as if I know them or will see them. The settings in Montreal, New York, LA, and Rwanda are so alive as to make you feel you recognize the places, even if you’ve never been. You need to experience this first-hand.

This is a novel to be savoured, and my only regret about it is that I finished it, and am for now left without any Ohlin to read. Her writing is so intimate, so warm and beautiful, the story so compelling, that even by only page 60 or so I was already emailing friends asking if they’d heard of Ohlin and entreating them to get Inside and read it. After only the first couple of pages, I was already tweeting how much I loved the book.

As Sarah said, Alix writes with elegance and wisdom. And the way she navigates and exposes and unravels the complexities of life is, indeed, a gift to literature, and to us: ultimately, Inside allows and encourages us to look deeper within to seek our own truths.

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A special thank you to Anansi for sending me Inside. And to Alix for writing it!