Somewhat sadly, because of work, I haven’t had the time to properly review books in a long time, and if I can’t do it properly, then I don’t at all. So much work goes into a book! It’s not fair to give a wishy-washy review. And I say only “somewhat sadly” because the inability to properly review, aside from causing some guilt, has also allowed me to read for pleasure and nothing else and remind me of the kind of reader I once was: voracious, relaxed, in the moment.
That said, I sometimes miss blogging. And every now and then, a book still comes for me in the mail from a kind and generous publisher, and so I write my thoughts on Goodreads as a thank you, and post on Instagram and Twitter (though there far less often). It occurred to me that there may still be people who find and read this blog, too, so I thought I’d post what I wrote on Goodreads here.
Recently, I received Fever at Dawn from House of Anansi Press (thank you, Laura!) It’s from their international imprint. This slim novel is a sweet and lovely imagining of a man’s parents’ relationship after WWII, inspired by their letters over the six months they knew each other before getting married.
Their lives upended, and separated from their families by distance, death, or the unknown, Miklos and Lili are Holocaust survivors who have just been rescued from Bergen-Belsen camp and transported to Sweden to convalesce in separate hospitals. Determined to cheat death (M has tuberculosis) and find himself a wife, Miklos asks for the names of Hungarian women in the hospitals and begins to write to them. Lili, among others, writes back—and it is this way, as they get to know each other by mail, that M & L quickly fall in love.
Despite the heaviness of the characters’ circumstances, there’s quite a bit of humour, which, while I thoroughly enjoyed it, might have contributed to the book’s overall feeling of being a bit too insubstantial. Yes, this is a love story, not a story of what it was like to be in the concentration camps, though each one’s experience is very briefly but powerfully recounted, as well as some of their backstory. So I understand the focus on the six months of letter writing, the antics of his father in his fervour, the development of the relationship… yet even in these things, I still feel the content could have been a richer, particularly because the author was already taking licence with the story. It’s perhaps the way it is because the author is a film director rather than a novelist.
The nature of the book is a little mixed: the author is himself, relating the story, using the first-person “I” occasionally; the book also includes an epilogue (or afterword, it seems like), but because his story is only based on the letters his parents wrote each other and the stories they told him and is otherwise imagined, the book is classified as a novel.
I do feel the translation—though I haven’t got a clue how to read Hungarian and would thus technically not know if the translation is good—is very good. It’s not awkward, the humour comes through perfectly, the right words seem chosen. Nothing in terms of story itself seems lost.
I’ve always really enjoyed Anansi’s international imprint, and despite my complaints about this book—namely, that I ultimately wish for more depth and content—I still think this book is a good read. The weather, the atmosphere of the hospitals, all is palpable; the characters are very well-written, as individuals and also as groups of convalescing men and women who still manage to function through camaraderie and music despite the unspeakable horrors and near-death experiences they had. Ultimately, the novel’s value lies in compassionately and astutely portraying the resilience and beauty of hope, life, and love in a time of war.
I’ll say it right off, in case you don’t feel like reading this whole post: Calvin is the best YA book I’ve read in eons. A 17-year old kid has a schizophrenic episode and thinks he’s Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes. He hears Hobbes with him. There are just too many coincidences for him to think he’s not. He was born on the day the comic strip ended. His parents named him Calvin. His uncle gave him a stuffed tiger named Hobbes. He’s just like Calvin. He has blond hair and had a red wagon. His dad wears glasses. And his first grade teacher’s name is Miss Wood. “How close can you get to Miss Wormwood. Huh? Huh?” And of course, there’s real-life Susie, his ex-friend, or frenemy, with whom he’s grown up and who happens to carry the same name of the indomitable Susie in the strip.
Calvin becomes convinced that if he goes to see the author of Calvin & Hobbes, Bill Watterson, Bill will write a comic with him but without Hobbes, to “properly” end the series and thus cure him of his mental illness. So he sets off across frozen Lake Erie to Cleveland, Susie along for the adventure. (Or is she?)
How to describe the book I read in only a few hours, an epistolary novel (Calvin’s writing the story to Bill)? It’s beautiful! The workings of this kid’s gorgeous, tragically ill mind! (The workings of Martine Leavitt‘s beautiful, creative mind!) I loved how because he’s unreliable you have no idea whether anything is really happening, whether anything but him is real. And whether he’s even on the adventure. And there are even Spaceman Spiff and Stupendous Man episodes!!
A few of my favourite lines:
They say a person my age knows maybe thirty thousand words, so picking the first word out of thirty thousand is the hardest part. After you pick the first word, it weirdly picks the next one, and that one picks the one after that, and next thin you know you’re not in control at all — the pen is as big as a telephone pole and you’re just hanging on for dear life… [Just like writing a story, yes?]
Doesn’t it make you feel kind of awesome that the world is beautiful for no other apparent reason than that it is? Like beauty has its own secret reason. It doesn’t need human eyes to notice. It just wants to be glorious and unbelievable.
Do you ever wonder what life is all about, Calvin? Yeah, I know you do. You’re one of the few guys I personally know who stops to wonder about that. For me — I’ve decided maybe that’s the cool thing about it. Life lets you decide for yourself. I mean, it would be awful if it wasn’t up to us, wouldn’t it? If life said, this is what I’m about and don’t go getting any ideas of your own?
Augh, this book. Read it. It’s such a lovely, imaginative story, and if you’ve been an undying fan of Calvin & Hobbes since you were young, like me, it’s that much more special. The world is a magical place.
*Thank you so very much to Cindy Ma, from Anansi Press, for knowing me and loving like crazy sharing any book she adores. You’re always right, Cindy. Always.
I wanted to do a thorough, good post about this book, but it seems that I can’t find the time to blog. Still, though it’s been a few months now since I finished Where Did You Sleep Last Night, by Lynn Crosbie, I haven’t forgotten it and I’m at least going to write a few words here because it’s stuck with me, as Lynn’s books (and photos) do.
Second, you should know that Crosbie is a huge fan of Cobain, which makes this all the more fun. One might comment on the balls she has to write about him (there is not a trace of disrespect in this book), but I know no one better qualified: when Lynn fangirls, she fangirls hard (Michael Jackson featured in Life Is About Losing Everything so realistically that when I was working on something about the book, I had to ask if everything between her and him in the book actually happened. Malcolm McDowell, prepare yourself!). Research was done, credits are listed. But it’s also a tribute, this book, and Lynn includes an afterword that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. And utterly serious.
What I also love about Crosbie is that she’s an artist writer, by which I mean there’s an element of some other type of creativity at work here; it doesn’t seem as if she just sits at her computer and types out her books. I imagine the process more like when in Harry Potter they put their wands to their heads and glimmering, ephemeral bits of memories floated out. Except that for Lynn, it’s characters and scenes and imagination. And after that, she has to corral these things to form a cohesive story.
Both Life Is About Losing Everything and WDYSLN are like…mixed media. They’re fiction and nonfiction and fan fiction, but also dreams and fumes and sculpture and scars…with the format of a collage in a way, but with enough structure to tell a proper, whole story. You just may not be able to piece it altogether instantly.
It’s all hard to explain because I wasn’t totally sure as I read WDYSLN what was real and what wasn’t, especially in the beginning. Funnily, and I mean that literally, the novel has a page at the beginning that says, “This is a true story.” Sometimes I wondered if I had to be high to read it and get what was happening. But I know Lynn is skilled. Somehow, this book completely works. Aside from the brilliant originality of it and the wordsmithing, and even though you kind of get the impression that she might have just let it all out, however it came out, there is no way that’s true. I feel like it must have taken her ten gazillion hours to craft this book, to get it right, to make it work as a novel though it strains at the boundaries of such a construct.
The Vancouver Sun said, “Crosbie uses language like she invented it.” But I say it’s not as if she invented the language; it’s as though she’s inventing it as she goes along (the way Magneto formed steps as he walked across space in that X-Men movie). The playfulness with words and syntax and meaning is art. She writes love and grit with equal beauty. She writes as though she’s found the way to capture and translate dreams. And like dreams, Lynn wondrously breaks all the rules but leaves us with something nevertheless vivid.
I get the feeling, from having read her stuff and following her on Instagram, that Lynn has lived every second of her life. There’s so much proof of astuteness, observation, experience, thought, wringing out of events for meaning and emotion and joy. There’s not a lazy bone in her stories—every word, sentence, scene is made to work HARD, and consequently we are made to work hard. Her books are no cakewalk—they blur lines and talk about hard things and truth, even while the content sometimes reads as though you’re delirious. But if we agree to follow that to the end, if we agree that sometimes working hard to stay with someone’s creation is totally worth it, we will be wildly—and I mean this literally for this novel—and richly rewarded.
“TEN GAZILLION STARS”: that’s what I wrote when I first finished reading Daydreams of Angels, by Canadian author Heather O’Neill (Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night). I’m slightly embarrassed by this hyperbole now, but that reaction was genuine, born out of my deep appreciation and excitement for wildly inventive writing that smacks almost of improv. That’s not to say that O’Neill didn’t craft these stories carefully and thoughtfully, only that she understands relinquishing control to the literary muse.
Daydreams of Angels is magic realism at its best. It’s original and playful, funny and tragic, wise and clever. It is uninhibited while remaining true. Combined with the delightful ridiculousness are moments of striking reality we can all relate to, which is what keeps this collection from overloading us with only fancy and wit.
Most of the stories carry the tone of fairy tales, and there are a few liberally riffed upon actual fairy tales, such as Pinocchio (“Bartók for Children” is an exceedingly clever version that carries the same kind of inventiveness as the original, only O’Neill does it better) and Red Riding Hood (“The Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec”).
As the title of the book vaguely suggests, some stories include angels, heaven, the devil, and even Jesus. In one of my favourite stories, “The Gospel According to Mary M.” (yes, that Mary M.: “Other people’s parents said I looked like a whore…”), Jesus is a Grade Six kid with what Mary’s mom calls “inner strength—a real screw-all-of-y’all attitude” who one afternoon finds the contents of his juice box mysteriously changed to wine (“‘Tell me if this apple juice doesn’t taste funny to you,’ he said”). Jean-Baptiste (haha), who says that Jesus has a Messiah complex, and Peter and Judas also feature on the playground.
Once when we were all in the back of the schoolyard and Judas was explaining to us where babies came from, Jesus positively spazzed out.
Now I knew all about that baby stuff, even then, and I knew that Judas was fifty percent full of crap, but if I piped in with my corrections, he’d be all “Excusez-moi, Professor Been-Around-The-Block,” so I made sure to keep my mouth shut.
But Jesus, on the other hand, started having a complete breakdown. He said that Judas was a liar and that if a woman hears someone whispering in her ear in the middle of the night and if she sits up and looks around and no one is there, she’ll be pregnant by the morning.
Interspersed throughout the collection is a series of connected stories featuring Grandfather and Grandmother (which have been radio-featured), who delight their grandchildren with fabrications narrated to us by the granddaughter. These stories are hilarious, for both the tales and the children’s reactions, and are about where babies come from (they’re washed up on shore by the waning tide, with their bums sticking up out of the sand so women can rescue them [“Where Babies Come From”]); dying and coming back to life and what happens in between (“Heaven”; the dead are all hustled onto trains: “The angels sorted through everyone, rushing about and chain-smoking cigarettes—for as it turned out, in heaven, smoking was good for you”); and about when Grandfather was a ladies’ man on the Isles of Dr. Moreau and dated a cat-girl, a deer-girl, and a swan-girl, and finally settled on the monkey-girl, Grandmother.
In other words, O’Neill fantastically succeeded in what she set out to do:
The collection I kind of conceived as a whole. I wanted it to be seen like one of those old anthologies of children’s literature that I used to get for Christmas in the ’70s. They would just have little chapters from Dickens novels and then a fairytale, and then an Aesop fable and then a story from the Bible. So I wanted it to be like one of those big children’s compendiums but then they would all be dark and for adults and with my own sort of twisted, perverted, little trademark things stuck in there. (Source)
Trademark, indeed. The collection is the misfit she often writes about but which has through obvious honing of her craft managed to find its own cool place. This book of imaginative, often reimagined stories is in a league of its own, not only with its original stories but also at sentence level. I dogeared so many similes and metaphors because they’re like nothing I’ve read before—in a good way that absolutely thrilled me. As a writer, I appreciate the hard work she’s done to cultivate this skill, which has totally paid off—so much so she makes it seem easy.
For example: “The old man was careful with his life. As though it were an egg balanced in a spoon in a children’s race”; “Little O brought Joe’s awful black cat to the vet. It was always messy looking and out of sorts, like a kid that had just had a turtleneck pulled off its head;” a bear in the first story, “The Gypsy and the Bear,” spins “balls around as though he was God deciding where to put what in the solar system”; and “they slammed the book shut, like a folk dancer pounding his foot on the floor to announce the end of an act.”
Streetlights are, from above, like strings of pearls; a boiler bubbles and burps all night long as if it had a huge meal and now has indigestion; a young girl with three brothers finds herself lacking (“It was as though there wasn’t enough material left to make another boy and so I got made”) and compares herself to the “last funny cookie on the tray that there wasn’t enough dough for”; and “The surface of the moon on a clear night looked all dented, like it had been out drinking and driving and had now lost its licence after a crash.” There are tons more, connections you might not think to make but strangely seem almost obvious when you read them.
As I hinted at the beginning, this book isn’t all fun and games. Artfully blended in is an also observant insight into the darkness of being human. O’Neill writes about poverty, loneliness, feeling like a misfit, the misery of being unfulfilled, abandonment, the mid-century views of motherhood, and especially the way girls and women are made to feel by the expectations of society.
“The Saddest Chorus Girl in the World” is a particularly tender story about vulnerability, objectification, and sadness. The final story, “The Conference of the Birds,” tells of a family of six on welfare (not the only story in this collection that deals with poverty of some sort), and though it’s well-balanced and told with humour and a rather sweet ending that focuses on the way we can survive by being close-knit and positive, it too was tinged with sadness for me.
In all, Daydreams of Angels is a brilliant exploration of imagination, desire, and finding one’s place in the world, a collection that left me feeling satisfied yet hungry for more. I have yet to read The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (soon!) but already, I’m looking forward to whatever O’Neill wants to write next.
I have a thing for the Deep South. I’ve never actually been, not yet, but I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read set there. I listen to New Orleans blues. I’m addicted to the show The Originals. I season food with Slap Ya Mama. The place lends itself to magic both literally and figuratively, though some people might not call it that. For me, the mystery of the bayou, the pervasive sense of something otherworldly, the dark underbelly, the bewitching blues, and especially the lore — as well as the swampy, humid, mossy, crawling atmosphere, are some of the best things in literature. That’s why when Sam at ECW Press offered me Cauchemar by Alexandrea Grigorescu, I said yes. (Thank you, Sam!)
And at first, as thrilling as the book sounds, I actually had trouble getting into it. I’m sure it was due to my expectations more than to the writing, but I wanted more…what? voodoo? and less relationship. More sax and less sex. But I kept at it (and I don’t usually do that) and increasingly became compelled as things got weirder: growing, pulsing cracks in the walls, biblical plagues, glimpses of an albino reptile, throats choked with black feathers, snakes writhing out of the plumbing, visions that blur the lines between real and spiritual so you can’t tell one from the other.
Hannah is left alone after the death of her adoptive mother Mae, with so much to figure out about herself, her past, and her home, but when her birth mother steps in, a witch with the power to hold men under her spell in a way that makes them alarmingly decrepit, things start to get really creepy, including with Hannah’s boyfriend, Callum. It was all enough to make me genuinely uneasy.
I’ll say this of Grigorescu: somehow she was able, using everyday words, to conjure up an atmosphere so spooky that I felt equally compelled and repelled. I was torn between staying up too late and tossing the book out the car window as we drove (I stayed up late, like Melissa, in the bath, and had to reheat the water three times). It’s hard to describe the feeling, really: kind of the residue after you watch a horror movie, say. Except so mesmerizing at the same time!
Cauchemar is a thriller movie begging to be made; I hope someone with the power to make it, and make it well, comes across the story and see its potential. And I don’t get this feeling from it sounding like it was written with that intent; no, I get it from everything being so vivid and visceral and real—from the legions of insects to the decrepit men to the unborn baby to the crossed fingers and hissing of the neighbours to the voodoo magic and heavy heat and window-crashing crows—that I had to take a shower after my bath. The veil between this world and the next is far too thin in this book for you to rest comfortably with sweet tea.
Cauchemar is a nightmare, a love story, a tribute to Southern cookery, a frightening bestiary, the grip of the moody bayou, a powerful conjuring of the dark magic that buoys the swamps of the Deep South. And Grigorescu is a literary sorceress—who has possibly hung out with the Louisiana witches, because she evoked them something strong in this book.
This review is part of a blog tour sponsored by the publisher, ECW Press. For the complete list of tour stops, see below. For more information, click HERE. For a guest post from the author, Alexandra Grigorescu, click HERE.
“Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we’re going to live by the sun and seasons.” He picked me up and spun me around laughing. “Our days will be endless.” With my father’s final notch, time stopped for us on the twentieth of August, 1976. —From Our Endless Numbered Days
Anansi never disappoints. This Christmas, I received a package from them with the ARC of Claire Fuller‘s debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days (due out in March and present on at least eight “most anticipated books” lists) plus two candles, a tin of chicken, matches, a ball of twine, batteries, and survivalist lists of what to pack for a trip into “the interior.”
They’ve read the book. They must know it’s a winner. But did they know just how appropriate their package would be? Did they know that after I finished the book, when my husband, dog, and I went to the woods for our walk a couple of hours later, I would feel convinced that I needed to bring the candles, matches, and a blanket in case something happened? We tramped through the forest and I could not shake off the feeling that I was still in the novel. I stumbled through the snow behind my husband, breathlessly, seemingly endlessly, describing the story to him.
Our Endless Numbered Days is told to us by Peggy, who is 18. When she is eight, she is taken from her home by her survivalist (or, Retreatist) father, from London to a remote European forest. At first she thinks they’re on a short trip to “die Hütte” [the cottage]—a camping trip, as they’d done in their backyard while her mother was off giving piano concerts in another country. But her father wishes to avoid people on their trek, and when they finally arrive at the small, hidden, ill-equipped, ramshackle cabin, he tells her that the rest of the world has ended, and everyone else is dead, and it is not safe to venture beyond the borders he sets. And she, having little concept of her father’s designs, believes it all.
For nine years, Peggy and her father live off the land, almost starving, then adapting but only just surviving. The events that transpire are utterly engrossing. But increasingly Peggy’s father shows alarming signs of deterioration and mental illness, and we wonder how this could possibly all end well.
The story alternates between the time of these nine years and the present, which in this book is 1985, when Peggy has returned home and discovered the world is not ended, after all. We know, then, early on that she survives the ordeal, but breathtaking tension remains as she relates her story, even as we deduce and suspect (I did not find this spoiled anything), and then confirm, with horror, the reality and disturbing effects of what transpired.
I’m telling you right now, this is the best book I’ve read in ages. I cannot remember the last time I spoke aloud at a book, with volume, or if there has ever been a time when, no matter how great the book was, I actually told someone they needed to leave me alone till I finished. I’ve wanted to, of course.
Yesterday, reading near the end, I said aloud, “Oh God, oh my God…” and my husband said, “What, what? Did you forget something important?” And I just shook my head, my eyes wide, my hand over my mouth. “Oh God,” I said, muffled. And he said, “Ohh, is one of your book characters having difficulties?” Which is from The Simpsons and made me kind of laugh, but I was unable to remove my hand from my mouth. I was between worlds; I felt—and this will sound like hyperbole—like I’d been punched. No, not the hurt, but the recovery, from the surprise and holy-shitness of it (yes, I’ve been punched before).
And then, a few minutes later, I said, “No. NO. No, no, no, no, noooo…” I knew, I had suspected, but to hear a character come to her own realization, for me to have my suspicions confirmed, for the realizations to dawn on me slowly as the book progressed, horrifyingly so…it was all very intense. And when my husband started talking to me about his beer brewing process, which he’s very excited about and which is his own passion, I squirmed and I held my breath and I smiled and I told myself, HE is more important than your book…but then I couldn’t hold it in any longer, and I said, showing him, “I just have one and a half pages left,” and he said, “Oh, okay—” thinking I meant I would shower and get ready to go out after those pages, and I blurted, “NO, please. I mean, I have to read these now and then you can talk to me. I’m sorry, I-I just need to finish, I’m in the story…” And, bless him, he put up his hands and backed away slowly.
I didn’t close the book for a few minutes after I’d finished. I sat processing. I thought of so many things at once. Is it typical that once you finish a book like this you immediately start looking for flaws? You review the story and the events over and over and look for holes or things you can object to. Every time I came up with something, Fuller had it covered (read: I got this) by something else. I thought of objections others might have with regard to the story, but I always had something solid to counter them with.
All day yesterday, I thought about the book. I had been so there, alongside Peggy—or as her, I don’t really know. The atmosphere, the setting, the details…everything was so palpable that it feels like memory.
This is Fuller’s first novel, did I mention? Penguin was the highest bidder of three, and the book’s going to launch in eight countries this year. She even quit her job:
“It feels like a big risk,” she said. “The book will come out but I have no idea how well it will sell. It is amazing and I can’t quite believe it. It is still rare for this to happen to new authors. It’s amazing and it must mean that they think the book is sellable—they are a business at the end of the day. If the book doesn’t sell I probably have two or three years and then I might have to go out and get a job. We have decided it is worth taking the risk.” [source: Hampshire Chronicle]
Duh. Totally worth it. I’m already slavering over her as-yet-unborn second novel and can’t wait to meet her someday, and I am not alone. It’s tough to believe OEND is a debut novel. I admired the prose—which Kirkus Review called “translucent”—sentences like, “The forest smelled heavy and dirty and sorry for itself”—though, taken out of context, perhaps things lose a bit of their lustre. But the rhythm of her writing, the structure and organization of the story, the way important things are revealed throughout but not too much, not too tellingly, her power to evoke surroundings that are so real you are transported, and the way Fuller was able to reach deep into the human condition and translate things so that we relate, even not having experienced what Peggy does first-hand—all of this is expertly done. This book is going to be big, okay. Award-winning. Or I’ll eat my survivalist candles (the dog ate the canned chicken.)
That I could not pick up another book to read yesterday and haven’t been able to so far today is testament to Fuller’s power as a storyteller. Not only do I feel I haven’t read something as effective as this novel in ages, but I also feel it will take a little while for me to believe I can read something as good next.
Random House is still very kindly and generously sending me free books. I guess it’s because they know that when I love a book, even if I can’t review it (new clients mean extremely limited time; also, just so you know, this isn’t what I’d call a review), I can’t keep it to myself and will at least tweet and FB about it. Bless them for thinking that’s enough.
So they sent me Murakami’s upcoming story The Strange Library (12/2014). What a delight this book is! I appreciate when people understand that experiencing a book doesn’t just mean reading the text. It’s everything, from introduction to running a hand over the back cover when you’re done.
This gem of a book came wrapped in plastic. So already the heart’s pounding because you’re going through the motions of unwrapping a gift. At least, I get this feeling when I’m having to remove an exciting product from whatever it comes in: there’s that anticipatory moment, you know? So I pulled at a corner of the plastic with my teeth.
Anyone who’s seen the latest Murakami books knows that Chip Kidd‘s been given more creative freedom. Vellum and cutout covers, cool graphic and illustrative design, and then this, which at first appears to be in a protective cover and then gives the impression that it might read like a notepad.
But once you lift up and pull down the covers, the pages turn as a normal book. I folded the covers at the back page, and used the top cover as a bookmark the one time I put the book down. Note in the photo above the line along the spine: For internal use only. It’s in the story, but here I think it has a double meaning.
The Strange Library is a highly imaginative story that showcases the joyful creativity of Murakami and the superb translation skills of Ted Gossen. One might ask how I know it’s a great translation, and okay, I don’t with regard to the original. But in English this book reads very well: the words seem perfect for the telling. I read quite a bit of translated literature (I love it), and when it creates what I think is the right tone for the story and author, it’s succeeded.
So I adored this beautiful little book from start to finish. A young man goes to the library and is sent to the labyrinthine basement he didn’t know existed, where a crotchety old man wants his brains. Thus, he’s kept prisoner until he can read and memorize three books (on tax collecting in the Ottoman Empire) he’s given, in order to make his brain “creamy.” A wraith-like girl and a man in a sheepskin round out the cast of characters, as well as a starling, a frightening hound, and the young man’s mother.
It’s a dreamlike tale with a very likable and sometimes humorous narrative voice, and gives the impression that Murakami let his imagination drift without censorship. Yet, even in its simplicity and brevity, it also carries a strange, at first unidentifiable weight. About After the Quake, a collection of short stories, Murakami said, “I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.”
This story is exactly that, actually. I don’t think it’s a story or a fabulously designed book just for story’s or design’s sake. I don’t have a problem with it if it is, but I’m certain there’s more to it. Like a good short story, The Strange Library leaves me to figure out the white space. Which of course I won’t reveal here, because your experience of it would be partly ruined. Already, though, I want to read it again, and just skimming through it, things begin to take on even greater meaning.
And now I also want more Murakami. The more of him I read, the more I learn what it means as a writer to be creative, imaginative, yet grounded in truth.
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.
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 Goldfinchhere. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Brideas “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.
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.
Yes, 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.
So the one thing I want to clear up first thing, because it comes up almost every time I recommend it, is that Ablutionsis 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.