book reviews, CanLit

When Kerry Clare released her first book, The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood, I remember thinking, Well, that’s one I’ll never read! It’s about mom stuff and I have absolutely no desire to be a mom, much less read about being one, or even be privy to the mom culture that for the most part often makes me gag.

And then I got it and read it. Of course I did, because I’m not averse to good books, and I had a reluctant feeling it would be good. I was just as surprised as anyone who knows me that I was reading it (I also previously read The Birth House, when even the word “birth” makes me want to vomit.

The M Word was good, an intelligent collection of essays that dealt with all things mom (from being one to not being one to not being one soon after becoming one, etc.). You know what it was about the collection that didn’t make me vomit? That kept me reading and then even thinking it was a great book?

The honesty. The things that were said that so many parents don’t dare say lest they be judged, like: OMG, sometimes my kids are such little shits that I want to murder them in their sleep. If they would go the fuck to sleep!! (and there was no pressure to follow that with, “But don’t get me wrong, parenting is so worth it, I love them so much!!). Or the things that were said by women who had an abortion or who are stepmothers.

And it’s this same honesty that I appreciated so much in Mitzi Bytes (here’s me finally getting to the point!). MB isn’t just about motherhood, though a great deal of the book is from that perspective—that is, Sarah/Mitzi as a mom in relation to other moms and other kids. But it’s also about being a wife and a friend. And a woman. And a blogger.

It’s about how we navigate through the sea of relationships we forge, whether IRL or online or in passing or with extended family. In fact, this novel covers pretty much every aspect of what it means to be human, really. We get secrets and lies and mean girls and mean men and infidelity and putting on a strong facade and peer pressure and being unconventional in the face of conformity, and forgiveness and being mortified, and financial issues, and making mistakes, and identity crises. And Clare astutely nails all of it.

As a former blogger, first of a personal blog and then as a book reviewer on this blog, I related well to the questions in Mitzi Bytes of what it means to be both a real person and an online personality, whether secret or out in the open. It was this that attracted me most to the novel.

I write for myself, because it makes me feel good to write, but I can’t help but respond to the great feedback. Initially, my voice changed. I became funnier than I am in real life. At the time, snark was huge and I was good at it. I made people laugh with stupid little stories of discovering in public that my favourite jeans had a large hole in the crotch and of accidentally screaming, “Walk fucker!” to my dear sweet dog when what I meant was walk faster please and I hadn’t meant to scream it, either, in front of a horrified man who thought I was talking to him. I made the ordinary kind of “sacred” because I had no choice; I am a freelancer working from home.

But people reacted with hyperbolic appreciation and even though I knew it was exaggerated, I loved it. I made myself happy because I was writing regularly. But I was also happy because I felt popular among my readers. Not Dooce or Mitzi Bytes popular, but loved enough. And I adored the attention once I started getting free books to review and getting invited to speak on CBC’s Giller Stage and on radio programs, etc.

But sometimes I was accused of trying too hard, of losing my authenticity. And while I fought against what felt like unjust accusations with “You don’t really know me, I contain multitudes! This is me,” I did struggle with having two separate “moods.” Which actually make me feel somewhat guilty when I turned off the computer and became boring.

When I was growing up, my dad used to lament that I was two different people, at school and at home. At school, I was outgoing, happy, had lots of friends, was nice. At home, I was morose and private and angry. It was circumstantial, I argued. I was one personality exhibiting the gamut of emotions appropriate to how others made me feel! (Also, I was a teenager living in the basement except to eat and sometimes hang out in the living room reading, and raised by strict parents in whom I never confided. My confidante was Dear Diary.)

And so it is with blogging, in a way. For Sarah (Mitzi), online she was funny and divulging and of course fed by the positive reactions. At home, she was someone else—she was… not performing. Not the opposite of Mitzi, but someone else even simply because no one knew she was Mitzi. And the question is, how do we reconcile those two… and, what it became for me, why does there even have to be two? Why can’t this online personality also be me? Why was I being accused of being not genuine?

These are questions in the book—how does a person be, and how does a person be in relation to all the different people, and regarding secrets and double standards and privacy and with the strangely freeing atmosphere that the online culture creates, that of being simultaneously anonymous and unlimitedly public?

How Sarah/Mitzi deals with being found out and with everyone’s reactions to her posts (some of which we get to read, interspersed throughout so we readers can judge for ourselves) attempts to answer these questions. I won’t lie: I struggled with how people reacted in the novel to her posts and kept asking myself if I would have reacted the same had I been written about on someone’s blog. I had thought the posts rather benign, though not well veiled. But if I was the subject, would I feel violated?

I thought back to when years ago I wrote a funny post about how ignorant these two Burger King cashiers were about vegetarianism and wondered if it had been mean of me or, as I’d thought at the time, entertaining.

What is it about the online world that makes us share the way we do? And when our writing comes into question, and our ethics and morals and intentions and very own personality, how do we see past our defensive indignation (but I told only the truth! But I am a nice person! But I am being me!) to our subjects’ feelings? And how do we allow for those others’ feelings to be valid while respecting our freedom to write and be part of the online community?

Needless to say, then, this page-turner is not only a funny and well-written story that’s resonant with spot-on cultural and parenting truths (I know the latter are truths even though I’ve never experienced them, because I have honest friends who are parents, and I was once a kid, and I have a great imagination and the ability to be empathetic and compassionate); Mitzi Bytes is also a thought-provoking novel, particularly for bloggers and moms and mommybloggers, but also for anyone who has any sort of online presence. And who doesn’t these days? But like historians, we don’t portray the entire picture. And sometimes even the purposeful, naked truth is us trying to prove something in some way.

Sometimes we share in a way that is misconstrued (to our minds). We share things that are not our own—the main issue Mitzi’s readers take when they read her blog and discover themselves.

Recently, I posted a pic on Instagram of a snow message my husband had written about himself. It was only as he was seeing it on my phone that I questioned whether or not it had been mine to share. Maybe it was private for him. (Turns out he’d been somewhat embarrassed.) But I had shared because I came across it and it was a surprise and loved it, and thought it not only sweet but also affirming. It made me learn something about how I should talk to myself.

So what counts as not our own? Why shouldn’t stories we interact with be ours too, since we are in fact interpreting what we’re experiencing as part of the conversation? If we’re living our lives in public, why or how does sharing any part of our experience of someone’s life make it wrong? And how do we navigate any fallout from people claiming the stories as their own, while also remaining true to ourselves?

Also, something very interesting here: for most of the novel, I found it particularly difficult to separate the book from Kerry Clare herself, whom I’ve followed—online—now for several years. I had to keep chastising myself: stop thinking this is autobiographical! Authors hate that! You know better!!

But it was nearly impossible! Clare was present the entire time. I know she’s married, and is a blogger, and teaches a course, and has two girls, just like Mitzi. And there were a few other similarities. But that doesn’t mean that everything in this book is her personal experience. Or that her husband is like Sarah’s husband, Chris. Nevertheless, I found myself constantly wondering if her daughters really did walk on tin foil pie plates one day, for example. How much of this was real and how much did she imagine?

Knowing the author didn’t ruin anything for me, thankfully, but I did, near the end, FINALLY, realize that what I was thinking of as truth about Clare was based only on what I know of her online presence. I’ve never met her for more than a wave and hi in person! We are not friends in real life. I don’t have kids who go to her school. I don’t sit beside her on the park bench while her kids play. I don’t go to her library, I don’t sit across from her, posting pics of our tea cups and cake and talking about personal shit. I don’t know anything other than what she posts online. The tip of the iceberg, as they say.

So who do I think I really know? Who was I really bringing to my reading experience? Interesting, huh? How the novel becomes meta in this sense? Clever, damn it. Now everything is upside down.

book reviews

dt.common.streams.StreamServerSimply put, The Girls is about a woman’s (Evie’s) experience as a young, privileged teen in the 1960s, living on and off in a cult led by a (perplexingly) magnetic and charismatic but volatile man named Russell. Years after several of the cult members famously kill four people, an event Evie narrowly misses being part of, she reflects on her time and relationships on the ranch and attempts to explain what kept her there, as well as relates how she was affected afterward.

I bought this book because of my interest in the cult aspect of it—growing up, I was fascinated by Charles Manson and his Family, Helter Skelter and other true crime stories. (I’ve read a few comments that say if you can get past the “cult stuff,” The Girls is a good book, but that to me is utterly ridiculous, as it is intrinsically tied to this story [and Cline’s interest in writing it]—which is not just what it meant to be a girl in that time. Those books are ubiquitous.) With the same interest, Cline researched Manson’s story and loosely based The Girls on it.

This is essentially what works in the novel: the ability of Cline to recreate not only a decade and zeitgeist during which she was not alive but also to spin a believable and intriguing story of privilege versus poverty, vacuousness versus radical thought, stability versus uncertainty and volatility. Cline’s people are fully realized, from the main characters to the tertiary ones, people who pick Evie up while she’s hitchhiking, for example.

There is also a solid feminist aspect to the novel, which comes through most clearly in her portrayal of the men in the book but works well more subtly, too, in her observations of the women and herself.

One of the interesting things about The Girls is its own strange magnetism. In spite of things that irritated me, I was compelled to stick with it till the end—and it was not a slog but rather an addictive read. Not unlike Evie with her fixation on one of the girls in the cult, I found myself coming back to the book every free moment I had, even while reading was somewhat fraught. You’re propelled through by imagery—not a bad thing, because it’s the imagery that makes things real—and by a desire to find out the whole story. But in this book, that reality was spoiled for me every time I was pulled out of the story by the distraction of the writing.

In my view, The Girls is overwritten—chock-full of descriptive detail that is at first exciting in its reach for truth and in its originality but then unfortunately becomes too much. I felt as though Cline had been taught an excellent thing but in her affinity for it had focused too hard on it. This preoccupation seemed to lead into getting lost in scenes, and I often found myself impatient: get on with the story, I thought, where is the story! Or, I would have cut this; what is the point of this?

The teenage nostalgia, the capturing of the essence of “girlness,” though I related and could imagine it well, felt as though it had consumed Cline a little too much in the process of writing. It makes me wonder if mining herself, as well as her mother’s diary, for the memory of being a teen, made her lose focus, and it might have been better for her to scale back the prose in the revision stage to allow the reader to experience some things in her own way.

Even while I marvelled enough at the pinpointedness of many of Cline’s descriptions, I also found the writing somewhat unpolished, an odd mix of what I consider unskilled (lots of distracting and frustrating filtering, for example, which diluted the prose) yet astute, intelligent, and, again, original and well-imagined. Inconsistent, then.

What I would have liked to have seen is a stronger editorial hand in Cline, a paring down and focusing of the writing. This, to me, would have allowed me to be taken in solely by the story and its people, from beginning to end.

Because of her ability to suss out the essence of things and thus place us where she wants us with well-developed people, I look forward to seeing Cline hone her skill as a writer. I hope her next book demonstrates more focus and a confidence in knowing just how much can be said without saying, so that it not only places the reader in her interesting world but also lets her explore and be led without interruption.

book reviews

26136567Somewhat 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.

book reviews

9781554987207_HR_1024x1024I’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 & HobbesBill 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 thing 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.

book reviews

9781770899315_2a197bfa-bce7-4ccb-9fd3-18fff874fb05_1024x1024
Where Did You Sleep Last Night, by Lynn Crosbie, Anansi Press, 2015

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.

First: Read the synopsis if you want to know what the book is about.

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.

book reviews

Daydreams of Angels, short stories, by Heather O'Neill, HarperCollinsCA, 2015, trade paper, 354 pp.
Daydreams of Angels, short stories, by Heather O’Neill, HarperCollinsCA, 2015, trade paper, 354 pp.

“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.

Daydreams of Angels, UK edition, Quercus, 2015
Daydreams of Angels, UK edition, Quercus, 2015

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.

For more on this collection, listen to Heather’s interviews on and All in a Weekend. (Her sweet, light voice totally surprised me when I first heard it. Her writing made me imagine something meatier. I love this juxtaposition!)

book events, book reviews

The luminescent, Catherine Zeta-Jones lookalike author, Alexandra Grigorescu., who lives in Toronto, not New Orleans.
The luminescent Catherine Zeta-Jones lookalike author, Alexandra Grigorescu, who lives in Toronto, not New Orleans. I know: What?!

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.

Read an Excerpt!

 Chapter One

 Alexandra Grigorescu’s Blog Tour Stops

Cauchemar

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.

MARCH 1: Review and giveaway at The Book Binder’s Daughter
MARCH 2: Review and guest post at Bibliotica
MARCH 3: Review and excerpt (Chapter 1) at Bella’s Bookshelves (Here!)
MARCH 4: Guest post at Write All the Words! for their International Women’s Week feature
MARCH 5: Interview and excerpt (Chapter 2) at Editorial Eyes
MARCH 7: Review at Lavender Lines
MARCH 9: Review at Svetlana’s Reads
MARCH 10: Review and interview at The Book Stylist
MARCH 11: Review, guest post, and giveaway at Booking it with Hayley G
MARCH 12: Guest Post at Dear Teen Me
MARCH 13: Review and giveaway at The Book Bratz
MARCH 14: Interview and excerpt at Feisty Little Woman

book reviews

“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

9781770898257_1024x1024
Anansi cover, March 2015

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.”

IMG_20141211_114004IMG_20141211_115625They’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.

22825631
US cover, March 2015

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.

download
British cover, Feb. 2015

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.

download (2)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.

book reviews

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.

 

Opening Murakami's The Secret Library, Random House, 2014. Chip Kidd design
Opening Murakami’s The Secret Library, Random House, 2014. Chip Kidd design

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.

Page 2, with the covers of the book open
Page 2, with the covers of the book open

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.

10710630_10152783722435935_686189517331870192_n

book reviews

Not long ago I picked up two new books, Town House by Canadian author Tish Cohen and Little Bee by Chris Cleave. We were at Costco and I couldn’t resist. I’d eyed up Town House before, a different paperback edition, a few years ago, but I admit I can be wary of first novels (though I’m taking more “risks” and finding myself pleased).

Here’s a synopsis from Cohen’s site, because though I’ve been avoiding these, seeing blurbs on other review sites has convinced me they make sense and are helpful:

Jack Madigan is, by many accounts, blessed. Thanks to his legendary rockstar father, he lives an enviable existence in a once-glorious, but now crumbling, Boston town house with his teenage son, Harlan. There’s just one problem: Jack is agoraphobic. While living on his dad’s dwindling royalties hasn’t been easy, Jack and Harlan have bumbled along just fine. Until the money runs out…and so does Jack’s luck.

Suddenly, the bank is foreclosing, Jack’s ex is threatening to take Harlan to California, and Lucinda, the little waif next door, won’t stay out of his kitchen. Or his life. The harder Jack tries to keep Lucinda out, the harder she pushes her way in — to his house and, eventually, his heart. Things look up when the real estate agent, Dorrie Allsop, arrives so green she still has the price tag dangling from her Heritage Estates blazer. But even Dorrie’s overworked tongue can’t hide the house’s potential and, ultimately, a solid offer thrusts Jack towards the paralyzing reality that he no longer has a home.

To save his sanity, Jack must do the impossible and outwit the real estate agent, win back his house and keep his son at home. Town House is a sweet and serious look at one man’s struggle to survive within the walls of his own fears. And it’s through the very people he tries so hard to push out of his life that he finds a way to break down those walls and, eventually, step outside.

First off, I love the format of my edition of Town House, part of the Harper Weekend imprint. It’s a lovely matte cover but mainly the size and shape, about an inch and half shorter and half an inch or so narrower than a regular trade makes it light and easily portable as well as pleasant to hold. The paper is soft and fragrant, the binding such that the book can easily lie open. A nice paperback to travel with.

However, while it did accompany me day after day to work, I found myself unable to read more than a few sentences because I’m so interrupted there that I don’t really get a lunch, and thus I read this 305-pager in about two days over this past weekend. It’s an easy read—not fluff, really, but compelling and reminiscent to me of something like a romantic comedy movie. Yet it’s more than that. According to Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, it’s “everything you could ask for in a novel: touching, wry, bewitching, eccentric, and riveting to the end.” Which is all true, though “riveting” is a word I use sparingly and I think it a bit too strong in this case.

Town House was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean region), and deservedly so. What attracted me to the book in the first place was the cast of characters and a plot line that promised the development of said characters as they go through their ordinary days and also come together. Cohen writes her protagonist, Jack Madigan, son of 70s rockstar Baz Madigan and an agoraphobe with the uncanny skill of mixing perfect shades of white, in such a way that you feel as attached to him as you do to endearing IRS auditor Harold Crick in one of my favourite films, Stranger than Fiction.

This to me is one of the major signs of a good novel: relatively ordinary but different characters who can worm their way into your heart so that you can relate, empathize, care about what happens to them, want to spend more time with them. Indeed, I feel somewhat bereft now that I’ve finished the novel, as though I’ve just spent quality time with a friend whose presence I’ve just left.

The writing is very good, the content often funny, the relationships and interactions between characters, who are often quirky or idiosyncratic, well done. A few characters, like Jack’s ex-wife and her new boyfriend, are a bit too cliché for my taste, but they work. It’s a novel peopled with believable human beings, flawed and vulnerable yet there are those who stand out somewhat heroically, bringing much needed hope into play. There are failures and triumphs, of course, and survival lessons from those you might least expect.

Only one complaint, really: a couple of times the situations grew a bit forced in order to make the plot direction work. I can think of two examples, both near the end of the novel, and the ending in particular was disappointing because it seemed a bit too…romantic, as well as improbable. Something about it smacked of a bit too much serendipity, and while I’m not against that by any means (in fact, one of my favourite romcoms is Serendipity), in this case things just felt a little bit too…neat. I can’t think of the word I’m looking for. At the same time, it’s not as though absolutely everything works out the way Jack would like, but still.

On the other hand, the plot led to the particular wrapping up of things from the beginning, really, and nothing was unexpected. Perhaps more important, in getting us to the end the novel was a gentle but poignant mixture of humour and heart that I found difficult to put down. As Harper’s imprint suggests, it’s great weekend reading.

In fact, perhaps one weekend next year I’ll be watching it, too. I’ve just done a bit a research and found out that Town House has been scripted by director John Carney, and the movie, due out in 2011, might star The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis and Amy Adams. Word is the story is only only loosely based on Cohen’s novel, but she says the script is perfect. Now, of course, I’m curious! It’s always interesting to see film adaptations of books I’ve read. It gives me an idea for a Biblio-sponsored event: Books & Their Movies series, with viewings at the local Empire Theatre. If properly planned, people will buy the books that will be announced ahead of time and then buy tickets to see the corresponding films (with popcorn!). Afterward, we can have a discussion based on the readings and viewings. Exciting! My mind is already racing with titles!

book reviews

I’ve just finished Joanne Harris’s latest novel, blueeyedboy, in anticipation of meeting her this Tuesday the 18th during the Ottawa International Writers Festival. I’m a major fan of Harris’s writing, so I’ve really been looking forward to this event!

Because you can read a synopsis of blueeyedboy anywhere, I won’t include one here. I will say by way of introduction that the story is current and interesting because, as the back cover says, it “plays on the myriad opportunities for disguise, multiple personalities, and mind games that are offered by the internet.” As a blogger both here and elsewhere and someone who thus interacts with many online personalities, I was certainly intrigued.

Now, at the risk of sounding like most of Joanne’s readers, I absolutely adore her novels that take place in France. Those are undoubtedly my favourites. I can’t help it. I lived in France for a year. I love food. And I am a romantic, too. But I also loved The Evil Seed and Sleep Pale Sister, both dark, Gothic novels. There’s not only sweetness in Harris’s writing: as she demonstrates with these last two novels I mentioned, and Holy Fools, too, there’s a definite streak of seductive blackness to her writing as well.

Gentlemen and Players as well as blueeyedboy are both departures from her other works, and I really did enjoy G&P, which was deliciously twisted. Both these books contain mystery and murder in various forms, and while I have absolutely nothing against those things in fiction since I have my own black streak, I admit, apparently like one of those people, that they’re not what I love most coming from Harris. She can write a fantastic twist, though, and she’s very good at dark. In this case, blueeyedboy is no exception. Dark is an understatement, though the book is not without humour.

Still, I got off to a disappointing start with blueeyedboy, thinking the writing seemed a bit forced, for lack of a better word. There was just something about it, perhaps the fact that the readers had to learn everything through web journal posts, which seemed then to make the characters speak a bit unrealistically, too informatively, too purposefully. That was my initial impression, anyway. I’m not certain this was intentional, or that it’s there at all; perhaps I’m just being overly critical. I’ve read many blogs over the years and I’ve never encountered writing like this, which is not to say it can’t exist but perhaps is to say I’m uncertain about how…natural it is. You know how sometimes when watching a movie you can tell a character is saying something for your benefit? It felt something like that—too…directed, almost as though the characters didn’t have their own voices.

True to herself, though, Harris is wonderfully evocative in blueeyedboy. I was easily transported to the little village where this story takes place, my senses overloaded with smells and colours, even tastes. At the same time, I had a bit of trouble knowing where I was in the story—that is, following the non-linear timeline (typically I don’t have a problem with this), and I wondered if perhaps this is because nothing, and no one, is as it seems in the novel. But I worried: was I being particularly dense or was I meant to be confused? Was I not being the intelligent reader I’ve learned to be? It wasn’t until about halfway or three-quarters of the way through blueeyedboy that I oriented myself and the pace picked up for me and then I didn’t want to put down the book; there were a couple of brilliant twists that threw me for a loop and which I thought quite clever, though the big twist at the end was one I had unfortunately already suspected.

In general, I found myself wondering if the story wasn’t a bit too fantastical, a bit too unbelievable for me. I have no doubt there are people on the internet pretending to be people they’re not; in fact, I imagine that’s a part of the allure of having a web journal or blog. You can be who you want, you can play out whatever fantasies you want. You can confess. There’s something to that unique kind of anonymity that opens you up, even though it’s in public. You are also pretty much free to live out an entirely false existence if you so choose. In this book, you never know what’s true or not, not even when it seems you’re reading the truth.

However, finding the course of events perhaps too unbelievable was ultimately not what I found disappointing; rather, it was the fact that there was nothing redeemable in the end, nothing good that stays. There was almost nothing but dark, from domestic violence and discord to murder or murderous fantasies and fear and insecurity. It wasn’t quite the kind of dark I prefer, which is deliciously thrilling and noir and magic and even underworldish. I can deal with those other things, but there needs to be some sort of counter for me, then, and I don’t necessarily mean a happy ending. Much of the content was upsetting or disturbing for me, which I can hardly fault Harris for since it’s me who’s sensitive, but it did affect my opinion of the novel, as did the fact that there also wasn’t a single character in the book I could like, love, or relate to, even if that’s the point, i.e., to not like any of them. Almost everyone was repelling or nasty in some way or mentally or emotionally immature or unstable, or the likable characters were not more than sketches and were killed off.

I can’t say, then, based on these above things, that I would highly recommend this book, and that pains me greatly. Joanne Harris is, after all, a brilliant writer, but blueeyedboy was not, for me, a great read. My opinion of Harris certainly hasn’t changed after reading this, of course, and I would wholeheartedly recommend a number of her novels. Certainly as an author she’s allowed to explore genres and topics and various levels of dark (it’s evident she has fun doing this and it bothers me because I like her so much that I can’t descend as deep as she can). And certainly she should not be limited to writing stories set in France or in which food is a major component. But I can’t help but hope for something I like more next time.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
book reviews

Gunnar's Daughter, by Sigrid Undset, 1909, Penguin Classics

If you’ve been reading here, you saw when I received Gunnar’s Daughter as a birthday present from my good friend M. It came wrapped in lovely paper with a large red and white print, and was tied with twine.

I was going to read it right away. It’s not a long book, especially considering there is a substantial foreword and historical and translator notes at the back of it, but either work or other books kept me from it.

I have already read and very much enjoyed Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, which M and I affectionately refer to as KL. M introduced me to the trilogy years ago and I bought it right away and devoured it. There was no doubt in my mind about why Undset had won the 1928 Nobel Prize for it. A sweeping medieval Norwegian saga, beautifully printed and bound by Penguin, I buried myself under winter blankets and cradled hot cups of cloudberry and crowberry Inuit tea (one of each of the tea bag wrappers lies still in book, which is displayed on one of my side tables in the living room) and read that three-book volume voraciously.

So it came as a surprise when I picked up Gunnar’s Daughter (also beautifully published by Penguin with soft pages and a gorgeous cover) that I could not get into it right away. The style was seemingly different and cumbersome, and the text fraught with endnote numbers, which caused me to keep flipping to the back. I made it several pages in and put it down, thinking I would return to it later, when I felt more in the mood for it. I suspect that editing academic texts made me feel as though I needed a break from endnotes!

It wasn’t until this weekend I picked up the book again, and this time, except for the two chapters I’d read earlier (and the chapters are very short), I read the book in almost one sitting (I decided to ignore the endnote numbers and read those at the end; this did not take away from my understanding or the story). I was totally reluctant to put it down last night and so picked it up again first thing this morning while lying comfortably in bed listening to the geese that passed three times overhead and the soft-falling rain. There I finished the last few chapters.

Her first historical saga novel, set in the tenth and eleventh centuries in Norway and Iceland and published in 1909, Gunnar’s Daughter tells the story of Vigdis Gunnarsdatter, who when young meets Viga-Ljot (pronounced Yot). I don’t want to tell too much of the story, and typically in a review I don’t: you can find that information anywhere.

Let me tell you, though, that the story is fraught with hardship and tragedy, in among the triumphs. I loved how strong a woman Vigdis was (she could make a study I’m sure; probably most of the medieval Scandinavian women could, for they seemed often in some sort of charge), but ultimately I was sad about how unforgiving and hard she remained over the course of her life and what this meant in terms of the people she loved. As a reader you feel you want to direct the characters, because you know what they’re headed for, and the writing and events were such that I felt not only drawn into the story but quite emotional as well: angry, indignant, mistrustful, triumphant, sorrowful.

Not long into the story I got used to the historical style and felt it reflected a storytelling tradition, which I enjoyed, imagining old Norsemen recanting as they did tales of bravery and triumph, revenge and tragedy. I was reading what seemed a fairy tale or legend, also a moralistic story. Many times I felt KL echoed in Gunnar’s Daughter, which gave me a sense of déja vu, though KL came afterward.

Reading Gunnar’s Daughter, as short as it is, transports you out of culture, country, time, and mindset. Everything is so foreign yet so well evoked it is a great and beautiful escape. You feel the icy wind across the sea, hear the creaking of ships on the waves, smell the pines of the forests, the woodsmoke in the winter’s air. You can feel the warmth of mead and fire on the hearth, of furs that smell slightly musty. You can imagine the brightly coloured jewels and riches, feel the rough-hewn benches and tables under toughened skin. Much like KL, it is also a story and atmosphere that stays with you long after you turn the final page.

Undset was without doubt a significant woman and author for her time. I highly recommend reading her for a lesson in not only talent and skill but awesome medieval Scandinavian history (and did I mention that she writes a damn good strong woman?).

Enhanced by Zemanta