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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journey of Harold Fry to Belleville

Dear Steph,

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

[...]

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

[...]

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

Love,

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

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

LitBits 28

My sincere apologies for not posting more regularly. I do have two reviews coming, once I finally write them: one of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce (Random House), which I quite enjoyed and feel rather tender about, and one of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Arrested Development writer Maria Semple (Hachette). A hilarious and fast read! I couldn’t put it down. I’ve also done a couple of reviews for the Quill & Quire, one for Rock Reject, by Jim Williams, and the other for Emma Donoghue’s new collection of short stories, Astray. I think Rock Reject is either out now in the current issue or coming soon, and the review for Donoghue is supposed to appear in the November issue.

I also have been working on my own story writing, and that’s admittedly made me feel less inspired to write here, particularly reviews. They’ve become so hard, as though I have reviewer’s block. I’ve recently discovered that writer’s block doesn’t really exist, or rather that it’s just another word for me, so reviewer’s block, I’m sure, is something similar. I stand in my own way now, I’ve developed some sort of fear around it, which has meant it takes me five-plus hours to write a single review. Ridiculous! I admit to feeling some dread, no matter how enjoyable the book. Luckily, I’m not quiet about the books I like, so they’re still getting promoted.

So, what are you guys reading lately? Or what’s the most recent book you bought? A few weekends ago I bought Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You (which won the Frank O’Connor short story award, was named one of the top ten fiction books of 2007 by Time mag, and was named a favourite  book of 2007 by the Seattle Times, though I didn’t know any of that until after I bought it). I hadn’t heard of Miranda July before finding this book at my indie, and I looked her up. She is freaking accomplished, yo. The NOBHMTY website is the most fun I’ve ever been on; she writes everything about the book in dry-erase marker on her stove. You keep clicking the arrow and a new message comes up. Try it.

I also bought Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories, which I’m very excited about. I loved her in university, and as it turns out, she’s the one who’s influenced almost every one of my favourite writers. I always read interviews of writers I admire, and they keep crediting O’Connor. It all seems like a message that I’m on the right path. An inukshuk in writerly code.

Anyway,  just a bit of chat. On to the literary tidbits!

1. Let’s start with a laugh. Some of you may already have seen this, but here is a day in the life of Iain Reid, author of the funny and genuine One Bird’s Choice. This piece made me laugh out loud, but it actually pissed off some people. My guess is those people haven’t read OBC, don’t understand Iain’s humour, don’t get this is obviously not how he lives every day, and perhaps take themselves and the writing life and possibly everything else far too seriously. Enjoy!

2. These are absolutely gorgeous illustrations of quotes from well-known writers. (Click through to here for more.) While the Woolf illustration is pretty cool (they’re all cool!), my favourite is Whitman’s “All truths wait in all things,” not just the quote but the illustration, too. I’m still waiting for that perfect copy of Leaves of Grass to cross my path. “Leaves of Grass, my ass,” said Homer Simpson, but Gale Boetticher said it better:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. —Walt Whitman, 1900

So beautiful in cadence and syntax and words, I become teary. I was practically bursting when Gale quoted it so wonderfully on Breaking Bad. A lovely juxtaposition to the cruelty he faced.

3. Some publishing news. It’s big! Patrick Crean, formerly publisher at Thomas Allen, now has his own imprint with HarperCollins. Very curious and excited to see where this goes!

4. More funny stuff… Young (28) writer Simon Rich, a New York Times contributor (along with dad and brother), writer for SNL, and author of two collections of short stories and two novels, gives us an irreverent look at God—and his girlfriend—in this two-page story called “Center of the Universe.” His latest novel, What in God’s Name, was just out last month. Jaclyn at Literary Treats has already written a review.

5. Katerina Ortakova over at Random House collected a bunch of lovely book nook photos (click on the image and it will take you to the next). Ah, readerly bliss! Which is your favourite? As usual, I stretch the word favourite so that it becomes plural. Mine are the DIY closet, “this will be your favourite,” “sound of swaying grass,” “how enchanting,” and “porch swing.” If I was allowed to pick only one…well, I can’t. But I guess it would be between the second and third choices. The title of the second gives a strong hint. :)

6. If you’re a fan, you probably already know that The Hobbit film is now not two but three films. I’m the only one I know who’s excited about this. I mean, not keen on having to wait three years (what if something happens and I don’t get to see all three?!), but I’m so confident in Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh’s abilities and decision-making skills, that I’m sure it will be best to have it in three. I can’t wait!

7. Have you guys heard of these yet? They’re popping up everywhere, though they’ve been out for a little while now (this article is from July…). Little free libraries. Take a book, leave a book! I love the idea!

8. If there’s one thing I hear from book lovers everywhere, it’s that they need more bookshelves. If money is tight, and when isn’t it, maybe you can make your own! Here are a bunch of nifty ideas for DIY bookshelves.

9. Dinah Fried is a graphic designer currently working on a thesis called “Novel Reading.” Here are her photos of fictitious dishes. Grilled cheese and a milkshake à la Holden Caulfield, anyone?

10. Ten cool converted bookstores. A manure tank! An Airstream! A ship! A funeral home? (How wonderfully ironic…) I must go the Hay Castle one in Wales!

11. Slightly Foxed is a new and second-hand-book shop in London, England. I love the name. They even have their own editions: “beautifully produced and irresistibly collectable little hardback reissues of classic memoirs that have been allowed to slip out of print, each available from us in a limited and numbered clothbound pocket edition of 2,000 copies”—and they’re handcrafted in Yorkshire. They also have the Slightly Foxed Quarterly, which you can read about on their site and of course subscribe to.

12. Oh, I love Julian Barnes. I enjoy his writing but also adore his reading voice. Here is a delicious essay he wrote, featured in Guardian, called “My Life as a Bibliophile.” It comes from a little pamphlet called My Life with Books, which was available only in independent bookstores and the proceeds of which went to Freedom from Torture charity.

13. Did you guys see the news back in July about Jane Austen’s turquoise ring selling at auction for £152, 450? It’s a sweet ring; the turquoise stone is one of my favourites. I would love to own it. Imagine! A ring that sat on her fingers! Such a personal item. I always thought I’d want the writing desk or typewriter of a favourite author. But jewellery is just as, if not even more, appealing.

14. More word art: unusual words rendered in bold graphics. Scripturient, yonderly, jettatura, and more. All fascinating, and the designs are excellent. Also, if you haven’t wandered through Brain Pickings before, do. It’s very interesting! I follow it on Twitter, too.

15. This kind of stuff makes me glad. Back in July two young sisters had the idea to start a book drive for Nishnawbe Aski Nation youth. Their motivation? ‘“What surprised us is that the major issue [in those communities] is reading and literacy. They’re four-to-five years behind in our literacy skills and the suicide rates are really high,’ Julia said.” Read here for more of the story.

16. Reading between the sheets.

17. The Ten Worst Book Covers in the History of Literature. An overambitious title, but you get the idea. These covers are pretty bad, and hilarious! They claim these covers are real. I raised an eyebrow at the vagina colouring book, but guess what? It’s legit. It’s even listed on amazon.com.

18. Because laughing really is the best medicine: drunk texts from famous authors. Hahaha!

19. A glimpse of the author, on the receiving end of a review (from an interview with Kristen den Hartog, author of Trillium nominee And Me Among Them):

KRISTEN DEN HARTOG: I read reviews very quickly with my heart racing. I try not to let them take up too much space in my mind, but I don’t ignore them altogether either. I value good criticism — but by the time a book is out there, I have been through a long process with a wise editor and some trusted readers. So the book is where I want it to be, and whether others agree is something I have no control over.

This is one reason I take as much time as I do with my reviews, but also answer as honestly as I can.

20. I did a test once, out of curiosity, to see which Simpsons character I was most like. I really thought I’d be Marge, so I did the test twice, but I’m Lisa (both times). Of course I am. Here’s a fun Tumblr: The Lisa Simpson Book Club. That show is rife with literary references and I love it so much because I know many of them.

21. On that note, the Top 10 Literary Quotes from The Simpsons, as featured on BookRiot. And, I can’t help it! I enjoy these, a Visual History of Literary References on The Simpsons

22. A book review hub. Reviews by various sources on a large variety of books, in one place: idreambooks.com.

23. Bella’s Bookshelves was featured on OpenBook Toronto! Pretty cool, eh?

24. The amazing altered book art exhibit. Unfortunately not well presented, in my opinion; nevertheless interesting.

25. David Mitchell has captured readers the world over with Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, especially. And now Cloud Atlas is being made into a movie and people are rereading and purchasing the book like mad (for some reason, my copy’s been on order for over a month now. Hmm). If you haven’t already seen it, here is the impressive trailer for the adaptation of Cloud Atlas. Ah: “A half-finished book is, after all, a half-finished love affair.” I won’t miss it. And what a cast!

26. IFOA is coming up! I’m so excited. I’ve never been to a Toronto event, since I don’t live close, but one of the most fortuitous things ever, for me, is that they extend all the way to little ol’ Picton in Prince Edward County! That’s a mere half hour for me, and last year I went for the first time. It’s hosted at Picton’s Books and Company, one of my favourite indies, and this year, I’ll be meeting Joanne Harris (again! YAY!), Grace O’Connell (hope she doesn’t mind signing an ARC), and Arno Kopecky. The event costs $10, if you’re coming up this way! And if you are, let me know. I’ll meet you!

27.  OMG. “Bella’s Bookshelf,” for real, on Design Sponge! Artist is Bella Foster. (Okay, so my shelves have way more books. But this is Mediterranean blue, to me, and it also looks like something I would own. It speaks to the Maltese in me.)

28. Lastly, who’s going to BookCampTO this year? It’s a free event and a great place to network and meet in real life the friends you’ve only read! Last year we sat in sessions on bookselling (hosted by yours truly and Mark Leslie Lefebvre), blogging, social media, women in publishing, freelancing, editing, agenting, and so on. This year, it’s more unstructured and we’re all allowed to come up with our own panel ideas and have discussions on them in the various rooms. There’s also an “afterparty,” where drinks and hors d’oeuvres are served and we can better chat with people. Come, it’s great fun! PS. That photo they have, where they’re all sitting at laptops looking like they’re in a lecture? Misleading. You can take notes if you want, but this is really all about community and dialogue and ideas and lots of laughter.

Hope you’ve enjoyed these litbits, all! Any time you want me to share something, contact me. Happy long weekend!

LitBits 21

The weekday after a long weekend is always extra hard for me, and I imagine it is for others, too. So let’s start off with some amazing news!

1. The Governor General Literary Award nominees were just announced today, and the fiction nominees are: Patrick DeWitt, for The Sisters Brothers, Esi Edugyan, for Half-Blood Blues, David Bezmozgis, for The Free World, Marina Endicott for Little Shadows, and Alexi Zentner, for Touch. This is only the second time ever that two authors have been nominated for all three major Canadian literary awards. All this overlap makes it pretty easy for those who want to read all the nominees of the various awards, eh? My hearty congratulations to all the publishers, authors, and staff who made these books the best they could be! UPDATE: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table was up for consideration, but the author respectively requested that his publisher not submit the book, as he feels he’s won the award a fair number of times already (that is, five times). The Cat’s Table does remain on the Giller shortlist.

2. Some of you may be interested in the Guess the Giller contest going on now till Nov. 8. You may be pretty excited about potentially winning a copy of each of the shortlisted titles, for instance: that is, Esi Eduygan’s Half-Blood Blues, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, Lynn Cody’s The Antagonist, and Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Doesn’t tempt you enough? How about a Kobo Touch e-reader and a $50 gift certificate from Chapters/Indigo? Still not enough incentive? Okay: how about the grand prize for guessing the winner:

• A visit from the 2011 Scotiabank Giller prize-winning author to contest winner’s home town, courtesy of Scotiabank. The hometown or residence of  the contest winner must be in Canada
• A restaurant meal for the contest winner and four (4) guests with the 2011 prize-winning author (maximum value: $500 CDN ), courtesy of  Scotiabank. The restaurant will be selected in the sole discretion of the sponsor and all decisions made by the sponsor are final.
•A set of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlisted books
•A Kobo eReader, courtesy of Kobo, with a $50 CDN gift certificate to Chapters Indigo, courtesy of Scotiabank
Approximate value of the prize is $5,000.00

Off to enter!

3. Since I was a teen, I’ve counted Raymond Carver among my favourite short story writers. Last week the hubby and I enjoyed a movie called Everything Must Go, based on Carver’s very short and quite different story titled, “Why Don’t You Dance?” Read the story (link will take you there) and watch the movie—the trailer is below.

4. I couldn’t help but spend quite a bit of time scrolling through this site: Awesome People Reading. What is it, exactly, about seeing someone read that makes other readers so happy? I’m always dying to ask people what they’re reading if I can’t already tell, and when I’m looking at magazines or pictures, I always try to discern what the title is in the subject’s hand. The other day there was a kid in the shop totally sprawled out in one of the leather chairs, reading a dinosaur book.  My first thought was, I need a camera!

5. Emily Gould and Ruth Curry have begun Emily Books, an indie bookstore that, according to them, is more like a club, and they sell only ebooks. They’re just getting started, but here is their campaign. They can also be found on Twitter. Will we see more of these ebook stores in the future?

6. I want this book. I love this book. This is an example of a beautiful book, and I’m thinking Jen Knoch would love it, too. It’s called Farm Anatomy: Curious Parts and Pieces of Country Life, by Julia Rothman. It took her almost a year to create!

7. “This Cake is for the Party,” the prequel, “The Lightest One I Could Make”: a new story by Sarah Selecky in the Walrus, November 2011 issue. I’m sorry if I’m coming across as a major fan girl. It’s embarrassing, but I can’t help it. It’s a good story!

8. Jessica Westhead‘s short story “Community,” from her collection called And Also Sharks, has been dramatized for radio! My computer is having problems right now, which is VERY ANNOYING (everything I do is delayed, whether it’s typing letters or clicking on another site, or whatever), so I’m not getting to listen to this without it constantly skipping. I hope it doesn’t do that for you. Maybe it just needs some time to download and buffer or whatever. I hope you can listen!

9. Watch how a book is made, from the Middle Ages (love those illuminated manuscripts!) to the present—actually, even now, the process is evolving. I personally find this history fascinating. Has anyone read Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book? That novel will increase your appreciation for the dear ones on your shelves, too! (Thank you to For the Love of Bookshops for “making books” links!)

10. For you children’s book lovers: Have you read Plain Kate by Erin Bow? It just won the $25,000 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. I was quite happy when I read this news; the book is magical, well worth your time. In fact, I’d say it’s an autumn read, so here’s my review of it, to get you motivated!

11. I’m sure that by now you all have heard of The Night Circus? In the last LitBits I posted an article about the marketing aspect of it. This week, something interesting is happening: Thursday, October 13th marks the date that Erin Morgenstern’s “circus of dreams” was born. On October 13, 1886, at the stroke of midnight in London, the first circus doors opened to the public. This upcoming Thursday marks the 125th anniversary of this event. I have to admit, okay, that in general, I’m not cool with circuses, at least not animal or freak ones. Cirque du Soleil is different, and I’d love to see that some day. Anyway, I approach circus books with a degree of caution. This book, like Water for Elephants, has met with rave reviews for the most part, though one recent article in the New York Times had a different stance. Nevertheless, you can be sure that Random House has some neat stuff planned for this anniversary, like this free game, for instance. I haven’t yet read the book, but I plan to—because the story idea intrigues me. Erin is also coming to my area, for anyone interested. She’ll be reading as part of the International Festival of Authors in Picton, at Books and Company on October 28, 7pm. Tickets are $10.

12. Any Poe fans here? I love Poe, though studying him in university burst my bubble a little. By now, though, I’ve forgotten the underlying meanings and can just enjoy his stories as the wonderful gothic creations they also are. And now, one of my favourite male actors, John Cusack, is playing the author himself in a thriller of a movie called The Raven, to be released in 2012. I’m excited about it! Watch the trailer.

13. While you’re in Poe mode, there’s also this movie coming out called Twixt, about a hack horror writer visiting a small town in which he ends up investigating the murder of a young girl. Poe appears in the movie, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who said this: the story is “inspired by the eerie writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe” and came to him in a vivid dream he had while on a trip to Istanbul. The trailer for Twixt is spooky!

14. Switching gears here, the CBC is celebrating 75 years of featuring CanLit, from interviews to reviews to stimulating discussion. I have always loved browsing the CBC archives for old stuff with Atwood and for Halloween files (that I posted last year), and they’re taking a look back in the celebrating, too. They’ve started with Alice Munro, who’s got about 20 collections of stories to date but at the time of her interview had only three. Whoa. Have a listen to Alice Munro and Don Harrow on Morningside in 1978.

15. You’ve read writer’s blogs, but have you ever read a character‘s blog? Always Under Revision is the blog of Kate, a character in Leona Theis’s novel in progress. In her posts, Kate details what it’s like being written, as well as chats about her author’s progress and daily happenings. I thought it an interesting, creative spin on the typical author’s blog. I’d say it’s a good (but potentially dangerous when I think about it, if you’re in any way unstable!) method of getting inside a character’s head, let alone a writer’s!

16. I was reading the Saturday Toronto Star this weekend and to my surprise saw a few book covers I recognized on the front page of the Entertainment section. I always read that section but don’t see much on books. This time, there was an entire page and a bit, an interesting article called “Shortchanging the Short Story,” mainly but not solely about Zsuzsi Gartner’s recent collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives making the Giller shortlist, and what she has to say about that and short stories. What do you think after reading it? Are short story collections shortchanged? Should there be no distinction between novels and short stories—should we just have, as Gartner wishes, books? I’ve written about short stories here before, and I’d love to know what you guys think about this article.

17. Want to win a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table? Go to Random House’s BookClubs page! They have a biweekly contest to win books, so while you’re there, sign up for the newsletter. It really is possible to win: I’ve done so twice!

18. I’m looking at Margaret Atwood’s newest book, called In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, published by McClelland & Stewart, and you know how books often list the author’s other publications? In this book, Ms Atwood’s previous books take up TWO pages. There are 21 books of fiction, 14 books of poetry, 9 non-fiction books, and 6 kids books. And that’s just books. Kind of makes my “I can’t write” whinging really pathetic!

19. Check this out, this is so cool! Trevor Cole’s award-winning Practical Jean…in photos:

20. I’ve waxed poetic about my artist sister, Thérèse Neelands before (by the way, she’s joined Twitter), and Oliver Jeffers as well, who also happens to be one of my sister’s sources of inspiration. So what do you get when you combine the two? A Christmas ornament that T made and forgot to give me last year and instead presented me this Thanksgiving weekend: I give you Boy, of Oliver Jeffers’s Lost and Found (the short film of which I posted for you in LitBits 19), Up and Down, How to Catch A Star, and The Way Back Home:

Boy, from Oliver Jeffers's The Way Back Home (also featured in How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, and Up and Down. Ornament by Thérèse Neelands.

Believe me, you have to see this dude in real life (and we have to do something about that little bit between his legs, which is, of course, where the twine comes through. It’s too hilariously placed). Seriously, though, in real life, this little guy is amazing. My photos are shite. Also, she made Penguin, and my other sister got him. I demand him next Christmas. Also, I want the Martian from The Way Back Home. I hope you’re reading this, T. Oi, Oliver, if you’re reading this: thank you!! Also, you and my sis should get together and do something artsy.

Anything you want posted in LitBits? Contact me or send me a tweet!

LitBits 20

Holy moly, we’re at number 20 already! And what a perfect day for it. Cold and grey and rainy, perfect for reading a blog and drinking tea and getting lost in a great book or magazine and wearing fleece and cuddling up with pillows and blankets and the lovely warm cat or dog. Ah, I love autumn. Happy October, readers! It’s my favourite month of the year. When else do you get Thanksgiving and Halloween? As Homer Simpson would say, Woohoo!

Something for everyone, then:

1. Most readers who read a book they really love wish for more like it, and there are several sites that allow you to punch in a title and come up with results of similar books. I haven’t found them to be all that accurate, really. Nothing can be as great as an enthusiastic bookseller, a competent library assistant, a book lover friend, even a stranger who asks you what you’re reading. This new site, however, is pretty neat: Booklamp is part of an exploratory project (called the Book Genome) that measures book DNA, so to speak. You can read the short version here, on Giraffe Days, or explore the Booklamp site. Publishers take note: they need your help in promoting your books!

2. Heed my warning, copyeditor and proofreading friends: reading manuscripts can cause death! Is it ironic that these particular manuscripts were medical texts?

3. This is so encouraging to me! I’ve always been under the impression that Canada didn’t care enough about its literary culture. Sure, things are being done, but I always think there could be much more. This week, Project Bookmark Canada started following me on Twitter, prompting me to check them out. Project Bookmark Canada creates plaques to install in the very places that an author writes about in their book. For example, there’s a Bookmark plaque for Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces located in Toronto:

Up Grace, along Henderson, up Manning to Harbord I whimpered; my spirit shape finally in familiar clothes and, with abandon, flinging its arms [to?] the stars.

From Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels, published by McClelland & Stewart. Bookmarked at College and Manning Streets, Toronto on October 28, 2010.

(If you haven’t already read Fugitive Pieces, I highly recommend it. As you can tell, Michaels is a poet, and her prose demonstrates it just as well as her poetry.)

So, “a Bookmark can be found in the exact physical location where the literary scene takes place, so that the visitor can read the story or poem while standing just where the narrator or characters stand.” There are currently six bookmarks across Canada and this fall they’re installing more. Isn’t this exciting? I love it! It’s such a wonderful, supportive idea. I think we definitely need a Purdy Bookmark, an Atwood one, a Shields one…but whoa, when I think of how many of our Canadian authors mention particular sites, we could have plaques everywhere! Better than a multi-coloured moose, I say. No huge surprise to see the member organizations, including the forward-thinking, hand-dipped-in-all-the-pies HarperCollins, and I like seeing small publishers on there as well, but I’d love to see far more on the list.

4. For some reason this week on Twitter it was all about hot guy book lovers. This site is kind of cute: Hot Guys Reading Books. The voyeur in me who cranes her neck at weird angles to surreptitiously see what others around town are reading loves this. But my idea of hot differs from many of the photographers. Or perhaps it’s not the guys in particular but that they’re reading that’s hot? :) (Just kidding, boys. Well, sort of: it is pretty hot seeing guys read.)

5. For the coffee drinkers among you readers (ahem, Jaclyn!), I give you Atwood Blend Whole Bean Coffee. Sold at Indigo and participating cafés, and with an environmental and arts agenda. You can read about the Atwood Blend in more detail here. I’m telling you, the woman is everywhere, it’s amazing. Apparently, she’s got something in this month’s Playboy, too!

6. A bookish site called Pages Worth Remembering posted a tee-shirt image I love, called Why is an owl smart? (You can see the image much better on the PWR site.) First off, I love owls. For Christmas last year my sister and brother-in-law gave me this tee to wear to work. I wouldn’t mind adding this new one to my wardrobe! Whoa, I could really waste time looking up literary gifts. For my coworker who reads mostly classics, I’d get him a shirt that says, “I read dead people.” Ha! Have a look at the rest of the cool stuff at cafepress by typing in “bibliophile” for your search. Christmas is coming, as they’re already starting to say!

7. In the tee-shirt vein, mentioning Margaret Atwood again, and speaking of dead people, here are some dead author shirts, illustrated by none other than Perfect Peggy herself. My favourite is the Shakespeare primary source image, the first one. If you click on accessories and the tote bag, you’ll see the image better. By the way, a while ago I posted where these illustrations came from—“Margaret Atwood gives us a taste of the publishing pie,”—a humorous, interesting presentation on how publishing works.

8. Earlier I mentioned HarperCollins being a forward-thinking publisher involved in many new projects. Recently, I read on Mark Leslie’s blog that they are the first mainstream publisher to “get it,” meaning, to really understand what the changes in the publishing world mean for everyone, including customers, right now. As you’ll read on Mark’s blog, HarperCollins has signed a partnership with On Demand Books, the creators of the Espresso Book Machine (EBM), to provide customers, both online and in stores with the machine, with instant copies of Harper backlist trade should the book not be in stock. Mark, who brought the Espresso Book Machine to the McMaster University bookstore, Titles, writes:

The program will allow any physical bookstore with an Espresso Book Machine the ability to offer thousands of backlist trade paperback titles from HarperCollins to their customers. This means that the vision of walking into your local bookstore only to find the title out of stock and a wait of one to three weeks for that special order to arrive, a thing of the past.

Print on demand is the wave of the present as stores are decreasing inventory to save costs and customers are eager to have backlist books immediately. Personally, I’m not that instant; if the book’s not in stock, I can wait for a publisher’s copy or find it second-hand if it’s out of print. As a bibliophile, I’m all about quality, and the reading experience is optimal when I read from a finished book from the publisher. I’m not knocking Espresso books, by any means, because I haven’t a clue what the quality is actually like, but you’re not going to get the lovely cover in its intended form, or the deckle edge pages. Still, as a bookseller, whose priority is to get you what you want when you’ve asked for it, I pronounce the EBM a dream machine. It’s making a significant difference in the livelihood of indies.

9. I’m a sucker for jewellery—for almost anything literary, really. The Book Keeper is an indie bookstore in Sarnia, ON, which also happened to win bookseller of the year this year. They sell more than books, like any smart indie, and particularly these bracelets and necklaces. My favourite? The Charlotte’s Web necklace. Though the Harry Potter book and train necklace is pretty cute, too. I did contact the store by email to see if it was possible to order the jewellery online since I’m nowhere close to Sarnia, but unfortunately I never heard back.

10. Into the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books? I haven’t read them yet but I have good reason: I prefer to read a trilogy when I have all the books, and until Penguin publishes the mass market copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, so my books can match, I won’t be buying the third one. Until I have that one, I won’t start reading. Anyway. Those of you who are waiting for the American version of the film to come out will be excited to see this trailer! Why they show so much, I don’t know. I almost feel as though I don’t need to see it now, but that’s because I did see the original. Still, this trailer seems to make a bit more sense storywise to me, and it does look pretty compelling, not least because of the actors. However, nothing will substitute for the book, I’m sure.

11. Here’s a pretty neat endeavour, hosted by three blogs called She Known As Jess, The Rest is Still Unwritten, and Eleusinian Mysteries, which are working in conjunction with the Kmart Wishing Tree. The project is You Give, We Give, and basically invites readers to give books, in the lead-up to Christmas, to those less fortunate. Alternatively, you can donate money to buy books. In return, you’ll be entered to win “seriously great prizes.” I love the idea; it’s a lovely gesture. The prizes are a bonus, really, aren’t they? As booklovers, we want to spread the love! There are more details, such as what happens with the books and how they are distributed, what kind of books they’re looking for, etc., on Jess’s site (the link I provided under the project name).

12. Because of the copious exclamation-pointed tweets surrounding Random House‘s phenomenon of a book The Night Circus, I wanted to offer this article on Open Book Toronto, called “The Circus is in Town,” just to calm everyone so we can get something more rational than raving—and for some balance. I can get pretty excited about a book, too, but I don’t trust when everyone acts as though there isn’t anything as awesome as this book, right here, right now. That’s a major feat for a debut novel. What else is going on here, then? I liked Toyne’s article; aside from her personal opinion of the book, she offers perspective, which kindly brings us back from the dizzying heights to more solid ground. Now, I haven’t yet read the book, but I have it (and it is gorgeous, I must say) and plan to read and review it. I’m very curious and the story is certainly appealing. And I’d love nothing more than for the book to live up to the enthusiasm its being met with.

13. I give you The Brothers McLeod, animating Shakespeare searching for play ideas, and his pet pig Francis. Need I say more? Also, it’s these McLeod brothers who have humorously illustrated the cover of the lovely Jen Campbell’s highly anticipated book, Weird Things Customer Say in Bookshops, which I’ve posted about several times before. It’s enthusiastically endorsed by Neil Gaiman and available for pre-order if you live in the UK. I’m not certain when the book will be available for us Canucks, but I look forward to it!

14. I love animals. I’m very close to my dog, Lucy. Extremely close. People-worry-about-me close. So when I come across a post called Literary Pets, I’m on it. Somehow writers who don’t have pets, or don’t want them, make me a little wary. It’s like people without books. *shiver*

Lucy and Me.

This is not unusual.

 15. I’m totally of the mind that we don’t get enough holidays. I may feel this because this is my 15th or so job in this town (for the record, I’ve never been fired and I’ve always left for valid reasons) since 2001, so I haven’t built up holiday time, ever, and usually take off fewer than ten paid holiday days a year. I have been on only two vacations ever, to Malta in 1999 and to England in 2009, and I’m not counting a week or weekend once a year camping in Algonquin (because that’s always work, and usually it’s been with family, which makes it even more work). So now that I work in a bookshop and know there are several literary holidays, you think I can plead some of them and get paid time off? I mean, it’s literary! And educational! And when I’m rested I’m much more pleasant and productive! I’m especially up for holidays 2, 3, 5, and 7. Some of them tell you to celebrate by reading or writing a tidbit, but I think book lovers really ought to get the whole day off to celebrate, you know, Limerick Day. If countries let people take days off when their soccer team is playing in the World Cup, surely we can take a day in the name of art?

16. Speaking of art, here’s my sister Thérèse Neelands‘s latest print, called “Margaret and I, Monday Afternoon.” Maggie is the dog she and her husband rescued off the scary streets of TO, and is so named after my sister’s favourite author, Margaret Atwood. I told you that woman was everywhere, didn’t I?

"Margaret & I, Monday Afternoon," Thérèse Neelands, watercolour, ink on paper, 2011

Natural Order by Brian Francis: A Review

Natural Order, by Brian Francis, Random House, Aug. 2011, 374 pp.

Some of you may remember that I had Brian Francis‘s new book Natural Order with me when I went to BookCamp TO, and that, on remembering I had it in my handbag, I pulled it out as a fine example of a lovely book during the booksellers panel. Random House did themselves proud with this one. A gorgeous and appropriate jacket design (oh, that spine) by none other than CS Richardson, of course, who also designed the layout, the fonts of which you can read about in the back. (I love it when they include a note about the type! I used to design layouts, one of my favourite jobs at a custom-book publisher.) The boards are mustard yellow, accented with complementary red type, and the pages have deckle edges. And the signatures are flexible; the book will lie open wherever you leave it, say, on the bathroom counter while you’re tying your hair in a ponytail or putting on aftershave.

It’s a pretty book, then, and that’s partly why I chose to read it over others I’ve got in my tbr pile. The other reason is that when I pulled it out of the envelope it came in and began reading, I found I couldn’t stop.

Once upon a time, there was an acerbic old woman named Joyce. Joyce was 86 years old and lived in a nursing home. Her husband Charles was already dead and so was her only child, John. John had died at the tender age of 31. And not of cancer, as Joyce had told everyone. Because if John, being gay, couldn’t have followed the natural order of things in life, Joyce thought he could at least be normal in death. But that’s not how things really were.

Joyce Sparks, now close to death herself, is finally going to tell us the truth. And so begins Natural Order—with a standard obituary for John Charles Sparks, son of Charles and Joyce. It’s not only an intriguing way to begin but also a telling way to start the novel. What matters most is that John is dead and it’s too late for “I’m sorry. I love you just the way you are.” If this book is about anything, it’s about our need to seek out second chances, and Joyce is no exception. Living in a nursing home and looking back on her life, she finally comes to terms with the truth she’s always known about her son, and at the same time, she looks for redemption in her acceptance of a young man, Timothy, who visits her.

Joyce’s acerbic voice and sarcastic wit grab you first, even before she reveals her story. It’s a strong beginning to the novel, and Brian Francis (author of the critically acclaimed Fruit), who is obviously not a senior or a woman, did well in imagining his narrator’s voice; it’s quite concrete, sometimes almost involuntarily nasty, especially to the nursing home staff, but also funny and excruciatingly, finally, honest. Joyce’s portrayal of herself is far from flattering. And at this point, I should warn you: it’s been a long time since I was so emotionally invested in a novel and it’s for this reason I’ve been struggling for days to write this review. I’m afraid of not being fair, because what if my review is clouded by and too focused on these emotions, as well as personal issues I have with certain personalities?

I will admit that at times I was pulled from the narrative by things other than my reactions, when the narrative itself or dialogue came across as stilted, when I felt that characters were sometimes too stereotypical or contrived, most surprisingly the gay men, I thought, but especially Joyce with her butterfly-themed kitchen and date-square baking.

At the same time, Francis, who also significantly writes a site called Caker Cooking, seems to have a good handle on “this type” of Canadian woman (she’s so recognizable), and I wonder if perhaps Joyce was purposely constructed this way, since it helps us place her sense of propriety and homophobia. I wonder, too, searching myself, if what caused my impression of the elderly as stereotypical was my mild impatience with how seniors all seem the same (I know, I know, I’m sorry; in general, I rebel against typical foods, events, activities, people. I like variety). For the record, I never liked Hagar or Daisy Goodwill, either.

That said, as a young woman with a serious crush on her friend Freddy and then at 86 in the nursing home, Joyce was wonderfully convincing. These are both times when she was not only more likeable but also more interesting—and less judgemental, at one stage naive and at the other seeking redemption. But Joyce at the varying times in between seemed much diminished, reduced mainly to the overriding trait of fearful meddling. I wanted more redeeming qualities from her with regard to John and Charles, a break from her helicopter parenting (interesting question: would I have felt as repelled by her if she was the mother of a daughter? Mother–son relationships really get to me), from her preoccupation with propriety, from her paranoid rooting through her husband’s pockets and drawers for evidence of an affair, to the extent at which she was examining his underwear for starchy stains. She was almost all villain all the time.

Yet, importantly, perhaps the harsh way Joyce is portrayed is a reflection of how she regretfully remembers herself, alienating, fearful, and unforgiving. Let it be known that in no way did I feel Francis had any bitter agenda. Still, poor Joyce is almost impossible to like; at times her voice caused me such rage and fits of dislike I felt it difficult to continue. While she’s not wholly horrid—her relationship with Mr. Sparrow, her elderly next-door neighbour she watches out for, is an example of the small variance in her personality; he’s the only one who doesn’t receive her characteristic nastiness—she’s pretty close to it throughout the book and I absolutely needed space from her, which, I’ll admit, is likely a testament to Francis’s skill in portraying her as the smothering, narrow-minded person she was, and how much of an accomplishment, then, is her genuine attempt at redemption in the end. Character development is definitely evident, and ultimately it was what drove me to the end of the story.

Now, I’m not a mother (of children, anyway). I don’t want to be a mother, either. But I don’t think that’s why I felt the way I did about Joyce’s special brand of parenting. A mother may say it was not meddling but concern, not intolerant but protective, not overbearing but love. Certainly Joyce was not without her moments that made me feel for her, and there were indeed times when her stubborn struggle against the truth caused me less impatience and more empathy; I myself am not immune from desperately wishing the truth was something else. I have an imagination; I can conceive what it must be like to want your kids to be “normal” so they’re not subjected to pain. I got the sense, though, that this had more to do with Joyce’s idea of natural order and other people’s perceptions of her and her son. I simply could not get past the fact that it was ultimately selfishness, her own stubbornness and concern with the “natural order” of things, that drove Joyce to do and say the awful things she did, things as tragic as alienating both her husband and her son and allowing them to die first before admitting the truth or her transgressions. As deeply as she loved her son, more important to her was the fact that he was just “not right.”

As I say—and I apologize if I doth protest too much—it’s difficult to like such a woman.

But contrary to how I’ve made it sound, this book is not just about a mother’s issues with her gay son, or her relationships with any of the three other gay men who cross her path. It’s about, as I said, the difficulty in facing a truth you don’t want to admit, in seeking forgiveness by proxy, redemption when it seems too late. There’s not one of us, I’m willing to bet, who hasn’t wished for a second chance to make things right with someone, who hasn’t regretted the way they handled a certain situation, who doesn’t wish it wasn’t too late. If only we could all have a Dr. Tom!

So while I was often incensed reading Natural Order, I was also compelled to keep reading. I did laugh, much to my enjoyment, at some of the things Joyce or others came out with, and I was also deeply sad. One truly does feel Joyce’s underlying love for her son both at the time he was alive and also couched in her elderly regret, especially when she’s relating the tender moments they shared between them (while I sometimes felt they were a bit implausible I will not steal them from her), the hurt she felt when he told her he never wanted to see her again. Her overprotectiveness, her obsession with how things appeared, her need to have things be normal, her refusal to see herself in another mother who faked her gay son’s death—even though these things ruined her relationships, her struggle was always as a loving mother. Regardless of how I felt about Joyce, I never lost sight of this, and to me it’s for this reason Francis ought to be proud of his latest work.

At the risk of sounding preachy, there are lessons in humanity to be learned in this book, reminders, about understanding, acceptance, remorse, vulnerability—both in the example of those who are “different” and those who struggle with themselves to move past convention. If we come away from this successful, challenging novel with many things, which we will, let the main thing be a new or renewed openness to those we feel don’t fit in our personal moulds of “just right.” We are not, after all, bowls of porridge, chairs, or beds.

***

A special thank you to Lindsey Reeder at Random House, who sent me this book for review!

There Is No Dog, by Meg Rosoff: A Review

There Is No Dog, by Meg Rosoff, Random House, Aug. 2011, 256 pp.

Every now and then there comes a book that quiets the lament that there’s nothing new under the sun. There is No Dog by Meg Rosoff is such a book—at least, of all the authors who’ve asked what if, I don’t think there’s anyone else who’s asked: What if God were a (lazy, careless, self-obsessed, sex-mad) teenage boy?

Now if you’re at all religious or were raised as such, this may come across as blasphemous. I was raised by very strict Catholic parents, but I’ve never been one to censor my reading, and thanks to books like Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, and shows like The Simpsons, and, worse, Family Guy, in which both Jesus and God often feature, I’ve become somewhat used to deconstructions of Christian master-narratives, as well as more human-like, sexed-up members of the Holy Trinity (er, was that a pun?). Sometimes the stuff leaves me slack-jawed and not amused, but otherwise I often find the statements being made either sadly accurate or interestingly thought-provoking.

In any case, although Rosoff admits she’s an atheist, she doesn’t necessarily set out to trash the Christian creation story or make you question whether or not there really is a God;  instead, she creates an interesting and often funny answer to the serious questions we have about why the world is the way it is—messy, catastrophic, and often difficult, but not without its moments of innovative brilliance (doesn’t this sound like the work of a teenager?).

So. God is a typical teenage boy, of whom we already have a pretty apt description above. We typically know God as infinite, having no beginning and no end. But in this story, Bob, aka God, was given the position of All-Powerful by his doting, gambling lush of a mother, who won it in a poker game. In six days (only six days, which apparently partly explains why things are so messed up) Bob created the world and everything in it—except the whales, which were thought into being by Mr B, God’s long-suffering, hardworking assistant.

Mr B, an older and wiser man who had previously applied for the position of God but did not get it, is damage control. His job is to remind Bob/God to pleaseforDog’ssakefixtheworld’sissuesbecauseit’sallgoingtohell, and also try to keep things from getting worse. He works on the numerous files of supplications—please heal my rabid son, please save the environment, please give the opposing team some horrid affliction that doesn’t show up until the seventh inning so we can win the game, etc., etc. He acts as God’s voice of reason and wisdom, reminding him of his mistakes through the ages and of his current responsibilities, straightening out the mix-up when God gets continents confused.

Bob/God, who is entirely self-absorbed and cocky, wants nothing to do with his responsibility, is in other words a negligent God, and thinks only that Mr B doesn’t care about him and that no one wants him to be happy, least of all his mother, with whom he has an understandably rocky relationship. In short, picture the teenage boy you have to coerce out of bed in the morning, the one who pulls his pillow over his head and effectively shuts you out, the one who thinks about sex every 7 seconds, the one who shirks responsibility, and you have God. Alas, poor Mr B, who has a tender heart and cares much for the world, is overwhelmed, overtired, and under-compensated; he wants to resign and be transferred to another planet.

Lucy is a beautiful young girl who wants to fall in love. Once in a while, Bob/God overhears a prayer, and this one he decides to answer personally. Unfortunately, God’s love is not so everlasting and Mr B knows from experience that God’s relationships with human girls usually mean bizarre, unseasonal, and unrelenting weather, things blowing up, and people dying, all according to his raging hormones.

It is in everyone’s best interest, then, that Bob/God does not fall in love with Lucy. But this is not what happens, and things become complicated when the two start dating and Lucy begins to ask questions, like where God works and what is his last name and what his number is so she can text him the next day….

I admit that this is a rather anaemic and very incomplete summary of an extremely imaginative, bright, funny, and original book. In fact, that’s the main plot, not the only plot; the other major one is positively heartbreaking but has a splendid end. Anthony Horowitz called There Is No Dog “genius,” and indeed there is much more depth and cleverness than one might assume. This is not merely some quick and hilarious read, and unlike too many YA novels, it’s refreshingly very well written. Amid the chaos are moments of touching beauty, and significant questions and piercing insights delivered often through tongue-in-cheek humour. A conversation between a depressed and discouraged Mr B and the local vicar while they sit together on a bench is particularly notable.

While the book is labelled juvenile fiction, the topics are undoubtedly mature. Perhaps I underestimate young adults, but I think this will appeal more to and have greater effect on adults, particularly those who enjoyed Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, a wholly different book (her gods are Greek) but with a similar tone. And if you delight in a bit of irreverence every now and then, There Is No Dog will certainly not disappoint.

Thank you very much to Lindsey at Reeder Reads, who also works at Random House, for sending me a copy for review! It was exactly the book I needed to take on a week’s camping trip.

 

Win Books!

Okay, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it’s crazy how many free books are floating around the Internet all the time! Now that I’m on Twitter I see giveaways by publishers and book bloggers all the time. It’s overwhelming but it’s a lot of fun, too, for people who love to read and review but can’t afford to support their voracious appetites.

So I thought I’d post some contests here for you to enter if you’re interested:

1. Check out Booklover Book Reviews, where in celebration of her one year of blogging, you can win one of five great books. The contest ends on October 18th and is open to all readers, wherever they are. It’s unusual, I’ve found, to see such literary books being given away on a blog, and I’m happy to enter the contest myself! The five books are:

LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN – Colum McCann (literature)
SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE – Alan Bradley (cosy mystery, quirky)
LIFE OF PI – Yann Martel (literature)
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO – Stieg Larsson (crime thriller)
CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK – Elizabeth Peters (cosy mystery, historical, funny)

2. 2010: The Year In Books is giving away the much-coveted ROOM by Emma Donoghue! Enter to win until September 24.

3. HarperCollinsCanada is also hosting a contest: you can win a fantastic prize pack of twelve current and bestselling literary books by

Emma Donoghue
David Bergen
Jonathan Franzen
Louise Welsh
Anne Fortier
Michael Cunningham
Richard B. Wright
Jess Walter
Paul Harding
Ken Finkleman
Charlotte Gray
Katherine Govier

4. I have to say I’m losing hope about winning Penguin’s 75th anniversary prize pack of books, 75 of their bestselling paperbacks to be exact!! Can you imagine? You can enter only once but they pick a new winner every month until the end of the year. So far I haven’t had a call and I entered long, long ago.

5. Still dying for a copy of Ape House by Sara Gruen? The contests for this book are not over yet at Random House, even though I already won my copy!! (Woohoo!)

For example: Tea Forte contest today on Facebook: win the adorable Pugg teapot!

6. And if you want tea and tea accessories to go with those books, make friends with Tea Forte on Facebook, who are always having fantastic contests for their lovely merchandise (all you ever have to do is click the “like” button on their contest post)! When I have Biblio one day, I’m going to carry their stuff. I swear tea tastes different in it!

If you’re a book blogger and would like to advertise your giveaway contest here, just leave a note in the comments. I’m happy to help you promote!

And don’t forget, comment on my Plain Kate interview and giveaway post, and you’ll be entered to win a hardcover copy of Erin Bow’s YA novel Plain Kate, based on Russian folklore, but unlike any book you’ve read.

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