Friday, June 26, 2015

Lost Between the Edges by Eldon Garnet

Well, you all should know by now how much I hate it when authors use real people as characters in fictional stories. I'm not sure if this could be categorized as a straight up fictional story - it's sort of more of a polemic - but it does involve a narrative of events that didn't happen, and other (probably) fictional characters, so I'm not super into it. The real person in question is Ernst Zundel, who is still living, so I'm surprised this publisher wasn't sued (and maybe they were, who knows).

The story follows X, a university student working frantically on his thesis on antisemitism and persecution of the Jews. He is a member of the Anti-Racist Alliance, and with the other members of the ARA, cooks up a plan to infiltrate the "bunker" of known neo-Nazi/Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel and get video footage of both the inside of the bunker, and of Zundel saying something incriminatingly racist. The group poses as a CBC film crew doing a feature on free speech issues (Zundel had a case before the courts on the issue at the time), and as a supplementary crew of documentary filmmakers filming the filming of the feature (why??).

They are allowed into the bunker, but X is frustrated with their lack of progress on bringing Zundel down, and ends up setting fire to the bunker in the middle of the night (something that did happen in 1995, and for which the Jewish Armed Resistance Movement claimed credit, but no charges were ever filed). This poking of the hornets' nest sets into motion a dangerous conflict between the neo-Nazis and the ARA, leading to a huge post-baseball brawl in Christie Pits Park, obviously and clumsily meant as an homage to the historic 1933 riot in that same park.

The story is interspersed with sometimes lengthy documents - court transcripts, excerpts from Zundel's published works, etc. - showing the arguments against the Holocaust having happened. One excerpt from The Turner Diaries describing the bombing of an FBI building is supposed to, I suppose, draw an equivalence in violence between the fascists and anti-fascists? Towards the end of the book the documents turn around and refute the findings of the Holocaust deniers. I have to say, I didn't fully understand the point of these interjections and found them a rather tedious addition.

I didn't like this book. The story was compelling enough but the writing style was awful; every sentence was punctuated with an abundance of colons, and thoughts and speech were indicated in quotation marks, so it was hard to tell if someone was thinking or if they had spoken the words aloud. X was a poorly drawn character who, besides his anti-racist views, I found it hard to sympathize with or connect to in any way.

The book does use Toronto well and name checks many places (the bunker on Carlton Street and Christie Pits Park, as well as Cafe Diplomatico on College Street spring to mind). But as realistic as the city is, the characters are ridiculous - they make poor choices, have seemingly no real goal behind their actions, and no actual characteristics besides "fascist" and "anti-fascist". I would not recommend this book.

One CN Tower out of five.

Friday, June 12, 2015

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Well this book is a real punch in the gut. I think the words used to recommend it to me were "heartbreakingly beautiful" which is definitely an accurate description.

The story follows two sisters, Elf and Yoli, who grew up in a Mennonite community in rural Manitoba. Elf is a piano prodigy, who goes on to become a world-reknown pianist. She has, in her younger sister's eyes, everything - a wonderful career, a happy relationship with a man who loves her, more money than you could shake a stick at. But Elf suffers from crippling depression, a family trait that led her father to take his own life when the girls were young.

At the beginning of the book, Elf has just made an unsuccessful attempt to kill herself and is in the hospital in Winnipeg.  Concerned loved ones surround her, including her sister Yoli, who I guess you would call the protagonist although it is Elf's actions that really drive the story. Yoli leaves her home and two teenaged children in Toronto to crash at her mother's house and visit Elf for hours every day. The novel is a mish-mash of Yoli's recollections of their shared childhood, her reflections on her own current messy life, and her attempts to argue Elf out of her depression.

Even though the story is really about these two sisters, the supporting characters are very good and well-drawn; their mother is amazing and hilarious, with her own fierce sister Tina; Elf's partner Nick is relentlessly patient and completely hapless; and Yoli's kids, seen through text messages, are typical teenagers - but the fact that they always ask after Elf is one of the more heart-rending details of the novel.

This is another one of those books that I can never do justice through describing, because the genius of it is in the poetry of the writing, and the heartbreaking accuracy of the themes - of music, sisterhood, sadness and carrying on, life and death and redemption (sticking with my current theory that all stories are about redemption in one way or another).

Toronto plays a very small role in the book - the last few chapters, probably the last quarter of the book, are set in Toronto. I really enjoyed the fact that Yoli seemed to live in my neighbourhood, and a couple of places were name-checked - including an intense argument about suicide at Saving Grace. But if anything this is a love sonnet to Winnipeg (if one can imagine such a thing) - although there isn't much setting outside the hospital walls, the description of the sound of the ice breaking on the river resonates through the story.

This is a beautiful, beautiful book. It is also an extremely emotional read. Proceed accordingly.

Five CN Towers out of five.

Friday, May 29, 2015

College Street by Olindo Romeo Chiocca

This book is so short - it's a novella, really, a series of brief vignettes in a life barely glimpsed. It seems unfair to review it as a novel, as my main complaints would certainly be resolved in a longer book. But, it is what it is.

The story follows a young man, Bruno, who lives with his family in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood (College St. west of Bathurst and the surrounding residential streets). He works at a local (real!) restaurant, Trattoria Giancarlo, where he has been tasked with planning the party for the head chef's upcoming birthday. At the same time, he is planning a trip to Italy. His father's family has recently sold the land they owned, so Bruno must come up with a way to basically smuggle the cash from the sale back into Canada.

Throughout all this there is a romantic subplot, as Bruno breaks up with his girlfriend and begins seeing someone from his childhood who he ran into at a family wedding. There is simply no room in these pages to squeeze any character development, so we don't really know much about this girl except that she's super hot.

On the plus side, the author has a gift for description in a cultural sense, and really gets to the heart of Little Italy so the neighbourhood practically jumps off the page. The atmosphere is definitely perfect. There are also some very funny scenes, like the two funerals (one Italian, one Portuguese) at adjacent churches letting out at the same time, leading to a confused traffic snarl, and eventually to a dramatically bereaved Portuguese woman throwing herself on the wrong coffin.

Unfortunately, the book lacks in character development - there is not a well-drawn character in the book. Bruno is constantly in action, so it is hard to know what he's actually like, and the supporting cast are reduced to one character trait each. In a longer book this would probably be a serious flaw, but here the whole thing is over so fast, it almost doesn't matter.

What I found most frustrating about the story is the lack of conflict. Bruno has two issues to deal with: the party, and the money. But after stating each of these problems, the story is basically him deciding how to solve them, and then doing so. There is no tension, and with no full characters to attach to, it is difficult to get emotionally involved at all.

The book was a quick read, but most likely a forgettable one. I would love to read more from this author, who has a great style, but needs to trust himself to get involved with the characters and write something longer, with a bigger vision.

Three CN Towers out of five.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Back Flip by Anne Denoon

I was hesitant to start this book because I know absolutely nothing about visual art. Like really, nothing, academically or socially. But that's ok, because you really don't need to know anything to read (and enjoy) it. I was surprised to learn that this is a first novel, because it is very tight and thematically on point.

The story is set in 1967, in Toronto's Yorkville art scene. The eponymous painting is the stand out piece in a show by a young artist, Eddie O'Hara, widely heralded as the next Tom Dale - another character slowly, drunkenly, but somewhat happily entering middle age as a well respected and successful painter. The owner of the gallery and O'Hara's art dealer, Gonzaga, sees the value in the painting and impulsively retains it, secretly. This sets a number of plots in motion in a novel that is already quite full of secrets and strange misunderstandings.

Denoon writes well - pretty but succinct - and the pace is perfect. The novel sort of bobs along as a fluffy soap opera of mistaken intentions, unrequited love, and sly observations, but there is a dark undertone of cynicism about the art world and authenticity (in art and life). And it does become more of a tragedy near the end, or at least some storylines start to slide that way. 

What sets the book apart and makes it memorable (for me anyway) is the reflection of the authenticity theme in the construction of the characters themselves. Many of the main characters are duplicates of each other - there are two aging male painters whose most successful days are behind them; two older ladies (one approaching middle age, the other in its throes) bored with being housewives and looking for extramarital stimulation; two gallery owners; and eventually, two versions of the painting - by the same artist. Which is the forgery? The same question can be asked of the characters - not one is a pale shadow of their duplicate, they are all well-rounded and clearly drawn characters in their own right. 

I thought this was a very interesting and clever technique on the part of the author, challenging our notions of authenticity and what it means to be authentic, as a person or as a work of art. Any measure of which character is 'better' in a given duo comes from values we must ascribe as observers: Eleanor is classier than Win, Eleanor is younger and prettier and richer than Win. But these are subjective assessments, based on socially constructed standards - just as art dealers and collectors assess the quality of art based on what some might call arbitrary measurements (and the novel has a nice little wink at this near the end). 

I'll save the rest of my thoughts on this for my book club, but I did really enjoy the book, and though it's a little long, it reads quickly and is compelling and fun. Most of the action takes place in Yorkville, which is neat in terms of comparing the 1967 version of the neighbourhood with today. There's a lot of great Toronto-ness here, and it's especially fun to see where everyone ends up in the epilogue, set in 2000. I love a 'where are they now' epilogue, you guys. 

Four CN Towers out of five.