Friday, December 23, 2011

Consolation by Michael Redhill

I know that a lot of my reviews have been very positive so far, and you're probably starting to think I'm one of those critics who just likes everything. Well, that is not true - especially about books. Ask any of my friends who have ever heard me talk about the Celestine Prophecy, and you will know what I think of bad writing. I also find that some books are quite well written and very good, but they're just not my thing (see Fables of Brunswick Avenue). But I think I've just been lucky so far with the books I've picked for this blog.

I am saying all this because I want you to know that when I tell you Consolation is among the top three most beautifully written books I've ever read, you need to know that it actually means something. I do know good writing when I come across it, and this book is pure poetry. (For the curious, the other two books in my top three would be A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod - ha! All three are Canadian).

Consolation deals with two stories: the first is the story of Jem Hallam, a chemist living in Toronto in the 1850s, and the story wrapped around it is of John Lewis, a young man in present-day Toronto, struggling with the death - and legacy - of his father-in-law, who committed suicide while suffering from ALS and believing that the construction site of a new arena was sitting on historically groundbreaking photographs of early Toronto.

This book is primarily about loss, about the past and how we relate to it, and about family. John is a man without a family, preparing to marry into one with a lot of baggage. As someone who is about to get married - and has been navigating the relating-to-a-long-term-love-interest's-family waters for nine years now - I related so much to both John and his fiancee, Bridget, as they both struggled to figure out John's place. In fact, there was a lot going on in John's life that struck a chord with me: the low-paying, labour-of-love job he picks up and how it contrasts with Bridget's career as a lawyer; the feeling of wandering through his twenties with the vague suspicion that adulthood should be here by now; the longing for acceptance and validation (a universal theme, for sure).

Hallam's story mirrors John's in his almost unconscious search for a family, and his unwillingness to let go of what he has lost. His Toronto is an unfriendly place, in climate and society. It was fascinating to read about the early days of the city, the makeup of a place consisting of so many people who had left their families behind in England. A city of lonely souls.

The whole book is gorgeously written, but there are some particularly beautiful scenes that I adored. The scene between Marianne and David (John's future in-laws) in the shower is probably the most compelling and emotional sex scene I have ever read. I cried and cried (on the streetcar!). There are a few conversations between John and his future mother-in-law that broke my heart; Redhill is clearly a writer who knows what it means to lose someone. His writing is bold in dealing with the uglier feelings that come with death - the who-loved-him-more, who-knew-him-better competitions that lurk beneath each conversation. Suicide always adds an extra layer to grief; whoever feels they had the greater claim to the deceased's love is inevitably burdened with the guilt of not intervening. We know it's not our fault but that's how it goes.

Toronto plays an interesting role in the book; the Toronto of the past is impatient to grow and thinks itself too young to merit keeping anything for historical interest, while present-day Toronto is also a place of progress-worship with no time to look for the past. Streets are mentioned, and landmarks, but it is definitely more about the feel of the city. Through the character of David, the author pleads with us to consider the past, to think about what life was really like and the people who have gone before. "The past really happened," he says to his daughter. It has to have, because what else would we leave behind?

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I adored it. Please read it if you ever have the chance; if you live in Toronto, there are 275 copies at the library. You've got no excuse.

Five CN Towers out of five.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke by Steven Hayward

The first time I visited Toronto as an adult, without my parents, was about four years ago. My good friend Matt was living here at the time, in a house on the edge of Christie Pits. He met me and the friend I was traveling with at Christie Station and we walked through the park, down into the pit and up the other side. It was February then and so it was difficult to get an idea of the park, but Matt pointed out where everything would be when the snow cleared: the playground, the community garden, the baseball diamond. He told us about the riot on the baseball field that had happened in the summer of 1933; anti-Semitic rabble rousers had showed up to a baseball game with a Swastika flag, and the largely Jewish audience and roster confronted them, the fight spilling out on to Bloor Street.

I already felt a sort of personal connection then, however distant, with this book when I picked it up, because it deals with that same riot, building a large and detailed history around it so that the baseball game itself doesn't start until about 20 pages before the end of the book. The story itself follows a few of the key players through a few days in their ordinary lives in Toronto, 1933. Ruthie the Commie, an amazing and impressively written character, who knows that her looks keep her in employment at the fur store and struggles with the ethical dilemma of living as someone who benefits immensely from capitalism and the beauty standard, while trying to organize a walk-out among the wage slaves of the Spadina sweatshops. Lucio Burke, a not-quite-Italian, not-quite-anything-else teenager who is in love with Ruthie, and whose longing to belong somewhere is maybe the most pervasive unarticulated theme of any novel I've read. Dubie Diamond, obsessed with Darwin, who cuts off his own finger to speed up his evolution.

Obviously this is a character-driven story, and sometimes I found it a bit difficult to keep up; most of the time the author deals with three generations of each family, and there are lots of backstories and histories interspersed throughout the narrative, so at some points I kind of lost track of who was related to whom. I should have made myself a chart.

What I loved so much about this novel was the way Hayward covers so many issues without even mentioning most of them. This book deals with themes of race, war, politics, power, democracy, adolescence, belonging, family, religion, faith, immigration, mortality and multiculturalism, but I didn't actually realize it until I had put it down. I have never read an author who can so expertly grapple with heavy subjects without letting the story slip away from him. I wasn't spellbound throughout, but I was never bored, and I never felt preached to.

This is another book that puts Toronto front and centre - it literally could not have been set anywhere else. I was glad to read it now because the Toronto of the 1930s is not something I am familiar with at all, and it was cool to read about the garment workers of Spadina, the knife salesmen in the St. Lawrence Market, and the old College streetcar. Most of the characters live on Beverly Street (one of them buys a house there for $500 cash!) and a couple live on Clinton Street at College (Little Italy seems to be a popular place to set Toronto stories). Of course Christie Pits plays a big role, especially near the end, and there is a big baseball scene set at Withrow Park - which I read on the streetcar just as the robotic voice announced: "Next stop, Withrow Avenue.". The story definitely has a very Toronto flavour, and it was fascinating to see the struggles of early multiculturalism, as well as many burgeoning movements like Communism and (I think I saw it!) feminism.

In case it isn't clear, I adored this book. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves a good story, but especially to those interested in the everyday life of Jewish and Italian immigrants in 1930s Toronto. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Four CN Towers out of five.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall

When I got around to reading Catcher in the Rye, I was already 23-ish, and I kind of hated it. But really I had the sense that I was reading it too late in life; that you can get a lot more out of it if you read it as a teenager. All those feelings of rage and isolation are so much more relateable.

I say this because while I enjoyed Holding Still, I feel like I might have enjoyed it a lot more had I read it about five years ago; and I would be hesitant to recommend it to anyone who is not in their early twenties. It captures so perfectly the feelings of those years, at least for a specific set of twenty-somethings: the drama, the sexual exploration, the sometimes self-imposed poverty, the longing to connect to something bigger than oneself.

The characters in Whittall's novel live in the neighbourhoods my friends and I live in; the downtown Toronto neighbourhoods that consist of gorgeous old buildings divided into apartments, secret gems in areas that are rapidly turning into condo forests. Gentrification is an ever-present background character in this story.

The story itself is more like a bunch of stuff that happens in the lives of some people. It's interesting and engaging, but not totally traditionally story-shaped. People get together, break up, hang out, think about going to class or work or back home to visit their parents. All the characters seem to have a very fluid sexuality, which is really cool; gender identity does not appear to be a barrier to any of their relationships. They communicate through text messages and hang out at odd hours of the night. They probably don't think that they are hipsters. Every one of them seems like someone I know.

What I really liked was how Whittall dealt with her trans character; it came up at the beginning that he was trans, and then it was not mentioned again. He had a regular life like every other character. This is positive representation: when it's not such a big fucking deal. I liked it very, very much.

The city was used well as a backdrop to the story, and I always really like reading scenes set in places that I know. The Drake came up, and the Beaver Cafe (super cool since I know a guy who works there). One pivotal scene takes place at an intersection about two blocks from my place. One character who is a paramedic works out of Toronto Western Hospital. Very very cool.

I did like the book a lot; I just found it hard to get emotionally invested in characters with problems that I already probably spent too much time and energy on in my own life just a few years ago. I do highly recommend it for people in the 19-24 age range, especially those looking to read about non-hetero people who have regular person problems and aren't tokens or designated sidekicks.

I give it three out of five CN towers.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg

I picked this book from my list because it is a murder mystery, and I love mysteries. Upon reading I found that it was actually more of a police procedural - but that's ok, because I love those too! It does have a lot of revelations and cliffhangers and so on thrown in, so there's something for everyone.

The story starts with a famous (fictional) talk radio host, Kevin Brace, opening his door to his newspaper delivery person and saying "I killed her.". His lover's body is in the bathtub, stabbed to death. Sounds pretty open-and-shut, right? Well that would be a pretty short novel, wouldn't it?

Rotenberg tells the story through a number of different characters trying to solve the case: the first police officer on the scene, the detective, the Crown attorney, the defense attorney, and a handful of other characters with varying levels of involvement. There are a lot of twists and turns as information is uncovered or, more often, as characters remember a key detail or read a significant piece of paper, etc. The book conforms pretty solidly to the murder mystery beat, and that is not a bad thing.

One critique I had was that there were a few too many cliffhanger chapter endings. Because Rotenberg is looking through the eyes of many different characters, he can end a chapter on a cliffhanger and then start the next one with another character, so you don't know what that startling revelation or sudden realization was until later. Come to think of it, I can think of two that were never actually explained (although perhaps I am a less than careful reader). Anyway, I was starting to lose interest after a while.

Something I loved about the book was how bold it was about being set in Toronto. You know how you see so many movies shot in Toronto that are supposed to take place somewhere else, and then you see one actually set in Toronto and it's like, wow, that's a refreshing change! This was the book version of that. Besides the title building, the book name checks Front Street many times, the St. Lawrence Market, the Toronto Islands, and even some spots in my neighbourhood like Clinton Street, Cafe Diplomatico, etc. Even the Maple Leafs get some love, as a constant backdrop to the main story.

I think it's a very good book. Rotenberg, a lawyer by trade, obviously knows what the hell he's talking about, and he makes it compelling and accessible for the non-lawyers in the crowd. He clearly loves Toronto dearly, and makes creative use of the layout of the city. He is a master of non-overbearing symbolism, which is trickier to pull off than you might think. And he is frank and upfront about the uneasy multiculturalism of this city.

I gotta say you guys, I loved Old City Hall and I highly recommend it. Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

I picked this book up at the library and read it on my commute, and that was the perfect way to do it, I think. The story is set in a future downtown Toronto decimated by poverty and riots, and there is something so totally eerie about reading it while the streetcar you're on rolls down the same streets described in the story, past protesting members of Occupy Bay Street. It hits close to home, for sure.

The story is part dystopian fiction, part supernatural thriller. It deals with a Toronto separated into the dangerous downtown and the safe and prosperous suburbs; in "the Burn", there are no police, no services, and things are run by mob rule. However, an organic community has sprung up, and a barter economy, and I found a lot of parallels between this world and the kind of society the protesters in St. James Park are establishing on a micro level.

The protagonist is a young, single mother of Caribbean descent, named Ti-Jeanne. She lives with her grandmother in the former Riverdale Farm (!) across the street from the Necropolis, which has a prominent part in the story - making me so glad that I was able to tour it during Doors Open Toronto this year! Gros-Jeanne, the grandmother, is a healer and a woman who "serves the spirits"; she is beloved by the community although her relationship with her granddaughter is sometimes strained.

How to describe this plot? In a nutshell, the premier of Ontario requires a human heart (!) and for various reasons the leader of the "posse", Rudy, is commissioned to obtain one. He orders Tony, a former nurse who was fired because of a drug addiction, to basically kill someone and get their heart. Tony is Ti-Jeanne's former lover (and baby daddy) and comes to her and Gros-Jeanne for help escaping the Burn and Rudy's long reach.

From there you need to discover for yourself, but it gets pretty intense! There are spirits and visions and drugs and people get flayed with knives! But it is also great. I like the way it is written. Almost all the characters are Caribbean and speak in that almost musical dialect: he go do this, she nah go do that, etc. The setting is perfect; it both is and isn't Toronto. I love reading about areas that are familiar to me, especially when the author describes how they have changed since the riots - those familiar with downtown Toronto will recognize Dundas subway station, the Don Valley Parkway, Allan Gardens, and especially the CN Tower where the climactic scene unfolds. This is a story that needs - and loves - its setting.

What I loved most about the book was the characterization of the protagonist Ti-Jeanne, and the unapologetic use of female characters throughout. Ti-Jeanne is flawed and roundly drawn - completely three-dimensional. She is feeling the same disbelief as the reader when the spirits first start to appear; we take our cues from her. Her sexuality and sexual desire are portrayed as completely unremarkable. Most of all I loved that the two heroes of this story are women of colour: a single mother and a witch. Amazing amazing.

Hopkinson sticks women in lots of peripheral roles as well that in most stories would probably default to men: the Premier is female, the heart surgeon is female (with a female partner), the lead street urchin (oh you better believe there are street urchins) is female, and on and on.

I have to say I loved reading this. It is a quick read (it only took me five one-way commutes) and totally engaging. It can be dark at times and I really wasn't kidding about people getting flayed with knives, but there are strong themes of hope and redemption and it is brilliantly written.

Four towers out of five.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fables of Brunswick Avenue by Katherine Govier

I was given this book as a gift from my soon-to-be mother-in-law when I moved to Toronto. It is a collection of short stories which, if not all set on Brunswick Ave., are certainly tied to it through the author's memory of a certain time.

The stories are brief, and I don't just mean short - they seem to be deliberately set up as fragments or snapshots of their character's lives. I found them all to be well-written and evocative, but unavoidably bleak. I don't think there was one story in the collection that was happy; not even a little bit. They have the distinctive flavour of an older and wiser author looking back at a time in her life that probably seemed sweet and exciting at the time, but through a different lens, it does come out as somewhat depressing.

The stories deal with the doubts, fears and neuroses of people in their twenties, and added to the clear Toronto backdrop, they should have been totally relateable for me. But perhaps I am a couple years too old - or twenty years too young - to understand the problems the characters were facing. Or maybe I'm just not fun enough, complicated enough. I did have a hard time sympathizing with people who seemed very self-involved. The whole time I was reading it I had the sense that the author is much nicer than the characters in whom she was seeing herself.

One thing I loved was the introduction, in which Govier talks about her own time living on Brunswick Avenue and the funny encounters she had. It is frank and hilarious and honestly gave me too high hopes for the rest of the book. I can't help wondering if a non-fiction collection - of stories of her time there - might not have been a better choice.

Reading a whole book of short stories at once is perhaps not recommended. I think that if you are in the mood for something that's a bit of a downer, a story from this book would be perfect; for all the thematic gloominess, they are beautifully written stories. And for a taste of Toronto in the 1970s it is excellent. However, having read the author's full-length fiction and knowing it to be vastly superior, I have a hard time recommending this book.

Two towers out of five

Friday, October 7, 2011


Welcome to Smoke City Stories! The concept is simple: I will be reviewing fiction set in Toronto. Right now I'm just thinking novels, graphic novels, short stories etc. but who knows, perhaps I will expand into film as well.

I'm not qualified at all except that I live in Toronto and I like to read. Please feel free to send book suggestions to me: pedgehog at gmail dot com.