Friday, December 20, 2013
This book, while thankfully light on the brand name, shopping addiction nonsense, is not really balanced out by anything of substance. The story follows two best friends, Bess (the narrator) and Maxi, through six weeks of their lives - from New Years' to Valentine's Day (also Bess's birthday). The title refers to the fact that it is within these six weeks that their relationship turns from close to toxic, and by the end of the book it is ruined. Maxi is a freelance journalist who comes from money and is in new possession of a beautiful house, and a relationship with a wealthy, attractive man. Bess is a foley artist (super interesting, and probably the most readable parts of the story) who is single and approaching 35 living in Maxi's old apartment, somewhat dissatisfied with how things have turned out.
Throughout the novel, both women's luck begins to turn, which I guess is supposed to be the catalyst for their relationship falling apart. Honestly I was really interested in reading this book because I have had female friendships turn toxic quickly and I thought it would be a relateable, incisive thing to read about; however, the way this story actually goes, it's really not clear that things are falling apart. It's like six weeks of stuff that happens, them going about their lives as friends, then at Bess's birthday party they get into a mild fight and then they're just never friends again. I challenge you to read the penultimate chapter of this book and figure out if your friendship could survive that fight; I bet it could.
I think we are supposed to feel that because things were coming together for Bess while they were falling apart for Maxi (were they falling apart? Her boyfriend just didn't get her the right Valentine's Day gift), a rift developed. But I don't understand why Bess would have a friendship with someone incapable of being happy for her. It didn't make any sense. Really none of it made sense - how could a friendship torn apart by the remarkably mild events of the novel have even survived up to that point?
Mostly what I found unappealing about the book was how boring and unrelateable it was. I did not recognize Toronto in these pages - even though the city and street names are mentioned several times - and I certainly didn't recognize myself or any of my female friends in Bess or Maxi. While neither woman is particularly awful, I didn't find either to be a compelling or likeable character. Their whole friendship seemed to be based on talking about clothes and sex, which, honestly - not that interesting. Neither of them seemed to have a political opinion, or a concept of the world outside of their own.
This might have been another case of 'the writing is good, but this just isn't my genre' but honestly I didn't find the writing that good either. It had a strong whiff of trying too hard; really really hip with barely any substance. I don't think I could even recommend this fluff to fans of "chick lit;" it is not great, you guys.
One CN Tower out of five.
Friday, December 6, 2013
The novel follows Jude, a successful managing editor of a Canadian magazine and a wife and mother of two children, through a couple weeks of her daily life. She works, she goes home, she ruminates on her marriage and her childhood and how to slip some more radical feminist pieces into a magazine that seems to deal mostly with household tips and trend pieces.
Jude's husband, Marshall, is also successful professionally but isn't as happy with his job. Even the dullest reader will begin to suspect he is cheating on Jude from the first chapter. Their egalitarian marriage is beginning to show cracks. Jude's mother, Adele, looms large in her thoughts even when she is not present, and Adele's final reveal - shedding a lot of light on Jude's relationships with men - will not come as a surprise either. This book is not as compelling as it thinks it is.
I liked the characters a lot, and I enjoyed reading about the struggles of women in the workplace in that era. I loved that the main character was an unapologetic feminist. What I didn't like so much was the unrelenting focus on the minutae of Jude's daily life. She looks at photos. She sits down to dinner. She walks over to the door. There was so much unnecessary detail in the novel, and most frustrating of all was that when something finally happened, it was over.
I was also a bit bored with the feminist analysis. I know that it is dated, and one can't blame the author for writing this in 1981. But the struggles of the white middle class career woman are not really the focus of today's feminist movement (at least they shouldn't be), so I found Jude's problems to be a bit white whine-y. Also, can we have a book where a feminist character is in a happy relationship? Perhaps that's too much to ask.
There is definitely a Toronto flavour - specifically a 1970s Toronto flavour, which I know will appeal to some. The book is certainly well written and interesting to a point, but the plodding detail and stale politics didn't hold my attention.
Two CN Towers out of five.
Friday, November 22, 2013
The story deals with Lilith, a professional clairvoyant who works with the Toronto PD to find missing children. It stretches one's credibility to believe that the police force would pay - and provide an office for - someone whose work strategy involves writing a "contract" with a missing child, in crayon, and then sitting in a greenhouse and staring off into space, but I guess if they were getting results, who knows? Lilith has a teenaged daughter named Lemon (yes, really) who is struggling with belonging, as teenage girls are wont to do. Lemon wants to know who her father is. Lilith doesn't want to talk about it. There is no father, as far as she is concerned.
The present day story is little more than a framing device for Lilith's recollections of her earlier life, in the months leading up to her pregnancy, which she spent in a psychiatric ward. There she spends her time with Randy, a loose cannon who killed her abusive husband, and Mrs. Moffat, who attempted suicide after the birth of her son. In this way the story dips into issues like post-partum depression and domestic violence but rarely deals with them head on, preventing the heavy-handedness I was sort of dreading.
Toronto is not prominent in the book except for the greenhouse in Allan Gardens, which is described multiple times in great detail. It makes sense that Toronto is not such a stand out setting as I believe the book is at least partly about disappearing, and how easy it is to do so in faceless, anonymous cities.
This novel is certainly well written, and the story is interesting and different in a lot of ways. Parts of it (including the conclusion) were a bit to airy-fairy for me though - perhaps I am too cynical for the psychic mumbo jumbo and certainly I AM too cynical for a "and then everything was all better" ending. I wouldn't universally recommend this book although I can think of one or two people I know who would enjoy it. A good book, but not a great one - not one that will stay with me.
Three CN Towers out of five.
Friday, November 8, 2013
It's a lovely novel, it really is. People complain about poets making the transition to novels, and the language in this book is pure poetry, but I didn't find it distracting or overdone; the story was easily discernable and the tangents were, for the most part, interesting, and certainly lovely to read. Michaels is a true artist with words.
The story is from the point of view of Jakob, a boy who escapes Poland during the Holocaust with the help of a Greek man named Athos. It follows the pair to occupied Greece, and finally to freedom (in a sense) in Toronto. The book isn't really about the story as much as it is about its themes, and ideas. There is a lot about love, and death, and how survivors of great trauma find ways to move in the world and live on. It is one of the more effective uses of the Holocaust as a springboard for these themes that I've seen; the atrocities committed by the Nazis are explicitly detailed, in stark contrast to descriptions of beautiful Greek villages or enduring love.
The last third of the novel switches protagonists; it is fro the point of view of a man named Ben, a child of Holocaust suvivors, who is addressing his narrative to Jakob after the death of the latter. This section I could have done without, honestly; it is surprising to me that a female writer would create such indulgent male fantasy. I didn't like Ben and I wasn't done with Jakob's story; it was like another book intruded on the one I was reading.
Toronto doesn't play a huge part in the novel, although a couple neighbourhoods are name-checked. The value of the narrative is definitely its universal human themes, with plot and characters a secondary consideration.
This is a lovely book, worth reading. However, it might be because I'm a bit exhausted with Holocaust novels, but I don't think it will stay with me as much as it should.
Three CN Towers out of five.
Friday, October 25, 2013
Sometimes books come along that do something a little different though, and this is one of those books. It runs along some of the same themes as To Die in Spring, but definitely has some elements that you haven't seen before. This one wasn't on any of my lists of books set in Toronto; a friend of mine read it and recommended it. I'm glad he did, because it was not only a good book, but also one of the most challenging books I've read in a while - maybe since Victim Impact.
There are three stories sort of intertwined in the novel; the first (at least chronologically) is of a boy named Sigmund Maier growing up in Dresden before the war, his relationship with his mother and grandfather and neighbours, and his strange origins. The second is of grown-up Sigmund, now almost fifty, moving into a basement apartment in Toronto in the 1960s and befriending Sheila, the teenage daughter of his landlady. And the third story, where the book spends most of its time, is a grown-up Sheila in modern day Toronto being contacted by Sigmund for the first time since he skipped out and left the apartment without a word almost forty years earlier, because he needs a letter for Immigration attesting to his character. Because of course he might be a Nazi.
It's hard to say whether the story is more about Sheila's journey or Sigmund's. We spend more time with Sheila and get to know her and bits and pieces about how she came from being a sullen teenager living in near-poverty to a successful CEO of a music company, and how much of the brief time she spent with Sigmund affected that transformation. But Sigmund's story is woven throughout and it is really his choices that give the reader the most food for thought, even though exactly what he did in his life remains something of a mystery near the end.
What we are supposed to notice, I'm sure, is the similarities between the two characters - the missing father, the longing for power and control, the musical obsession. One of the themes that jumped out strongly to me was the importance of context in deciding what is good and evil (ie moral relativism, but more complicated than that). Sheila, in another time and place, might have made the decisions that Sigmund made, and might have found herself in his position. They both made morally questionable decisions to ensure their own survival. And those decisions came from the same place.
This book made me think about Nazis differently. It also made me think about rape differently. Neither more sympathetically, mind you, but I think the main effect that this novel goes for (and in my opinion, achieves) is to question absolute judgements about any unethical behaviour. Knowing the world is not black and white isn't enough, though - the novel makes you wade through the somewhat horrifying shades of grey.
I liked it. It challenged me. It wasn't my favourite story in the world, but it was very skillfully written and definitely broke new ground in the genre.
Four CN Towers out of five.
Friday, October 11, 2013
See previous reviews for Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, and Vol. 5.
I know I shouldn't reference the film so much when I talk about these books, but of all the stuff to leave out of the film, the sixth volume has buckets of amazing content! There is significant growth not only from Scott, but also from almost all the named female characters - Kim, Knives, Envy and Ramona all get a chance to confront their past with Scott, and they all (in their own ways) make peace and move forward, with or without him. It was great - and so significant for girls - to see all of them, particularly Knives, mature and hold Scott accountable for the way he treated them.
Also it would have been cool to see Envy's costume. hair, entrance and solo act in the film. I liked her a lot in this final volume; her character is really rounded out into not just Scott's evil ex, but a real person with feelings who is struggling to deal with fame and the way men treat her. Envy Adams spin-off comic please!
Lots more Wallace in this volume, which was great. The final confrontation with Gideon was fine, lots of stabbing and slashing which is not to my taste, but I liked the explanation of the subspace highway, and the frozen exes. What I really enjoyed in this volume was the background detail, from the guys googling Ramona (and then updating her Wikipedia page) to Scott's mom reminding Stacey that Scott had collected a 1Up a couple volumes back. Very cool.
Not much Toronto detail in this one, as most of the action takes place on Scott's couch, then in the wilderness, then in the Chaos Theatre (at the perfectly drawn corner of Queen and Bathurst).
Overall I think this series was really excellent, a quintessentially Toronto story that is nevertheless very accessible, and of particular appeal to the early-twenties hipster crowd. I loved the style, the story is great and despite the fantasy elements, very true to the struggle of youth and maleness and relationships, and all that nonsense. Definitely worth a read, and in my opinion volume six is the strongest entry.
Five CN Towers out of five.
Friday, September 27, 2013
The story starts when Auden, our narrator, is diagnosed with HIV. He decides to pack up his life in Sudbury and move to Toronto, where he meets a few fairly strange people (as you do), including Steve. Steve is a video artist whose work is so innovative it teaches people things, like how to communicate with each other on a molecular level, and what's going to happen a few minutes into the future. Steve has Auden write things down as part of "the machine", which is the book. Yes, the book you're reading. So it's kind of trippy, but it is fun and weird and moving enough to be read on just one level, if that's all you're looking for.
After reading a few different books in which the AIDS epidemic among gay men featured prominently (most notably The Toronto You Are Leaving), it was fascinating to encounter this one which is set in the present day (ie the late 2000s) and still details a lot of the problems around stigma and prevention that were present when the virus first started to spread in the 1980s. The description of the clinic waiting room, the strange feelings, the mood whiplash, was extremely well done and terrifying. I liked the way the author dealt with Auden's job and how he tiptoed around the diagnosis with his boss, and yet they were both comfortable with explicit sexual stories and Auden booking sex workers for him.
The extra complicating factor of this novel is that Steve Reinke is an actual, real person. The afterword addresses some of the lines between fiction and life, and it seems that Reinke was a pretty good sport about being used as a character in the book. It's a funny thing to do, and I have to wonder what the author's intent was - why not just create a fictional character? Anyway it didn't make a lot of difference to my enjoyment of the novel but I'm sure if you know Steve this is something you want to check out.
Overall, I liked it. It was short and sweet, and definitely a quick read. There's a lot to think about but it's not too cerebral. One complaint: not enough Toronto. Otherwise, I would recommend it.
Four CN Towers out of five:
Friday, September 13, 2013
Holding Still and Code White had a baby - a weird, hip, ironically detached early-twenties girl baby with relationship baggage and issues with her parents.
I would say read Whittall and you'll get a sense of the tone of Sugar, but I can't say I found this book as well-written or as compelling as Whittall's. The story is from the point of view of Sugar Jones, a young woman whose famous rock star boyfriend has just died. She suddenly discovers that without him she is completely directionless, and has to suddenly make something of her life, and so the novel follows her attempts to get a job, put time into relationships with her friends and family, and discover something that she likes to do besides mope around in her basement apartment and watch Parker Posey movies.
If you've been a woman in your early twenties, you might have an easier time with the book than most. Personally although I am not that far removed from that figuring-out-what-to-do time in my life, I was born about 50 years old, so I got a little tired of Sugar dragging her feet and being such a fucking baby. I mean sure, grieve, but it's not like she was doing anything before the boyfriend died either. And one glaring roadblock for me in relating to Sugar was that she never had any problems with money. This is explained by the money that Marco (the rock star boyfriend) was making and putting away for her, which makes sense, but her lack of struggle in that department takes away a bit of the urgency of her situation and makes her less relatable and, dare I say, less likable than she could be. It's hard to feel for someone who is living in a shit hole apartment by choice.
The writing is very hip and tries a little too hard, but overall it is certainly readable and definitely very funny at times. The characters surrounding Sugar really make it worth the read - her mother, her best friend, her new love interest and her two roommates are all much more interesting than her. The story takes place in the early 2000s which makes it in some ways a bit dated, but in others, endearingly frozen in time - a perfect time, when there was the internet but nobody had cell phones, and both pop and grunge music were amazing, and working at a CD store was still a viable job option.
I also wanted to delve a little bit harder into the politics that Sugar is starting to discover but - somewhat maddeningly - never seems to reflect upon. Her love interest, Thomas, is arrested at an anti-poverty protest, she accidentally starts a union at her job at the CD store, her roommate is a professional dominatrix - these are things that have the potential to make very interesting stories, but Sugar sort of just floats through them. Which in some ways I guess is the point - she's so numb that she can't even see the crazy shit happening around her - but it drove me nuts because I wanted more time in that world and less in Sugar's head.
The book is very Toronto but only really Toronto in that time - I got the sense that it would speak much more to people of Sugar's generation who grew up here than to latecomers like me. It is definitely more about the scene than the landmarks.
I guess I'm being a bit harsh but really I did enjoy the book, I just wasn't super captivated by it. But if you like Zoe Whittall or you're into that Degrassi/Buffy vibe (and are the right age to get both references), give it a try.
Three CN Towers out of five.
Friday, August 30, 2013
The novel itself is a fascinating account of poverty, through the alternating perspectives of the three women of the family - Mona and her daughters, Rebecca and Cory. Mona and Jesse meet when they are young and spend years living in her mother's house in a small town in Saskatchewan, Jesse playing in a band and Mona working menial jobs, acquiring neither skills nor savings. After their youngest child, Joey, dies in a thoroughly preventable accident, their marriage rapidly falls apart. One day Jesse leaves. Months later, Mona finds out that he is in Toronto, packs up the girls and the last of their money, and goes to find him.
The author makes a lot of interesting choices in this book, most of which pay off in my opinion. I like that we hear from everyone except Jesse, while their narratives center him implicitly. I loved how Mona's devotion to an artistic, impractical person is mirrored in her daughters' attraction to similar characters in their own lives, and how their choices are irresistibly affected by what they have seen their mother go through. Rebecca longs for a life of wealth, and uses her good looks to attract wealthy men and bask in their attention. Relationships are a business transaction for her, a stepping stone into the life she believes she deserves. She is obsessed with money, and when she finds herself attracted to the unsuccessful actor who works at a pizza restaurant with her mother, she can barely even admit to herself that it is, in fact, attraction. Rebecca looks at her parents' lives and sees that you must choose either love or money.
Cory is younger, in highschool, and is drawn in by a creepy classmate who solicits her help in writing an X-Files script, and whose unstable home life frightens Cory. Although she hates being poor, she is not obsessed with money in the way her sister is; what has affected Cory more about her parents' relationship is the long period of separation, and the lack of harmony in the home. Her dilemma is more complicated than Rebecca's but in the end she makes a similar choice; two children can sustain a lot of damage from the breakdown of a marriage, but the loss of faith in love is a big one for both.
There is a lot going on in this story, but I think it is mainly about the way poverty and love affect each other, and how difficult it is to balance being pragmatic about money with being artistic and creative and open to the universe and to love. Most people don't have the privilege to do both. It is a beautifully written, perfectly bittersweet novel, and I enjoyed it very much even though it was heartbreaking. Toronto has a great role as the grimy, soulless big city, proving that it is all things to all people, I guess. I would definitely read this author again.
Four CN Towers out of five.
Friday, August 16, 2013
Anyway, this novel takes a somewhat fresh perspective. Not totally fresh - I know there is fiction out there about Nazi hunters and so on - but at least a little different than what we're used to. It is set in 1979, and the main character is Dr. Rebecca Temple, whose patient, Mrs. Kochinsky, thinks she is being followed by the men who tortured her in Argentina after she escaped there from the war in Europe.
Dr. Temple is a very well-drawn and likeable character. A lot of the book involves her doing dangerous things instead of calling the police, and I think when you have a story where people do things like that, their motivations have to be believable. Rebecca finds herself in a situation where what she thought were the paranoid delusions of a woman suffering from PTSD turn out to be (possibly) correct, and there is no way to convey this to others without herself seeming paranoid and (because of course there is always a gender element) hysterical.
There has been fiction that has dealt with the Nazis who escaped after the war going to South America, but this story goes a few years further in time to see what happens after South America - what happens when the murderous regime in Argentina collides with both Jews and Nazis fleeing Europe, and then how those relationships spill over into North America. There are some very compelling characters in this novel who dance very carefully around each other, everyone afraid to reveal who they actually are - or were, in that other life.
I liked the book. It was captivating and well-done, with lots of good Toronto scenery. I liked the way Toronto's multiculturalism worked to both shelter the innocent and guilty, and provide easy escape routes and death traps. I liked the characters. The writing was good although sometimes it crossed over into melodrama, and the one sex scene is embarrassingly over-the-top. But overall I would recommend this book and I would most likely read more of Warsh's work.
Four CN Towers out of five
Friday, August 2, 2013
It's quite a beautifully written book, with many layers of meaning. If I was the type who marked up library books, there are a lot of passages in this one I would underline. It is a strange, richly textured exploration of the Canadian identity, such as it is, and what becomes of people descended from fur traders and indigenous people who live(d) in harsh, frontier worlds. The vast spaces of Canada are present throughout, threatening to overwhelm the characters with their emptiness. This is really a Canadian book, though it is Toronto-centric as well in some ways.
I have a hard time with books like this - I'm kind of unadventurous when it comes to the melding of poetry with story, and nonlinear narratives. I love reading this kind of writing, but as poetry, not as a novel. It is beautifully written though, and in spite of myself it was a pleasure to read and to think about some of the more coherent thoughts present. It is one of the few novels I've read that really struggles, head on, with the Canadian identity and its relationship to the vast emptiness of this land.
Still, I almost didn't want to recommend it until I reached the very last chapter. If you are like me and like your stories a bit more straightforward, I recommend you pick this book up and just read the final chapter, which is the story of Noman swimming across Lake Ontario. It's really beautiful, but also linear and realistic (one might even say graphic) - like, I wondered if MacEwen had, herself, swum the lake. It's perfect.
So...I didn't like the book overall but I did like that chapter.
Three CN Towers out of five.
Friday, July 19, 2013
I think Trevor Cole did this successfully with Norman Bray - presenting an unsympathetic protagonist while still managing to engage the reader in caring about the outcome - by firstly using supporting characters that were well-drawn and sympathetic, and secondly by making the novel at least partly comic. I get a bit weary of the plodding seriousness of these "stranger" books. Guilty was at least playful in a sort of grotesque way. Strange Fugitive is not.
I wanted to lay all that out initially so you know that I have a personal objection to this type of novel that is not really indicative of how good it is or how much you might enjoy it. I guess that's true of any review though.
Strange Fugitive follows a few months in the life of a man named Harry Trotter who, after being laid off from his job at a lumber yard for fighting, teams up with a friend, Jimmie, to start a thriving bootlegging business (it's set in the 1920s). He leaves his wife and seems to spend most of his time wondering if he should go back to her, or thinking about his dead mother - and not in a nice, aww he really cared about his mom sort of way, more like a no woman could ever live up to my mummy kind of thing. Harry and Jimmie are ruthless and dishonest in their business, stealing booze shipments from other bootleggers and undercutting them as well.
Harry is a super unlikeable protagonist. He is mopey and mean. He treats women like crap. He is never content with his lot and always wants to control more, to be in charge of the whole city. And he kills a guy, and doesn't give a shit. He is not a good person and I hoped throughout the book that he would die and we could follow some other character instead.
This book might interest you if you are into learning about Toronto in the 1920s, particularly the nitty-gritty of the bootlegging scene at the time; I guess Callaghan was a newspaper reporter and was getting the inside scoop on how it all worked, so it's probably pretty accurate - and I did find the historical aspect of the novel interesting. I liked how much everyone travelled on the streetcars (for some reason I always love it when streetcars turn up in Toronto novels). Toronto enthusiasts and history buffs should probably check this out.
For the rest of us, I can't really recommend it. It's well written and the premise is interesting, but for a short novel it's a hard slog because trying to sympathize with an awful character is exhausting. Life's too short.
Two CN Towers out of five.