Friday, March 29, 2013

The Toronto You Are Leaving by Gordon Stewart Anderson

This is a novel with moments of pure poetry, sprawling in its own way, about gay male culture in Toronto; covering the story of two young men and their friends during the breathtaking swing from the emerging freedom and carefree promiscuity of gay men in the 1970s to the absolute horror of the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

The novel follows David, a shy academic just discovering gay culture, and Tim, an attractive guy from an upper middle class, well-established Toronto family. They meet, tiptoe around their gayness for a bit, and then embark on decade-long relationship that is sometimes sexual/romantic, sometimes friendship, sometimes estranged. They are surrounded by some very well-drawn and realistic characters: Jack, the dramatic patriarch of their community; Paul, his friend? I guess?; Bobby, a younger man David takes under his wing; and various other lovers and friends.

Anderson, the author, was gay himself and died of AIDS-related causes. His understanding and immersion in the gay community is evident throughout. It's a really precise account of a time and a place and a culture. There is nothing of "straight" Toronto in this story; to read it is to be in that time and place, which is obviously totally fascinating. The characters are very real; the situations are very real. The best part is one of the final chapters, which is a letter written by one of the characters describing his friend dying of AIDS; it captures the terror and powerlessness of such a death remarkably well, but also the fear in the community and the utter betrayal by the rest of society. Let them die in the streets, say the straights.

Toronto is very vivid and alive in the book. It is a character, for sure. It will be of particular note to those interested in the recent history of the city, as there is a definite atmosphere of those times.

This was a difficult book to review; it took me a long time to get through it and I feel it could have been a lot shorter. There was a lot of unnecessary drama and theorizing that I could have done without. I liked it; I'm not sure I would recommend it. There are parts of it that are just beautiful though, really wonderfully written, and it makes you wish the author had been able to write more before he died. He was clearly a gifted writer who needed only to hone his skills a little more. A second or third Anderson would have been a gem of a novel.

Three CN Towers out of five.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Lightning Field by Heather Jessup

All stories are about redemption. This is my new theory based on the books I've been reading for this project (the blog, that is). This novel has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it phoenix leitmotif, including a protagonist who is quite literally struck by lightning and rises harder and (arguably?) stronger from the ashes. It is masterfully crafted.

For the first part of the book I was worried that it would be another second-wave-style exploration of white housewives' boredom in the suburbs post-war, much like The Torontonians. I honestly don't think I can stomach another such story - not because it's not a valid thing to write about, just because it doesn't interest me personally and I feel so removed from that narrative. But two things made The Lightning Field different: the housewife, Lucy, is struck by lightning while pregnant with her youngest child; and her husband, Peter, works as an engineer/draftsman on the Avro Arrow, the groundbreaking and famously doomed Canadian aeronautics project, cancelled by Diefenbaker's Conservative government in 1959.

I didn't know much about the Arrow and the novel definitely paints a clear picture of the impact of the layoffs of over 14,000 people working on the project, including many top scientists and engineers who were quickly recruited by American companies - instant brain drain! The loss of his job changes Peter, just as the lightning strike changes Lucy, and the novel watches those changes ripple through the lives of their friends and children.

Guys, this book is gorgeous. It is SO beautifully written, the characters are well-drawn and very sympathetic - even Peter, who is kind of an asshole. It is a complex snapshot of a certain time in Toronto's history, and of coming of age in that time. Jessup creates a world that has many unseen but intriguing components; I would read a novel about what happens to Lucy's estranged best friend Claire in those missing years, or about the lives of any of Lucy's children. The author avoids one of the common pitfalls of first novels - putting everything you know into it - and manages to create curious little pockets of unseen action. She also creates sneaky metaphors that catch you by surprise; my breath literally caught in my throat reading the conversation between Lucy and her co-survivors of lightning strikes at a conference, as they explain to her that she is lucky to have scars because people will believe what happened to her. (It's about rape, right? Yeah, I got it). Or flight - Peter's work of course, and his first flight as his daughter is born, and how the boys' dreams for themselves are so closely tied to flight.

There are so many excellent themes touched on: death of course; redemption; love; fate; all the big ones. I loved the dinner scene near the end, with the children huddled under the table passing around a bottle of wine. I loved Lucy, with all her flaws and her strength and how completely she encompasses the feeling of being an adult and not knowing what the hell you're supposed to do. She is one of my favourite characters that I've read about for this project.

I cry at everything that's meant to make me cry, it's true; but it takes a gifted writer to make me cry about weird shit like the Avro Arrow getting cancelled. Heather Jessup is a gifted writer, and definitely someone I will read again.

Five CN Towers out of five.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Scott Pilgrim Series by Bryan Lee O'Malley: Vol. 4

See previous reviews for Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol. 3.

Volume 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together

So, as it turns out, Scott gets to be a more sympathetic character as the books go on (or at least I'm hoping that's the trend). This volume was great, not least of all because Scott does actually start to get it together. He gets a job, stops completely mooching off Wallace, figures out that bisexuals exist, and has an actual conversation with Ramona wherein he sees beyond her mysterious Manic Pixie Dream Girl facade. He even learns that the exterior of any given Second Cup doesn't magically lead to the same interior.

I think this book is my favourite of the series so far; I did enjoy Volume 3, but this one has more of Wallace. I LOVE Wallace. There was a lot of great use of the city as always, including a trip to the Dufferin Mall (which is, let's face it, a pretty hurtin' mall); a streetcar getting sliced in half'; and perpetual Sneaky Dee's hangouts. There is a lot of great Toronto detail in the background too.

There was some great stuff about trying to make it as a band; Sex Bob-omb starts turning down shows because they are "recording", which seems to involve a lot of sitting around watching Stephen play guitar.

I had a little trouble in this volume telling some of the characters apart, particularly the girls: Kim, Lisa and Ramona all have similar haircuts and without colour, I am sometimes perplexed as to which is which. But apart from that minor complaint, I very much enjoyed this installment.

Five CN Towers out of five.