Friday, August 30, 2013

A Streak of Luck by Richelle Kosar

When I read the blurb for this novel, I thought it was going to be about a poor family that wins the lottery and  then has to struggle with the results. But actually, though the parents - Jesse and Mona - discover they have the winning ticket early on, the rest of the story is told in flashbacks and then day-by-day in real time, so that by the time the family gets dressed up and goes to the lottery office to collect their winnings, there's only about twenty pages left.

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

To Die in Spring by Sylvia Maultash Warsh

I have read numerous books set during the Holocaust, or with the Holocaust as a theme, not because I have any particular interest in it (at least not more than your average person) but simply because I read a lot, and there are a LOT of books out there that are set during the Holocaust. It gets a bit tiring, really, because even if the books are good (and many of them are fantastic), it can weigh down the spirit a little, you know?

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

Noman's Land by Gwendolyn MacEwen

This book is basically poetry. If you're into that sort of thing, you will probably like it very much. It is (as far as I can tell) the story of a fellow called Noman who has amnesia, and is picked up outside Kingsmere (home of William Lyon Mackenzie King's estate) and driven to Toronto, where he starts his life anew in a land he calls 'Kanada' - the loneliest country in the world.

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.