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.