Bits and bobs

March 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve just ordered the new Warwick Review. It’s a publication I’ve been meaning to get round to reading for some time now, and I was motivated to act by the fact that Philip Langeskov, whose “Notes on a Love Story” I recently enjoyed, has a story in the new issue. It also, rather unexpectedly, features ten Canadian poets.

Elaine Blair has a very interesting review of Houellebecq’s latest in the NYRB earlier this month, which I stumbled across thanks to Sonya Chung’s comments. Go to Sonya’s blog as well and read the David Foster Wallace quote there about Great Male Novelists and their attitudes towards women. Something I want to get around to discussing one day.



New book excitement

March 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

There are three new books coming out in the next little while that I can’t wait to get my hands on, by three young women of varying degrees of fame (at least so far).

The big news is that Zadie Smith’s long-awaited fourth novel, NW, will be out in September. Despite the fact that I couldn’t finish The Autograph Man and thought that White Teeth had some fairly major flaws, I am a huge admirer of Smith’s intellect and her writing. Jonathan Bennett sums up her essay collection, Changing My Mind,very nicely here. I’ve also got an essay of hers in the TBR pile, in a collection of essays about the importance of reading called Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!

NW: A Novel


Next up is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise, which looks fascinating and has been getting some very good reviews. She and Lauren Groff seem to be at the forefront of a new wave of environmentalist writers for whom the second word in that description is not sacrificed to the first.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, my lovely and talented friend Gayle O’Brien has her first novel, Underground, coming out in just a couple of weeks. From the last link you can actually download the first three chapters, but I’m going to force myself to wait until I get my mucky paws on a copy. It’s very exciting!

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

March 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

Once upon a time, I used to skip massive swathes of description, pages taken up with the minutiae of a place, its weather, the colour of the sky and the feel of the air. There was often a surfeit of description, I felt: if I’d taken it in once, I didn’t need to go through it again. The important part was the characters, their feelings, their development, and I was eager to return to the meat of the novel. But then came writing that could have been set anywhere, and was mostly set inside a character’s head, and place receded into the background. This is fine for some novels, but others—most recently Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues and Anna Funder’s All That I Am, both set in particularly interesting times and locations—really lack a solid grounding in place. Both writers have done their research and incorporated important details, but in between these details it is hard to remember you are in Berlin or Paris (the London section of Funder’s book was better in this regard), and the characters seem to drift back into a highly nuanced and finely observed netherworld of the mind.

Island of Wings - book cover

Karin Altenberg’s debut novel Island of Wings, longlisted for this year’s Orange Prize, is therefore refreshing in its ability to evoke place, specifically St Kilda, one of the most remote groups of islands off the coast of Scotland. From the book’s blurb, it appears that Altenberg’s background is in archaeology, and she is a Fellow of the Linnean Society. This really comes through in her attention to detail: landscape, flora and fauna all come alive with nary an overdone moment. It’s like savouring a wonderful cocktail instead of having to down several different shots and a juice chaser. Everything works harmoniously towards the same end; everything is in the right place.

The plot itself is based on the true story of Neil MacKenzie and his wife Lizzie, posted to the islands of St Kilda by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in the 1830s. The newly married pair settle in the manse on the island of Hirta, some distance away from the ancient village where the natives live in their semi-underground huts. The harsh life of the island, including a high rate of infant mortality that does not leave the MacKenzies untouched, mirrors the internal struggles that both Neil and Lizzie live through. Neil is evangelical, convinced of the rightness of converting the St Kildans to Christianity and frustrated when they revert to superstition at times of fear. Lizzie, isolated by the fact that she doesn’t speak Gaelic, is trying to reconcile herself to her new life, distressed that her husband doesn’t even recognise her loneliness. Ultimately, both have to make some compromises.

Altenberg takes a while to settle into her voice, with the prose early on being distracted by an overly explanatory tone, but by the end both characters and voice are secure. The combination of the extreme and remote setting, the marriage, the islanders themselves and the background of the break from the Church of Scotland of many of the more evangelical ministers make this an excellent debut. I think it has a good chance of winning the Orange Prize, particularly as it doesn’t strike me as the sort of book that will  inspire love/hate divisions.

A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

March 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Receiving a parking ticket while welcoming a new baby or rushing to say goodbye to a loved one seems surprisingly common, at least anedcotally, but must always be a horrible shock for the person coming out of the hospital in a daze. The incomprehensibility of such a parking ticket (actually a few days before the death of her husband Raymond Smith in 2008) is how Joyce Carol Oates opens her fine book of grief,  A Widow’s Story–except that the paper fluttering on her windscreen turns out to be not a ticket, but a note saying “LEARN TO PARK STUPPID BITCH.”

This incident leads the reader into the memoir fully on Oates’ side (although her other remarks about driving might throw some light on the notewriter’s frustration). The obvious comparison for this work is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. A Widow’s Story is more intimate than Didion’s book, as if Didion wrote it in the immediate grip of shock while Oates is rather remembering (vividly) the dreadful horror of turning from a married woman into a widow. The book is over 400 pages, and the account of Ray’s illness and death is over before page 60, which leaves a lot of space for grief. Too much space, perhaps, for the person who isn’t going through it; a good reminder for those of us not mourning a loss that a death fills up all available space in the bereaved person’s mind for months, even when we might be eager to start talking about something else.

Oates is distraught at being a widow as much as at the loss of her husband–being a widow means living alone in a big empty house; it means having to work out which day to put the rubbish bins out at the kerb. She seems to have been protected by Ray from much of the business of living, and talks about how they deliberately did not share bad news with each other. An unusual relationship, then: for all its insular coupleness, they lacked huge amounts of information about each other. The story becomes stranger as we learn that Ray didn’t even read Oates’ fiction; during the course of the memoir Oates reads (and is startlingly obtuse or disingenuous in her interpretation of its autobiographical nature) Ray’s unpublished novel. The (unmentioned) fact that Oates remarried a little over a year after Ray’s death puts rather a different slant on the memoir as a structured piece of creative non-fiction, although not necessarily on the Smiths’ relationship: it is clear from A Widow’s Story that Oates wants to be looked after, and what better way than by finding a new husband?

Can raw and honest writing about grief be compatible with the structural demands of storytelling?

The Sisters Brothers

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Somehow I was so out of touch with all the hype surrounding this multiply-shortlisted and award-winning second novel by Patrick deWitt that I had seen no reviews of it, knew nothing about it aside from the title, which I assumed was actually The Sisters’ Brothers (or perhaps The Sister’s Brothers). That tiny little punctuation mark suggested an entirely different genre for the novel. From the apostrophe alone, in the three-second flashes my mind had allotted to noticing the book, my brain had invented some kind of historical family saga, probably set in Newfoundland. Some hard-knock life mixed with a bit of Canadian regionalism (or perhaps regional Canadianism), all shaken up with a shot of families dancing on the line between loyalty and betrayal. Then I got hold of the book and noticed that its cover didn’t really fit, oh – and those stylised figures seem to be holding guns. Perhaps I was on the wrong track entirely…

Anyway, one page in and all preconceptions had been identified, tracked down and removed. Eli and Charlie Sisters are notorious killers who work for the Commodore, on their way to San Francisco to dispose of Hermann Warm, a man whom the Commodore says has tried to steal from him. Their farcical journey there takes up a significant portion of the novel, with horse problems, whores, gangsters, killings. Many critics have compared it to frontier novels, but the comic gruesomeness, the unexpected violence mixed with nonchalance, is also very reminiscent of Tarantino.

Although the brothers have previously worked as a pair, the Commodore has now made Charlie the lead man. Charlie is older, more brutal, more heartless than Eli, who is set up as a fairly traditional fat baddy – brutal childhood, latches onto protection of older boy, becomes violent himself but nonetheless still feels the beating of his tender little heart, etc. However, Eli is not happy about playing second fiddle, and as the pair progress towards San Francisco, leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake, he chases his tail through an ongoing internal debates about giving up the killing life. After Charlie gets himself outfitted one day Eli finds himself quite taken with the idea of owning a store. This is his vision of settling down, which goes alongside his vision of a suitable woman to settle down with (the few women he tries to attract/buy en route are not really the settling type).

Allegiances shift when the brothers finally track down Warm and realise that the Commodore’s tracker Morris is now in cahoots with him. The Sisters follow the pair out to a gold claim, and at this point De Witt reveals his skill at character development that is not smothered in disingenuousness or irony. This section is really where the novel finally found a heart to match its cleverness. The Sisters Brothers is an intelligent, well crafted novel. If my own preference is for something a little more earnest and honest in its exploration of the human heart and mind (especially having caught a glimpse of de Witt’s perfect aim in this regard), the critics thought it was pretty much perfect as it stood: The Sisters Brothers won both the Governor General’s and the Writers’ Trust awards last year.

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

March 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

My review of the fabulous Arcadia by Lauren Groff is in Saturday’s Globe and Mail. After I finished my review, I looked around at reviews of her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, and was surprised to see how many were by or for readers of sci-fi and fantasy. Somehow I hadn’t fully clocked the MR/ghost/slightly fantastical sections of the book–unusual, since normally the merest hint of magic realism is enough to give me heartsink (that same awful feeling as when a friend whose intellect I have always considered sound recommends Paulo Coelho to me) but Groff is such a good writer that she could probably write anything and I’d like it.Arcadia cover

Anyway, Arcadia is an excellent book by a great writer. Check out her other books too.

Short story time

March 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

It’s always nice to come across a short story where the main character is an expert in something other than class anxieties, relationships and menial jobs, whether or not said jobs are done while waiting for something bigger and better (ie artistic) to come along. The first story in The Best British Short Stories 2011 fits this description, hinging on a man whose love for gardening is matched only by his love of beautiful plant books (first editions etc). The narrator of “Flora” by David Rose falls, without admitting it to himself, for a young woman who appears to share his interests. He allows her to come to his house to sketch from his books and his garden, all the while unaware of the small but shocking nasty trick she is preparing for him.

Most of the stories in this collection are solid, well written, well conceived. There are a couple that work well until almost the end and then, in a desire not to round everything off neatly and be predictable, they start off down another path, opening up too many questions. They feel more like the beginnings of novels than true short stories. Another couple were overly descriptive, too longwinded, as if not really comprehending that everything needs to be scaled down for a short story, that a beautifully set scene is no substitute for emotion or event.

The terrain covered here is more varied and adventurous than the novels that currently make bestsellers lists and prize shortlists. Readers and writers alike perhaps find it easier to experiment with bold ideas and forms in a shorter piece. I was surprised to see two ghost stories, having assumed – as a non-lover of ghost stories – that the genre could not have much left to offer, and very pleased by the inclusion of a large number of stories engaging with what Sarah Selecky and Matthew J Trafford have called “the grounded fantastic,” a most satisfying blend of realism and “the impossible, outlandish or outrageous, […writing that is] outside the confines of mundane daily reality.” Kirsty Logan’s “The Rental Heart” was the best of these, in which, to avoid heartbreak, people can rent hearts for the duration of a relationship. The story is only five pages, but Logan works every word so that the overall strength of the piece is astonishing.

Stories about writers are often off-putting, as if the author just couldn’t think of another profession for the character that would leave him or her enough narrative freedom, either physically to do what they needed to do with their time, or emotionally, as if writers and other artists truly feel the world much more deeply than everyone else. Philip Langeskov’s “Notes on a Love Story” is not one of those stories. This is a funny, clever, wry and poignant examination of the trajectory of a successful writing career, undercut by the author’s sudden break-up with the woman who’d been with him since before he published his first short story. “Notes on a Love Story” manages to be intelligent, experimental, warm and uncomfortably true all at the same time. No small achievement.

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