Thursday, August 31, 2006

Dance of the Happy Shades

More Alice!

Okay, so I read this book this summer and forgot to blog it, but attached to this book are memories of... sitting in the radiology unit at the Kitchener hospital, taking the train from Kitchener to Kingston, and spending my first night in Kingston. This is Munro's first book, but in some ways, she was an amazing writer from the start. The stories in this book are threads of what were to come in Munro's other short story collection--ie., there's little bits of everything from Lives of Girls and Women to Runaway to Friend of My Youth on its pages. Lotsa ideas that were played out in later works.

My enthusiasm for reading all of Munro's books in a year has waned, but my appreciation of her writing definite has not. ;)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Discovery of Strangers

I've been wanting to read some Rudy Wiebe, and A Discovery of Strangers was the book that I happened to find while used book shopping in Kenora. My copy bears a silver "Winner of the Governor General's Award for Fiction 1994" label on the front, so I figured that it was worth a shot.

The story is creative. It examines the first meetings and interactions of the British and the Tetso'ine ("Yellowknives") as a mutual discovery of strangers. (Both groups think the other bizarre and somewhat foolish, secretly laugh at each other's creation stories, etc.) The story is also very carnal--consisting mostly of sex and survival--which I suppose would have been the main concerns of all people concerned at that point in time. I think I'd be careful about who I recommended this book to, so that they didn't think I was too wierd.

Other Wiebe books I'd like to read:
-Of This Earth
-Sweeter Than All the World
-Peace Shall Destroy Many

In a quick cut-and-paste effort, here's a good quote from a publisher's spotlight that explains, I think, why I'm so curious about Weibe:
Wiebe was called the first major Mennonite writer to place his community’s experience in a broader framework. Mennonites assert the fundamental authority of Scripture, especially the New Testament, as a practical guide to life. But while Wiebe imbues his work with a deep moral seriousness, his focus has always been on narrative. “I never consciously think of writing a so-called Christian novel. I don’t think Albert Camus ever thought of writing an existentialist novel, either. I think of getting at, of building, a story.” As a prairie writer, he has often concerned himself with Native stories, feeling place of birth to be more important than blood ancestry. “Those Mennonite villages in Russia are my heritage, but not my world. The world I feel and sense in my bones is the bush of northern Saskatchewan, of prairie Canada.” Native spirituality, with its vital links to the physical world, has always attracted him. But his fiction manages to transcend nationality and locale to explore the struggles of communities and individuals; his books and stories have been translated into nine European languages, as well as Chinese, Japanese and Hindi.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Truth About Stories

I love Tom King. He now officially tops this year's list as my most-read author. (Granted, that means I've read three books by him this year, but still...)

I picked this book up two summers ago in a used bookstore in Canmore, AB. I'm not sure what took me so long to read it. I think I've been saving it, like a special bottle of wine, or a fancy new shirt, for that perfect occasion. And I guess that occaision was this past week at the cottage.

I started reading this book on the bus, on my way to pick up a rental car at the airport. I was so engrossed that, when the bus hit a bump and I spilled half of my large Tim Horton's coffee all over myself, I didn't actually put the book down, but rather balanced the paper cup between my knees and used one hand to fish a napkin out of my bag and wipe up the mess, all the while continuing to read. I wasn't even really thinking about it until I looked up and saw that half the bus was staring at me.

By the time I got to the cottage, I had read the first lecture and most of the second. I was very excited about the book and attempted to read the first section to my friends at our evening story hour (yes, we had an evening story hour). I don't think anyone was quite as excited about it as I was, but we did manage to start talking about stories, storytelling, and what exactly it is that makes a story so important, so pivotal.

The book, I should note, is a series of lectures delivered by Tom King in 2003 for the Massey Lectures series.

Lecture 1 (Montreal): “You’ll Never Believe What Happened” is Always a Great Way to Start
Lecture 2 (St. John’s): You’re Not the Indian I Had in Mind
Lecture 3 (Victoria): Let Me Entertain You
Lecture 4 (Calgary): A Million Porcupines Crying in the Dark
Lecture 5 (Toronto): What Is It About Us That You Don’t Like

I'll add some summary notes on each lecture when I'm a little bit more awake.

The CBC has an interview with Tom King on its Ideas website.

I think I'm going to add the audio recording of these lectures to my Christmas wishlist.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


I’ve spent most of my day today engrossed in Frank Parker Day’s Rockbound. Now it’s over and I’m left staring at the cover (the fisherman’s hands on the cover are unrealistically smooth) and listening to bits of East Coast dialect that are still rattling through my head. (The author does a good job of creating a dialect, but I have no idea how true-to-life it is…)

This book was the CBC Canada Reads winner for 2005--my 2nd C.R. 2005 read this month, coincidentally—and it’s easy to see why. There’s something classic about the story, first published in 1928, reissued in 1973.

I really like the segment in this book where David, the main character, learns to read, which mainly takes place in chapter 8. The first thing he learns to write is his name—and the name of the fishing boats. This would be an interesting passage to work through with an adult ESL learner. David’s hunger for literacy is a compelling one. (I should also note that, the illiterateness of the fisherman in the story was a point of contention for the real inhabitants of Rockbound, since, in letters of complaint written after the novel’s original publication, they claimed to be not only literate, but well-educated folk. –That’s according to Gwendolyn Davies’ afterword.)

I’d also like to point out that, by another coincidence, this very morning in my working through of 52 Women of the Bible, I was reading about Bathsheba, David and Uriah. As already mentioned, David is the protagonist in this novel and the antagonist is….Uriah! Interesting stuff. Except in this case Uriah is the King and David commits no sin against him. Not sure what exactly Day was going for with his use of names, but undoubtedly something was up….

My final memory of this book is that… it’s missing 16 pages! Good old U of T press. Or good old discount Benjamin Books. I’m not sure who to blame, but, near the middle of the book, 16 scattered pages are blank. I was able to continue on with the gist of the story in this section, but I’ll have to visit the library to find out what these missing pages contain—this includes an explanation as to why old Anapest attacked Uriah, and how, exactly, she managed to win the fight.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Brideshead Revisited

I’ve finally done it; I’ve finally read the book that my friend Emily has been recommending to me for years: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I do believe this is Emily’s favourite novel. (If not her favourite, it definitely ranks in the top 10, I’d say.) Strangely enough, I had absolutely no idea what this book was about before I finally opened its pages last Saturday on the Greyhound back from Kenora. I was surprised by the smoothness with which story unfolded, but quickly came to remember that I, in fact, enjoyed Waugh. I have read a few of his books in the past (A Handful of Dust, Scoop, Vile Bodies) and have more on my shelf for this very reason. How quickly I forget. It’s kind of like hanging out with an old friend who I haven’t seen in a while and being slowly reminded of why I cherish that particular friendship.

So, good old Evvie definitely likes to include a moral component to all his stories, and Brideshead is no exception. If there’s one quote that sums up the story, I’d say it’s Julia’s lament to Charles in the third and final book: “Sometimes … I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” The novel gives a really interesting depiction of Catholic (/Christian/Religious) guilt—regret over past actions and fear of any marks left on the soul while the threat of WWII hangs ominously over Europe. In one memorable scene, Julia has a guilt-induced breakdown based on the sins that she has committed that begins with a torrent of jumbled thoughts and images and ends with her slashing her lover Charles across the face with a homemade switch. (Is it fair to call it guilt? Or is it simply inexpressible/misplaced love of—and loyalty to--something greater than all that is in the world?)

I also have to scratch down some notes about Sebastian, who is—by far—one of the most memorable literary characters I’ve come across in a while. Charismatic, fun-loving, eccentric Sebastian, who brings a giant teddy bear named Alouicious with him to Oxford and treats the bear as a person. Blessed with a wonderful personality and cursed with alcoholism, Sebastian is the character who one can’t help but love—and probably the most human of all Waugh’s creations.

There are a lot of similarities between A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited that would be fun to explore. Since I’m sitting at the picnic table on the porch of our rented cottage on Lake Missassogagon, I don’t exactly have ready access to my book collection, but I’m quite certain that Dust, too, begins in a modern setting and then moves back to earlier days in the protagonist’s history. Dust also involves a journey to South America (Waugh must have been a traveler, a worldly man?) and contains a bit of Catholicism and a lot of adultery. Scoop is set in a fictional country, but I can’t remember if it’s intended to be South American or African, and/or if that matters….? All have reference to war—proof that Waugh was profoundly (and understandable?) influenced by the big moments in history through which he lived?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Dressing Up for the Carnival: Stories

I picked this book up from "the bookstore in kenora" on Thursday while bumming around before Lynne and Josh's wedding. (This bookstore is very small, colourful, and filled with goodies. It's exactly the kind of bookstore I'll run in cottage country someday...)

I like Carol Shields, and short stories seemed like more appropriate reading material for the bus. (Confirmation: these stories were an excellent Greyhound companion).

This book reminds me of Amelie, choosing minor pleasures and details in life and focusing in on them, devoting all attention to such supposedly mundane (but delightful) objects as windows, keys, and meterologists.

A few of my favourites:

"Dressing Up for the Carnival" - The title story highlights costumes or props of about 1/2 dozen characters from the script of everyday life. These items bring joy not only to their users/wearers, but--thanks to Shield's descriptions--to readers as well.

"Weather" - A couple's individual and joined lives quickly fall into disarray when meterologists go on strike. (An entertaining commentary on how much our lives are defined and guided by something as simple and as indeterminable as the weather.)

"Mirrors" - A family who spends each summer at their cottage that is completely devoid of mirrors--and how the absence of physical reflection alters internal reflections.

"Absence" - A writer sits down to work only to discover that one of the vowels on her keyboard doesn't work. An exhortation on the frustrating limitations that one letter can have on a story. (The entire story is written without using the letter "i".) Contains many eloquent descriptions of grammar!

"Reportage" - The first line reads, "Now that a Roman Arena has been discovered in southeastern Manitoba, the economy of this micro-region has been transformed." An interesting look at how our history shapes our (geographic/anthropologic) identities.

"Soup du Jour" - Another story with cinematic story-clips reminiscent of Amelie. (Mainly about remembering the requested ingredient for soup.)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Morgesons

This book was not the best choice for a bus read, but I plodded through it from Ottawa to Kenora this week (on my way to Lynne and Josh's wedding). This bildungsroman by Elizabeth Stoddard was recommended (and loaned) to me by a professor, so I figured it would be best to read it (and return it) before I'm no longer an Ottawan. So, I read it, and I'll return it shortly...once I think of something intelligent to say to the prof to whom the book belongs.

Really really basic plot summary: Cassandra Morgeson, rebellious even as a child, is the protagonist and narrator. The story recounts episodes of her childhood and youth, but focuses on her coming-of-age and her taboo relationship with Charles Morgeson ("no direct relation")--a relationship that is (perhaps subconsciously?) encouraged by Charles' wife, Alice. Secondary plot line tells the story of Cassandra's sister Veronica and her relationship with Cassandra's cast-off, Ben Somers. Charles dies tragically in a horse accident, which Cassandra surives because Charles flings her from the wagon. Later, Cassandra's mother dies. Veronica hooks up with Ben Somers, who is originally interested in Cassandra, but can't woo her away from Charles. Cassandra's father and Alice Morgeson hook up. Cassandra ends up with Ben Somers' older brother Desmond. Everybody's at least a bit twisted and crazy.

The novel is filled with sexual undertones so blink-and-miss-it subtle that I had to do some re-reading and convincing myself that no, that wasn't just my dirty mind adding a little spice to the work. Conversely, it's filled with dialogue and description so straightforward, that I had to re-read it and make sure that what I was reading really was happening.

Tinted with madness, and accented with thick strokes of envy, Stoddard definitely gives melodrama. The plot, however, moves incredibly slowly and climaxes about 3/5 of the way through the book.

Interesting items of note:
-Replete with references to reading and literature--similar to Jane Eyre
-Main (and other) character(s)'(s) rebellion against religion - might be worth reinvestigating (3rd-generation New England Puritans who've snubbed their forefathers' ideals...)
-Female characters' willingness to confine themselves to small spaces - emphasis on "the room"

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Volkswagen Blues

This book has been on my shelf since Christmas 2004. It was part of the Canada Reads selections for 2005, and I had high hopes of reading all of the books before the debates started. Because I was still studying English Lit at the time, my required reading unfortunately took precedent and Volkswagen Blues was left high and hoping for a while.

I don't know if something was lost in translation, but this book is a little strange. I don't really understand the relation happening between "the man" and "the girl" in this novel. I ran it by my bookish friends and they're willing to chalk it up to being just one of those "crazy French" things, but I dunno...

This history aspect of the book is cool. The protagonist picks up a hitchiker, nicknamed, "La Grande Sauterelle" and they set off across Eastern Canada and then the U.S. in search of the protagonist's brother. They end up following the Oregon Trail and learning about it as they travel. So I picked up a few interesting bits of Jeopardy trivia on the way, but...the book seemed a little sparse...and pointless?

Sorry, Jacques Poulin. Perhaps I should try reading this one in its original French...

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Summer of My Amazing Luck.

Miriam Toews still places near the top of my list of Canadian writers. (She's at the very top of my Menno-Canadian writers list.) On the bus to Toronto, and then on the Train to Ottawa, I read her earliest (?), recently edited and re-published novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Summer's story revolves around two single mom's on welfare in a community housing project in Winnipeg. Lucy is an 18-year-old mother of one, who is just learning the ropes and the culture surrounding her situation. Lish is Lucy's surrogate mom and a social assistance lifer--a hippyish, eccentric mother of 4. Lucy and Lish's friendship develops as the plot progresses, and their adventures culminate in a cross-border trip in a ramshackle van (kids and all) in a search to find the father of Lish's twins. Throughout the book, Lucy is struggling to find her place and her purpose and to comes to terms with her mother's death and to learn how to reconnect with her father.

I would place this book into the heartwarming, beach-read category. So good!

This is probably the most lighthearted of all of Toews' novels. While it still has tinges of the dark humour that made me love A Complicated Kindness and hints of the sentimentality that made Swing Low: A Life resonate with me, there is something less heart-clenching and gut-wrenching about this one.

Toews, as always, creates a cast of characters that you're intrigued to meet and get to know better. She also has these little episodes that stand as hilarious unto themselves.

There are many reasons why I can identify with Toews characters. One reason is the cultural references. A couple of excerpts to make my point:

"You know," she said, "I feel like that puppet in Mr. Dressup, what's her name? Casey?"

"I think it's a he," I said.

"Whatever--have you ever noticed how bitchy she is?"

"he," I said. "Yeah, he's got a short fuse. I would too if all I had for company week after week as an old man and a dog."

"And if you were a puppet," added Lish.

'Right," I said. I nodded.

"And Lucy! You're Finnegan! You're the dog! You keep nodding and not saying much." Lish loved this idea, she was laughing. She put her head next to mine. "What's that, Finnegan?" she said in a high voice. "You want to get going?"

"Woof," I said.

Letita was staring at us. "Finnegan doesn't make any noise at all, Lucy," she said in a serious tone. Lish just laughed.

(That's off page 178 of my copy.)

And Excerpt #2, on the Massey-Ferguson/John Deere divide in rural communities:

...when their daughter, Lish's mom, began dating her neighbour, Lish's dad, the shit hit the fan, because Lish's father's family used Massey Ferguson equipment. In that area there was an ongoing feud between John Heere users and Massey Ferguson users. Something about the French buying one brand and the Ukrainians buying another, originally. Both campus swore up and down that theirs was the best, and because farming was their life, it was a big deal. So, for a John Deere girl and a Massey Ferguson boy ot be dating, that was asking for trouble. It was like the Montagues and the Caulets. In the only café in the neighbouring town, the John Deere clan sat on one side and the Massey Ferguson sat on the other. Sometimes the more good-natured farmers would try a little bit of friendly debate with someone from the other side, but they'd get glared down so fast even the waitress forgot to refill their coffee cups for the rest of the day. The waitress's family was a Massey Gerfuson family, but she said as long as there was no fighting, she'd serve the John Deeres in the restaurant same as everyone else.) Everyone waited eagerly for someone from the other side to get their arm cut off or a piston blown because of a faulty part, but when it happened to one of their own it was very hush-hush. Repairs were done in the night, so no one from the other side would notice there was a problem.

ps. Summer of My Amazing Luck has been re-written as a play. (Go figure that it was performed at Ottawa U last summer and I missed it!) Here's a description and here's a review.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The God of Small Things

Arundati Roy is a poetess. I left the book in Drayton, or I'd be adding a couple of quotes here for momentos.

This book has been recommended to me by the wierdest assortment of people that I felt compelled to read it. I actually think I signed it out of the library when I was in high school, but I don't remember reading any of the text. One day this winter, walking by the BookMarket, it was in the window, so I bought it. I think I was in school at the time, because I remember reading the first chapter and feeling incredibly guilty about the fact that I was reading it when I was supposed to be reading something else.

Anyway, I lent the book to Lynne (in an attempt to get it out of my sight and focus on schoolwork) and she enjoyed it. Then we went to a book sale and I bought another copy. I gave Lynne one copy and kept the other and finally--finally!--I've read it. Satisfaction is mine!

I love the way the book unfolds like memory--slipping back and forth between past and present with a level of fluidity and confusion that matches real-life recollection. I also love Roy's compound word creations--when two words are joined to make a new one--there's an English Lit term for this and I've completely forgotten it. Again, no book handy to quote from or give examples. Sigh.

Everyone compares Roy to Rushdie. I've never read any Rushdie. Perhaps I should...

In terms of interesting Web resources linked to this book, Washington State University has a study guide for the book that fills in some interesting background detail on some of the terms, etc. used in the book.

p.s. Backdating these comments because I finished the book a few days ago...

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A Million Little Pieces

I picked this book up for a steep $2.00 at the Grand Bend Flea Market earlier this summer. It's a memoir of a 23-year old man's six weeks in drug rehab, following about 13 years of drug and alcohol abuse. It's not your average memoir. Written in free form (irregular grammar, lack of punctuation, no quotation marks to delineate different speakers, etc.), with blunt language and graphic descriptions, it's not typically the kind of book I would read. There is something, however, completely captivating about this book. From the first few pages, you want to read the narrator to success. Knowing full well that it was the narrator who wrote the memoir, obviously success is going to appear on the last few pages. All the same, it's a gripping story.

What's interesting about the book is the narrator's flagrant disregard for AA--for any sort of standard treatment program, actually. While it's honourable, it's a bit overdone. One too many times, the narrator delivers the same lines: God doesn't exist, f*** AA, the Blue Book is for the weak, etc. etc. On occasion, this humble story borders on arrogance. I'd still recommend it, though, because it seems like an awfully real depiction of the recovery process.

Now for the scandalous bit. Being selected as a feature for Oprah's Book Club was only the beginning of publicity for this book. This is a work of non-fiction that, as it turns out, is not completely true. The author, for example, did not face more than a few hours jail time, although the book tells quite a different story. Frey writes:

A Million Little Pieces is about my memories of my time in a drug and
alcohol treatment center. As has been accurately revealed by two journalists
at an Internet Web site, and subsequently acknowledged by me, during
the process of writing the book, I embellished many details about my
past experiences, and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the
greater purpose of the book. I sincerely apologize to those readers who
have been disappointed by my actions.

(Amazon has a full copy of the Note to the Reader included in later editions of this publication.)

Disappointed? Nah. But perhaps that's because I knew about the truth-doctoring before I read it. It's still a good book; it just probably doesn't deserve to have the words "Memoir" stamped on it, without "Fictional" stamped in front of it.