Book Review – Seven Good Reasons Not to be Good by John Gould

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I liked this book more than I expected to. And while that may not sound like the highest praise, it’s meant to be a compliment. I knew almost nothing about the title when I picked up a copy at the thrift store, except that I had taken a single semester with John Gould as professor  in my first year at university, more than a decade ago. In fact, I thought it was a short story collection until I started reading it and realized I’d confused it with Gould’s first book, Kilter.

Seven Good Reasons Not to be Good (Harper Perennial, 2010) follows approximately a week in the life of Matt McKay’s life, beginning as he makes his way from Vancouver to Toronto. Matt is on a mission. He’s returning to the city where he grew up to visit his dad – who is slowly slipping away into dementia – and to save his best friend, Zane.

We quickly learn that Matt is escaping a few things too. His marriage is likely over and he’s just been fired from his job. Most of this is Matt’s fault.

Matt spends his first couple of days avoiding Zane and his father, paying too much for a hotel room, and engaging in an affair with a woman named Kate. We learn further details on the demise of his marriage, the nature of his job, and how he lost it. We dig deeper into Zane and Matt’s shared history and their friendship, spanning decades.

The novel is divided by days – Matt’s week in Toronto. Each chapter begins with a “postcard”, a message from Matt to Zane, designed to explain to Zane how virtue isn’t what he thinks it is. See, Zane has AIDS and he’s decided to reject treatment and let himself die. His work as a documentary filmmaker has taken him into the depths of this illness and shown him how access to medicine saves lives. Or destroys them. So now he’s making the ultimate statement with his own life. And Matt wants to stop him.

Here we hit on my major fault with the novel. Zane seems to be intended to exist as a sort of ultimate good guy, a Jesus figure even. Willing to sacrifice everything, even his own life. But for what? It’s never clear what result Zane hopes for. And, personally, I was never convinced of Zane’s ultimate goodness. Am I supposed to be? Or is that only how Matt sees him? Matt definitely has an idealized idea of his best friend but it’s never entirely shared with the reader. In fact, all the characters around Matt feel fairly flat. His wife, Mariko, particularly feels like a stereotype of the hippy, peace-spouting, free-loving, unfaithful wife. This isn’t helped by the fact we never get to see her “on-screen” (so to speak) but only hear her voice through e-mails and Matt’s memories.

Matt’s dad seems to be such a side character he might as well not be in the novel. Matt’s memories of his sister, Erin, loom much larger than the still-living figure of his father and “the dadinator” could have been easily cut.

Kate, Matt’s one-night stand that might turn into something more, fares a little better. She’s an interesting and multi-faceted character who I believed had a life outside of the hotel where she meets Matt. My only gripe there was that it seemed obvious from the beginning that she wasn’t telling the truth about herself and the fact that Matt didn’t pick up on this at all made me wonder how bright he was.

That said, I thought Gould did a great job with his setting. He recreates the Toronto of Matt and Zane’s childhood, melding it in with Matt’s return to Toronto for the first time in years. There’s an excellent blend of nostalgia and repulsion, familiar to anyone when confronted with childhood memories. At the same time, Gould sets his story in a very particular week. A late summer week in August 2003. There were a few times when the 2003 setting felt positively retro. I’m not convinced that the story needed to be set when it was but it made for a nice, “Oh yeah, I remember that,” moment when I recalled where I was during that August week.

Some mornings.

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Last Friday, Bella the Dog went home to be with her real family. While we won’t miss her slightly fishy smell and her nose in our faces at 6:15am, we had a great time with her. (I do miss the ten homemade apple-and-blackberry scones she ate.)

 

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I’ll also miss how crazy she looks when she runs.

Most of our mornings with Bella looked like this:

 

 

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After a brief morning outing, Bella would climb into bed with Peter and I and fall back asleep while we drank our morning coffee/tea. Sure, she tracked sand into our bed but she also didn’t skimp on the cuddles.

This picture wasn’t taken during a roll or anything. This is the position in which she chose to relax one morning:

 

 

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And here she is, snuggled in bed still as I get ready for my day.

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Fortunately, we still have visitation rights.

Autumn 2014 Reading List

Here it is, the books I hope to read this coming fall:

1. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nicholas Butler

2. Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

3. Harvest by Jim Crace

4. Sweetland by Michael Crummey

5. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

6. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

7. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

8. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

9. The Sad Truth About Happiness by Anne Giardini

10. Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

11. Devil on Her Tongue by Linda Holeman

12. The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

13. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller

14. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

15. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

16. Transatlantic by Collum McCann

17. The Birth House by Ami McKay

18. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

My Summer List had 25 titles on and I read less than half. In an effort to set myself up for better success this time around, I’ve limited this season’s list to 18. 15 fiction, 3 non. Sure, 18’s kind of a weird number for this sort of list but they’re 18 books I’m excited to read.

 

 

In Conclusion – My Summer 2014 Reading List

Way back at the beginning of the summer, I posted my To Read list for the coming months.

So how did I do? Well, here’s the list:

1. Maps & Legends by Michael Chabon

Status: Unread

2. Crazy Love by Francis Chan

Status: Unread

3. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Status: Read! Read my review here.

4. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

Status: Unread (I blame all my high school English teachers. Shouldn’t I have read this one then?)

5. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

Status: Read (Well, mostly. I got about halfway through before I had to return it to the library but I feel like I got the gist. I chose this one because I found it on a list of Great American Novels but I don’t see what the fuss is all about. If I’m missing something amazing in that second half, let me know.)

6. No Relation – Terry Fallis

Status: Read

7. The World – Bill Gaston

Status: Read! Read my review here.

8. The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass

Status: Unread

9. Alone in the Classroom – Elizabeth Hay

Status: Unread

10. A Year of Biblical Womanhood – Rachel Held Evans

Status: Read! Review coming.

11.  Across the River and into the Trees – Ernest Hemingway

Status: Currently Reading

12. The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson

Status: Read

13. Perfect by Rachel Joyce

Status: Unread

14. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Status: Unread

15. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

Status: Unread

16. This Side of Brightness – Collum McCann

Status: Unread

17. Transatlantic by Collum McCann

Status: Unread (But really want to read these 2 because I love Collum McCann.)

18. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Status: Read! (Read my review here.)

19.  And No Birds Sang – Farley Mowat

Status: Unread

20. The Girl Who was Saturday Night – Heather O’Neill

Status: Read

21. A Tale for the time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Status: Unread

22. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Status: Read! Read my review here.

23. House Calls by Float Plane – Alan Swan

Status: Unread

24. The Flying Troutmans – Miriam Toews

Status: Unread (Instead, I read Toews’ most recent novel, All My Puny Sorrows, which was truly excellent.)

25.Indian Horse – Richard Wagamese

Status: Unread (Again, I got my hands on Wagamese’s most recent novel, Medicine Walk, and read that instead.)

So that works out to me having read 10 out of the 25 titles on my summer list. Not a great percentage. However, and in my defense, those aren’t the only books I read this summer.

Here’s what else kept me busy:

1. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

2. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

4. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

5. Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

6. Open by Lisa Moore

7. Man by Kim Thuy

8. Juliet was a Surprise by Bill Gaston

That makes me feel a bit better about myself.

Stay tuned tomorrow for my Autumn 2014 Reading List!

 

Book Review – Juliet Was a Surprise by Bill Gaston

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It’s hard to review a short story collection. You’re not discussing and evaluating one plot, one set of characters – you’re dealing with many. How do you approach that? Which do you focus on?

I recently got to hear Bill Gaston talk about and read from Juliet Was a Surprise (Hamish Hamilton, 2014). He expressed a similar problem when it comes to choosing what to read to an audience when you’ve written a short story collection. One story doesn’t necessarily tell you what the whole book will be like. So he did something rather unorthodox. Gaston read the first paragraph of each story. (Though for one he cheated and read the first two short paragraphs.) It was a terrific way to get a taste of each story and to leave his audience wanting more.

I don’t think I can review only the first paragraph of each of these stories though. But just reading the titles will likely intrigue you. “Geriatric Arena Grope” got the biggest reaction from the crowd that day but I’m partial to “Cake’s Chicken” myself. Maybe because, to me, the characters in that story are the most intriguing. And Gaston does intriguing well. He doesn’t necessarily create characters you want to hang out with, but you wouldn’t mind meeting them at a party and then telling your friends about them. Just like I found myself telling my husband about the protagonist of “House Clowns” – who may be suffering from paranoid delusions or may be in real danger of his life. And how the beauty of the story is that Gaston doesn’t offer an answer. His short stories offer snippets. Snippets of life, of a larger story, without comment or judgement.

If you’re familiar with Gaston’s previous story collections, you likely won’t be surprised here. He continues at what he’s good at. And I continue to enjoy it.

Puppies and Rain and Other Nice Things

My view tonight:

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And also this:

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September got off to an autumnal start with a good pour of rain this morning. It makes the sun look all the sweeter.

Peter and I are puppy-sitting for a few weeks. This week we’re making the transition to having Bella the Dog stay at our place during the day. Our little boathouse suddenly feels a lot smaller with an extra body in it. Especially a body who likes to lay itself on the floor of the kitchen as I cook dinner. To be fair to Bella, I am a messy cook and she helps out by licking the floor.

So far her likes include:

  • eating dead things she finds on the beach
  • chasing the light from my watch when reflected on the floor or the wall or the ceiling
  • napping
  • checking her food dish to see if anything new has been added
  • sleeping underneath the bed at night

Things she barks at include (but are not limited to)

  • our vaccuum
  • people in rainsuits
  • baby strollers
  • her own reflection in a mirror
  • a worm

She also keeps my feet warm when she lays on them as I read on the couch. It’s nice to have a dog around.