What I Read – March 2018

Read:

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday Canada, 2011)

More style than substance though I enjoyed it while I was reading it. A month (or less) later, I can’t remember much but it entertained me at the time.

And No Birds Sang – Farley Mowat (McClelland & Stewart, 1979)

Mowat is a Canadian classic and I’ve read a few of his books now, all ranging broadly in subject. This is his memoir of his time serving during World War Two. It was recommended to me by a friend who has served in the Canadian armed forces. It’s an honest and brutal book.

(I reviewed a young adult novel by Mowat, The Curse of the Viking Grave, here.)

Nine Stories – J.D. Salinger (Bantam Books, 1986)

A re-read. Sometimes you just need some quick, interesting short stories, you know?

A Mariner’s Guide to Self-Sabotage – Bill Gaston (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017)

I wrote a review for this one! Read it here.

The Icarus Girl – Helen Oyeyemi (Nan A. Tales/Doubleday, 2005)

And another review! Read it here. Maybe I’ll actually start writing real reviews again.

Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller (Anansi, 2015)

Still hoping to write a real review for this book. Stay tuned…

Didn’t Finish:

The Gift of Rain – Tan Twang Eng

(After hearing multiple recommendations of this book I was really disappointed. I just could not get into it and found the beginning dragged on and on until I gave up. What clinched its abandonment for me was also the repeated negative portrayals of all things Chinese. As far as I could see, it wasn’t necessary and added nothing to the story other than making me dislike the narrator.)

Currently Reading:

The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien

When I was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson

Funny Once: Stories – Antonya Nelson

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains – Yasuko Thanh

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Book Review: A Mariner’s Guide to Self-Sabotage by Bill Gaston

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A Mariner’s Guide to Self-Sabotage – Bill Gaston (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017)

My disclaimer: I know Bill Gaston in real life. He was one of my profs in university and taught one of my favourite workshops. He was a great prof and an all-round good guy. When he was a featured writer at our local Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago I was asked to introduce him before he spoke. I also know the team at D&M that published this book. So basically, I have a lot of reasons to praise this book. Fortunately, one of those reasons is that it’s quite a good short story collection.

Bill’s work has been nominated for and won many major literary awards in Canada and he is quietly at the forefront of the Canadian lit scene. As I’ve said before (I reviewed Bill’s last short story collection here and his most recent novel here.), I prefer his short stories to his novels and this latest collection shows off his strengths. His stories are familiar and approachable and yet each contain a dark and disconcerting undertone. A missing teenager, a plan for suicide, a secret about a sister’s dead wife – there is always something not quite right. Made even more disturbing by its very ordinariness.

This collection seems to have a theme of aging. Of bodies getting older and less reliable, of the loss of those who have surrounded us for so long. One character muses that, at fifty, middle age is past, since most of us won’t live to be a hundred.

As is Gaston’s tendency, many of these stories seem to end on the cusp of something. Some readers will dislike the feeling of being left wanting more, at the very edge of something tantalizing. I’ve come to expect it from Bill’s work and appreciate the way he takes the reader around the subject, slowly opening up the story, and allowing us to draw our own conclusions.

 

 

What I Read – July 2015

Ten Thousand Lovers – Edeet Ravel (Review Books, 2003)

This was a well-written, interesting, and engaging read. The characters are believable and fascinating. It’s easy to imagine that their lives began and continue before and after we meet them in the action of this novel. Set in Israel in the 1970s, Ten Thousand Lovers, tells the story of Lily, a young Canadian Jew studying in Jerusalem as she meets an Israeli man, Ami, and learns to see Israel with new eyes. Ravel does well at building a subtle sort of tension throughout the novel. It’s hard to put your finger on but you know things went end well here. Of course, this is aided by the general and historical tension of Palestine-Israel conflict. This is a story of grey zones, of questionable morality and that ever unanswerable question: Do the ends justify the means?

Many Dimensions – Charles Williams (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970)

If you will believe this way, then I also will believe. And we will set ourselves against the world, the flesh, and the devil.”

It’s fairly well known that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were members of a writer’s group called the Inklings. But I doubt that very many people could name the rest of the group’s members. I certainly can’t although now I at least know three of them. The third is Charles Williams.a

Like Lewis and Tolkien, Williams’ novel delves into the fantastical and the religious. Unlike the other two Inklings, Williams grounds his story in the real world of modern day (for him if not for us currently) England. One of our main characters is Chief Justice. There are questions of international relations and economic trade. All of it surrounding the Crown of Suleiman (more commonly known as Solomon). This crown bears a stone that enables one to travel through space, time, and thought. Many dimensions, indeed. And, crucially, the stone can be divided without any lessening of its power.

Williams skillfully sets up the forces of good, evil, and ignorance (perhaps equally dangerous). This is a story of right and wrong and the grey areas that those inhabit. Parts of it read like it could be an Indiana Jones adventure. Other parts delve into more esoteric ideas. The story is rather old-fashioned but readable. While it’s clear who the good guys are, there are still some big moral questions left unanswered and I think that’s how it should be. The ending is strange and a little unsatisfying (definitely not an Indian Jones-style ending) but fits with this strange novel. If you’re a fan of Lewis’s science fiction trilogy or Tolkien’s Leaf and Tree, I think you’d enjoy this novel too.

A Star Called Henry – Roddy Doyle (Vintage Canada, 2000)

I looked for a man with lovely eyes on Custom House Quay and found a fat dwarf standing on a chair and shouting out names over the heads of the dockers who waited at the quay wall.

Crude, strong, violent, handsome. This is Henry Star the second or the third, depending on whether or not you count his dead brother. Using his fists, his good looks, and his father’s wooden leg, Henry is fighting his way through early 20th century Dublin. He’s a Fenian, a cop-killer, a soldier of the streets, and an utterly unique character.

He’s also not as charming as he thinks he is. Henry is our narrator and so I started to disbelieve him when he kept reminding me of how good-looking and strong he was. He seems to get away with a lot and women seem to be willing to do a lot and put up with a lot for him. I can’t help but think that Henry Smart is very much a character written by a man.

Mostly though, this is a sad book. About a young man who has always been on his own. Who has lost or will lose every person close to him. A person who knows nothing but poverty and filth and is fighting for a society that will never offer him anything more.

Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Knopf, 2009)

As much as I didn’t enjoy Peter Carey’s short story collection, I love his novels. They are colourful, peopled with fascinating characters, full of depth, and a little absurd. The majority of them, as is this one, are historical. Parrot & Olivier begins in France, set during the Revolution. Olivier is a French nobleman, his family caught amid the turmoil of rebellion, their entire way of life changing. He is a bit foppish and very naive. Against his will he is sent to America for his own protection, accompanied by a servant called Parrot. Parrot is about fifty, English by birth but has lived many lives by the time he arrives in America with Olivier. The novel alternates chapters between these two very different characters, with very different voices (which Carey excels at), as they tell their own story and the story of their strange, growing friendship.

It’s an American story, really. About the changing attitudes of society, of nobility and the growing middle class, of a land where any person, at any time, can change the course of their life.

Sointula – Bill Gaston (Raincoast Books, 2005)

Vancouver Island is the farthest west a body can go. Hop a boat from here farther west and somewhere at sea you sail through the looking glass and you are east. So Vancouver Island is it. Where all young men stopped going west, but only because they had to. Everyman’s wanderlust stymied.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I generally enjoy Gaston’s short stories more than his novels. The novel of his that I’ve enjoyed the most was his most recent one, The World. Sointula holds some key factors in common.

We have a befuddled, divorced, middle aged man who sets off on an ill-advised journey, an old friend who is dying, a journey across some part of Canada. Like The World, I found the impulsive decisions that these characters made to be very stressful. Evelyn has flown across country – Oakville, Ontario to Victoria, British Columbia – to be with her first love, Claude, as he dies. She’s gone suddenly off her anti-depressant meds and starts living on the beach until she decides she’s going to head up-island and track down the son she hasn’t seen in ten years, Tom. And she’s going to get there by kayak.

I lived in Victoria for seven years. I know the beach that Evelyn camps on and I’ve been to a few spots on Vancouver Island. It’s a big island. She knows that Tom is tracking orca movement in Sointula, on Malcolm Island. It’s really far away from Victoria.

Along her way, Evelyn meets Peter Gore, a British-American trying to write a book about Vancouver Island while fighting a losing battle with his gall bladder and drinking himself into gout. (I found this guy nothing  but annoying and I think he could have been cut out of the novel without much being lost.) They join forces and start kayaking to Sointula, a one-time utopia started by a group of Finns and a charismatic leader. I spent most of their journey wondering how many months it was going to take and thinking about how much faster it would be to drive.

Fortunately, the big is well-written, as everything by Gaston is. The characters aren’t likeable but they do have a lot of depth. The descriptions of place are spot-on and Gaston captures a lot of Vancouver Island and what makes it unique. There’s lots of history and nature tied in that I found interesting.

The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain (Gallic Books, 2015)

(translated from French by Emily Boyce and Janice Aitken)

This was a sweet and breezy little novel. A bookseller in Paris finds a woman’s purse – abandoned after a mugging – and pieces together the clues inside to discover who this woman is and to find her. There aren’t many surprises her but the descriptions are strong and the characters are likeable. There are some nice references to French authors and literature as well. (I confess I only learnt who Patrick Modiano is when he won the Nobel Prize.)

I had hoped that the story might use its Paris setting more but, aside from an encounter in Luxembourg Garden, the book could really be set in any city in the world. All in all though, an easy weekend read.

Confessions – St. Augustine (J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1949)

(translated from Latin by E.B. Pusey)

Press on where truth begins to dawn.

Finally! I read the whole thing! I can’t even remember when I started this book but I’m pretty sure it was before Pearl was born. While I obviously read a translation, I think I might have been able to get through it faster if I had had a more up-to-date version. My copy is a beautiful cloth bound Everyman’s Library edition but the English was quite old-fashioned. Also, this wasn’t a great choice to read while up in the middle of the night and trying to stay awake while nursing. What finally got me through it was reading it out loud. That made me really slow down to understand what I read. I think Pearl enjoyed it too.

And Thou, O Lord, art my comfort, my Father everlasting, but I have been severed amid times, where order I know not, and my thoughts, even the inmost bowls of my soul, are rent and mangled with tumultous varieties, until I flow together into Thee, purified and molten by the fire of Thy love.

Confessions is a classic of the Christian church. It’s one of the earliest personal memoirs and it’s frankly quite amazing to read something written so long ago that still resonates. Augustine’s doubts, fears, and joys are all emotions believers today will recognize.

But let me be united in Thee, O Lord, with those, and delight myself in Thee, with them that feed on Thy truth, in the largeness of charity, and let us approach together unto the words of Thy book, and seek in them for Thy meaning, through the meaning of Thy servant, by whose pen Thou hast dispensed them.

Currently Reading:

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

 

Check back tomorrow for what Pearl and I have been reading together this month. (You know, aside from Confessions.)

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.

Book Review – The World by Bill Gaston

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Disclaimer: I’ve met Bill Gaston in real life and because he’s a super nice person, it likely colours my review. That said, he is an award-winning Canadian writer so I’m not the only one being nice to him. After all that, I don’t feel bad saying that I generally prefer his short stories to his novels and I’ve read several of each. Gaston’s short stories pack a powerful punch and sometimes I find that impact gets lost through the course of his novels.

For the first third of The World (Penguin Books, 2012) I thought the same about this one. We meet Stuart Price, a youngish retiree, who just paid off his mortgage, a few years on from his divorce. The next day, he inadvertently burns down his house. Now, I am not the most organized or safety-conscious person but I do pay my bills on time and I always double-check that a fire is out. So Stuart Price gave me major anxiety. I felt tense reading about him because even though he wasn’t making the worst decisions, he wasn’t making great ones either and things just kept getting worse for him. At one point, Stuart opts to get laser eye surgery – somewhat on a whim – and I was convinced that he was about to be blinded. This is a guy who seems unable to catch a break.

After losing everything, Stuart starts driving west, deciding to visit his friend Mel. While they were close friends once, they haven’t seen each other in years and Stuart has recently found out that Mel is dying of cancer. With no job, family, or house holding him to Victoria, and an insurance claim that’s not going in his favour, Stu gets into his Datsun and heads to Toronto.

Stu is so hapless it’s hard not to feel bad for him but he also comes across as so ineffective that it’s equally hard not to blame him for his own problems. By contrast, Mel is powerful and in charge, even while slowly being defeated by her cancer. When the book switches to Mel’s point of view, just as Stuart shows up at her doorstep, I immediately felt more engaged.

Mel is an enigma – both in Stuart’s life and in the novel. Stuart has powerful memories of camping trips and adventures and wonderful meals. (These are deliciously described. Gaston really excels here and makes you hungry.) Her life after drifting apart from Stuart is vaguely sketched with a couple of failed marriages, some time living in various places across the country, and then a late-in-life reconciliation with her father, Hal.

Hal is also M.H. Dobbs, author of a book called The World (but not the one you’re reading). Hal’s World is about a young professor who buys a box of old letters. Letters dug up on D’Arcy Island.

D’Arcy Island looms large in Victoria lore. Easily spotted off the coast, at the turn of the 20th century, it functioned as a leper colony. More complicated than that though is the fact that all the lepers were Chinese, taken from Victoria’s Chinatown and held on the island against their will. There’s some evidence that suggests some of these men did not even have leprosy when they arrived on the island. They were provided with food and supplies, sporadically, but their lives were grim and difficult. It’s not a shining moment in Canadian history.*
This fictional professor’s efforts to translate these letters and his desire to publish his findings in order to advance his own career raise all kinds of issues of romance, truthfulness, and morality. Stuart begins to read The World as he drives across the country and when he reaches Mel they read it together to Hal, whose mind is steadily being degraded by Alzheimer’s and now lives in a home.
Hal is an interesting character. We learn more about him during Mel’s section. His career as an academic, his relationship with his wife, his twenty plus years spent in Nepal, learning Buddhist practices. We are teased with the idea that in his one novel lies a key to the truth of his life.
The final section of the novel is from Hal’s perspective and this is where Gaston’s skill really shines. Hal’s memory is almost gone and his mind is fading. In short, full paragraphs, Gaston takes us into the mind of an Alzheimer’s patient. There is, of course, confusion, but surprising moments of clarity that Hal cannot express. The section is brief but so well done and gives the novel a terrific ending. (I was reminded of Gaston’s The Good Body, where he used as stream-of-consciousness technique to describe a former athlete’s increasing loss of control over his own body. I think this section in The World is even better.)
I have to say that I normally hate novels within novels and, in general, I wasn’t a big fan of The World within The World. Dobbs’ The World didn’t seem well-written to me and I couldn’t figure the characters out. This is partially because we get only snippets of this book, as the characters choose to read them. But there is one character – Naomi – who is the translator and described as being recently from Mainland China. Yet I didn’t get any sense of that from her voice, even though she’s described as having an accent. There’s none of the formality or tone that marks those who speak English as a foreign language. I wasn’t sure if this was a fault of Gaston’s or was supposed to show us that Dobbs wasn’t a great writer.
In the end though, I greatly enjoyed The World and would count it as my favourite Gaston novel yet. He has a short story collection being released this summer that I also look forward to.
*Chris Yorath wrote an excellent book on D’Arcy Island called A Measure of Value.