Book Review: Lost in September by Kathleen Winter

Lost in September – Kathleen Winter (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

“This book is so weird,” was my almost constant thought as I read Lost in September. It wasn’t until I was around three quarters of the way through that I felt I had a handle on what I was supposed to believe/see. Sometimes that made for a frustrating reading experience but overall, Winter handles it with charm and though I began the novel thinking I wouldn’t finish it, I found myself pushing through to find out what was going on.

While I’m not sure the names Wolfe and Montcalm are world renowned, you can’t make it through the Canadian school system without hearing them paired together, along with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. This battle in Quebec between the French and the English determined the fate of Canada. Ie: why most of us speak English today.

Less known is that a few years before this monumental battle James Wolfe was scheduled to have eleven days leave from his army position. Unfortunately, his leave overlapped with a switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and those eleven days were lost completely. Wolfe never got his longed for holiday and instead died on the Plains of Abraham.

Lost in September takes place in 2017, where every September Wolfe roams Montreal, heartbroken over what he has lost and searching to replace those eleven missing days. He meets a man dressed all in yellow who has recently regained his sight, a woman writing a book about James Wolfe, and he lives in a tent with a strange sort of guru who may or may not be helping him.

He unfolds for us his strange and co-dependent relationship with his mother, his intense friendships with the men he served with, and his very subdued love affair with his former fiancee. All while wandering through Montreal, wondering how it can still be so French when the English won the battle, and avoiding a visit to a certain Madam Blanchard. Surely, these are the ramblings of an insane man, right? There’s no way James Wolfe himself is spending September 2017 in Quebec.

The truth, while apparent throughout, is skillfully revealed and all possibilities are thrown into question. Wolfe (or Jimmy as he’s sometimes called) is an increasingly sympathetic character because whether he’s Wolfe come back to life or a mentally disturbed homeless man, Winter imbues him with glimmers of clarity and intelligence. Whatever has happened to him, this wasn’t always who he was and the reader longs for him to be restored to the life he should have had. After all, this is a book all about alternate realities.

While the story of Wolfe may be unfamiliar to non-Canadian readers, I think the story in and of itself here in Lost in September is strong enough to engage even those who might be new to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham or uninterested in history. Just be prepared, this book is so weird.

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Book Review: Teardown by Clea Young

My boss handed me a copy of Teardown after I detailed my weekend to her recently. Namely that, while in Vancouver, Peter and I went to IKEA with Pearl in tow. We hadn’t been since I was about seven months pregnant with Pearl and had looked forward to the visit. We smugly wandered through the living room furniture, the display kitchens, and the fake bedrooms before we hit meltdown in the children’s sections. (Pearl melted down and let’s just say things suddenly became more tense between my husband and I.)

“You have to read the first story in this book,” my boss told me. “Read it right now.” So I read it where I stood and then took the book home until my next shift. The first story is about a young couple, pregnant with their first child, who visit IKEA and have a pretty epic fight while doing so. (And seriously, there are a lot of pregnant women in IKEA! I had never noticed before.) This is the title story in Young’s collection and gives a great taste of what’s to come.

Young’s debut story collection is truly excellent, full of strong, honest narratives and realistic characters. Many of the stories focus on couples and many of those couples are considering children or are in the early years of parenthood so there was a lot I could relate to. The self-doubt, the exhaustion, the struggle to remain connected and passionate with your co-parent. So much here rang true and I loved Young’s barefaced honesty as she delved into the heart of relationships. We have high school sweethearts on a road trip after infidelity has been relieved. Or the young parents away for New Year’s Eve in Whistler who end up as the oldest people at a trendy night club. Or the recently displaced roommate who takes home the practise baby from the midwifery clinic where she works and things unravel strangely. Yet even when the characters are doing strange and unpredictable things, they feel understandable and sympathetic.

While the stories definitely sparked empathy in me due to where I currently am in life, I think they’re well-written and engaging enough for readers who haven’t experienced this stage of parenthood. They’re an easy length to read quickly and each one feels complete, while also making you eagerly want to jump into the next Young story.

Book Review: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins Publishers, 2017)

I’ve read all of Heather O’Neill’s published work and reviewed two of them here. (Daydream of Angels  and Lullabies for Little Criminals) Obviously, I enjoy her work and thankfully her latest novel didn’t disappoint. If you like O’Neill’s previous work, then I think you’ll be pleased with The Lonely Hearts Hotel.

Using Montreal once again as her setting, this time O’Neill takes us to the early 20th century, beginning in the 1920s, post-World War I. I found the historic setting worked superbly for O’Neill’s style and characters. Her work always has a grubby yet fairy tale-like feel and the 1920s and 30s seems perfectly fitting for this.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is the story of two orphans, called Pierrot and Rose. Both abandoned as infants, they are raised by nuns in the same Montreal orphanage. Both endure abuse (though of a vastly different kind) at the hands of the nuns yet it turns out that both Pierrot and Rose are hugely talented performers. They begin to perform in the homes of the Montreal wealthy and they form a powerful bond of love and partnership. Eventually separated, neither forgets that first and powerful love, or the dream they formed together of their own show and spectacle. When they are reunited, they quickly fall in love and work to make their dream a reality.

This story is dingy and magical. There is heroin addiction and prostitution, tragic clowns, a jewelled apple, and a complex web of characters who you can’t help but fall in love with. Pierrot and Rose make for an interesting couple at the heart of the novel. Rose in particular has a fascinating character arc and O’Neill uses the time frame well to demonstrate how a woman of Rose’s ambition suffered in a time when so little was allowed for women. Rose steadily develops into a woman of ruthless conquest, letting very little come in the way of her goals, and yet she manages to be sympathetic. I wanted to cheer for her simply because she had to work so hard to do even very little and to overcome the setbacks of her gender in that era. I think this is some of O’Neill’s best work yet and I hope she delves into the past more in her future work.

Book Review: Holding Still for as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall

Holding Still for as Long as Possible – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2009)

After reading Zoe Whittall’s most recent novel, The Best Kind of People, I was eager to see what her earlier work was like. I enjoyed Holding Still for as Long as Possible and would even go so far as describing it as more realistic than The Best Kind of People. The description on the front flap, however, I would describe as very poor. The book advertises itself as a sort of snapshot of a generation but it’s really a story about three people in a particular time and community. I know this because I’m only slightly younger than the characters and while the blurb wants you to think this is a novel about what it’s like to grow up in the shadow of 9/11, amidst modern technology, when it’s really a story of relationships and how they change as people change.

The story alternates perspectives between Josh, Amy, and Billy (also known as Hilary). Josh and Amy are in a serious but fading relationship. Billy was once a teenage pop idol but now struggles to make it through the day due to anxiety and panic attacks. They live in the same Montreal neighbourhood and their paths begin to cross in a number of ways.

Josh works as a paramedic and the glimpse into his life and schedule – the things he witnesses and the snapshots of lives that he steps into – are the most fascinating part of the novel. It’s a gruelling job and one that begins to take its toll on most paramedics.

Amy is the privileged child, seemingly lacking in nothing, but Whittall does well by showing us Amy’s perspective, which adds some depth to her character and reveals things that not even Josh is aware of.

Billy’s character I initially found difficult. Anxiety has its fingers in everything she says and does and, as someone largely unfamiliar with panic attacks, I found it a bit much. Which, by the end, is the point, I think. It is a bit much, just as it would be for any anxiety sufferer. The disconnect between how Billy saw herself and how others see her is the largest of any of the characters but this actually made for an interesting and nuanced portrayal of how anxiety plays on someone’s fears. From her own perspective, Billy is barely hanging on, nothing special, and generally a complete mess. But when we see her in the eyes of Josh and Amy she’s someone attractive and enviable.

Whittall captures well the sort of driftlessness that can accompany one’s early twenties. Whether in relationships or jobs or passions, there is often an uncertainty of how long can things last? Am I doing this right? Was that the correct choice? How long should I stick this out? When is it too late?

Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (Knopf Canada, 2016)

I’ve been to Beijing and stood in Tiananmen Square three times in my life. The first time was, I believe late 1988 or early 1989, before our family moved to Canada at the end of 1989. I would have been about three years old on that first trip and I have no memories of the place. Beijing Spring had not yet occurred. At the age of sixteen, when I returned again to Beijing, I remember being naively surprised that there was no monument in Tiananmen Square to those whose lives were lost in 1989.

The narrator of Thien’s excellent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is a little older than me. About eleven years old, already in Vancouver in 1989, as events in Beijing unfold. Her world is more focused on the departure and death of her father, who has left her and her mother to return to Hong Kong and there taken his own life. Months later, a teenage girl appears in their lives, fleeing from the turmoil in Mainland China. Ma-Li, the narrator, and Ai-Ming become close, almost sisters in the months they are together and Ai-Ming unfolds the stories that have brought them together, telling Ma-Li about a history that is her own but that she didn’t know.

There are layers of stories here. There is the present day timeline of Ma-Li as an adult. A professor at Simon Fraser University who has lost touch with Ai-Ming and eventually heads to Shanghai to try and find her, as well as to learn more about their shared history.

There is Ai-Ming’s involvement at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Aged eighteen, longing to be accepted as a student at Beijing University, drawn into the growing unrest of the students and the people around her.

And there is the story of Kai and Sparrow. Two young men who meet at the music conservatory in Shanghai in the 1960s. They are both skilled musicians, young men with promising futures in an increasingly difficult and dangerous atmosphere.

The novel is ambitious, spanning much of Chinese history in the 20th century. Thien doesn’t attempt to offer a history lesson though and a basic understanding of politics in China in the last one hundred years will probably help the reader. Instead, she focuses on a few characters, delving deeply into their lives over a span of years. This way she shows us what life was like in China for so many. The secrets, the betrayals, the distrust.

What impressed me most about the novel and about Thien’s writing was that while the story is so specific to time and place, the core message and heart of Do Not Say We Have Nothing feels completely relevant and timely today. She does this through strong characters that are easy to recognize and empathize with, not to mention a lot of excellent prose.

Book Review: The Break by Katherena Vermette

The Break – Katherena (Anansi, 2016)

I have to start by saying this book is truly excellent. I’d been waiting for weeks for a copy at our local library and it came available right before we went away for Spring Break. Afraid they wouldn’t hold it for too long, I took it with me and ended up reading it in the first couple of days.

Set in the North End of Winnipeg, The Break follows several women, interconnected in a variety of ways (mostly family), over a few days following a horrifically violent act. The novel opens with Stella, a young wife and mother who has recently moved back into her old neighbourhood. Up late at night with her baby, she witnesses something horrible from her window. From there, we go back a few days to the lead-up of this violent act and the women involved.

I don’t know Winnipeg (beyond what I’ve heard in songs from The Weakerthans, really) but I know neighbourhoods like this one. Immigrant neighbourhoods, ones that slowly change as cost of living increases, ones where violence is not uncommon but neither is a strong sense of community. Vermette does a good job of balancing a sense of danger with a sense of home that each character has for their neighbourhood.

This is a story of Indigenous women in Canada today. And while I hate to describe it as “timely”, it really is, as focus grows surrounding the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women in our country. The book powerfully portrays how these issues and incidences of violence are covered up, ignored, swept away. Of how difficult it is for women in so many communities to avoid violence. After finishing the novel, I really thought it would win this year’s Canada Reads competition and I was shocked to learn it was the first to be eliminated. Honestly, I’m disappointed because it feels like another instance of ignoring such a huge issue. I can only hope that The Break will still be read by many Canadians.

Each chapter focuses on a different character and Vermette does a mostly great job of voice and characterization. The characters range from teenagers to an elderly grandmother, social workers to an escapee from a juvenile detention centre. Vermette gives each story weight and importance and as she slowly reveals more of their history and background, she beautifully creates sympathy for each one. These are women (even the very young ones) who have already started life with many obstacles stacked against them. Some will be more successful than others, but each will be battered by circumstances and will struggle to move forward, to not simply be defined by their personal histories or the violence enacted against them.

The weakest part of the novel, in my opinion, was Stella’s story. Stella is slightly separate from the other characters for most of the book and so it felt like her sections could be easily lifted out without altering the trajectory of the plot or development of the others. She seems to exist to show an alternate lifestyle – a woman who left the community, married a white man, and then returned. But I really didn’t get enough of a sense of her life before the opening chapter, or her relationship with her husband, to say how different life had been for her. Or how similar.

That said, that is a small weakness in an otherwise powerful book and one definitely worth reading.

Book Review: The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis

The Dark and Other Love Stories – Deborah Willis (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

A quick disclaimer to say that I know Deborah Willis but only a little bit. We were in the same program at university but she was a couple of years ahead of me and we briefly worked at the same coffee shop and then we worked at rival bookstores. I read her first short story collection, Vanishing, when it first came out because I knew Deb but I was eager to read her new collection because I think she’s an excellent writer.

This new story collection revolves around the theme of love. That love takes a variety of forms. The powerful, platonic love of two best friends at summer camp in the title story. The love of a couple, spanning decades, a whole life time lived in the span of an afternoon nap, told in a trilogy of stories. The relationship between two marijuana dealers when one of them applies to move to Mars. The stories are painfully true to life, with all the small and large discomforts that love brings us, along with its unique pleasures. At least one made me have to close the book for a while because the ending was so unexpectedly sad.

Willis’ characters are believable, likeable, and discomfiting. She nails their human reactions and emotions with a sometimes uncomfortable accuracy. Even in the strangest of situations, the basic realness of these fictional characters remains.

Book Review: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2016)

The novel opens with Sadie Woodbury, elementary school student, finding herself face-to-face with a would-be school shooter. Sadie (and, presumably, the entire school or at least the secretary the shooter came to kill) is saved by teacher George Woodbury, also her own father.

This is a rather heavy-handed way of letting the reader know how and why George Woodbury is such a beloved teacher and member of his community. Fortunately, the story improves from here.

Years later, George is still beloved. He wins Teacher of the Year every year. His wife Joan is an ER nurse. His was one of the founding families of their lakeside community and George teaches out of sheer love, rather than any financial need.  Their eldest child, Andrew, lives in New York where he’s a lawyer. Sadie is now a high school senior, smart, beautiful, athletic. The Woodburys and their friends are the definition of WASPs and seem to have it all.

Then George is arrested, accused of sexual misconduct and attempted rape of multiple young girls while on a school ski trip. He swears to his own innocence, claiming someone is out to get him. The school and the town take sides and the Woodbury’s are left in the middle, missing their father and husband with their own doubts ever increasing.

The story moves between the perspectives of Joan, Andrew, and Sadie, focusing mostly on Joan and Sadie, as the two women left to deal with the day-to-day fallout in their community. They each love George and desperately want him to be innocent, while also acknowledging that most rape allegations are true. Joan begins to wonder just how well she knows her husband as other things he’s hidden from her come to light. Sadie falls prey to a local author who wants to write a book about the crime and her whole future seems to crumble as she is ostracized by her friends and peers.

Overall the story is well-balanced and well-told. It’s an emotional tale told without sentimentality. Whittall delicately examines how the Woodbury family is left bereft but without the right to grieve the loss of George (as he’s in prison awaiting trail) because what if he’s guilty. I will say that I thought his family began to doubt him more quickly than seemed realistic. I would call myself a feminist who wants to support victims of sexual assault and believes the system is deeply flawed when these women do come forward to name their attackers. Yet, if a man I loved dearly and felt I know well (my husband, my brother, my father) was accused of a crime like this I just don’t think I would believe it unless confronted with cold, hard evidence. That may not be unfair and hypocritical but I think it’s also human nature and so I was surprised at how quickly doubt crept in for Joan and Sadie. I would have found it more believable for these changes in attitude to come slowly as the novel progressed.

The character of Andrew – the one who hated their community and has happily left it – provided a nice alternate perspective and cast some light on how life amongst the Woodburys might not be so perfect for everybody. There was a side plot about Andrew’s own high school relationship with a teacher that I didn’t feel added much and made Andrew seem pretty ignorant about how the world works.

The ending is sadly realistic and, I thought, particularly well-done. I know some readers have really disliked it but I thought it was truthful both to how the real world can be and to who the characters were.

Book Review: Barrelling Forward by Eva Crocker

Barrelling Forward - Eva Crocker (House of Anansi, 2017)

Barrelling Forward – Eva Crocker (House of Anansi, 2017)

One of my 2017 reading goals is to read more short stories. Readers seem to have a love ’em or hate ’em relationship with short stories (especially short story collections) but I fall firmly into the love ’em category. Particularly in my life right now, I enjoy being able to finish a whole story in the approximately thirty minutes I get to myself in the morning before Pearl wakes up.

Eva Crocker’s collection of stories doesn’t disappoint. They’re quirky, sometimes unsettling, sometimes funny, wonderfully detailed. Crocker nails the small details that define every day existence. The things that don’t seem meaningful but are what stand out in our own memories when we look back at years past. As I read through Barrelling Forward I frequently found myself dwelling on the characters and their stories. The new teacher who thinks he might have bed bugs, or the young girl living on a balcony with her brother and thinking about the high school exams she’s missing. The twin sister desperate to differentiate herself and so rebels the only way she knows how. The characters feel true, the kind of people we’d probably pass by in real life. But here Crocker shines a light on all the awkward beauty of real people. I look forward to more from her.

 

Book Review: Such is My Beloved by Morley Callaghan

Such is My Beloved - Morley Callaghan (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)

Such is My Beloved – Morley Callaghan (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)

Father Dowling is a young Catholic priest in a city parish. One day he happens to meet two young women, prostitutes, and begins a sort of friendship with them. His love for them is strong – perhaps even Christ-like – but shockingly naive and his increasing single-mindedness and involvement in their lives becomes distorting and distracting in every other aspect of his life. Father Dowling’s love for Ronnie and Midge, though platonic, seems to push out all other considerations and duties until, inevitably, his life and his vocation are affected.

The girls alternate between taking advantage of the young priest and genuinely liking him. Brazen one minute, shy and embarrassed the next, they have no idea how to react to his presence in their lives. The reader doesn’t see far into their minds but we are given a sense of their conflict, as well as some background to explain how they ended up where they are. In this, the 1930s Depression-era setting is crucial. Father Dowling is desperate to get the women off the streets, not realizing how difficult it is to find decent employment.

The story is short on plot, comprising primarily of Father Dowling’s thoughts and feelings, his reflections on this strange love he has developed, interspersed with visits to the girls. These are contrasted with his increasingly brief interactions with the other priests, as well as a rich parishioner who he attempts to engage to help Ronnie and Midge. Father Dowling’s atheist friend, Charlie, acts as a sort of foil for the characters of the other priests and the church parishioners, being the person who Dowling can speak to most openly. Charlie’s relationship with his girlfriend (a Catholic woman) also seems to act as a subtle mirror to Father Dowling’s relationship with the young prositutes.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time in and around church ministry, I found this book stressful. Most men I know who work in the church make a great effort to avoid any semblance of sexual misconduct, some going as far as to ensure they are never alone with a woman. And so while Father Dowling’s desire to help is admirable, he puts himself in a position to be misunderstood by others, frequently visiting the girls in the hotel they live in, in the same rooms where they perform their job. As the novel progresses, he becomes increasingly convinced of his holy love and even more reckless in his behaviour. This alienates him further from the church and the reader has to wonder if by taking better precautions in the beginning, he might actually have been able to help Ronnie and Midge more.

Father Dowling seems meant to be a Jesus figure (though he’s too naive to quite fit the profile), including his ultimate end with the religious authorities. There’s a fascinating scene near the end of the novel with the Bishop (who might be the Pontius Pilate figure) as he struggle with inner conflict but ultimately washes his hands of the consequences.

Overall, the book feels dated and I’m not sure how much it would interest a modern reader without a religious background. The Catholic church has been through so many scandals since the 1930s that Father Dowling’s actions seem pretty mild. Such is My Beloved is an interesting glimpse at Canada in the 1930s though and so perhaps deserves its spot amongst 20th century Canadian literature.