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.

Book Review: Beauty Plus Pity by Kevin Chong

Beauty Plus Pity - Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011)

Beauty Plus Pity – Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011)

Kevin Chong writes about a Vancouver I recognize. While the city isn’t necessarily a major player in the novel, it’s an important background and well-evoked with a few simple settings and descriptions. And though this is what drew me to read Beauty Plus Pity I enjoyed the novel greatly for its characters and plotting.

Malcolm Kwan has recently moved back to Vancouver, as well as recently graduating from modelling school, when his father dies. At the same time, his fiancée breaks up with him. Malcolm is struggling to find his footing in a career he’s not sure he wants and support his emotionally unstable mother. He also finds out he has a younger half-sister, the daughter of his father.

Over the next months Malcolm gets to know his sister Hadley, a grade 12 student with a drastically different upbringing. Malcolm is the son of Hong Kong emigrants, artists who have worked hard and been successful. Despite the emotional instability of his childhood, Malcom’s upbringing has been privileged, something he is only truly realizing now. Hadley has grown up with a single mother and a sometimes stepfather on the opposite end of the city (a fact Chong doesn’t embellish on but if you know Vancouver you know this is a crucial difference). Both are a result of their father’s decisions but as they age, Malcolm and Hadley each become responsible for how they respond to this.

We follow Malcolm as he learns more about both his father and his mother and as his relationships with women (in many forms) shift and mature. I appreciate that the characters really seem to change and develop as the novel progresses and that Malcolm, who is kind of unlikeable at the beginning, becomes more sympathetic. It would also have been easy for Hadley to be a one-note character but she is given some decent depth and her own world that Malcolm doesn’t always understand.

The greatest weakness of the novel is probably the ending which leaves a lot of loose ends dangling. While this can be realistic, the story is apparently being told by Malcolm a year later so there’s no real reason why he couldn’t have offered a little more closure. Overall though, this is a strong and enjoyable story.

Book Review: I Carried You Home by Alan Gibney

I Carried You Home - Alan Gibney (Patrick Crean Editions, 2016)

I Carried You Home – Alan Gibney (Patrick Crean Editions, 2016)

I plucked this novel off the library shelf based solely on the fact that the blurb on the cover was from Esi Edugyan, an author whose work I admire. While the story didn’t quite live up to my expectations it was still an interestingly-told tale.

Our narrator is Ashe, fifteen years old, and the story begins with the death of his brother Will in a car accident. After the funeral, Ashe’s mother Nell locks herself in her bedroom and Ashe, whose father died when he was five, is left with his mother’s boyfriend and his aunt, though largely alone to deal with his own grief on top of his mother’s effectual abandonment. When Nell finally emerges she takes Ashe on a trip to Death Valley to reveal a secret she’s held for twenty years.

The premise is interesting and there are some truly poignant insights in to grief. Unfortunately, the book drags. There isn’t much action, there are a lot of conversations where the characters don’t say much but a lot is implied (or so we are told) through silences and certain looks, and there’s a strange and unnecessary addition or Ashe’s uncomfortable relationship with his sort of girlfriend. That’s not even touching on the strange and incestual relationship Ashe has with his mother’s sister.

A big part of the issue is the narration. We’re right in Ashe’s head but he seems to have insights beyond what is realistic for a fifteen-year-old. His relationships with everyone are confusing – both more insightful and less mature than you’d expect. The plot relies too much on Ashe understanding the things left unsaid and, especially when it comes to his mother’s final secret, this doesn’t ring true. Either for general human nature of Ashe as we’ve come to know him.

There is some strong writing here which makes me hopeful for future work from Gibney, but I Carried You Home is not quite there yet.

 

Book Review: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

News of the World - Paulette Jiles (William Morrow,2016)

News of the World – Paulette Jiles (William Morrow,2016)

In post-Civil War Texas, the world is still a rough and lawless place. Information spreads slowly and divides run deep and dangerous. Captain Kidd – a veteran of two wars and a witness of more – travels from town to town and reads the news.

In our world of instant information it’s difficult to imagine crowds gathering to listen to an old man read from week-old newspapers. Jiles uses the sheer novelty of such a way to make a living in order to capture the reader’s attention. The Captain is likeable and charismatic and Jiles sets the scene well, both in terms of Texas and the characters the Captain encounters. The Captain is a messenger, bringing news from places that seem imaginary to the people of Texas, like London or India.

Early on in the novel the Captain is given something else to deliver: a girl. Recently reclaimed from the Kiowa Indians, this ten-year-ld has spent four years with the Kiowas and remembers nothing of her former life. While the Captain takes Johannah on a dangerous journey across the state to her closest living relatives, he must also help her re-learn English and re-acclimatize to Western life. Even if he’s not sure that this is the best thing for her.

The story is short and interesting enough to make it a quick read. There aren’t a lot of surprises or twists but the setting itself kept my attention and I enjoyed watching the relationship between Johannah and the Captain grow.