Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the story of Stevens, a butler who served the Lord of a grand English house during the fading days of the British empire. In the 1950s Stevens remains at the house, but everything else has changed. Lord Darlington has died, the final years of his life marred by scandal and disappointment. The house has been purchased by an American businessman, most of its rooms are closed down, and the former staff of dozens of servants has been reduced to a skeleton crew of four. Stevens finds himself alone and friendless, as he has lost touch with the servants whose companionship and conversation helped him to define himself.

Mr Farraday, Stevens's new employer, invites his butler to take his car and go off for a week during Farraday's absence. Stevens is able to take his first holiday ever, which gives him time to look back on his life's work. The novel begins as Stevens is about to set out on this trip. The powerful first-person voice of this novel asserts itself from the first pages, and we get a glimpse into the mind of a man who has dedicated his entire self to the goal of being a perfect butler. As the story unfolds, we begin to see in Stevens the hollow shell of a man who, never having allowed himself to feel anything, having spent his entire life becoming the embodiment of "dignity", is trying to come to terms with his past. The result is a magnificent, deftly told tale. Though much is told through the memories and narrative of Mr Stevens, the real story reveals itself through subtext and implication. Many questions are suggested: Where does the work of a servant end and his own life begin? How can a person whose life revolves around being anonymous and unassuming express his own feelings and beliefs? What happens when he doesn't acknowledge those emotions? Does a servant have the responsibility to evaluate and develop opinions on his employer's behaviour and political activities? Yet Ishiguro does not provide answers to the questions, so I think I'll be pondering the implications of this novel long after having closed the book.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Regeneration by Pat Barker

This was a powerful novel, a moving and thoughtful glimpse into the lives of British soldiers' experiences during World War I. The prose is so smoothly written that you can dip into it and be completely absorbed - even submerged - in it. I'm sitting here holding the book in my hand, looking at the cover, re-reading the blurb on the back, because I am not quite ready to let go of a story that such had a profound emotional impact on me.

(And imagine! This book was assigned for my English course. At least there was *one* book in this mostly disappointing reading list that I can confidently say represents fiction at its best.)

Regeneration is a war story, a statement about the cost of war. It is an examination of the attitudes of soldiers, women, and men who weren't fighting on the front. It explores the psychological reality of "shell-shock" and the state of the psychiatric profession during the early 20th century.

The book focuses on the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who is sent to a psychiatric hospital in Scotland after publishing an anti-war declaration in 1917. In the hospital, he is put under the care of Dr. Rivers, and meets another young poet, Wilfred Owen, as well as other patients who are suffering from a variety of psychological problems after their experiences in the trenches. The story is mostly told through the eyes of Dr. Rivers, who struggles to maintain a belief in the necessity of the war while every day working with those who have been most traumatically affected by it.

Barker treats the war experiences of her characters frankly and doesn't pull any punches. The horrific memories of the men in the hospital are hard to forget, and yet they aren't sensationalized in any way. I know that in reading this book I'm getting a tiny glimpse of the death and suffering that were part of life in the trenches. What being a soldier or officer in World War I was truly like - and whether it really needed to be that bad - is something that Barker has sensibly left it to her readers to ponder after they turn the last page of this remarkable novel.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje

This book reads like the confused ramblings of an eloquent madman.

I'm not opposed to great writing, no, not at all. I hope that if you've read this blog for a while, you would know that about me. What I object to is great writing used in a way that obfuscates the story. And that, dear readers, is what I found in this book. Michael Ondaatje hasn't won literary prizes for nothing; he knows how to orchestrate the language of his books in a truly masterful way. His descriptions are beautiful and expressive. He can conjure up a vivid scene in my mind in just a few short sentences.

But really, and I know I've said this before -- great writing is not enough on its own. You need to create characters that are real and that your readers will care about. You need to tell a good story. Frankly, at no point during my reading of In the Skin of a Lion was I able to figure out who the main characters really are and what exactly the plot of this book is. The book is a series of disjointed, beautifully written passages that jump from one character or situation to another with no explanation or attempt to link the narrative so that it flowed smoothly. So, not surprisingly, I felt no emotion for the characters, and didn't know what this book was really about. I just don't have any patience for what amounts to 256 pages of literary wanking.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro

Thanks to an English course I'm taking, I was forced to read this book, though I've been putting it off. This weekend I realized that I would have to pick it up, given that I need to write a paper on it that's due on Monday. Astute readers of this blog will have noticed that it's been on my shelf for quite some time now. (They will also have noticed that I have been struggling with a Michael Ondaatje book for weeks; it's not surprising that was another book I was assigned for the course. I very much hope to finish that one soon...)

Though the English course instructors seem to have an uncanny ability to choose fiction that I find uninteresting or downright awful, I'm happy to say that this was the first book that I actually liked from the assigned reading list. Though I prefer novels to stories, this book was a nice change of pace. Munro's stories are vivid and don't tend to be morbidly depressing, which is a tendency that has often annoyed me about short stories. This book is a series of bright vignettes, each one quite distinctive, and mainly told in the first person by women of a variety of ages. There's a nice balance of coming-of-age stories and stories about elderly women looking back on their lives. There's one story, "Walking on Water," that has a male protagonist, and I think it's the one I enjoyed the most. Mr. Lougheed, an elderly man struggling to understand modern young people whose behaviour and values are so different from those of his own youth, turns to a neighbor, Eugene, for insight. Eugene is a man in his twenties who has read a few too many philosophy and occult books, and seems to spend most of his time meditating, but he makes time to talk with Mr. Lougheed and help him see things from another point of view.

I don't feel motivated to say much more about this book; I spent all day plowing through it, and really wanted to watch TV instead. Guess what I'm going to do after I publish this post?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Last Stop Sunnyside by Pat Capponi

This is another Advance Reading Edition that I received from Harper Collins Canada, and also a mystery, so I was extremely curious to see how Last Stop Sunnyside would compare to Dark Tort. I'm pleased (relieved?) to say that I liked this book very much. It wasn't an edge-of-your seat thriller, but it was an enjoyable read with believable characters whose actions made sense - the author made me care about these people and cheer them on.

Last Stop Sunnyside is the first in a planned series of novels about Dana Leoni, an intelligent young woman who has, due to some unhappy circumstances, ended up living in a rooming house in Parkdale, a down-and-out area in Toronto. Dana befriends many of her housemates, who are a colourful but good-hearted bunch of people, and together they are grieving the disappearance and subsequent death of their friend Maryanne. Maryanne was unemployed, and had a known drinking problem. Her death is ruled a suicide by the local police, but Dana and her friends can't let the matter rest and decide to find out what really happened to her.

There were a lot of things to like about this book. The descriptions of Toronto, particularly of the Parkdale neighbourhood, were vivid, and I especially enjoyed the "inside" view of homeless, mentally ill and other disenfranchised people. It's rare to read a novel that shows, with such sympathy and believability, what it's like to live on the "underbelly" of Canadian society. Apparently Capponi is drawing on her personal experience of living in Parkdale and in various mental health institutions - the bio on the back cover describes her as a "psychiatric survivor" and "one of Canada's leading mental health care advocates". Last Stop Sunnyside is certainly a creative and interesting way for Capponi to draw on her own experiences and give readers a glimpse into the life she's led, but it is never preachy. I don't get the sense that Capponi has an agenda - she's just telling a good story.

On a totally unrelated note, I hope that when this book is actually published they find a better author photo.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Dark Tort by Diane Mott Davidson

Dark Tort is the story of how Goldy Schulz, a caterer, tracks down the murderer of her young neighbor, Dusty Routt.

I don't know if I'm just feeling extra nit-picky because I'm sick right now, but all I can say is that this book was just plain BAD on so many levels. The writing, particularly the dialogue, was clunky (someone needs to remind Davidson that in novels, it's better to show, not tell), the characters had no depth and their behaviour often seemed foolish or just plain didn't make sense. The story was bogged down by excessive, unnecessary description of people's appearance, clothing, church activities, and home decor, and the author had an annoying habit of mentioning the make and model of car that the wealthier characters drove, while referring to other vehicles merely by body type. This seemed to be the type of book that would appeal to materialistic, narrow-minded, upper middle class, middle-aged suburban women. You can probably guess I don't fit into that category.

There was a huge amount of extraneous material in this book that did nothing to advance the story, though I admit it might be more meaningful to people who've read previous books in the series. I definitely felt that I was at a disadvantage reading this book before its prequels; the backstory and characters were introduced in a rather confusing way. I felt like I could never keep the characters straight, never mind their relationships to one another.

I haven't even mentioned how stuffed with implausible premises this novel is. For one thing, everyone in the story seemed to know one another or to be related. And in spite of being set in what sounded like an average sort of suburb of Denver, oddly, there were an awful lot of murders going on, or referred to in the recent past of Goldy and her family and friends. Gee, is suburban Denver the murder capital of the USA? Also, Goldy the caterer is married to the person in charge of the murder investigation, and yet he seems to always be hanging around, cooking fabulous meals (isn't that supposed to be Goldy's job?) and being sweet and supportive while she solves the crime that his investigation team is apparently totally unable to figure out (maybe because he's not at work!). Apparently, it's considered totally acceptable for this woman to "help out" with solving a serious crime. Yeah, right! Even I could see the holes in the descriptions of police procedures here. Somehow, in a police search of the home of a murder victim, vital pieces of evidence such as a personal computer were overlooked. And nobody noticed some stolen property that turns out to have been hidden in the law office where the body was found. Umm, sure.

I could go on and on, but gosh, I am having trouble coming up with ANYTHING positive to say about this book... and that's actually a problem, because the copy I have is an Advance Reading Edition from the publisher, and I'm supposed to be submitting a review for them to use to promote the book on their website. Time to call upon all of my BS writing abilities, I guess.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Birth House by Ami McKay

This is a fine first novel, one that has been well publicized and recently made The Globe and Mail's bestseller list. The story is warm and inviting, a tale of a young woman groomed from an early age to be the apprentice and successor of the local midwife in a small coastal Nova Scotia town. McKay has a gift for narration and description - many of the passages are almost lyrical, particularly the prologue and opening paragraphs of Chapter One. The protagonist, Dora Rare, seems like someone I'd like to befriend - she is wise and loyal. Overall it was an enjoyable read that I was happy to pick up and immerse myself in, which is the most important quality in a nice piece of escapist fiction.

That said, I do have some quibbles about this book. I felt like none of the characters in the book (even Dora) were fully fleshed out. They didn't feel completely "real" to me and their motivation was not always clear - something that tends to bug me as I'm one of those people who is constantly asking why. Dora's "enemy"- an obstetrical doctor hell-bent on promoting "scientific" ways of birthing - felt extremely one-dimensional. The dialogue also felt a little stilted at times, and I occasionally found myself tripping over all the references to historical events and lore that were included in the book. I think that research can do a lot to add authenticity to a historical novel, but the history must always serve the story and occasionally it felt like The Birth House went a bit in the opposite direction, as entertaining as the results might have been.

On the whole I found myself thinking, at times, that the book came across as a bit of "wishful thinking" - the way the author wishes that things might have been, rather than the way they probably were. That's not always a bad thing in historical fiction - Marion Zimmer Bradley's divine Trojan War retelling, The Firebrand, comes to mind here - but to work, it needs to be a very strong story that sweeps you up and makes YOU wish that things had been that way, too. Ultimately, The Birth House didn't quite pull that off for me.

In spite of all that, I greatly look forward to meeting the author on Thursday evening, when she will be in Vancouver, and hearing her read from her work.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men by Colin Bateman

I've been looking forward to returning to the crazy world of Dan Starkey, loveable loser journalist from Belfast, and this book did not disappoint me when it finally arrived on inter-library loan.

This time, Starkey, having failed to repair his marriage, finds himself accepting an offer to write a book about a boxer who has risen from obscurity to win a European title and is on his way to New York City to fight Mike Tyson. Along the way, our hero gets drunk an awful lot, is mugged twice, tries to save some whales, is saved by a whale, engages in an ill-conceived terrorist raid and eventually ends up with a heck of a story, much more than he had bargained for. The reality of life during the Terrors in Northern Ireland is still very much at the forefront in this book, even though most of it takes place in the United States; this time, Bateman manages to fit in some astute political commentary about Irish-Americans who donate copious amounts of money to Irish terrorist Groups.

What I found ironic, and rather stupid, really, is that while the story tries to both poke fun at and take a serious look at the bizarre, romanticized vision of Ireland that so many Americans have, and the various (mostly, in Starkey's opinion, misguided) reasons that they might donate money to a terrorist group "back home", the publisher chose to use little shamrocks as spacers in the story (you know, those symbols that are placed between paragraphs to show a change of scene or mood). Um, hello?

I will leave you with a few more choice quotes to give you a taste of the inimitable voice of Colin Bateman.

Once again I had foregone my chosen stance as the detached journalist; I wasn't even semidetached; I was a journalistic chalet bungalow, well built down below but with a lot of empty space up top.

"Fire! Fire!" I yelled.
"Everyone out! Everyone out!" shouted McLiam.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned. An elderly nun.
"Is this the way to the elevator?" she asked.
"Fuck away off!" yelled McLiam.
"Sister," he added.

(What is it with this guy and nuns? Must be an Irish thing.)

I'd love to include, for your reading pleasure, an extensive scene wherein Starkey tries to prove to a bigoted friend that it's not a good idea to refer to gay people as "poofs" while they are eating dinner in a restaurant in a town that is a haven for gay people... but it's far too long to type out, and so you'll have to read this book yourself. :-)

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

After raving about how wonderful the first two books in this trilogy were, I am feeling some trepidation about what I'm going to say now.

This book fell flat for me.

I don't know if Pullman was just stuck in telling this story after he finished The Subtle Knife. After all, as previously mentioned, he took three years to write the third book whereas the second book came out a year after the first and did a deft job of picking up the threads of the story and maintaining the wonderful pace. Maybe he honestly didn't know what should happen next.

This book did not pick up the pace at all, really. It was sort of cerebral, and wandering, and had many added elements (characters and subplots) that I thought could have been cut out or changed slightly to make for a cleaner story that would have kept the pace of the first two novels.

It's not that I didn't like this book - I did. I liked finding out what happened to the characters, and seeing the story tied up. I liked learning more about the world(s) of this series and thinking about the theological aspects of the story. But it just didn't grab me, and I regret that. Because of that, I found that critical reader in my head questioning things that happened in the story. I don't want to ask those questions here, because I don't want to give anything away. But they are running through my mind pretty insistently and the story was much weakened for me as a result.