Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dennis Lehane - On Characters

I'm a little in love with Dennis Lehane after watching this video where he talks about his new book, The Given Day. It's always interesting to hear writers talk about their work but it's my favourite when they talk about their characters as just showing up in their imagination and walking onto the pages of whatever book they're working on at that particular moment.

It only happened to me once in the draft of the novel that I finished this past spring, but the character who did show up made quite the impression on my friend Randy in my writer's group. I think he had a little crush on her. And I hope he's not mad at me for saying so.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

#56 - Skeletons At The Feast

More often than not, the novels of Chris Bohjalian have some sort of moral core at the basis of the narrative. I think that's why I enjoy his books so much; they're a little like morality tales slipped inside really good storytelling. As a result, I read a lot of Bohjalian and count The Buffalo Soldier among one of my favourite books by a living American writer. I didn't damn Oprah for introducing me to Bohjalian; instead, I let her pull me into him like a tight hug. He's one of the authors where I used to go to the "B" section in the bookstores looking for new titles (before I knew my way around the internets and browsed in a non-virtual environment).

Therefore, I was happy to see a new title of his this spring, Skeletons at the Feast, and sat down eagerly to read it (after letting it sit on my shelf, I'll admit, for a couple of months because I'm busy dammit!). Bohjalian's a "purely for pleasure" kind of a read. The novel doesn't satisfy any challenges. The books are afternooners, and I'm always happily surprised by their twist endings.

Skeletons at the Feast, though, is unlike any other Bohjalian book I've read. It's as emotionally impactful as The Buffalo Soldier and as epic as, say, Snow Falling on Cedars. As the Emmerich family prepares to leave the only home they've ever known, the end of the Second World War approaches. A wealthy Prussian family that runs a huge farm, they are luckier than most in that they've remained somewhat on the outskirts of the war. They've made sacrifices (the eldest brother is off fighting for the majority of the book; a ghost within the narrative itself, his story told through memory and referral) but in the months that follow, their lives will change beyond belief.

Displaced by the crumbling German empire and about to be overrun by Russians, legions of people set out on foot, walking west toward the Allied lines in order to escape the unspeakable horrors of what happens when they meet "Ivan." Mutti, Anna, Theo, and Callum, their POW (a Scottish paratrooper assigned to the farm where they lived to help with the labour) set off on foot with their father and Anna's twin brother, Helmut. Toward the beginning of the novel, Anna's father and brother separate from the group, as the two men are called into action. They leave the trio with Callum hidden underneath the horses' oats and head to the front. For everyone in the book, this journey is long, hard and not without its losses.

The powerful stories of two other main characters are intertwined with the Emmerich's: there's Uri, a young Jewish man who made a desperate escape and has been hiding among his enemies for much of the war, begins to travel with the family after meeting them on the road; and Cecile, a young Jewish girl who is forced to walk west with the rest of the starving, poorly dressed, and desperate members of her concentration camp as the Germans try to outrun defeat and shield their atrocities from the eyes of the world. The moment in the novel when all three stories come together as one, and the characters all cross each other's paths if you will, leads the book (obviously) to its conclusion.

Bohjalian writes effectively of the horrors of war, but you get the sense that some of his characters maybe aren't as fully formed as one might hope. Callum, the Scottish fellow, suffers the most from this, and his dialogue is often stilted, stereotypical and a little unbelievable (who says "chap" except in the movies?). The heart of the novel is the love story between Callum and Anna, the Emmerich's daughter, and it's fine, really just what you'd expect. But I adored the character of Uri, his moral centre, his ability to shapeshift, his utter sense of survival. I guess I look forward to Bohjalian's novels to bring a different sense of events to his novels and Skeletons at the Feast, while by no means a bad book, maybe just didn't live up to my own expectations of his work. That's not the writer's fault -- he's delivered a powerful, riveting, emotionally intense novel about a horrifying experience. It's war from the point of view of those who are surrounded by it, of those who are destroyed by it, those who must survive after the guns are down and treaties are signed.

To end, I would recommend the book, and it would be great for book clubs, but it hasn't claimed the prize as my all-time favourite of his books, The Buffalo Soldier still reigns supreme. And I have but one other bone to pick: what on earth is up with the cover of a young girl with short brown hair on a summer's day looking out over a field? What about that spells "victims of war driven to desperate lengths to save their lives as their world collapses about them"? Boo, I say, boo!

WHAT'S UP NEXT: I started Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife yesterday on the ride home. I'm already loving it. Can you tell right now I'm reading only for pure pleasure? But I guess under the circumstances, it's a wonder I'm reading at all, right?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

#55 - The Flying Troutmans

At first, I wasn't so sure. Not sure about the story, not sure about the characters, not sure about anything. And then I was. Sure about it all. About how much I loved Hattie and Thebes and Logan and all the crazy characters they meet on the way. About Min and her tenuous grip on reality. About the road trip and the broken down van and the desperate journey Hattie takes before truly finding out who she is and why she's doing what she's doing.

Miriam Toews writes in an almost Beat-like fashion in this novel while obviously putting her own touches on it and ending up with a truly original road book in The Flying Troutmans. To say anymore would be to give something away. I don't even want to link to the cover copy because I think it's better not to know anything other than the fact that Miriam Toews is one hell of a writer before cracking the spine. Trust me.

But I will say this: the whole book reads like a road trip. Strange and kind of uncomfortable at first then after so many kilometres it finds its own rhythm. Places whiz by and your mind goes off on a trip of its own. And it's all good. Things always happen on the road. Things you don't expect. People you don't think you're going to meet. Places you have no expectations about seeing. And despite the circumstances behind Hattie's road trip (she takes off with Logan, her 15-year-old nephew, and Thebes, her 11-year-old niece, after her sister's admission to the psych ward), it's a good experience. That doesn't mean it's not hard or bittersweet or painful or funny or difficult or gut-wrenching or sad or blissful or any number of adjectives. It means that the end result is satisfying.

And the ending. Well, the ending truly rocks. And right now I wish there was a Thebes in my life making me a huge novelty cheque.

READING CHALLENGES: The Flying Troutmans is part of my "For the Ladies" version of this year's Canadian Book Challenge. I'm pretty sure I'm at #4 now. Only 8 more books to go!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Goodness, Sad Films Much?

Perhaps not the best way to stave off impending gloom and doom would be to watch two of the most depressing films I've ever seen: Then She Found Me (Helen Hunt's directorial debut) and Snow Angels. The first finds its 39-year-old heroine finally enjoying a bit of happiness, a new marriage, a quest for a child, and a solid career as a teacher until one night when it all comes tumbling down around her. The only light at the end of the tunnel is a new relationship with a semi-psychotic fellow played by Colin Firth. There's a lot of yelling and stupid decisions in the film, which isn't entirely terrible, and I do adore any bit of Bette Midler. When she arrives to inject even more trouble into April's (Helen Hunt) life, there's a least a bit of a "light at the end of the tunnel" feeling to the picture. Annnywaaay, it's a truly sad film, even if it does have a somewhat happy ending. And as EW pointed out, it's nice to see a woman naturally age on film, even if Hunt's playing down her looks to accentuate the dowdy, downtrodden nature of her character.

So, let's add an even sadder chaser to the mix: Snow Angels. Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell play a couple that have seen better times and are now separated. Whether it's his drinking problem or his truly irritating use of scripture that split them up, it's irrelevant because no matter how hard he tries, they're certainly not getting back together. When tragedy (see, similar themes!) strikes, the two fall even further apart until the film comes to its ridiculous conclusion. To be honest, it was a bit too long too, as I kept falling asleep toward the end. And so dire. And dark. And bewildering. And kind of ridiculous.

But goodness, despite great performances all around, I wouldn't suggest watching these two films in such close proximity to one another while you're alone for the weekend and can barely make it out of your pajamas. Thank Mother Earth for gardening is all I have to say or I wouldn't have left the house once all weekend.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Slipping Now, Not Bending

I am afraid that all of the stress and pressure of the last few weeks is costing my head a fair bit of sanity. Over the last many, many years, I've managed to hold off the black dogs of depression. I know the difference in my head (as exemplified by three courses of prednisone to treat the disease) between depression and plain old sadness, and I'm trying hard to hold on to the latter before it slips away into the former.

Not sleeping is always the start but that's coming around now and I've had three good nights. Then a prolonged illness doesn't help (almost two weeks and counting with this damned bronchitis). And add to that all the personal and professional (for lack of a better word) trauma, I kept sending notes to my friends this week saying that not only do I feel besieged, but that I might just crack in two.

So, I'm making lists. I have a hard time leaving the house in the morning filled up with dread at what's going to happen next. What shoe or ball or other cursed thing might drop and throw me right off course. Deep breaths, right?

TRH Movie - The Duchess

We had advance screening passes this week through work, so Zesty and I went to go see Keira Knightley in The Duchess. Based on Amanda Foreman's biography, The Duchess follows the life of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley). She was married at seventeen to the much older Duke (Ralph Fiennes) and the two were an unlikely match from the beginning. Played at first as a young woman enraptured by the idea of the man actually being in love with her, Georgiana soon realizes that marriage isn't quite as she imagined. After a period of difficulty (involving the birth of a male heir), her husband's mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell; who was once her best friend), Georgiana and the Duke form an awkward and terrifyingly strange trio. The triangle proves to be Georgiana's undoing. Of equal importance in the film's portrayal of her life was her politics -- both her support of the Whigs and her love affair with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper).

Keira Knightley does surprisingly well as the Duchess, carrying off her more outrageous attributes to a tee, and has surprising emotional depth in the role. Audiences will surely despise Fiennes as the Duke, not for his acting, but for the nature of the part itself. The costumes are truly outstanding, the score to the film lovely, and on the whole, the picture was much better than I thought it would be after first watching the trailer.

It's also amazing to get lost in the history that surrounds all the pomp and circumstance of the two families. Georgiana, a Spencer, has infamous relatives (Princess Diana, as the press keeps reminding people) and Lady Caroline Lamb. And then with the Duke of Devonshire's peerage still in existence, it's consistently amazing to me how the ancestry of these families is passed down, traded up and titled. I can get lost in tracking it all. Clicking from one Wikipedia entry to the next filling my head with information that has absolutely no relevance to my everyday life.

Annnywaay, it's an okay film, a solid B, but I'd recommend waiting for it to come out on DVD rather than ponying up for theatre prices.

#54 - This Charming Man

No other chicklit writer even comes close to achieving what Keyes can: strong, morally based stories about real women that grab your attention from the very first page and hold on to it tight like a hand on a roller coaster. Her latest, This Charming Man, is no exception. To be honest, my wrist is strained from holding the book up until all hours on Monday night (I wasn't sleeping anyway). I mean, it's 676 pages!

The story follows four very different women all connected by one man: Paddy de Courcy. As Ireland's most eligible bachelor, de Courcy has been courting women for years. Now that he's ready to settle down with Alicia, how will all of the other women cope with his absence from their lives? For Nola, it means she leaves her life, her job, and her entire world behind to escape the grief that her politician boyfriend is marrying someone else. For sisters Grace (a journalist) and Marnie (a troubled office manager), it means ending a life-long obsession they each had with Paddy. And, lastly, for Alicia, his intended, it means finally recognizing the love she's carried for Paddy since adolescence.

The lives of the four women intersect and the narrative changes between their four perspectives. If I had a favourite storyline, it would have to be Nola, whose breakdown is tempered by her delightful adventures living in her friend's uncle's summer house. But as with all of Marian Keyes's books, there's a hidden story behind the sweet writing that slowly reveals itself as each of the women confess their own problems when it comes to Paddy de Courcy. Being in the public eye, as a member of an up and coming Irish political party, does little to save face as the novel unravels his less than charming persona.

I won't give anything more away except to say that while I've been ill this week with that damned bronchitis, this has kept very good company indeed.

READING CHALLENGES: Chicklit, chicklit and more chicklit, but at least Keyes is Irish so that counts as a country other than the one my arse currently occupies.

#52 & 53 - Home & Housekeeping

As I reviewed both Home and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson for the blog at work, The Savvy Reader, it'll be a duplication of efforts to re-write them here. So I'm cutting and pasting from my original review:

The first Marilynne Robinson novel that I read was Gilead, and what a reading experience it was, exhilarating would be a good descriptive word. That novel sent me reeling forward headlong into Home, which comes out this fall, and follows many of the same characters from Gilead. Glory has come home to take care of her father, Reverend Robert Boughton (neighbour and best friend of John Ames), as his health declines in old age. It begins:

"Home to stay, Glory! Yes!" her father said, and her heart sank. He attempted a twinkle of joy at this thought, but his eyes were damp with commiseration. "To stay for a while this time!" he amended, and took her bag from her, first shifting his cane to his weaker hand. Dear God, she thought, dear God in heaven. So began and ended all of her prayers these days, which were really cries of amazement.

While, this new novel takes place concurrently with Gilead, you don't have to have read the first book to enjoy this one, as the stories, while they have similar plot points and some of the same characters, are extremely different.

The assured nature of Robinson's voice, her ability to tell a story, and the emotional depth of the relationships between the elder Boughton and his children, bring you right into this novel from the very first page and just don't let you go. As both Glory and her father await the return of Jack (brother and favourite son), who has been away from Gilead for twenty years, it's apparent that his presence will change their lives irrevocably and as only family members can. In many ways, Jack's visit is a blessing and a curse, as it brings both Glory and her father closer together but also forces them to reflect on the past, an exercise that truly brings out the richness in Robinson's writing.

When I finished the book at the cottage last weekend, I actually hugged the book. I may have uttered an, "Oh, Glory!" or two, as well. The novel picks you up and drops you so wholly into these characters that you can't help but want to reach into the book and hold them, befriend them, debate with them, and simply enjoy the pleasures in their lives.

Of course, my adoration of Home sent me reeling, again, for more of Marilynne Robinson, which led me to read her first book, Housekeeping. I've only just begun, but I am already enthralled by Ruthie's story. Here's a passage I read this morning in transit:

It is, as she said, difficult to describe someone, since memories are by their nature fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary as glimpses one has at night through lighted windows.

What do your lighted windows display? Right now mine would be filled to the brim of thoughts about Marilynne Robinson's books.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

#51 - Quick

For some reason, when I can't bike into work and am forced to take the subway (read: when I'm under the weather for various illnesses), I like to read poetry. The books are often smallish so they fit nicely into pockets and purses and it's a nice way to be eased in or out of your day. Anne Simpson's collection Quick was my companion for a good month -- as the days were far and few between where I wasn't riding my bike. I actually finished the book up the Friday of the September long weekend and simply haven't had a chance to blog about it yet.
The sky softens with the end of light. Reaching for something solid when there's nothing to hold. The woman slips deeper in the water, swims, snatches up her hand. A jellyfish has stung her. She gazes at its lurid pouch, fringed with cream: doll-sized weapons. Mute and deaf and blind, the creature glides forward as if this was what it wanted all along. Lifted on a wave, dropped on sand. A spilled sack. It'll lose its sheen, begin to stink. Later, a boy will poke it with a stick, just to see.

Chorus

Did you think you could miss this part? Everything is sharpened around you.
The above is taken from the almost prose-like epic poem that makes up the later half of the book. "Ocean, Ocean" is a sharp and visceral exploration of human interaction with the body of water and its many metaphors aren't so much spelled out as inferred through the beautiful two line chorus that accompanies each one paragraph stanza. I was captivated by this poem and read it many, many times. The beginning of the collection wasn't as arresting for me but I was consistently impressed by the themes: the most basic in literature brought to soaring new heights by Simpson's wonderful poetry. Man versus nature, man versus man, nature in its most primal, effortless state.

I am ever glad to have ensured that my Canadian Book Challenge not only included the ladies, but poetry as well. It's not as if I have to force myself to read poetry as much as remind myself how much I love it. Funny, too, as I had a conversation with someone at work who mentioned that they never, ever thought about poetry, that they couldn't care less. I was saddened by this statement only because poetry, while endlessly important, seems to never sell as well as much of the schlock that crowds out the shelves of the bookstores.

Everyone should at least buy a book of poetry. I don't even care if you ever read it. Well, maybe I care a little bit.

READING CHALLENGES: Quick is #3 in terms of my For the Ladies Canadian Book Challenge.

#50 - His Illegal Self

Peter Carey remains one of my most adored living authors. I count some of his books among my all-time favourites (Oscar and Lucinda; Theft; Jack Maggs). His latest, His Illegal Self, isn't at the top of my Peter Carey goodies list, but it's not at the bottom either (that honour belongs to the Ned Kelly book that [to date] remains unfinished). His talents are considerable so even a mediocre book by Carey is hands and feet better than an excellent book by a lesser writer.

The story of a young boy who's kidnapped by a woman who isn't his mother and spirited away to the wilds of Australia, His Illegal Self is an arresting story. I think it's just not entirely believable. As a result of his mother's (and father's to boot) illegal activities as political radical protesters, Che (as he's called) lives with his posh mother on Park Avenue, spending much of their time at a summer home outside the city. He's only eight (I think) when the action begins and yearns for his mother who remains a distant memory locked away in his mind. When Dial shows up and kidnaps him from his grandmother under the guise of taking him to see his mother, everything that could possibly go wrong does.

As I said above, I did find the plot somewhat implausible; there are far too many nefarious characters in one place who consistently roadblock the way back to a legal existence for both Che and Dial. The voice of the story sometimes comes across as kind of alienating and more than once I found myself backtracking just so I could be sure I knew what was going on. Yet somehow, despite some little bits of confusion here or there, I did find the novel to be a swift read.

READING CHALLENGES: While I think I've already done Australia for Around the World in 52 Books (which I am so very far behind it its almost criminal), Carey hails from there so I'll add it to the list.

Still Bending, Still Almost Breaking

Sleep still remains something far off in the distance like a summer storm or a sailboat. I know I can get there but my body can't quite muster up the strength to make it happen. Last night the crying started. The darkness isn't really comforting. Today I had soup and friends at lunch. That was nice. My husband teased me yesterday. That was also nice. But I am over the shock of everything and keep turning the reality of the events of my mother's death over and over in my mind late at night. Any dreams I have are invaded and mixed up with the smell of hospitals and the pain of knowing even if she did magically get better one day she's now lost to us forever. It's not sad. She suffered more in one lifetime than people should ever suffer. I feel I'm less than myself right now. Coughing. Shuffling. Stuck on the subway in a throng of people when I'd much rather be riding my bike. My shoulders slumped and a defeated look on my face.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bent And Almost Broken

Now besieged by bronchitis that the doctor thinks I probably picked up at the hospital. Have been unable to talk, walk or really do much of anything except sit and watch the television. Watched all of Generation Kill again. It's a great show. Watched Norma Rae, and enjoyed the film immensely. Started Volver and finished Lions for Lambs (very disappointing film). I need good films and good television right now. At least my brain can wrap itself around them. Deadlines have slipped. Priorities are changing. My heart hurts. So does my chest from all the coughing. I haven't slept in over a week. First because of everything that was going on and then because I am coughing so much that I wake myself up every fifteen minutes. But there was light on the horizon today. Today, I actually picked up a book.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Please Forgive My Silence

After a long and extremely profound illness stemming from a car accident over twenty years ago, my mother passed away. She had been incapacitated and living in a chronic care hospital for many of those years, and we are all deeply saddened by the loss, but comforted by the fact that she isn't suffering any longer. I promise I'll get back to blogging at some point.