Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beautiful Friends, The End

What a day, a birth day, indeed, to say good-bye to this particular spot and happily announce that we have moved to a new house, a permanent house, kindly built for us by Stuart Lawlor @ Create Me This.


Saturday, July 09, 2011

#54 - Suddenly

First, I am going to preface this review with a statement: I adored Bonnie Burnard's The Good House. It's a novel I picked up on a whim from Book City when it was first published and sang its praises to everyone who would listen for years. It's a classic, right up there with The Stone Diaries, Clara Callan, and Away (book I read all around the same time), and so I was excited to read Bonnie Burnard's latest novel Suddenly, if only because it's the first one she's published in 10 years. That's a long time to wait.

Sadly, I probably never should have read this book. It's neither the right time of my life (it's a novel about truly middle-aged women) nor am I in the right frame of mind (having spent the last nine months battling my own life-threatening disease, I couldn't quite cope with the breast cancer victim at the centre of the novel) to appreciate the gift of Suddenly. There's no doubt in my mind that Bonnie Burnard's a wonderful writer. She has an ability to bring the everyday to the page that's unparalleled by many of her contemporaries. It's a unique gift, and her voice reminds me deeply of Carol Shields, which is why I was so very disappointed in this book.

Sandra, our heroine, finds an evil lump in her breast at the end of the summer -- her grandchildren have just gone back to the city with her husband, and she sits alone after a swim contemplating the hard reality of her future. Of course, her friend Jude has battled breast cancer and survived, and Sandra hopes she will too. Alas, it is not to be, and the majority of the novel takes place on her deathbed, that awesome Canadian-woman-writer-trope, where the family rallies around and all of the action takes place in reverse as the dying go through their lives, their relationships, their happiness and their regrets with a fine-toothed comb.

But one remains easily lost within this book because the point of view isn't that simple, it switches from Sandra, to her best friend Colleen (who is beautiful, but childless, natch, and married to Sandra's brother, the surgeon Richard), to her other best friend Jude (the ex-hippie, jilted by a Texan lover who left her on a farm to go fight the Vietnam war after casually fathering her son), to her husband Jack, and back again. It's all over the place and the pronoun "she" doesn't help matters when all three main characters are women...

It's a tedious book, with tedious, unbelievable characters: Sandra's a saint; so's Colleen only she's beautiful too, Jude's "wild" but reformed, and they all feel so old they're covered in a layer of dust. These are the women of my mother's generation, one of them could have been my mother, and yet they have no sense of humour, no sense of adventure and really no life in them at all -- even when it's "flashing" before them as their best friend fades away in a cloud of morphine and horrible pain from an awful disease that takes far too many women. The title confused me for nothing happens quickly in this book -- Burnard takes pages and pages to describe the most mundane aspects of everyday life, episodes that would have been best excised, and the whole novel would have been better for me if it read chronologically, if I got to see these women through their lives and not just as flashbacks in Sandra's journals, which, of course, she kept religiously her entire life.

But I feel bad being so critical, which is why I think that my original statement, that it's neither the right time of my life nor am I in the right mindset to contemplate a novel about someone so willingly giving in to a disease -- not fearing death is one thing but Sandra's utterly unrealistic in terms of her approach to illness; no one is as saintly as she's portrayed on the page, no one. There's no anger, and even when there is, it's slightly ridiculous -- two women having slight "words" during a winter storm and then poof, it's back to celebrating Sandra and her ability to hold the other two women together. Yawn.

I much prefer Lionel Shriver's approach to illness: frank, honest, angry, and also accepting -- there's something raw and real to how she writes about sickness, and I appreciated it. There's tedium to being sick, to having tests, to being stuck in a bed, and anger, relentless, unceasing anger about the fact that your body just isn't doing what it's supposed to. And I'd hope that Sandra would have a glimpse of this throughout the book, that someone, anyone, might rage against the dying of the light just a little before rubbing more lotion on her cold feet or recalling some other wonderful thing she did during her abnormally normal life and marriage.

So don't blame Burnard -- it's a great book club book for women of my mother's age, it's a terrific book to give your mother-in-law for Christmas, and it would have done wonders if Oprah's Book Club still existed and ever considered that Canada has a literature from which to choose reading material. But Suddenly, with its long, drawn-out conclusion (Sandra dies! People mourn!) just didn't cut it for me, a girl of a certain age who has battled a mean-ass frustrating disease for months.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

#53 - The Retreat

This may be hyperbole, but I think David Bergen is a national treasure. It's quite a statement to say that over the course of reading four of his novels, his Giller winner (The Time in Between) remains my least favourite. People, it won a major prize! Overall, I devoured A Year of Lesser and See the Child, and thought they were both excellent. But The Retreat might just be my favourite Bergen novel so far -- but I haven't read The Matter with Morris (just the first 50-odd pages for work), so I am reserving judgment until then.

The majority of the action in The Retreat takes place at a camp, the retreat of the novel's title, near The Lake of the Woods, just outside of Kenora. The landscape, having spent about a week there at a cottage of an old ex-boyfriend way back in the way back, is beautiful. The Lake of the Woods itself is huge, with crisp blue waters, but the pond close to the property isn't. It's murky, filled with reeds, and just as dangerous -- it's an important distinction, because major accidents and/or incidents happen throughout the book on or close to the water, and Bergen's ability to weave such an archetypal theme (man vs. nature) within his more specific, personal story, remains one of the book's true accomplishments.

But let me digress. Raymond Seymour, an 18-year-old Ojibway boy, finds himself embroiled in an love affair with niece of the local police. Their relationship -- hot and heavy -- burns out quickly, and not just as a result of the intervention of her father and uncle but, because, it's just not meant to last. Alice's uncle takes Raymond out onto the Lake and dumps him on an island -- expecting him not to return. This dynamic, bad cop/good kid, feels familiar, and it should, the relationship goes exactly where you expect and the penultimate action remains utterly heartbreaking. It's 1974, and Bergen chooses as a secondary background of sorts, to wrap The Kenora Crisis around his story, even though Raymond and his brother, who has just returned from being "raised" (read: forcibly removed) by a Mennonite family in the south, are tangentially involved in the uprising.

When Lizzie Byrd (17) and her family arrive at The Retreat, a quasi-commune run by "the Doctor," a self-important, psycho-babbling fool who cons people into believing he can heal their souls by "talk" and the simple life of camp, she's reluctant to participate. The births of her younger siblings have been hard on her mother, and her father desperately tries to save his family and her sanity by granting her every wish -- in this case, it's to spend the summer at The Retreat. Lizzie meets Raymond and a cautious friendship evolves into something more substantial. As the summer progresses, their feelings grow deeper, regardless of whether they truly understand one another's complex situations (her crazy family; his unfortunate situation with the cop that never seems to end). But as the season comes to an end, the novel finds its conclusion -- the characters, distraught, damaged and utterly changed by the events of the summer. It's an amazingly quiet novel for the amount of emotional damage that is wrought on the people within, which remains Bergen's exceptional ability as a writer -- to place people in crisis and not let them entirely recover.

This is my favourite kind of book, a great setting, a complex, real issue that meant something in history, family dynamics that remain complex and difficult, and action that's both believable and well-paced. In short, it's an excellent read, probably one of the best books off my shelf. The Bs have been utterly kind to me (Barnes, Bergen, brilliant!).

Friday, July 01, 2011

#52 - The Uncommon Reader

Sleep refused to settle upon me last night, and I finished The Leopard, and went to my shelves to carry on trying to find something alphabetical that I could read at 2 AM. Luckily, Alan Bennett's deliciously short The Uncommon Reader was almost next on my British shelf and its 119 pages meant that I finished it just before I finally drifted off to sleep. It was a cute book to read upon as we (Canada) are in the midst of a royal visit (in fact, I heard on the CBC yesterday that over 120 foreign bureaus/journalists will follow the couple on their visit as compared to the 24 that applied when the Queen visited was it last year? We're all a little entranced by the Duke and Duchess. As Lainey says; it's good for gossip...).

So, The Uncommon Reader of the book's title is The Queen, who has never truly read before -- for reading isn't necessarily "doing" anything and she's been a "doer" her entire life. An ode to reading with a cheeky sense of humour, Bennett's novella remains thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. Goodness, it's even got a fascinating vein of literary criticism -- of course The Queen wouldn't understand the nuances of Austen at first, having never lived among the lower classes. Of course, if she started her ready odyssey with Henry James, well, she might as well have given up all together.

One day, a travelling library shows up at Westminster and The Queen, on a whim, picks p a book by Ivy-Compton Burnett. Soon she's having Nathan, a former dishwasher and avid reader thus promoted to page, finding books for her from libraries all across London. They read books in aid of royal visits, they read popular fiction, they read the classics and all the while The Queen philosophically comes to understand the power of the written word in a way that was never presented to her before. The more she reads, the more she begins to write, and the more she begins to write, the more she decides she has something to say -- a voice, shall we call it.

I won't spoil the cheeky, cute ending but I will say that I smiled a lot while I was reading this book, even at 2AM when I really should have been sleeping. And, I've knocked another one off my shelves!

#51 - The Leopard

I've been reading a tonne of Scandinavian mysteries over this mat leave -- it's not that they are mindless, that's not what I am trying to say, but they do wonders for my tired brain, especially now that the RRBB is moving around like a maniac and I am spending a lot of my time just chasing him down. Anyway, I finally finished Jo Nesbo's The Leopard -- for me, these books are easy reads, one-nighters, that kind of thing, but this book is over 600 pages long; it's an investment.

When the novel opens, Kaja Solness hunts Harry Hole down in Hong Kong where he's gone to disappear after the toll catching The Snowman took upon him (a novel I haven't read yet). He's thin, addicted to opium, and refuses to come home even after she tempts him with a case only he can solve. But it isn't the crime that brings him back to Oslo -- his father is dying, and Harry can't bear to stay away. There's a new "sheriff" in town: a crass, crooked and unfailingly asshat-like boss of Kripos (which I am assuming is their national police force) named Mikael Bellman who threatens, not only Harry's success in solving the case, but his career in general. Yet, none of that matters to Harry -- brash, intelligent, strong -- he's James Bond with a drink problem, otherwise known as your prototypical hero in these kinds of books, and yet, like Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, you root for him regardless.

The gruesome nature of the central crime -- the killer takes his victims lives with something called a Leopold's Apple, an instrument of torture that punctures (24 times) your face and throat so you drown in your own blood -- stumps the officers, and as soon as Harry joins Bellman and Kripos, they start to get somewhere. Like any good mystery, there's red herrings and twists and false leads and impeccably dangerous situations galore. There would have to be to keep us entertained for yes, like I said, 600+ bloody pages. You could cut a third of this book and it would still be a great read -- there's a lot of extraneous stuff here that could have been pared down, that would have helped the book race along instead of plodding in some places.

Regardless, there's wonderful desolate scenery that takes place in the far-reaching snow-bound Norway that I found truly fascinating. Ski lodges that are sitting ducks for avalanches, that sort of thing, that add a certain nuance to the plot and characters. Of course, the crime gets solved and, of course, the criminal punished and I'm glad I read the whole book because there was a moment half-way through where I considered just skipping to the end because 600 pages!

I have Norway covered already via Karin Fossum, so Nesbo doesn't count for Around the World in 52 Books. I need to find some Finnish mysteries!