Thursday, January 20, 2011

Review: Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore really loves to write about dancing, and she does it so incredibly well. This was something that I noticed as I finished reading her debut short story collection, Self-Help, published in 1985. The final piece in it, “To Fill”, contains an exuberant scene of a young boy named Jeffrey trying to teach his mother some dance moves that he’s learned at school. It reminded me of another, later story of Moore’s, called “Dance in America”, collected in her book Birds of America. In that piece, another young boy – named Eugene, who is dying of cystic fibrosis – also shows off his dance moves for adults. Whereas these insouciant gyrations of the human body play a minor role in the earlier story, they are at the very heart of the later one. Dancing is, according to Moore, our way of letting the infinite know that we are here. Or, as she more eloquently puts it: “It’s life flipping death the bird.”

You could argue that the short stories in Self-Help are a form of linguistic, literary dancing. (In fact, you might interpret the cover image of the edition I have, from Faber and Faber, as that of a young woman in the throes of dance.) You get the sense that Moore – who was just 28 when she published this book – is writing out of a profound sense of freedom, of unencumbered movement, flinging her limbs to the sky and not caring who is watching or what she looks like as she performs. It’s what gives these stories their startling originality.

Many of the pieces in Self-Help are framed as how-to manuals of the type you’d expect to find in a book with this title. We have stories called “How to Be an Other Woman”, “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce”, “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)” and – God help us all – “How to Become a Writer”. These and other stories in the collection are written, daringly, in the second person – which lends them another level of playfulness, of unselfconsciousness.

While there is a unifying vision to the pieces in the book, Moore also shows some incredible range here. Take the first and last stories, for example. “How to Be an Other Woman” follows a fairly traditional narrative arc: our protagonist meets a man, has several dates with him, begins to fall in love, finds out he’s married, then struggles over whether to continue the affair, and finally approaches a moment of climax with her situation with him. “To Fill”, by contrast, has a far more unconventional narrative structure: it assembles a number of simple, seemingly disparate scenes, like a collage, that slowly reveal the story of a woman who is stealing money at work, dealing with a mother who is faking mental illness, and who suspects her husband of having an affair. There is no traditional climax here, but when the story ends you feel as if you’ve been taken through something incredibly profound.

Not all of Self-Help worked for me. Maybe it was Moore’s relative youth, but I did find a low-grade misandristic tone to a lot of her stories – the men here simply existing to be abused, scorned, abandoned or written off as emotionally unavailable. I also felt that there were times when her prose style did get a bit too showy. The story “Go Like This”, about a children’s author dying of cancer, pushed its cutesy buttons a little too often for my liking.

These are minor quibbles. Self-Help stands as a brilliant debut and a harbinger of the other brilliant work that Moore has gone on to produce. Let’s hope she continues writing with this kind of ebullience, with this kind of literary dance. Let’s hope she never forgets how to go wild and fling her limbs to the sky.

Men and literature

Really interesting blog post on masculinity in literature by Michael Bryson over at Underground Book Club. In this piece, Michael shares an excerpt from an unfinished essay he was writing a decade ago in relation to Richard Ford’s brilliant novel The Sportswriter, and he has some good insights on the various contentious issues involving gender in literature.

It’s too bad Michael never finished this essay, because it would have made an excellent addition to CNQ’s recent “gender issue”, on newsstands now. Not that the issue has a paucity of good pieces by any stretch – there are a number of fantastic essays in it, including one by Michael himself on the short stories of Carol Shields. You should go check it out if you haven’t already.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Review: Collected Stories, by Frank O’Connor

The short stories of Frank O’Connor have been on my hit list for quite a while, so I decided to read the entire canon of them by tackling his Collected Stories, edited and introduced by Richard Ellman, in one single gulp – all 700+ pages. There is something to be said about absorbing a writer’s oeuvre in this way – especially a writer with the reputation and consistency of O’Connor. By taking on these stories in one go, you get a bird’s eye view of the man’s career, watching patterns and visions and obsessions emerge in a way that you may not by reading individual stories or even whole collections over a longer period of time.

O’Connor’s Collected Stories is as definitive as you can get: nearly all of his best-known tales are gathered here, including “My Oedipus Complex,” “Guests of the Nation,” “The Masculine Principle” and “First Confession.” (The only story conspicuous by its absence is “The Man of the World,” recently featured in The New Yorker’s short story podcast series.) O’Connor made no apologies for the regional slant to his writing: his short stories read like a psychological history of Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. And yet most of his themes remain squarely on the side of the universal: love and infatuation, faith and religion, nationalism and personal freedom.

Most talented short story writers are adept at capturing the small in order to illuminate the big, but O’Connor always went one step further: he was incredibly skilled at showing the helplessness inherent in the small when squaring off against the forces of the big. For a writer of his period and background, these forced equated to three main areas: the Catholic church, Irish nationalism in the face of colonial influence by England, and the institute of marriage.

Indeed, in nearly every one of these 67 tales, one (or more) of those forces come to bear on the characters. “The Impossible Marriage” tells the story of a man trapped by the expectations of his family while pursuing true love. “The Wreath” is a heartbreaking tale about secular influences playing a role in the funeral of a beloved priest who has passed away. “Guests of the Nation” reveals the very human side of a rapid, unthinking nationalism. O’Connor is an extremely versatile writer – equally comfortable writing from the point of view of a soldier, a priest, a workman, and (most often and most successfully) a small child fighting against the apparent irrationalities of the adult world.

Still, there aspects of O’Connor’s writing that grates on a 21st-century reader. His portrayal of women is, frankly, cringe worthy and annoying. Too often he makes broad, sweeping generalizations about the female gender – boiling girls down to a one-dimensional essence of vanity, manipulation or all-out idiocy. After a while, I also began to notice a pattern emerge with the way each story began, whereby O'Connor would provide the reader with a superficial physical description of a character and have this stand in as a moral judgment on his or her person. (This reoccurring tract may have been a result of the house style of The New Yorker at the time, where many of these stories were first published.)

Still and all, O’Connor definitely earned his place within the short story canon and there are some exceptional examples of the form in this book. Students of the genre could not go wrong by reading these tales and unraveling the way they reveal the human condition is so many well-crafted and unexpected ways.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: You Know Who You Are, by Ian Williams

Ian Williams’ debut collection of poetry You Know Who You Are attempts to do an incredibly daring thing – to meld an unmistakable postmodern sensibility to deeply personal, even sentimentalized subject matters. The poems in this collection explore the perils of embattled relationships, of squandered opportunities and existential angst, but do so with a style that is both quirky and innovative.

In pieces like “Not Answering”, “What Remains of Us” and “Except You”, Williams skirts right up to the line of what we might call melodrama, but does so without losing control of the taut, elliptical emotions he’s expressing on the page. His wordplay, often clever and insouciant, keeps these poems sharp and engaging even as they wrestle with age-old feelings. Take his “Triolet for You”, for example: “There is no synonym for you./ The thesaurus says No match. Do/ you mean yogi?” Here he relies on the constraints of his chosen form to keep the idea expressed within fresh and free of sappiness.

My favourite poems in this collection are the group called “Emergency Codes”, which tells the story of a troubled youth named Dre who goes through various tribulations – each given its own poem under the label of an emergency code (Code Grey: Combative Person, Code Red: Fire, etc). Each poem uses an emergency code to lend context to the troubles that Dre experiences as both a young man and as a person of colour. Even when recycling an old Chris Rock joke (from “Code Blue”: “Folks like us, we/ don’t get assassinated, we/ get shot …”), the cycle maintains an intriguing and original air. And I love how the cycle ends: “Dre married his babymother, got a job/ in Mississauga./ What did you expect?” Brilliant.

Williams shows a tremendous range in this debut collection, and a lot of talent. I look forward to seeing what he produces next.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Reading with more care

Over at That Shakespearean Rag yesterday, I was pleased to see literary critic Steven Beattie make reference to the very fun game we played here on this blog last year called The Retro Reading Challenge. Even more interestingly, Steven has launched his own reading challenge for 2011.

I love the nature of what Steven is proposing for the simple fact that it dovetails what I feel (in my better moments, at least) that good reading ought to be. I'll be the first to admit that I get a little obsessed with the quantity of my reading, often at the expense of being more engaged at a deeper level with the books at hand. For me, this mentality is a product of my background - I didn't grow up in a house full of books or avid readers, and so for the last 20 years I've felt like I'm perpetually playing this game of catch-up: reading as much as I humanly can to make up for what feels like a rather arid childhood, literarily speaking. I get through about 65 books a year, and yet I still feel forever behind the eight ball.

So Steven's challenge is a refreshing reality check in this regard. It's a reminder that it's less important how much one reads and more important that we read deeply, with greater aesthetic appreciation and sensitivity. We owe it to literary authors, who (as I well know) slave for years over the books they create for us. Thanks, Steven.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré

I’m still a little behind on my reviewing, mainly as a result of the two and a half weeks of utter laziness I just finished enjoying on PEI with my family. But I did manage to get through a few books over the holiday season, including John Le Carré’s seminal 1963 spy novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Le Carré seems to be enjoying a bit of a late-day renaissance, what with the publication(and rave reviews)of his new novel Our Kind of Traitor. I hadn’t read any of his work before, turned off by what I assumed to be his slant toward genre writing, but with all of the attention his new book has been getting, I thought I’d start from the very beginning of his success.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold stands a relic to a bygone age – when the tensions of the Cold War were still very new and very dangerous. The protagonist is failed spy Alec Leamas who is recalled to England from his post on the East-West German frontier after a fellow spy is shot while trying to defect. Leamas is some ways the embodiment of a genre spy – dark, moody, unpredictable, a heavy drinker, and languishing in a kind of gloomy self exile. And yet Le Carré is able to lend his fictional creation a fuller dimension by thrusting him into the very real history of his time and place. While the twists and turns of the plot – rife with double crosses and triple crosses, scapegoats and patsies – keep us turning the pages, we’re never allowed to forget the impact (or at least the fear) that global Communism was having on the world at the time.

From what I’ve heard of Le Carré’s other work, what sets him apart from other spy writers is his ability to eschew the need to play things for camp. He instead favours taking a very serious and detailed look at the world that his characters inhabit. This is certainly true of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. There were plenty of scenes that would have come off chintzy in the hands of a lesser talent.

Not sure I’ll be reading another Le Carré novel anytime soon, but this was a great introduction to his wider oeuvre. Always refreshing to see somebody take genre writing and spin it on its ear.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

2010: My Reading Year in Review

I realize I’m a couple of days late getting this year’s Reading Year in Review up, but I’ve had a hard time yanking myself out of vacation mode this year. Things have been pretty quiet here over the last couple of weeks on FRR – mostly because I’d been ensconced into the joy and comfort of my family’s home on PEI, luxuriating with all manner of drinks and basically eating my face off. But I will let you know that the reading in Moncton, NB on the 27th went very well (despite me spilling about half a bottle of champagne directly onto my crotch about two hours before the event began – don’t ask) and I even sold some copies of Off Book. Overall, it was an awesome holiday.

But back to the post at hand. Two thousand and ten was a really solid reading here overall, and I had a hard time winnowing down to a top 10 list. The books I’ve chosen had some stiff competition, but there are the 10 texts that lingered with me the most over the year. I’ve once again included a list of top 5 disappointments. As always, these weren’t necessarily bad books – they just came to me with a certain level of expectation that they weren’t, for whatever reason, able to meet.

So without further ado…

Top 10 books I read this year:
  • The Case of Lena S., by David Bergen.The Case of Lena S., like all good novels, is more than just the sum of its scenes. Bergen has full command of his themes and metaphoric imagery, a virtuosic control of his vision displayed on nearly every page. The aim is to show Lena’s depression both from the inside and the outside; how the physical world can poison the emotional one; how the loss of one’s sanity and self can be drowned out in the noise of other people’s agendas.” Full review
  • Badlands, by Robert Kroetsch. “The influences are obvious – Moby Dick with a dash of Heart of Darkness and The Caine Mutiny thrown in – but this is still a quintessentially Canadian novel, preoccupied as it is with notions of history and with relics.” Full review
  • Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith. “The real strength behind Changing My Mind, beyond the unifying idea of how reexamining our opinions – either deeply cherished or mundanely peripheral – can help to change them for the better, is the sheer versatility that Smith displays in her subject matter. She is as comfortable writing a biographical sketch of Kafka and an analytical piece on Middlemarch as she is writing a feature article of Oscar Night or quick-hit movie reviews of recent Hollywood releases.” Full review
  • Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. “Demick, a journalist who spent the better part of a decade covering both Koreas for The Los Angeles Times, goes much deeper by choosing to focus on six defectors, conducting extensive interviews with them and then rendering their stories into a vivid exercise in creative nonfiction. The result is a harrowing and entirely human portrait of what it’s like to live under the most repressive regime in the world.” Full review
  • The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon.The Golden Mean is an unmitigated success and a masterpiece. Lyon deserves every plaudit she has received – including winning the Writers Trust Fiction Prize and shortlist nods from both the Giller and the GG – for this exquisitely crafted and highly readable novel.” Full review
  • The Black Prince, by Iris Murdoch. “I don’t think it’s particularly important to focus on what Murdoch is clearly spoofing here – the stereotypical British novel of manners. Nor is it important to tie one’s brains into pretzels over how Murdoch takes the notion of an “unreliable narrator” and flips it on its head. The important thing here is to point out how The Black Prince so successfully makes us suspend our disbelief …” Full review
  • The Reinvention of the Human Hand, by Paul Vermeersch.The Reinvention of the Human Hand is, quite simply, a powerhouse book of poetry, an astonishing feat for a poet who has not yet turned forty. The unifying vision is that of the animal in man and man in the animal. The book examines our human relationships with and interpretations of the rest of the animal world, and draws connections between our so-called rational actions and the more primordial impulses to which we are also subject.” Full review
  • Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. “What makes Simonson’s novel so great is the way it uses the small to illuminate the large. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is full of the manipulations of grown children, petty squabbles over property and possessions, obsessions about religion and dinner parties and climbing the social ladder … It is a humorous comedy of manners that owes a debt to the great British novels of the Victorian period, but it is also a novel that very much belongs to the 21st century, tackling so many of the complexities of our modern world.” Full review
  • Pandora, by Sylvia Fraser.Pandora is a rich, compelling and oddly sublime read – a sturdy, well-crafted novel that captures so many of the tortures of being a young child adrift in an adult world.” Full review
  • Come, Thou Tortoise, by Jessica Grant.Come, Thou Tortoise’s great strength is not, as some readers may imply, its ‘quirkiness’ or lightheartedness … It is a profoundly serious novel dealing with the idea of complex mysteries that need solving, mysteries that are so often undone by our limited perspectives and the racket of our inner worlds. It’s also about how time runs out on all of us to figure these mysteries out before it’s too late.” Full review
Top five disappointments this year:

  • Vinyl Cafe Unplugged, by Stuart McLean. “What struck me when reading Vinyl Café Unplugged was how much of McLean’s signature charm is lost on the printed page – in some cases, quite badly.” Full Review
  • The Night Is a Mouth, by Lisa Foad. “Foad has mastered something in this collection and does it so incredibly well, but it’s still only one thing – an approach she’s skillfully cornered and then replicated across 10 stories. This gives The Night Is a Mouth a bit of a one-trick-pony sort of feel.” Full review
  • Crash, by J.G. Ballard. “The problem is that Ballard spends so much time assembling his thematic structure that he doesn’t concern himself too much with characterization. The character Ballard, as well as Vaughan and the women they fuck, move through the novel with only the most crudely primitive motivation. After the umpteenth description of semen spurting across the dashboard, of someone settling “her vulva over his penis” in the backseat of a Ford, I began to ask myself – What exactly is at stake in this story?Full review
  • The Rules of Engagement, by Catherine Bush. “I think what Bush has on her hands here is not a novel at all but two separate short stories – one about a woman worried about an immigrant she helped sneak into Canada illegally, and one about a woman who had two guys fight a duel over her – and then a whole lot of padding. That padding includes incessantly purple ruminations on the nature of war as well as some pretty yawn-worthy descriptions of the geography of Toronto. This is a novel that just quite isn’t one.” Full review
  • Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. “I think there is a brilliant novel locked somewhere inside Freedom, and it’s too bad that Franzen hadn’t worked harder to liberate (excuse the pun) it from the masses and masses of what ultimately feels like extraneous pages. The gold rings of this book would have shone that much more brightly had he wiped away a lot of the crap that surrounds them.” Full review
  • Bonus disappointment: (reread for the Retro Reading Challenge) Still Life with Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins. “I don’t regret rereading this novel; it did suit the purposes of The Challenge, and it certainly took a lot less time than rereading Stephen King’s It would have. But I can safely say that I’ve outgrown Tom Robbins. I’m happy to leave him to all the horny undergraduates who haven’t yet discovered Kurt Vonnegut, A Confederacy of Dunces, Evelyn Waugh, or any number of other authors or novels that are truly comic.” Full review
Here’s a comprehensive list of what I read this year:

65. December 27. You Know Who You Are, by Ian Williams. 80 pps.

64. December 25. The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, by John Le Carre. 240 pps.

63. December 20. Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro. 303 pps.

62. December 13. Come, Thou Tortoise, by Jessica Grant. 412 pps.

61. December 4. Pope and Her Lady, by Leon Rooke. 98 pps.

60. December 2. Winterkill, by Catherine Graham. 62 pps.

59. December 1. Combat Camera, by A.J. Somerset. 255 pps.

58. November 25. This Cake is for the Party, by Sarah Selecky. 229 pps.

57. November 20. Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod. 219 pps.

56. November 16. Reticent Bodies, by Moez Surani. 96 pps.

55. November 15. Clockfire, by Jonathan Ball. 103 pps.

54. November 14. Moody Food, by Ray Robertson. 393 pps.

53. November 6. Sandra Beck, by John Lavery. 261 pps.

52. November 1. Forde Abroad, by John Metcalf. 65 pps.

51. October 31. So I am Glad, by A.L. Kennedy. 282 pps.

50. October 26. The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. 447 pps

49. October 16. Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill. 256 pps.

48. October 9, Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. 562 pps.

47. September 24. Burning House, by Richard Lemm. 123 pps.

46. September 22. Baldur's Song, by David Arnason. 236 pps.

45. September 17. A Splinter in the Heart, by Al Purdy. 259 pps.

44. September 10. The Ballad of Peckham Rye, by Muriel Spark. 143 pps.

43. September 7. The Pianoplayers, by Anthony Burgess. 208 pps.

42. September 1. Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner. 184 pps.

41. August 29. Pandora, by Sylvia Fraser. 255 pps.

40. August 23. Back Off Assassin! New and Selected Poems, by Jim Smith. 147 pps.

39. August 20. The Sea, by John Banville. 264 pps.

38. August 14. How to Get There from Here, by Michelle Berry. 149 pps.

37. August 10. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. 552 pps.

36. July 31. The Year One, by David Helwig. 184 pps.

35. July 26. The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman. 272 pps.

34. July 21. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. 358 pps.

33. July 10. Crossing Lines: Poets Who Came to Canada in the Vietnam War Era, edited by Allan Briesmaster and Steven Michael Berzensky. 256 pps.

32. July 6. The Grammar of Distance, by Ian Burgham. 101 pps.

31. July 4. The Reinvention of the Human Hand, by Paul Vermeersch. 78 pps.

30. July 1. My Animal Life, by Maggie Gee. 232 pps.

29. June 23. The Rules of Engagement, by Catherine Bush. 300 pps.

28. June 18. The Architects Are Here, by Michael Winter. 372 pps.

27. June 11. A Kiss is Still a Kiss, by Barry Callaghan. 370 pps.

26. June 5. The Black Prince, by Iris Murdoch. 416 pps.

25. May 26. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. 625 pps.

24. May 8. (Reread) Century, by Ray Smith. 160 pps.

23. May 3. (Reread) Lord Nelson Tavern, by Ray Smith. 160 pps.

22. April 29. (Reread) Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada, by Ray Smith. 187 pps.

21. April 25. Crash, by J.G. Ballard. 192 pps.

20. April 23. Rob Roy, by Sir Walter Scott. 382 pps.

19. April 13. The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon. 284 pps.

18. April 6. Saturday, by Ian McEwan. 281 pps.

17. March 30. Pain-Proof Men, by John Wall Barger. 88 pps.

16. March 28. The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, by Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh. 299 pps.

15. March 21. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. 314 pps.

14. March 14. (reread for the Retro Reading Challenge) Still Life with Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins. 277 pps.

13. March 8. Everyday Drinking, the Distilled Kingsley Amis. Introduction by Christopher Hitchens. 302 pps.

12. March 2. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith. 306 pps.

11. February 23. The Night Is a Mouth, by Lisa Foad. 144 pps.

10. February 20. The Waves, by Virginia Woolf. 337 pps.

9. February 13. A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking, by matt robinson. 104 pps.

8. February 12. Badlands, by Robert Kroetsch. 270 pps.

7. February 6. Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess. 235 pps.

6. January 31. Bang Crunch, by Neil Smith. 244 pps.

5. January 26. A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories, by Edna O'Brien. 159 pps.

4. January 22. The Case of Lena S., by David Bergen. 286 pps.

3. January 15. Misshapenness, by J.J. Steinfeld. 121 pps.

2. January 12. Vinyl Cafe Unplugged, by Stuart McLean. 280 pps.

1. January 7. The Birth House, by Ami McKay. 387 pps.