Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review: A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories, by Edna O’Brien

A reviewer recently wrote: “Edna O'Brien was the first Irish woman ever to have sex … the rest just had children.” There is some evidence of this, erm, groundbreaking achievement in A Scandalous Woman, her short story collection originally published in 1974. These eight stories are populated with women who discover both the joy and the anguish that sex can bring – via extramarital affairs, coupling out of wedlock, illegitimate children, and even sexual coercion – and do so in the shadow of the three pillars of oppression in their lives: Ireland, the Catholic Church and, I suppose, Men with a capital M.

For those of you who like short stories that come with a subtle undercurrent of hope, like you’d find in many of the works by Alice Munro or Lorrie Moore, this is not the collection for you. A Scandalous Woman is unapologetically bleak, with nearly all of the stories ending on a soul-crushing note. The last sentence from the title piece sums up the atmosphere of the entire collection: “…I thought ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder and a land of strange sacrificial women.”

To her credit, O’Brien is an incredibly lyrical writer and her descriptive powers in these pieces are almost always pitch perfect. I found myself, for example, pausing for quite some time to marvel over a simple description of wallpaper in the story “The House of My Dreams”. Her sentences teem with as much keen observation as they do with venom.

But more to the point: O’Brien has a cold-eyed and unflinching way of looking at the world as she knows it: the women of her generation (she was born in 1932) living in Ireland, and all the senseless suffering that such an existence can bring. In each one of these stories, she is committed to telling the truth as best as she sees it. She does not look away from the hard facts and difficult truths of her characters’ lives. And really, that’s the best that we can ask from an author.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Happy Robbie Burns Day

To all you Scots or Scots-at-heart, I wish ye all a Happy Robert Burns Day. Normally I’m in a jovial mood on this day of the year – turning my thoughts to Haggis and a nice glass of the Glenmorangie whilst reading lines from my favourite of the Romantic poets. Today I’m not jovial. Today I’m under the weather and pissy. I’m still recovering from an on-again, off-again head cold (mostly on-again) and a bone-numbing exhaustion, both of which plagued me all weekend long.

Not that I had time to be sick this weekend, as all three days were action packed. Friday night I was off to Duggans Brewery for drinks with friends. Despite making a reservation, we arrived to see a sign on the restaurant door that read ‘Closed for a private function’. Because the restaurant couldn’t get a hold of us to let us know about the change of plans, they did honour our reservation, allowed us to join the party, and even gave us drink tickets and free food. I would’ve had even more fun had I not been so feverish and been able to stay sentient for the majority of the evening. My friends have since gone on to (rightly) mock me on Facebook. Comments have included ‘He was asleep the whole time!’ and ‘I don’t think I saw his eyes once after 9!’ This is what I get for drinking on an empty stomach and with a temperature.

Saturday night my parents were visiting Toronto from PEI, and so a crew of us went out for supper in lovely Greek Town. Because they drove up (intrepid, those two), my folks were able to bring me the one Christmas present that was too large to fit in my luggage when I flew back to Toronto last month: a giant rice cooker. So giant, in fact, that we had to hide it under the restaurant table until we were done eating. So if anyone saw a group of happy, well-fed people walking down Danforth Ave. on Saturday night lugging a giant cardboard box toward the Pape subway station, that was us.

Sunday, RR and I headed to Hamilton for a lovely going-away party for one of her friends. By the middle of the day I was convinced I had this whole illness thing licked, but then woke up this morning feeling like someone had broken into my apartment and beat me up in my sleep.

So here I am, feeling the shitty and sorry for myself on the great Robbie Burns Day, scowling at the sky and checking every street corner to see if it has one of Martin Amis’ ‘euthanasia booths’ that I could use. I don’t think Robert Burns ever wrote a poem about being stuffed up/feverish/hung over/mocked by friends; the closest thing I’ve found is this piece, “Address to the Toothache”. While my teeth are (for now) perfectly fine, it does sum up the spirit of how the rest of me is feeling today. Enjoy!

Address to the Toothache
by Robert Burns

My curse upon your venom'd stang,
That shoots my tortur'd gums alang,
An' thro' my lug gies mony a twang,
Wi' gnawing vengeance;
Tearing my nerves wi' bitter pang,
Like racking engines!

When fevers burn, or argues freezes,
Rheumatics gnaw, or colics squeezes,
Our neibor's sympathy can ease us,
Wi' pitying moan;
But thee-thou hell o' a' diseases,
Aye mocks our groan.

A'down my beard the slavers trickle
I cast the wee stools o'er the meikle,
While round the fire the giglets keckle,
To see me loup,
While, raving mad, I wish a heckle
Were in their doup!

O' a' the numerous human dools,
Ill hairsts, daft bargains, cutty stools,
Or worthy frien's rak'd i' the mools,
Sad sight to see!
The tricks o' knaves, or fash o' fools,
Thou bear'st the gree!

Where'er that place be priests ca' hell,
Where a' the tones o' misery yell,
An' ranked plagues their numbers tell,
In dreadfu' raw,
Thou, Toothache, surely bear'st the bell,

Amang them a'!
O thou grim mischief-making chiel,
That gars the notes o' discord squeel,
Till daft mankind aft dance a reel
In gore, a shoe-thick,
Gie a' the faes o' Scotland's weal
A townmond's toothache!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: The Case of Lena S., by David Bergen

David Bergen has pulled off quite a feat in this novel. He has written a story centred around teenagers going through many of the horribly angst-ridden and overblown things that teenagers go through; and yet the book itself is not horrible, or angst-ridden, or overblown. Far from it. The Case of Lena S. is a quietly beautiful and exquisitely crafted work of contemporary fiction. A real gem.

The strength lies in Bergen’s prose, in his ability to imbue emotional significance to the small, quotidian details of life. The story involves a 16-year-old high school student named Mason and his on-again, off-again relationship with a troubled, depressive, suicidal girl named Lena. The novel is obsessed with how the inner lives of its characters jar against the external world, especially the characters’ own bodies. This a very visceral novel: there are some wonderfully astute descriptions of arms and feet and necks, of the “blue bone” of someone’s shin, and they lend a physical counterpoint to the emotional downward spiral that consumes Lena. As Mason puts it to her: “It’s all so thin … I mean the wall between the outside and the inside.’ He touched Lena’s arm. ‘What we’re made of. Sometimes I can’t believe it.’”

Bergen takes some extraordinary risks in this novel – risks that paid off for me but may not for every reader. Some people may interpret this book as merely expressing a multitude of 16-old-boy fantasies through the prism of a skillful adult writer. The lesbian love scene between sisters. Lena’s convincing of Mason to have anal sex with her. The scene where Lena has broken Mason’s heart and yet pleads with him for help after getting into a terrible situation with another guy she’s picked up in a bar. These episodes form a bewitching patchwork that may leave some readers disturbed and a little bit incredulous.

But 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. Much like Bergen’s novel The Time in Between (which I’ve also read and loved), this book is a stellar work of fiction that rewards close reading. Go check it out.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Paul Quarrington: 1953 - 2010

News this morning that author and musician Paul Quarrington has died from his battle with lung cancer. Quarrington was an award-winning writer who won, among other things, the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. I've read only one of his books (Whale Music), but know he had built up a loyal readership from across the country over the years.

He'll be missed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tell us what you really think, Susan

I stumbled upon this rather feisty rant against the “democratization” of writing on the website for The Spectator, that fabled right-wing rag out of Britain. It seems the author was asked to contribute a short story to some fringe festival to be posted anonymously on a wall alongside other anonymous short stories – some written by published authors, some written by amateurs, including school children, as a kind of exhibit, or something. The author, Susan Hill (I know, I don’t have a clue who she is either), is infuriated that someone would dare propose such an idea to her, a professional author with “a good degree in English” who has studied her craft for 50 years and published some 43 books. She takes what sounds like a well-meaning (or at least innocuous) proposition and turns it into an opportunity to embrace her inner curmudgeon, railing against marginalized peoples, the disadvantaged, the displaced, or anyone else who may have gotten a leg up on all her decades of drudgery because of their circumstances. She sounds off on the Internet while she’s at it, and laments how quality writing is getting drowned out by the noise of shoddy online amateurism.

Let me say that I agree with the spirit of Ms. Hill’s column. Writing is a difficult craft: it takes years of training and practice and reading the masters to do it well. What’s more, it’s often thankless and ill paying and prone to cause long bouts of self-loathing or feuds with one’s mother. (I’m looking at you, Houellebecq.) And it’s always frustrating to those of us who do write professionally to see subpar, unschooled work getting undue attention. Or to see someone argue that there is no inherit hierarchy of value from one piece to the next, that they’re all “equal”. By why spew such hatred at groups of people whom you can only describe with the most hackneyed of clichés? Can I really trust you as a novelist if you see the world in such simplistic, one-dimensional terms?

Ms. Hill should be proud of her accomplishments and leave it at that. After all, she won the Somerset Maugham Prize and the Whitbread Book Award back in the early `70s. And then, 15 years later, something called the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize. (Thanks, Internet, for the research help!) And now she writes for The Spectator. She should let the babies have their bottle and get back to working on brilliant books that none of us are equipped to appreciate.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Another indy bookstore bites the dust

The Afterword posted a depressing piece about the closing of Duthie Books in Vancouver earlier today. This is yet another high-profile independent bookseller who has gone out of business in the last year. (The other closings I'm thinking about are Frog Hollow Books in Halifax and Pages Bookstore and McNally Robinson here in Toronto.)

Mark my words: five years from now the only place to buy books in this country will be online at Amazon or in small Ch-Indi-Coles outlets in malls.



Friday, January 15, 2010

Review: Misshapenness, by J.J. Steinfeld

I hesitate to label this a review because I’ve known J.J. Steinfeld for five or six years now and he has become a good friend. J.J. moved to Charlottetown in 1980 after abandoning grad school in Ontario to become a full-time writer, and in the years since has quietly amassed a varied and impressive body of work – some 13 books, including two novels, nine short story collections, and two collections of poems, of which Misshapenness, published by Ekstasis Editions just before Christmas, is the second.

Not nearly enough readers are aware of J.J.’s work. In fact, despite having grown up in Charlottetown, I didn’t even learn of his existence until I was nearly 30. You may not see many of his books around, but if you’re a big reader of literary journals here in Canada, you’ve no doubt encountered J.J.’s stuff. This man has been published everywhere. You’d be hard pressed to find a single literary journal in this country that hasn’t published at least one of his stories or poems over the years.

The poems collected in Misshapenness (many of which were previously published in journals in Canada, the US, Britain and even South America) pick up on the themes that J.J. explored in his first poetry collection, 2006’s An Affection for Precipices. His preoccupation with the absurdity of daily existence, with the Kafkaesque turns that life can throw at us, as well as with the lingering effects of the Holocaust on the children of its survivors (of which J.J. is one) are all here. And yet I found that Misshapenness affected me more than anything else of his that I’ve read. It’s a powerful distillation of what he has been exploring, book after book, for the last 30 years. There is a line in the collection’s opening poem that captures so perfectly what J.J.’s lifelong work has been trying to record: “the heartbeats of madness overheard.”

These are poems that bear witness to and shake a fist at the very notion of evil, of senseless and unpredictable chaos, of the randomness of both joy and pain. But before you go thinking that this is all too bleakly existential to bare, take heart: so many of these poems are teeming with humanity and a profound tenderness. The closing stanza of “The Sun Aglow in Wisdom” left me brimming with hope: “another morning/the sun aglow in wisdom/and I feel devout”. And I smiled all the way through his poem “During the Unhappiest Happy Hour”, wondering if love really does weigh more than sadness, if my insecurities will ever be lighter than my arrogance.

J.J. addresses the idea of God in a number of these poems, but I wonder if Misshapenness comes at itself with an atheistic sensibility. It’s as if the collection is saying: life is a window of chaos between two infinite periods of oblivion, and there is much to witness there in the randomness, both cruel and beautiful. It is really all we have. It is our unhappiest of happy hours.

And how bewitching, that such an idea would fill me with hope.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

P.K. Page: 1916 - 2010

I was sad to hear the news this afternoon that famed Canadian poet P.K. Page has passed away at the age of 93. I'm a big fan of her collected work, The Hidden Room: Volume One, published by the Porcupine's Quill in 1997. (Question: does anyone know if the Quill ever published any subsequent volumes?) I also had the pleasure of reviewing Page's short story collection Up on the Roof for a newspaper in Guelph about three years ago. We lost a great poet today, a keen observer of the world in which we live. May she rest in peace.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review: Vinyl Café Unplugged, by Stuart McLean

My sister gave me this book as part of my Christmas present this year, presumably because she knows that I had listened to and been a fan of Stuart McLean’s radio show for a while there. (I even got to interview him once, back in the `90s when I was an undergrad in journalism.) Truth be told, I haven’t tuned in to The Vinyl Café in quite some time but was willing to give this, a collection of 14 of McLean’s Dave and Morley stories, a chance.

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. Anyone who has listened to the show knows that McLean recites his stories with a strange (but often endearing) kind of cadence, as if his sentences are delightfully marred with ill-placed em-dashes and italics: “The rhythms of Geechie Wiley’s voice—uncorked the bottle of time. Dave was—hit with the same—wave of emotion that…” etc. And often, when the audience begins to chuckle in advance of his inevitable punch lines, McLean will chide, “Now don’t get ahead of me!”

After reading this book, I realize what function these aspects of his show serve: to mask an appalling amateurism to McLean’s prose style and storytelling skills. I mean, good grief. It wasn’t just the unearned sentimentality and all the Privileged Boomer Nostalgia that annoyed the hell out of me. It was so much more. McLean has a tin ear for the music of a well-chosen detail: random irrelevancies are lobbed into the text without so much as an explanation or hint toward meaning. Characters (including animals) don’t think or act in ways that resemble anything belonging to the real world, which would be fine provided they maintained their own kooky inner cohesion to go along with the improbable leaps in logic and subsequent slapstick. Except, they don’t. Dave’s neighbour Mary Turlington, for example, is presented as a tight-ass and conservative chartered accountant, and yet allows her criminal lawyer husband to invite gangsters home for dinner. At one point, Dave thinks that the Turlingtons probably don’t earn much more than he and Morley. Really? He runs a used record store and she works for a theatre company. I mean—come on.

I must admit, Vinyl Café Unplugged did get marginally better as the stories went on. “Susan is Serious” ends quite beautifully, with a touching scene between Morley and her son Sam that possesses just the right amount – i.e. a light dusting – of pathos. And McLean achieves an eerily powerful ventriloquism in the letter that makes up the bulk of “Love Never Ends” – even if the story itself devolves into cringe-worthy sappiness by the last page.

McLean needs to learn that less is often more when it comes to good prose, and that real humour, enduring humour, comes not from cheap antics and implausible scenarios, but from the kind of writing that allows the reader’s imagination to do ninety percent of the work.

Self Style vs. Self Plagiarism

Fascinating article on authors who repeat themselves in their books over at the UK Guardian. This is something I often worry about with my own stuff as I work through the various drafts of my second novel. Am I repeating certain images or leitmotifs from the first book? Am I repurposing particular themes or even whole plot points? Is my style distinctive, or merely repetitive?

On the one hand, most authors want to develop their own signature voice and approach to literature, want to have an overarching vision that encompasses more than one book. On the other hand, no author wants (consciously or unconsciously) to keep writing the same novel or short story over and over again - although some, sadly, do.

Anyway, the article "outs" a few big-name perpetrators of iffy repetition. It's these kinds of reoccuring leitmotifs that have made me hesitant about reading the new John Irving novel, for example. Still, I applaud any writer who attempts to balance a unifying vision for his/her work with trying to say something fresh and new. Believe me: it's a lot harder than it looks.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Review: The Birth House, by Ami McKay

I was very happy to finally crack the covers of The Birth House by Ami McKay this past week. I’ve known about this novel for a while but bought a copy only after reading about it in more detail in Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books (where it ranked #12), co-written by my good friend Trevor J. Adams.

McKay’s novel deserves all the kudos it has gotten. Packaged as a story about midwifery and traditional medicine coming to heads with modern science, The Birth House has a lot more going on than just that. This is a compelling novel about women living in rural Nova Scotia fighting for control over their own sexuality and their own health, set against both the ardent religiosity and quack science of the early 20th century. But it’s also about the secret lives that women lead and keep hidden from their men – lives full of home remedies, juicy gossip and DIY contraception. The novel’s structure is part diary and part scrapbook (my edition even includes recipes and home remedies at the back; will file a report should I attempt any of them), which suits the atmosphere that McKay has created very well.

What I loved most about The Birth House was how well McKay was able to weave in the history of her novel’s setting into both her plot and her themes. World War I, the Halifax Explosion, the Suffragist movement the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918 aren’t just part of the background: they all play a pivotal role in protagonist Dora Rare’s development as a character and in what the novel is trying to say about the healing nature of community and women’s roles in it.

There were a few aspects of The Birth House that did bug me. It partakes in a trend I’ve seen emerging in a lot of big-ticket Canadian novels recently, what I like to call the Completely Gratuitous Trip to the Eastern United States (see Clara Callan; see the later novels of Wayne Johnston). I’m not sure I entirely bought Dora’s extended stay in Boston as a natural part of this novel’s story. Also, I did wish McKay had given a bit more dimension to most of the male characters in the book. They are almost always cold, cruel and close minded – mere foils to be thwarted by the cleverness of a woman. It gives the book a lopsided, biased feel.

But despite these flaws, I found myself nearly cheering by the time I reached the last page. McKay has assembled a wonderful historical novel full of joy and humanity. The Birth House has earned its place among the great books of both Atlantic Canada and the country at large.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Room and Board

I’ve never been much for trinkets of success. Maybe it’s my rugged PEI upbringing, but I’ve always associated getting excited about little mementos of achievement with somehow resting on my laurels. Whenever I accomplish a significant milestone in my life (example: publishing my first novel), I tend to give myself nothing more than a hearty little nod of approval before moving on to whatever I’ve deemed to be my next big task (example: writing a second novel). I don’t like this aspect of myself, but it’s always the way I’ve been.

So the other day I was rooting around in the closet of my writing office looking for some computer paper when I came upon the poster board that my first book’s publisher, Norwood Publishing, did for my launch in the fall of 2007. Talk about an in-your-face icon of achievement. The thing is massively ostentatious: a four-feet-by-three-feet high-res print of my novel’s cover that had been sitting in the back of that closet, still sealed in the cardboard in which it had been shipped to me, for more than a year. I should mention that my office closet is a mess, a sloppily organized pit of old anthologies I’ve appeared in, boxes of books and manuscripts, and bags of letters from friends, back when people actually wrote letters; so it’s no surprise that I had forgotten all about the poster board. I should also mention (as I have on my website) that unfortunately, Norwood Publishing shut down its operations about a year after my book came out. The publisher, Robert Humble, graciously gave me the poster board when I bought a chunk of the remaining inventory from him.

It was really never my intention to take the poster board out and display it in my office. It just seemed too boastful, and if there’s one emotion in myself that’s always made me feel uncomfortable, it’s pride. Don’t get me wrong: I was/am proud of whatever modest successes the book had during its run before Norwood went under. But when it was over, I was ready to move on to my next big project with my trademark austerity and diligence.

Only, something has changed. While I was home over Christmas, I travelled to attend a house party in a Maritime city where I had done a couple of readings from the novel back when it first came out. While there, I ran into a number of people who had read Off Book, enjoyed it a great deal and were genuinely interested in asking what else I’m working on. I was blown away. Like so many other authors who go with a small press their first time around, I just assumed my book had slipped beneath the waves without much notice once its initial run was over. I was so touched that people had read it, enjoyed it, and were kind of enough to say as much when they saw me. It reminded me that the book is still out there, still alive in some small way, still worthy of, well, a little bit of pride.

So I’m proud to announce that I’ve propped up the board in my writing room (still need to figure out how the hell I’m going to hang it) as a token of that accomplishment. I still think it’s way too big and loud and boastful, but I’m willing to live with it. It’s certainly a lot cooler that most of the stuff on my office walls, which includes a framed letter from 2005 informing me that I no longer owe any money on my student loans. Ahh, accomplishments …


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My Q&Q review of Stephen Finucan's novel The Fallen

Just noticed that my Quill & Quire review of Stephen Finucan's stellar novel The Fallen, published a few months back, is now available online. While Finucan's book didn't make my top 10 list this past year (although it was very, very close), it remains a fantastic read and a wonderfully crafted work of fiction. You should check it out.

This was the first of a couple of reviews I've written for Q&Q recently. I got the gig after meeting the mag's reviews editor Steven Beattie at a reading earlier this year, and, to borrow a Gumpism, he and I got on like peas and carrots. I'm hoping I'll get to write some more stuff for them in the future.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

2009: My reading year in review

Okay, so one of the reasons for launching "Free Range Reading" was to have a platform to publish the fun little summary of my reading year that I've been posting to Facebook over the last couple of years. I put this together over the weekend and re-post it here to you, the wider (i.e. not limited to my 187 Facebook-friend) audience. Enjoy!
I want to begin my annual review by mentioning a little tidbit about the reading experience that I picked up during my travels this year. I can’t remember who said this – it was either famed literary editor Diana Athill in her excellent memoir Stet, or fellow memoirist Nuala O’Faolain in her recent interview with the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel – but it stuck with me. Readers of books can be grouped into two broad camps: those who treat literature as merely one form of escapism among many (i.e. they might read or they might go to the movies or they might watch something on TV); and those who treat literature as something a bit more serious, something that transcends mere entertainment to help us discover the diversity and richness of the human experience.

After reading (or hearing?) this, I began to see how most of the books I’ve come to cherish are written with the latter group in mind; and the books that routinely disappoint or annoy me seem written under the presumption that everyone fits into the former group, that the very notion of a “serious” reader is a tired anachronism.

Each of the books on my top 10 list this year were entertaining in one way or another but also achieved something deeper. I walked away from them feeling the way you should after a serious read – enriched. Some were more challenging than others, but all of them rewarded serious attention and made me want to recommend these books to other serious readers. Conversely, most of my top five disappointments were packaged and marketed (and, in some cases, even widely reviewed) as “serious literature”, and yet revealed an untenable streak of superficiality or were flawed in some fundamental way. Most took some sort of short cut or low road and hoped the reader wouldn’t be equipped to notice.

As always, you can check out my previous year-end reviews (available here and here, as well as my comprehensive reading log. And by all means please leave a comment below.

Top 10 books I read this year

  • Inside, by Kenneth Harvey. With cold-eyed prose reminiscent of Coetzee, Newfoundland author Kenneth Harvey unleashes his tale of a wrongfully convicted man released from prison and his attempts to reset his life. This novel deals with some pretty hefty themes – guilt and redemption, love and revenge – but what struck me was how well Harvey handles the quotidian detail of life on the wrong side of the tracks. He shows that violence can erupt from even the most mundane, everyday exchanges, and this lends a gripping tension to the book that never subsides. The ending will leave you feverish.

  • A Strange Relief, by Sonnet L’Abbe. I already knew of L’Abbe as a poetry critic and was pleased when I finally found a copy of this, her debut collection of poems, in a used bookstore. L’Abbe’s voice arrives on these pages already well seasoned, bursting with a talent and wisdom that is at once disarming and welcoming. Her masterpiece “The Potter’s Daughter” was the single best poem I read all year; and her piece “Cheju” brought back some wonderful emotions from my visit to that island off the southern coast of Korea in 2004. This is an astute and astounding collection of verse.

  • Babel Tower, by A.S. Byatt. I’m going out on a limb and declaring that Babel Tower was the best book I read this year, the most accomplished on this list. I cannot recommend this novel enough. Ironically, I struggled with it at first and nearly gave up after about 200 pages, but returned and finished the remaining 400 with relish. I’m so grateful that I toughed it out. Byatt gives a near miraculous dimension to her subject matters: the abused wife on the lam, the postmodern novel that stirs controversy and censorship, the backbiting of literary criticism. Not once does Byatt’s voice turn preachy; not once does this novel take a short cut or sink into cliché. The nested novel within a novel is structurally perfect, and every character (including a violent husband who stalks the protagonist) is drawn with rich coherence. Babel Tower is major landmark of English literature.

  • The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. Winner of the 2008 Booker Prize, this highly praised novel was one of the few I read this year that actually lived up to its hype. I like to refer to The White Tiger as the anti-Rohinton Mistry novel. Adiga’s take on modern-day India is cutting and acerbic, showing how the country’s caste system fits rather nicely into the more odious aspects of globalization. You’ll never look at outsourcing the same way again.

  • Money, by Martin Amis. Ahh, Mr. Amis, what plaudits can I heap on this novel that a gazillion critics haven’t since it was first published 25 years ago? The wit, the turns of phrase, the scathing critique of `80s greed. I will add this: you get the “voice” novel, Mr. Amis. I mean, you really really get it. And to you, the uninitiated reader, I say don’t fear John Self. Just kick back with your favourite bottle of duty free and let him carry you away. A golden handjob – erm, excuse me, handshake – awaits you when you finish.

  • My White Planet, by Mark Anthony Jarman. With so much riding against Jarman for getting the recognition he deserves here in Canada, it’s great to see him continue to produce the kind of short fiction that he does. This latest collection is a tour de force, full of hardscrabble men living on the edge and dealing with its incumbent tragedies and violence. Readers of Jarman’s previous stories will not be disappointed: the grit is here, and so too is his pyrotechnic use of language. The title story is the strongest in this very strong collection.

  • Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore. I learned of this short story collection after listening to Moore’s “Dance in America” as part of The New Yorker’s short story podcast series. The piece impressed me so much that I ran out and bought the entire collection. Turns out, it’s not even the strongest story in the book. (That honour belongs to “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk”, a story about parents dealing with a child with cancer.) Moore is a wonderful stylist and her stories are full of warmth and wit. Readers will find her work a wonderful complement to anything by Alice Munro.

  • Galore, by Michael Crummey. This is one of the few new hardcover Canadian novels I read this year, and I really felt it should have gotten more attention during awards season than it did. (It was shut out of both the Giller Prize and the Writers Trust Award.) Critics seemed to love it, citing the debt that the book owes to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Galore is a manic amalgam of magic realism and multigenerational historical writing, with charming, fully realized characters and impeccable research. For me, this book cements Crummey’s place as the top practitioner of the sweeping Newfoundland historical novel. Wayne Johnston will need to publish a masterpiece in his next outing to win that title back.

  • The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood. I was long overdue to read this early Atwood book and I was so pleased that I finally got around to it. The politics of this novel are about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but that in no way detracts from Atwood’s structural abilities and consummate skills as a storyteller. Every aspect in this tale of a young woman struggling against the patriarchal norms of consumerism fits together superbly. Marion’s inability to eat in the face of radical changes to her internal and external existence is the perfectly chosen metaphor. Even the absurdist ending, where Marion eats a cake decorated to look like herself, felt apt and seamless.

  • How Fiction Works, by James Wood. This will make for entertaining and illuminating reading for anyone attempting to write serious literary fiction. Wood, The New Yorker’s leading literary critic, translates his didactical approach to book reviewing into a full-length dissertation on how fiction works. His concepts of free indirect narration style and the “thisness” of well-chosen details are groundbreaking. Wood refers to countless works of classic literature to make points on everything from characterization to writing about big-T truths. It’s as if he holds the entire western canon in his palm at once and is able to leverage any and all of it at will. There are no other writing manuals out there quite like this one.

Top five disappointments this year

  • The Cult of Quick Repair, by Dede Crane. I picked up this short story collection after reading a couple of positive reviews, but was left sourly disappointed. Crane attempts to capture a lot of the same charm and insight of Lisa Moore’s better works, but her efforts come off as shallow and dull. This collection is a meringue of chick lit served up as if it were a full meal of literature.

  • The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill. One of the panelists on this year’s Canada Reads radio show referred to Aminata, the plucky protagonist of Hill’s novel, as the Forrest Gump of Canadian literature – never thinking or saying or doing anything that isn’t flawless. I couldn’t agree more. The Book of Negroes has a lot of interesting writing but is ultimately undermined by its too-perfect narrator and wholly implausible plots. The section set in Nova Scotia is especially preposterous and feels tacked on. This is the sort of book that is beloved by those who don’t read very much or very closely.

  • The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Stephen Galloway. One of the most over-hyped, over-praised Canadian novels of recent years. I can barely express how much I hated this book. Galloway’s prose style is like walking in platform shoes on an air mattress – all cautious fumbling and crazy imbalances. The clichés and dull sentences just pile up one right after the other. The novel’s structure is beyond predictable: I constantly found myself three steps ahead of the characters, the narration, and Galloway himself. He writes about snipers and sniping with all the sensitivity and insight of a pornographer. And worst of all, he makes no attempt to grapple with the politics that underscored the conflict in Sarajevo. He’s more interested in putting on a snuff film of bullets leaving guns and entering innocent humans. This book was a complete waste of my time.

  • Crackpot, by Adele Wiseman. I picked up this novel after The Globe and Mail’s Books section featured it in its “buried treasures” column. I had read Wiseman’s The Sacrifice years ago and loved it, but I couldn’t for the life of me finish Crackpot. The problem is that, despite its engaging lead character Hoda and her story about life as a small-community prostitute, the novel has a narration that just can’t find a place to sit. Everything that comes to pass is presented as hearsay, with no overarching frame that holds the whole story together. It’s as if the novel is written in a kind of hyper-past tense, and the reader is never quite sure where the “here and now” resides.

  • Scar Tissue, by Michael Ignatieff. There’s a lot to love in this 1993 novel by the current leader of Canada’s only moderate national political party, but its flaws definitely shout down its strengths. Scar Tissue is a failed novel because it can’t tame the sections that want to be a memoir and a philosophical treatise. Ignatieff writes with gorgeous sensitivity about the decline and death of the mother in his story, but the novel has too many ostensible preoccupations and doesn’t arise naturally out of itself. Iggy has gone on record as saying that his novel-writing was a mere hobby, and unfortunately Scar Tissue proves him right.

Here’s a comprehensive list of what I read this year.

68. December 31. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. 340 pps.
67. December 24. Pause for Breath, by Robyn Sarah. 81 pps.
66. December 23. All My Friends Are Superheroes, by Andrew Kaufman. 111 pps.
65. December 20. Meniscus, by Shane Neilson. 93 pps.
64. December 19. Track & Trace, by Zachariah Wells, decorated by Seth. 69 pps.
63. December 18. One Way, One Heart - Alden Nowlan: A Writer's Life. 367 pps.
62. December 8. The Diviners, by Rick Moody. 567 pps.
61. November 23. Atlantic Canada's 100 Greatest Books, by Trevor J. Adams and Stephen Patrick Clare. 229 pps.
60. November 20. How Fiction Works, by James Wood. 248 pps.
59. November 16. The Amazing Absorbing Boy, by Rabindranath Maharaj. 335 pps. [For review in Quill & Quire.]
58. November 9. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton. 363 pps.
57. November 3. The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. 189 pps.
56. October 28. What Boys Like, by Amy Jones. 223 pps. [For review in Halifax magazine.]
55. October 24. Glenn Gould, by Mark Kingwell. (Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series). 249 pps.
54. October 19. Slant Room, by Michael Eden Reynolds. 92 pps.
53. October 18. The Journey Prize 21: Stories, selected by Camilla Gibb, Lee Henderson and Rebecca Rosenblum. 265 pps.
52. October 13. The Laundromat Essay, by Kyle Buckley. 79 pps.
51. October 12. Quickening, by Terry Griggs. 156 pps.
50. October 6. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry. 416 pps.
49. September 26. Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 147 pps.
48. September 22. The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood. 319 pps.
47. September 14. Scar Tissue, by Michael Ignatieff. 199 pps.
46. September 9. Galore, by Michael Crummey. 336 pps.
45. September 1. Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore. 291 pps.
44. August 26. My White Planet, by Mark Anthony Jarman. 213 pps.
43. August 23. Salt Physic, by Jacqueline Larson. 77 pps.
42. August 22. The Waterfall, by Margaret Drabble. 238 pps.
41. August 18. Inside Mr. Enderby, by Anthony Burgess. 220 pps.
40. August 14. Dusklands, by J.M. Coetzee. 125 pps.
39. August 10. Money, by Martin Amis. 394
38. August 2. Crackpot, by Adele Wiseman (unfinished). 101 pps.
37. July 27. How Insensitive, by Russell Smith. 258 pps.
36. July 23. The Glass Knight, by David Helwig. 190 pps.
35. July 19. Runaway, by Alice Munro. 335 pps.
34. July 10. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. 276 pps.
33. July 4. The Withdrawal Method, by Pasha Malla. 321 pps.
32. June 27. Crabwise to the Hounds, by Jeramy Dodds. 71 pps.
31. June 26. Word Burials, by J.J. Steinfeld. 250 pps.
30. June 21. The Fallen, by Stephen Finucan. 204 pps. [For review in Quill & Quire.]
29. June 18. The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway. 261 pps.
28. June 14. The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander. 339 pps.
27. June 9. Shut Up He Explained, by John Metcalf. 398 pps.
26. May 31. The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad (partial - left it behind at a bar. D'oh!) - about 150 pages.
24 (b). May 28. Babel Tower, by A.S. Byatt. (the rest) 407 pps.
25. May 18. The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. 278 pps.
24 (a). May 12. Babel Tower, by A.S. Byatt. (partial) 211 pps.
23. May 4. S., a novel in [xxx] dreams, by Lee D. Thompson. 79 pps.
22. May 3. How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen. 306 pps.
21. April 26. Collected Short Stories: Volume 1, by W. Somerset Maugham. 441 pps.
20. April 19. The Razor's Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham. 314 pps.
19. April 9. Short Haul Engine, by Karen Solie. 82 pps.
18. April 8. Once, by Rebecca Rosenblum. 203 pps.
17. April 3. Stet: An Editor's Life, by Diana Athill. 250 pps.
16. March 29. A Strange Relief, by Sonnet L'Abbe. 88 pps.
15. March 28. Martin Sloane, by Michael Redhill. 282 pps.
14. March 22. Lives of the Saints, by Nino Ricci. 238 pps.
13. March 16. is/was, by Jenny Sampirisi. 182 pps.
12. March 14. Couples, by John Updike. 480 pps.
11. March 4. The Art of the Novel, by Milan Kundera. 165 pps.
10. March 1. Alligator, by Lisa Moore. 309 pps.
9. February 23. The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. 391 pps.
8. February 17. Fierce, by Hannah Holborn. 230 pps. [ Reviewed in The Danforth Review.]
7. February 12. The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill. 486 pps.
6. February 2. The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, by Wallace Stevens, edited by Holly Stevens. 415 pps.
5. January 25. The Cult of Quick Repair, by Dede Crane. 208 pps.
4. January 22. Strike/Slip, by Don McKay. 78 pps.
3. January 21. Flaubert: A Life, by Geoffrey Wall. 413 pps.
2. January 11. Inside, by Kenneth J. Harvey. 282 pps.
1. January 7. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. 341 pps.

What's in a name?

After a lot of feet dragging and second thoughts, I’ve finally decided to get this blog off the ground. I had set up “Free Range Reading” about a year ago but promptly abandoned my plans to start posting because I was just too dang busy. I’m still too dang busy, but the blogging urge (blurge?) has not gone away, so here I am.

Why “Free Range Reading”? I guess because that phrase sums my relationship to books and literature rather nicely. After I completed my MA in creative writing, a lot of people asked me if I would go on to do a PhD. My answer was always a resounding no, as I was afraid that specializing in one field of literature would interfere with my “free range reading”. I think I made the right choice.

So what can you expect from this blog? I’m planning to post comments on most of the 60-odd books I read during the course of any given year. Most will be short, but hopefully I’ll find the time to write something a bit more substantial for some. I’m also hoping to post little tidbits from around the literary universe to which I belong, as well as developments from my own writing career as they (if they?) arise. And lastly, what blog would be complete without the occasional day-to-day inanity? Don’t worry – I promise to be clever!

Finally: Just in case your curious about my reading patterns, you can always check out my static website for the comprehensive reading log I’ve been keeping since 2004. If you want to discuss any of the books, by all means drop me a line!