Saturday, December 03, 2016


Crosstalk / Connie Willis
New York: Del Rey, c2016
498 p.

This was one of my favourite reads of this year -- I've already read it 3 times! Yes, twice in pre-pub and once immediately after it was released this October. It's so much fun.

I really like Connie Willis' work so was looking forward to this one anyhow...but wasn't expecting to like it so much that I'd read it twice in one week ;)

It's an entertaining story with lots of great banter, a clever idea driving it, and two fun leads. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that it has a great scene in a library - it's the heart of the book, in my opinion. Willis takes the idea of constant connectivity, the modern fear of being alone, FOMO, and our dependence on technology to their extremes here, as the drive for 24 hour availability turns into telepathic connection...which isn't as great as it might seem.

Briddey Flannigan is an exec at a phone company that is trying to come up with something that will outdo Apple's next release. Her office is both frenetic and weirdly underpopulated, but like other Willis books, corporate life is bonkers and part of the chaos of the heroine's life. Her family of women is also a bit frenetic; she gets constant calls and texts from her sisters, aunt, and 9 year old niece Maeve. She has definite issues with boundaries; she takes all the calls, she lets her family show up in her office and at her home whenever they feel like it, and now her new boyfriend Trent (a coworker) has asked her to get an EED -- a new technology implanted into the brain to help you sense your partner's emotions better -- and she just says yes without much concern about the effects. Her family and another coworker, the basement dwelling genius/nerd CB Schwartz, both think it's a terrible idea. 

She goes ahead with it, and the effects are not quite what she expected... and that's just in the first few chapters! I loved the story around Briddey, her family and her love interest. I thought the romance was engaging and entertaining, and I was swept off my readerly feet by CB. Some of her coworkers and the corporate plot are a bit sketchy, in both senses...up to no good and also pretty thinly drawn. But the main characters were fun.

Willis' habit of having characters miss their connections, run around madly, miscommunicate, and more, is in full flower in this book. Briddey can't seem to slow down long enough to look at her situation and figure out how to solve it, instead she bounces around like a pinball, reacting instead of acting. I did find her a bit annoying at the start and the chaos a little bit over the top -- but I quickly adjusted to the story and ended up enjoying it despite Briddey's flaws -- ie: she is apparently a gorgeous red-head but feels awkward to herself - quite Bridget Jones-like, actually. I read that some people felt Briddey was too 'dumb' or clueless, but I thought she was fine; she was preoccupied and distracted a lot, and didn't figure things out as quickly as the reader, but it works for the book. Besides, I have a real-life friend who can come across as what some might think of as ditzy like Briddey, but despite the whirlwind that follows her around, she is extremely intelligent and superbly capable -- so Briddey was easy for me to believe in. The most annoying thing about Briddey is her name: I pronounce it Bride-y in my head as that's the Irish name I know, but the spelling here seems to indicate Bridd-y -- which is a terrible name -- though there's no standard spelling I prefer a more readable one. 

Anyhow, this book was a romp. Despite some inconsistencies in the plot and a tendency to go on a bit at times, it's a nice light read from one of my favourite authors. There's no dark twist or heartbreak in it, just light, sparkling, amusing storytelling. The use of the library in the middle of the story is really special and is a part I went back to - imagining that beautiful space and the peace that Briddey finally finds there.

If you like classic romantic comedy that is a bit speculative & a lot about the characters, you will probably like this one too. For any Willis fan, it echoes both plot points from Bellwether and the light humour of To Say Nothing of the Dog. A must-read/reread for me!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

L.M. Montgomery's Scrapbooks

Imagining Anne: the Island Scrapbooks of L.M. Montgomery / Elizabeth Rollins Epperly
Toronto: Penguin, c2008.
170 p.

I ran across this book recently, and thought that today was the perfect day to feature it. Today is the anniversary of  Lucy Maud Montgomery's birth -- November 30, 1874.

L.M. Montgomery is one my favourite writers, and favourite Canadian women. She is so fascinating; the differential between her life and her optimistic writing can be overwhelming at times. She kept journals over most of her life, which I've read, and which can be very depressing in parts, as they were her outlet -- as journals are for many of us.

But there are other bits that are lovely, just like her novels. I personally love reading about the year she spent in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, when she was 16... probably because that's my hometown so I love the fact that she also lived there briefly.

Anyhow, I knew that she kept scrapbooks alongside her written journals, as more of a visual record that she might share with others, where she wouldn't share her private writing. But I hadn't had the chance to look through them all until now.

This book compiles pages from two of her scrapbooks kept from 1893-1910, her years on The Island (pre-marriage & moving to Ontario). Running alongside is commentary explaining the meaning and significance of the bits taped and glued in by Montgomery, provided by Montgomery scholar Elizabeth Epperly,who explains what's on the page and why it might be there, from pieces of a squirrel's tail (really!) to poems and newspaper articles, to flowers and lovely ladies from fashion magazines of the day. They are fascinating to pore over, and I'm very glad that they are printed in scrapbook size, as some of the articles require close examination even at this size. 

It's also intriguing to see LMM's handwriting all over many pages, and to note that she took care to shape her own narrative as much in these scrapbooks as she did in the journals; there are torn bits where she removed things, or added extra things to older pages much later on. Her love of colour, flowers, fashion, and friendships comes through in these pages, but as Epperly notes, she doesn't include references to some of the most important happenings in her life during this time, ranging from a traumatic romantic life to the publication of Anne of Green Gables itself.

LMM is endlessly fascinating, and I think it is because of this combination of open-heartedness and optimistic writing and sharing, and the dark depths she experienced and kept private, and often removed from her own record. This book just adds to her mystique, and was a perfect book to read through slowly, a few pages at a time. It really evokes a life and a lifestyle that is both familiar and utterly foreign to us now.

One of many things I really enjoyed about this book was that LMM kept little circular swatches of fabric stuck to a page -- she loved fashion and this was so cool to me as an fellow sewist! Check it out at this online exhibit page for an example.

You can look into the PEI and the Ontario Scrapbooks further thanks to an online exhibition hosted by PEI's Confederation Centre Art Gallery. Do go take a look, there is a LOT to explore. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

LMM's literary magazine, created with friends  

Monday, November 28, 2016

Two By Atwood

Hag-Seed / Margaret Atwood
Toronto: Knopf, c2016.
320 p.

Atwood's latest in an entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, of retellings or reinventions of Shakespeare's plays. Hag-Seed takes on The Tempest, and it does a better job of it than some other Tempest inspired reads I've encountered in the past.

In her take, Prospero becomes Felix Phillips, once the artistic director of the prestigious Makeshiweg Festival, before he was ousted by his scheming assistant, Tony. There are many parallels to Stratford here, and I'm not sure how comfortable the Stratford Festival would be with this -- though they did have her speak here in October -- strangely unadvertised though... 

But seriously. Felix is a sympathetic character so all his bluster and his revenge plot never tip you over into outright dislike. After being manoeuvred out of his directorial role, he retreats to lick his wounds. He finds a shack off the grid and holes up there for a decade, with only his dead daughter as company. Miranda died as a toddler, and in his guilt over paying more attention to his job than her, he thinks of her as always accompanying him, growing up to the age she would have been, there in spirit. And as his isolation grows, so does her reality to him. 

But eventually, he must move in the world again, and he sees an opportunity to take a small, part-time, low paid job as a literature teacher for male inmates at a local prison, the Fletcher Correctional Institute. The woman organizing the position recognizes him, but agrees to keep his secret as he is willing to teach Shakespeare without any conditions of the job changing -- ie: a great bargain for her. 

It's when Felix is interacting with the inmates that the depth of the story shows. They talk about the plays they are studying and eventually performing, they deconstruct the text and relate it to modern day life, and to the troubled facts of their own lives as well. The power of this process shows in the inmates over time; literature is indeed a healing tonic. 

While reading these parts of the book, the text started to feel quite familiar to me. Why? I realized as I went along, and especially when I got to the acknowledgements at the end of the book, that these scenes were strongly influenced by Laura Bateman's Shakespeare Saved My Life, a book about Shakespeare in prisons which I read some years ago but is very memorable. I hope it makes more people search it out and read it -- it's very inspiring.

Anyhow, Atwood follows the Tempest plot fairly closely, and has interspersed bits of rap performances by the inmates (reminding me of the Chorus in her Penelopiad). She uses her setting well, and Felix has the chance, finally, to stage The Tempest and by doing so wreak revenge on those who originally ousted him. Of course, everything ties up very neatly in Felix's favour, but after all, he is Prospero. There is plenty of Atwoodian wryness and ridiculous humour that keeps our characters from taking themselves too seriously. The final scenes are really over-the-top but in the end, it does all work. And I thought this version really made sense in the setting she's created. 

It was a good read, which highlights an important cause (literature in prisons) that I've been following for a while now. Recommended. 

Angel Catbird / Margaret Atwood; illus. Johnnie Christmas
Toronto: Dark Horse, c2016
80 p.

Now, unfortunately, no matter how much I like Atwood's writing or how much I support her work for birds and cats and so forth, I just did not gel with this book.

It was a mix of light entertainment, retro visual style, and earnestness.

The bump-out facts and figures about cat populations and so on at the bottom of some pages felt very "teachy" and the story was so tenuously held together. I'd call this one an old-fashioned comic book, not a graphic novel per se. 

The characters have silly names (ie: our hero Strig Feleedus) or ones that are painful puns; the story is pretty basic, there's a very villainous villain and a pretty girl who saves the day, and well, I just didn't love it. It's just kind of meh.

I prefer Atwood when she sticks to the writing she does well, like Hag-Seed & other novels. If you're in the right mood for a light and campy story, though, you might still enjoy this one.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Speculative Shorts by Hopkinson & Taylor

To end my recent streak of short story reading, I have two collections of speculative/Science Fiction stories to share, both with a strong thread of diversity informing them. Though they're very different from one another, I enjoyed both.

Falling In Love With Hominids / Nalo Hopkinson
San Francisco: Tachyon, c2016. 
222 p.

I really loved Hopkinson's now classic novel Brown Girl in a Ring, and have read some of her short stories before, here and there. So when this collection came into my library, I knew I had to read it. 

It's a trippy experience. Hopkinson's imagination is vast, her references to Caribbean culture infuse her stories with myths and lore that are not common in fantastical stories, and her method of simply throwing the reader into her created worlds and expecting you to catch up makes the reading experience both rush by you and grab you simultaneously. 

I felt as if I should stop and take a breather now and again. But I just couldn't put it down. That said, some of the very short (ie: 2 page) stories didn't work as well for me, as they felt like ideas just being doodled on the page for now -- still immensely imaginative ideas but not fleshed out. 

Nonetheless there are some pretty wonderful and terror-ful pieces here! I both loved and was completely creeped out by "The Easthound". It starts so simply, with a group of children together around a campfire; then you discover that anyone old enough to hit puberty "sprouts" -- and becomes the terror that hunts them all. It was a terrifying story, with intimacy and betrayal and unfathomable changes that Hopkinson doesn't waste time explaining -- it's just the way it is.
Other stories like "Message in a Bottle", about a man who isn't all that fond of kids but ends up befriending his friends' adopted daughter - who turns out to be a time traveller - or "Delicious Monster", with a young man having to come to terms with his divorced father's new relationship with a man who is more than he first seems - or "Left Foot, Right", in which a twin struggles with the drowning death of her sister -- all these were also fabulous and unforgettable. There do seem to be a fair number of twins in her work, a reflective concept that matches up with her habit of turning a reality inside out to show two sides of everything.  

There's one story, "Snow Day" that was written in response to a challenge from Canada Reads one year, where she was asked to write a story that included the titles of all five of the books on the Canada Reads list that year, but not using any AS a title. Although the books were listed at the end of the story, I challenged myself to see if I could pick them out before checking. I did, but came close to missing one! That was a bit of fun. (Coincidentally it was the 2005 list, the year my cousin Sherraine was defending one of the titles).

There's also a complex story that was written as part of the Bordertown series -- a shared setting which many authors contribute to. It features a lesbian love triangle of sorts, with humans and faerie all jumbled up in the strangeness of this border town. It was complex, fascinating, and had some great characters in it. I like how Hopkinson's writing incorporates her own voice so strongly with many LGBTQ+ characters who are all individual, and also not all young and beautiful, and how the multi-ethnic nature of the world is both assumed and stated directly by her in some of her intros. This collection is definitely one to search out and read.

Take Us to Your Chief and other stories / Drew Hayden Taylor   
Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, c2016.
160 p.

I loved this idea when I first heard it: classic science fiction tropes retold from an Aboriginal perspective, from a playwright & humorist who has written in many genres before. And I love that cover! 

I just finished this collection and was unfortunately a bit underwhelmed by it. I liked it, and a couple of the stories really caught me, including "Petropaths", about a young man who discovers time travel through local petroglyphs, or "Lost in Space", a quiet, meditative story about another young man working alone out in the asteroid belt.

Out of the nine stories, though, only a handful were really strong. I did appreciate the ideas behind the stories, the classic references to science fiction from the past, and the way that he's using these frameworks to discuss and highlight current social issues in Aboriginal life. It's a great option to point out some of the similarities in "first contact" stories, and he does use that opportunity. 

In the intro, he states:
Part of my journey in this life both as a First Nations individual and as a writer is to expand the boundaries of what is considered Native literature. I have always believed that literature should reflect all the different aspects and facets of life. There is more to the Indigenous existence than negative social issues and victim narratives... Collectively, we have such broad experiences and diverse interests. Let's explore that in our literature.
He's certainly expanded boundaries in this collection, and written in a style I haven't seen much of yet in my reading of Indigenous authors (although Harold Johnson's dystopian novel The Cast Stone is another genre read that comes to mind). It's a fun read with some echoes of the equally dark/slapstick humour that he uses in his novel Motorcycles & Sweetgrass - so while not quite a five star read for me, still a satisfying, thought-provoking one.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Gallant's Home Truths

Home Truths: Sixteen Stories / Mavis Gallant
London: Jonathan Cape, c1985.
330 p.

This is a short story collection that I've had on the shelf and the TBR for a very long time. I finally finished it, with great admiration for Mavis Gallant and the urge to read every other book of hers that I currently own. She is wonderful.

This book is a collection of stories about young women, mostly -- young Canadian women at home or abroad, in situations that they have to adjust themselves to. Many times in various stories, Gallant refers to the Canadian habit of reserve, of even perhaps stuffiness. I think the idea of Canadians and being Canadian has changed since the decades that Gallant wrote these stories, at least from an internal point of view -- I don't know how others still see us!

In any case, these are stories of relationships, between mothers and daughters, female friends, or women and the wider world. They are all immensely readable, absorbing my attention completely. The first section, At Home, reveals young girls encountering the strangeness of the world, all set in Canada. I liked these, but was much more engaged by part two, Canadians Abroad - there was something about the newness of Europe and the characters'  reactions to it that I found appealing.

The last section of the book is made up of six Linnet Muir stories; Linnet is a fictional stand-in for Gallant herself, having many of the same experiences, from working at a newspaper from a young age, as the only woman not in the typing pool, to travelling and seeing opportunities for herself different from those that most women expected in their lives at that time (around the early 40s).

I enjoy Gallant's writing more than Alice Munro's -- the stories don't feel as constricted to me, they hold a little more life and movement -- but perhaps that's because I identify more with Gallant's wanderlust and ambition than with Munro's small rural circles. Gallant delves into the personalities of diplomats or regular North Americans abroad, the petty power struggles in their own small circles; she looks at how sheltered young women have to face both being alone in Europe and the challenge to their constricted vision of life. 

This is especially evident in one of my favourite stories in the book, The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street. Agnes Brusen has an office job in Geneva, but she's serious and out of her depth with the casual flippancy of her fellow expats. They tease her at one point about being Norwegian - she explains that she went to visit cousins at one time, but they lived poorly, in a house that must have been 200 years old - her family had just built a new house with a bathroom and two toilets! And she ends the conversation firmly:  "I'm from Saskatchewan." she said. "I'm not from anywhere else."

One more quote to give you a taste: this story is Virus X -- Charlotte Maria (Lottie) arrives in Paris to work for a year. Lottie eventually meets a girl from her hometown of Winnipeg, but she notes that Vera looks "hunkie" - a slur against Vera's Ukrainian background, which comes up again and again. While I found this prejudiced me a little against Lottie, this story is still a great one. It begins -- 

A bunch of holly hanging upside down at the entrance to her hotel was the first thing Lottie Benz saw in all of Paris that seemed right to her... Lottie, whose mother had made the dress she was wearing from a Vogue pattern, could have filled the back seat of her taxi with polka dots, the skirt was so wide. Stepping down, she shook order into the polka dots and her mother's ankle-length Persian-lamb coat, lent for the voyage. That was when she saw the holly. Even as the taxi-driver plucked every bit of change from her outstretched hand, she turned to this one familiar thing. A city that knew about holly would know about Christmas, true winter, everything.

If you haven't yet encountered Mavis Gallant, I encourage you to give her a try. Such great stories, and I'm glad I have more ahead to read for the first time. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Middle Aged Boys & Girls

Middle Aged Boys & Girls / Diane Bracuk
Toronto: Guernica, c2016.
222 p.

This is a sleeper -- an unexpected read I hadn't heard much about, but that cute cover and clever title caught me (more girls!). I really enjoyed this short story collection. And perhaps that's because I left it at work, and read the 12 stories bit by bit over lunch hours, with plenty of time between stories to think them over. A good way to approach collections, at least according to Mavis Gallant who famously said: 

Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.

In any case, Bracuk is a skilled writer, who has put together a collection of stories written over the span of a few years (many award winning). This book is that dreaded word.... accessible! But it is. The stories feature those at middle age who are facing a loss, a shift, perhaps even a crisis, and at this point their behaviours seem to revert back to childish habits. Revenge, pettiness, insecurity, jockeying for all reappears. 

Bracuk's writing is smooth and wry; she skewers some of her characters but never cruelly. She highlights the weaknesses and more unlikeable side of many of her characters but does it in a way that allows us to reflect on them and see our own faultlines rather than sit in judgement of their choices. The title really captures the essence of the stories; those of us in middle-age who like to think we've evolved may find ourselves regressing to high school emotions unexpectedly in the face of midlife upsets. Did I just admit I'm middle aged? Certainly not ;)

Each story was nicely contained, with enough to engage and satisfy a reader - intriguing characters or a clever situation - I enjoyed each of them. The first story, "Shadow Selves", traced the relationship between a woman and her friend, who was a large girl and very comfortable with it. It was a strong start to the book, and had thematic resonance with my recently read 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. Great literary discussion going on between these stories. 

There was only one story that I wasn't completely taken with, called "Prey", about a woman in Poland and a conman. It felt a little vague in comparison to the strength in all the other stories. Oh, yes, except for the last one - is "Doughnut Eaters" a story or an essay? Bracuk won the Prism International NonFiction Prize for this one in 2015, so I'm kind of assuming it's nonfiction. Still an interesting piece but a bit of an odd fit for this collection of fiction. 

In any case, this was a very enjoyable find from a small press that I haven't read much from before. I like the design -- it is eye-catching -- and I really liked Bracuk's voice. I'll be watching for more. 


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Girls

And now another coincidental pairing: two current novel in stories/ short story collections that both feature young women as their central character -- plus the number 13. The first is the last of my Giller Prize nominee reads, and the other is a recent book I won via a Goodreads giveaway, happily.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl / Mona Awad
Toronto: Penguin, c2016.
212 p.

Over 13 chapters, Awad's heroine -- Lizzie, Liz, Beth, Elizabeth, it changes according to where she is in her life -- struggles with her appearance and her weight, in a world in which women are told they are only valuable for their thin beauty. 

Lizzie starts out as an awkward adolescent doing awkward things alongside her best friend in stifling Misery Saga (actually  Mississauga, a suburban setting). This first story nearly put me off the book altogether (I feel like there's a surfeit of disaffected teens in my reading lately) but I persisted. 

As Lizzie turns to Liz, then Beth, then Elizabeth, her self-perception changes. Who is she when her body changes - must she rename herself to feel real - will she always be a "fat girl", even when she's starved herself into more scrawny submission? Awad approaches this topic of body image and self-awareness in each story, and the first half seems full of energy and struggle, but the second half loses its drive as Lizzie moves into what feels like an imaginary 'perfect' future in which she's skinny and has what she wants, even is she still isn't happy. Perhaps that future would have been more energetic, more enlivening if she remained her large self and found herself happy that way. But then, that's probably another book.

I liked what Awad was doing here, but I didn't end up loving this book as a whole.

Thirteen Shells / Nadia Bozak 
Toronto: Anansi, c2016.
320 p.

This is a "proper" novel in short stories; by which I mean it follows Shell (not Michelle, not Shelley, just Shell) chronologically, from the age of 5 til 17, with an accretion of details through spotlights on specific moments of her childhood over 13 stories.

Shell grows up in Somerset, a smaller Ontario town, in the mid 70s. Her parents could be called hippies; they grow a huge garden, can everything, forage for mushrooms, only eat whole foods (thus Shell has an unnatural craving for the unholy glories of Corn Flakes, or Freshie). They have a small house that is useful for its garage/studio for her parents' pottery making. But the inevitable cracks appear in her parents' marriage and by halfway through her father has left for the big city, and her mother has gone back to school to study Women's Studies. A result of which is that Shell is often left alone in her adolescence, as the 80s begin.

This was a good read. Shell is a very real character, the narrative is pretty straightforward - no experimental prose or strange timelines here. Bozak is really good at making all the characters, even the incidental ones, very rounded and individual, through small details. You keep thinking about them. It seems like a story about its setting as much as its main character - the 70s and a mildly counterculture childhood loom large. Even as Shell turns into a teenager and the 80s chase away the 'hippieness' of her early years, that imprint stays with her and with the reader.

As Shell gets older, and is left to her own devices, she does fall in with a crowd that represents the new counterculture - those who spend their time on large parties and drugs. This element reminded me of the 90s adolescence of Catherine, in small town Quebec, in The Goddess of Fireflies - although this book still has a little more innocence. I was getting a bit tired of the relentless party scene of Shell's teen years by the end; I was glad that in the last story there is a glimpse of her future, of where she might end up, looking back at herself in this angsty moment of her life. It's refreshing. 

This is from the final story, "New Roof" (and incidentally, my own favourite):

She’ll have to go someplace where the library has more books and the essays she writes can be longer and harder and so beautiful and in a way Somerset can’t ever understand. And she’ll have to go soon. A world lives out there. She’s already seventeen.