Monthly Archives: August 2014

An Honest and Enlightening Look at the Human Condition | Review of “all my puny sorrows” by Miriam Toews (2014) Knopf Canada

sorrowsThe concept of literature to explore the issues around the human condition is an enlightening one. We are surrounded by issues like depression, suicide, dysfunctional families, et cetera, it feels like we are alone in dealing with these problems. But we are not. And when a writer like Miriam Toews writes a book like all my puny sorrows, we are graced with the wisdom that our fights are not in vain.

Page 10

Elfrieda has a fresh cut just above her left eyebrow. There are seven stitches holding her forehead together. The stiches are black and stiff and the ends poke out of her head like little antennae. I asked her how she got that cut and she told me that she fell in the washroom. Who knows if that’s true or false. We are women in our forties now. Much has happened and not happened. Elf said that in order for her to open her packages of pills – the ones given to her by the nurses – she would need a pair of scissors. Fat lie. I told her that I knew she wasn’t interested in taking the pills anyway, unless they were of such a volume that their combined effect would make her heart seize, so why would she need a pair of scissor to open the package? Also, she could use her hands to tear it open. But she won’t risk injuring her hands.

The story deals with two sisters – Yolandi and Elfrieda – as they reach middle age. “Elf” has a wonderful life as a world-renowned pianist. “Yoli” is divorced, broke and desperately trying to find true love. Yet it is Elf who has the strong desire to die and her family is shocked as she tries to kill herself. And it is Yoli that must keep everything together as much as possible.  

Page 74-75

I left the room and wandered around the hallways and nodded at the nurses at the nurses’ station and walked into a linen closet by accident thinking it was a bathroom and out again, knocking over mops and cleaning products and muttering apologies, and back into Elf’s room, fresh smile, tears rubbed away, my face by now a lurid mess of colours and grime, and I’m trying to comfort myself. I’m singing, not really singing, the Boss (because he’s authoritative). “Thunder Road” . . . The anthemic tune that lit a fire in our plain girls hearts back in the eighties – serenading our own reflections with hairbrush microphones or belting it into the wind from the backs of half-ton trucks or the tops of towering hay bales – and that I’m calling on to give me hope once again.

Toews has a frank and simple style here that does more to illuminate societal issues than 100 daytime talk shows and news articles can ever attempt to do. This book is well-crafted and carefully thought out and deserves not be named a “must-read” but also should be nominated for several awards.

Page 212

My mom was sitting outside Elf’s room, on a chair near the nurses’ desk, mustering up her courage to be cheerful, an ambassador of hoe, and catching her breath. I went in and sat down beside Elf on her bed and said hey, I’m here. There was nothing in this room but two single beds, one empty, and two small desks with small chairs. There was a small, high window with a cage on it and Jesus dying on a small cross over the door. Elf was motionless in her bed, also small, silent, her face to the wall. I put my hand on her bony hip like a lover in the night. She murmured hi but didn’t turn to look at me. Is that you, Swivelhead? she said. I told he that Nic had left for Spain that morning although she already knew that, that mom was sitting outside catching her breath, that Aunt Tina’s condition had worsened a bit an now she needed surgery. I asked her how she was feeling. She didn’t answer. I have some fan mail for you, I said. I put the pile of papers on her empty desk. She didn’t answer.

all my puny sorrows by Miriam Toews is a brilliant novel dealing family and social issues we all face. Again it is a “must-read” and deserves high praise.

Link to Random House Canada’s page for all my puny sorrows.

 

 

 

Not All the Colours of a Human’s Personality are Bright | Review of “Juliet Was A Surprise” by Bill Gaston (2014) Hamish Hamiliton

We try to associate bright colours to human personalities when we first encounter them but in reality the whole colour spectrum belongs to the make up of inner thoughts and desires to an individual. We meet somebody and note their happiness brings flashes of yellow to our mind but later realize their passions push themselves to a burning red. At what would we perceive as a thoughtful person would bring images of green to our mind but later we would realize that their over-thinking of issues would bring on a dark blue of melancholia. And we all know about the shades of greys and blacks that colour our inner desires and fears that we would never admit to another soul. This is, in short, the realizations that Bill Gaston has his characters come to find in his excellent collection of short stories called Juliet Was A Surprise.

Page 10-11 House Clowns

“We can be your house clowns.” Eden put her hands to her head like antlers and swayed back and forth, big-eyed and unsmiling. Her eyes were playful but ironic and – he didn’t know why he thought of the word – literate. But still possibly dangerous. There weren’t two bedrooms, there were three. None were giant. Anybody, especially any woman, knows exactly how many bedrooms they are renting. Vacationing renters don’t hitch-hike. They just don’t.

He didn’t think sleep was in the cards, and he was right. He lay staring at the ceiling, blinking rapidly if he blinked at all. They didn’t want him phoning the McGregors. They had no food, no car to go get some. It felt portentous for someone as handsome as Adam to dress like that. Even if – even if they were just a couple of hippies looking for vacant houses to crash in, as a kind of lifestyle, well, what kind of wimp was he? Why let himself be bullied like this?

Gaston is able to describe elements of the human condition in this book that seem to exist of the periphery of our day-to-day observations yet remain unnoticed until now. His prose is simple and easy to understand. Yet the scenes he creates are both familiar and surreal which makes his stories fascinating to read.

Page 36-37 Cake’s Chicken

 . . .(B)ecause they weren’t the brightest lights, Danny and Cake. In my last year of high school, I remember being attracted to their clique of two. I was a loner, still am, and I was probably drawn by their friendship, the friendship they had for each other, ugly as it was. Danny was tall, a jock without a team, a guy who maybe could have done okay in school if he’d cared. He was wry and acidic before irony became the norm. When he smiled, his eyes didn’t, and he was had to like. As for his buddy, if Cake was smart he hid it well. He was big too but sloppier, with a gut. I assumed he was called Cake because of that, but then I learned his last name was Baker, so who knows. Cake didn’t seem to care about his nickname, or anything else. He “like to have a good time,” he said, which is maybe odd because I don’t recall once ever seeing him laugh. He looked vaguely Asian, or maybe Mexican, and even slightly retarded, which is the word we used then. Rumour said he got violent without much reason. Probably I liked them because “not giving a shit about anything” looked like a bona fide wisdom you couldn’t quite do yourself. Anyway, whatever magnetism worked then wouldn’t now. Cake’s dead and I don’t like where Danny ended up.

These aren’t  stories  that should be rush through. Consideration to every phrase and scene should be given to fully understand the situations Gaston describes. In doing so, a reader completely becomes involved with Gaston’s protagonist and becomes enlightened about human interactions more and more. This is what great literature is suppose to do.

Page 81 Tumpadabump

So she must understand him. It is funny that she does not know if he was funny. “Funny” being such a funny word. Maybe he was funny spelled w-e-i-r-d. Maybe she still does not know what funny is over here. Sometimes Bill’s small remark would make everyone laugh except her, or sometimes she was the only one to laugh. Maybe it was a French truc. In fact he often cold remind her of a Frenchman. An old, typically clear-headed yet twisted man, a philosopher in the way all old Frenchmen are, islands unto themselves and always right despite the ocean of evidence to the contrary. It is true, his irony could grate. Once he  quoted to her, “Irony is the sound of a bird in love with its cage,” an image so self-knowing it made her forgive everything. He was being ironic, of course.

Juliet Was A Surprise by Bill Gaston explores the different natures of the human condition. It may be a bit simplistic to apply colours to human psyches but that is why novels are written to help us understand their different “shades.”  

Link to Hamish Hamilton’s page for Juliet Was A Surprise

“I’m excited to see the book out in the world and, hopefully, be a part of the conversations it sparks.” | Q&A with novelist Angie Abdou

Novelist Angie Abdou took time out of her busy schedule a few years ago to have a coffee with a fan.
Novelist Angie Abdou took time out of her busy schedule a few years ago to have a coffee with a fan.

There probably isn’t a more personable and more hard-working novelist on the Canlit scene than Angie Abdou. Her previous books have won numerous praise and awards over the past years. Her new novel Between (Link to my review) is already creating some interesting discussions before it’s release and will be the must-read of the 2014 fall releases.

*****
1) You are about the launch your novel “Between” in September. What are your feelings about it right now? How have the advance reviews been for it so far?
A: I was extraordinarily nervous about this book a few months ago. In it, I explore some uncomfortable truths about parenthood … and about contemporary North American life in general. That discomfort leads to a certain amount of anxiety on my part. However, initial responses have started coming in, and they have been very positive. That has given me a very welcome confidence boost. Now I’m excited to see the book out in the world and, hopefully, be a part of the conversations it sparks.
2) I know you mentioned the idea of this book when we met in Fernie a few years ago but how long have you been working on it? Was it a steady process in writing it or did you put it away for a while?
A: I always find the “how long” question so hard to answer. It’s not a matter of simply counting the days. A novel incorporates my whole life experience to date. This one does so more than my others. There was also a gap in which I had to rethink the  last third of the book. I did a major rewrite of that final section based on the wise advice of Susan Safyan, my amazing editor at Arsenal Pulp Press. I suppose if pressed to answer the “how long” question, I’d say since the release of The Canterbury Trail in 2011. So, Between is the product three years of thinking, researching, drafting, revising, rethinking, rewriting, and editing.
3) The press release that came with the advance reading copy of “Between” quotes you in saying that the book ‘originated with your own discomfort’ in bringing in a nanny from the Philippines. Is your character of Vero pretty much an extension of yourself or did you do any research for writing this book?
A: Oh boy – anyone who reads Between will know why I’m *very * uncomfortable with readers thinking of her as an extension of me. God no!  I did a fair amount of research for her character (army tanks & swinger resorts spring to mind). Her liberal guilt is my own. I did far more research, of course, for the Filipina nanny, Ligaya.
4) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?
A: I have so many favourite writers. I’m scared to start listing for fear of leaving out others. Here are the first ten who spring to my mind, in no order: Timothy Taylor, Miriam Toews, Alison Pick, Jowita Bydlowska, Marina Endicott, Paul Quarrington, Bill Gaston, J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Franzen, John Updike, John Irving.  See, that’s 11, and I am just getting warmed up.
5) Has your writing changed much since you started writing? If yes, how so?
A: Yes. I ran into a reader on the weekend who was half way through Between and, in the most animated terms, he told me it was my best novel yet. I said, “Oh good. So I am learning something!” Of course, I learn things with each book I write, and apply those lessons to the next. Also, though, what I’m trying to do with each novel changes. With this novel, I was working with intensity and vulnerability.
6) Are all your speaking engagements for “Between” set up as of today? Is doing public readings of your works something that you enjoy to do?
A: I have about 25 speaking engagements set up for the fall. I plan to do more through the winter and in the spring. I love getting out and speaking with readers – that travel is the reward for long years of solitary work.
7) Have any of your books been the topic of discussions for book clubs? If yes, did you participate in the discussions at all and was it something that you enjoyed?
A: I have attended many book clubs with all three of my previous books, and it’s something I enjoy a great deal. When I do regular book events, I have to assume the audience has not yet read the books, and I make sure there are no “spoilers” in my talk. In that way, those events are more promotional – I ‘m hoping to encourage people to get out and buy/read the book. At book clubs, I can assume everyone has read the book so we can get into deeper discussions.
8) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you can share with your fans?
A: I overheard my husband telling a friend about my next book and he said “She’s writing a ghost story, but in her own Angie way.” I really loved that and the “in her own Angie way” has helped me with the writing. That description, which I wouldn’t have included, has given me a much-appreciated freedom.
9) I’ve been asking a lot of writers about their experiences using social media and the majority of them respond with a comment that the time spent using those platforms is a ‘necessary distraction.’ I know you are active on both Facebook and Twitter and it seems to me that you enjoy using them. Am I right in assuming that? Does using social media help you with your writing at all?
A: Absolutely. I would feel very cut off from writers and readers without social media. I live in a small/remote city. Twitter and Facebook keep me connected to the much larger community of Canadian writers and readers. I might have given up on a “writing life” in Fernie (to a certain extent) without the larger network that I get from social media.
10) Fernie seems to be an idyllic place for a writer to live in. I know you are active with teaching and organizing literary festivals there yet some of its residents are notably not impressed with your writing. (A recent reaction by a reader about your book The Caterbury Trail made the rounds on the national news circuits.) Are you planning to continue living in Fernie for the next while and – if yes –  how does living there help your writing?
A: I am definitely in Fernie for the long haul. We’re in the process of building our dream home (with long-term dreams of a writer-in-residence suite on the same property). I have definitely made an online fuss about a couple very negative experiences with Fernie readers, but what I haven’t done as publically (shame on me!) is talk about all the wonderfully positive reader experiences I have in Fernie. Both the local bookstore (Polar Peek Books & Treasures) and the Fernie Heritage Library are very supportive of me and my work. There were over one hundred people at my last book launch celebrating its release. For every bad interaction with a Fernie reader, I have had hundreds of positive experiences. Unfortunately, I (like so many people) tend to make the mistake of putting more emphasis on negative experiences than positive ones.  This time I’m going to give equal weight to each person who stops me in the street to enthusiastically express appreciation for my books. When I do that, I’ll have no complaints about Fernie. Of course, I sometimes crave the anonymity that a big city provides, but I’m well aware of the pay-off I get in exchange for that anonymity. I’m already looking forward to the Fernie launch of BETWEEN on September 26 at the Fernie Heritage Library which will, I hope, be a full-house and a wonderful community celebration.
*****

Observations on the Journey of Life | Review of “Maps with Moving Parts” by Walid Bitar (Brick Books)

We all realize that our life is a journey of some sort. We may not be aware of its destination at times and many of the signposts are completely unreadable when we cross them but there are common features that we all have in that journey. Walid Bitar documents some of his experiences of his journey in his collection of poetry called Maps with Moving Parts and shows us that some of his sights and feelings are ours as well.

Emigration (excerpt) – Page 11

After take-off somebody said the beach

was a clothesline, and the sea

was drying

 

Somebody else took a relative’s death

mask out; curious neck

after neck carried it down the aisle

like a bucket.

There was no fire.

 

I read in a magazine how

the ancient Chinese questioned a suspect: if

his mouth dried, if his swallows grew coarser and

coarser he was guilty.

 

I didn’t rent any earphones

for the movie, but couldn’t help

noticing most of the actors

screaming.

Magicians look like that just before

they pull eggs out of their mouths.

 

One bad thing about emigrating is

that people who stay behind can always

say you ran away from something.

Relatives take your photographs off

their walls, and leave

clean rectangles.

Bitar’s words here reveal his observations in a clear and simple manner. Yet the phrasing conjures surprising images in the mind’s eye that a reader may have observed themselves in their travels but may have not fully realized until reading them out loud .

On the Beaten Track (page 14)

The cable car takes him to the mid-

air he’s stared up at for years.

He spends most of the ride looking back

down at the ground.

He turns to the sun; he blinks

an orchard of dots into his eyes.

 

Later around the campfire,

an already warm night;

the flames are décor.

The usual constellations sign

dotted lines of stars he couldn’t

put his own finger on.

 

The telegrams he receives day

after day remind him he’s somewhere

he’s never been before. The streets, for example,

are cobbled; no step is quite

like the one before it; there’s always a new

twist of the ankle, or bend of the toes. But

 

it’s not as if his eyes

have gone astigmatic; the moon’s

craters are still

its own, like the dust

storm’s blurs.

Rumour

 

has it he’s looking for a camera

he lost, but that’s

just an excuse

to move on; could he ever

really call a picture

his own?

There is a sense of trepidation here that we all feel at times.  Are we on the right path in our life? Is this the right thing to say? Bitar has documented those feelings here so we can become aware of them.

Making Ways (Page 36)

The directions are already here. And the street

is automatic! I don’t

have to build it anew every time.

On the cable

lines it’s either several birds

or several broken gearshifts, probably the latter

since the buildings around me are so mismatched

they could be wreckage from the pile-up

broadcast over the radio. How

I came to be

listening to that station, who

can say? It was an accident. Even with parrots

it happens sometimes that one man’s phrase

is answered with a different one, some

lady’s who came before. One time I said

“it’s a sunny day” , but what I got back

was “how are you?” It’s not me

I’m after. It’s the way

this city would seem so much more familiar

if I’d only arrived this morning, if

I’d  simply ask the way

to the Musee des beaux-arts.

Maps with Moving Parts by Walid Bitar is an insightful read. Filled with observations about the journey we all partake in, one feels less alone after reading this collection.

Link to Brick Books page for Maps with Moving Parts

“Some people are worried for me, that my funny brain could be so suddenly full of darkness. ” / Q&A with writer Todd Babiak

Todd Babiak pleasantly stunned fans last year when he released Come Barbarians. (Link to my review) . The gritty novel was a total change from Babiak usual style but it was greatly acclaimed. Now, a year later since it’s release, Babiak has answered a few questions for me here.

1) Am I right in assuming that Come Barbarians is a bit of different novel than what you had previously wrote? How was it received by your fans? Was there any memorable reactions to it you care to share?

A: My other novels were blends of sad and funny. They were set in places like Edmonton, Banff, Montreal. They had satirical elements but they were gentle books about the regular problems of average people. I mean, in one of them a man acquired magical powers. But he was an ordinary man. Come Barbarians is very different. I’ve had plenty of memorable reactions. Some people are worried for me, that my funny brain could be so suddenly full of darkness.

2) Outside of novels, you also do journalism, essays and screenwriting. Is there a preferred type of writing you enjoy doing? Is there a difference between these styles of writing?

A: I don’t do any real journalism, to be honest. I was a newspaper columnist for some time and I am not anymore. I admire genuine investigative journalists. I was always more of an entertainer. I think that is what binds all my writing: I want to please and entertain and poke readers, ultimately. There is a big difference between media: the way you write it, the way it’s edited and received, the way it’s published and distributed. I definitely like novels the best, as a reader and as a writer.

3) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

A: Right now I’m reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. My favourites change all the time. Hilary Mantel is certainly one of my favourites: the Cromwell novels are extraordinarily good. I like all styles, though: I can be equally (though differently) pleased by John Le Carré, Richard Ford, and David Sedaris.

4) Are you working on anything new in the fiction front right now? If yes, are there details you can share with your fans?

A: I’m writing a sequel to Come Barbarians. I don’t have a title yet.

5) How do you like living in Edmonton right now? Does the city’s cultural scene help you with your writing at all?

A: Edmonton is an extraordinary city for an artist or an entrepreneur, and I’m both. It’s a city of inventors and builders, without any established hierarchies. People are interested in your ideas, and they’re keen to help. The economy is weird: people are moving here from all over the world, in great numbers. But it’s not a massive city so they’re changing the place, in their ways. It’s fun. But I’m a restless person. I find myself Googling France, where I lived a few years ago, more than I should these days.

6) How do you like reading your fiction works in public? Are you aware of any book clubs that have read and discussed your work? If yes to the latter, did you partake in the discussion at all?

I go to book clubs quite often, whenever I’m invited (if I can). I don’t mind reading from the novels in public but I prefer speeches, conversations and presentations that reference the novel. A speech is an art form too, and I try to be true to it.

7) You are the first writer that I am aware of that is active on Pinterest and I know you are active on both Twitter and Facebook. Does being on those social-media platforms help or hinder your fiction writing? If yes, how so?

A: I would like you to teach me how to actually use Pinterest. Twitter, certainly. Facebook, a bit. And gosh: to be honest, I should turn off my internet before I sit down to write fiction. Social media are fun, but they’re distractions like good weather and that friend who calls to go for a beer.

8) How much of your fiction is based on personal experience? Do you rely on other people’s stories for your fiction or does a lot of the material come from your imagination?

A: It’s a mixture, for sure. My wife rolls her eyes a lot, as places we’ve been and people we’ve met and body parts like her neck and arms show up in my novels.

*****

Link to Todd Babiak’s website

Link to HarperCollins Canada page for Come Barbarians