Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Diagnosing Faults in Fiction

Thomas McCormack on surface faults and internal faults in fiction:

         To see what fiction-editing craft might be, start by looking at the faults it’s intended to detect. There are two kinds: surface faults and internal faults. A surface fault is local, as immediately evident to the naked eye as a skin blemish. You can point at specific words that constitute it. Most surface faults do not produce delayed reactions.
         They include failures of diction, grace, freshness, materiality, credibility, pace, vividness, understandability, interest. These dermal components—blemishes and triumphs together—because they are on the surface, don’t require special craft to detect. They require diligence, solid training in English, a good sensibility. Given these qualities, any editor can tweeze, scrub, and buff, so that at least the skin of the script will be acceptable to the eye.


         The largest, the most basic faults, the internal failures, don’t betray themselves with one smoking phrase. They don’t, in general, lie on the surface of the novel. They can’t be recognized at once as faults. They may have no obvious fixed address in the manuscript; often, indeed, the problem is that something has been omitted entirely. And sometimes they are composites, an element becoming a flaw only because a succeeding element doesn’t consummate. This means you can’t possibly recognize it as a flaw when you first read it: A “promise”, tacitly made by the author to the reader early on, can be an enhancing enticement; but if it is thereafter ignored, not resolved either by fulfilment or surprising, justified reversal, it becomes a flaw in the book. What qualifies it as a flaw is that ultimately it leaves an unwanted negative feeling in the attentive reader. Irrelevance is in effect a failure of promise.
         Internal ailments in a novel can produce a wide variety of disappointed effects on the reader: a sense of the story’s having missed some unnameable opportunity, of its not meeting us at the station, of its lacking a life-supporting temperature, of inertness, of inconsequence, of meaninglessness to events, of something, somewhere in the book, gone profoundly awry.
         Their causes include faults in the original setup of situation and cast; the misuse of “accident”; inconsistency of objective; defects in the characters’ purpose, effort, action, promise, achievement, and interconnection. Since these causes don’t lie on the surface, they’re harder to identify, like a missing vitamin, an allergy, a secret spinal bend. The patient lives, but is listless and halt. And, woefully, the patient’s doctor often doesn’t see the condition as something wrong and remediable. We wish he had more snap, but that’s just the way he is. The diagnosis of these ailments requires more than dermatology. Identifying the bug, the chemical imbalance, the anatomical fault, can defy the most determined scrutiny if the examiner relies solely on intuition. What’s needed is an analysis that is canny, informed, fundamental, sensible, technical, systematic, and thorough. What’s needed is craft.

From Thomas McCormack, The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist (2006).

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Abandoning a Resolution

It’s not quite the end of January and already I’m abandoning one of my New Year’s resolutions. I resolved to keep a more detailed reading journal, recording not just the dates I start and finish each book, but also what led me to pick it up in the first place, where it came from and so on. The idea was to track the ebb and flow of my reading, and to maintain a list of books abandoned as well as those finished.

Here’s what it reveals about my book acquisitions and reading activity this year so far:

I’ve checked 46 books out of the library, bought 16, and received 3 review copies from publishers. I’ve begun reading 23 books. Of those, I’ve finished 10, and abandoned 3 that didn’t sufficiently capture my interest. Ten are still in progress. In addition, I’ve read 5 short stories and 3 essays with no intention of reading in their entirety the books from which they came.

This mad circulation of books through my house and my hands didn’t feel overwhelming until I began to write it all down. I’m quite sure that I would find the sort of record I’ve been creating very interesting to contemplate after the fact. But, in the moment, maintaining it is proving exhausting. It’s detracting from my reading experience rather than enhancing it. So, I hereby release myself from this self-imposed obligation. My reading can once again meander at will free from constant surveillance.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Thomas Hardy as a Literary Tourist

I have confessed here before, and indeed demonstrated in posts about Robert Louis Stevenson and Muriel Spark, that I am a shameless literary tourist. Many years ago, I took a copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles with me on a trip to the south of England and had the pleasure of wandering about Hardy country as I read. Thus my memory of the novel is thoroughly steeped in the actual landscape as well as that so vividly conveyed therein by Hardy.

While reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Hardy, I was charmed to learn that he shared my penchant for this sort of literary tourism at an early age. Here’s how eight-year-old Tom occupied himself on his first trip to London in 1849:

He had prepared for the trip by acquiring a map of the City and marking out the streets described by Harrison Ainsworth in Old St. Paul’s, a favourite book at the time, and he went out and traced the steps of the hero.

I’m three chapters in now and relishing this biography.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A Banner Season for Biographies

I’ve yet to experience a shortage of good biographies to feed my interest in the lives and work of the writers and other artists that I admire. Even against the backdrop of what I perceive as the perennially healthy state of this genre, however, it seems to me that we’re in the midst of a banner season for biographies. I’m thinking in particular of the recent and imminent publication of substantial new biographies by three titans of the genre: Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy, Victoria Glendinning’s Leonard Woolf, and Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton. Picture me gleefully rubbing my hands together at the prospect of immersing myself in these biographical riches.

I have not yet acquired a copy of Glendinning’s Leonard Woolf which was released in Canada a scant two months ago, and Lee’s Edith Wharton biography won’t be available here until the end of February. But my copy of Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy arrived in yesterday’s mail and I’m very happy to begin the odyssey with this one. I’ve only made it as far as the acknowledgments section and I’m already hooked. What, you may ask, is so compelling about a few preliminary pages of acknowledgements? Obviously my interest in Thomas Hardy and his work is what prompted me to pick up this book. But I’m also interested more broadly in the process of writing biography, of constructing life stories. And as I read through Tomalin’s acknowledgments section, it struck me as a marvellous glimpse into that process—from initial motivation, through laborious research, and into the writing and polishing of the final manuscript. It’s no more than a snapshot, of course, but revealing nonetheless. It has whetted my appetite nicely for the main event. I’m very much looking forward to spending some happy hours with this biography, and also to the binge of Hardy rereads which I fully expect it to provoke.

And, of course, I’m also looking forward to getting my hands on copies of Glendinning’s Leonard Woolf and Lee’s Edith Wharton.

Friday, January 26, 2007

An Apt Sensibility

Thomas McCormack on the importance of an apt editorial sensibility:

The right editor—as Pound was for Eliot—is right not because he has some sort of absolutely good taste, a special insight into literary Platonic forms. Nabokov, a reader of exuberant and joyful responsiveness, despised Faulkner, Mann, and Camus. Did Nabokov lack ‘good taste’? You can’t think so if you’ve heard his appreciations of Austen, Dickens, and Tolstoi. It doesn’t take ‘good taste’ to respond to Faulkner. It simply takes a sensibility that responds to Faulkner.

From Thomas McCormack, The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist (2006).

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Room that is the Book

If so, what are they doing to him? Nothing very terrible, finally—at least not in any absolute sense. They have trapped Blue into doing nothing, into being so inactive as to reduce his life to almost no life at all. Yes, says Blue to himself, that’s what it feels like: nothing at all. He feels like a man who has been condemned to sit in a room and go on reading a book for the rest of his life. This is strange enough—to be only half alive at best, seeing the world only through words, living only through the lives of others. But if the book were an interesting one, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. He could get caught up in the story, so to speak, and little by little begin to forget himself. But this book offers him nothing. There is no story, no plot, no action—nothing but a man sitting alone in a room and writing a book. That’s all there is, Blue realizes, and he no longer wants any part of it. But how to get out? How to get out of the room that is the book that will go on being written for as long as he stays in the room?

From Paul Auster, Ghosts (volume two in The New York Trilogy).

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

More Auster

In a comment on my post about Paul Auster’s The Red Notebook: True Stories, Isabella noted the blue notebook at the centre of Oracle Night, and also the mention of a number of notebooks in The New York Trilogy though she couldn’t recall offhand if any of the latter were red. I flipped back through the trilogy and found that at least three red notebooks make an appearance therein, most prominently Daniel Quinn’s red notebook in City of Glass:

     After he finished eating, Quinn wandered over to the stationery shelves. A shipment of new notebooks had come in, and the pile was impressive, a beautiful array of blues and greens and reds and yellows. He picked one up and saw that the pages had the narrow lines he preferred. Quinn did all his writing with a pen, using a typewriter only for final drafts, and he was always on the lookout for good spiral notebooks. Now that he had embarked on the Stillman case, he felt that a new notebook was in order. It would be helpful to have a separate place to record his thoughts, his observations and his questions. In that way, perhaps, things might not get out of control.
     He looked through the pile, trying to decide which one to pick. For reasons that were never made clear to him, he suddenly felt an irresistible urge for a particular red notebook at the bottom. He pulled it out and examined it, gingerly fanning the pages with his thumb. He was at a loss to explain to himself why he found it so appealing. It was a standard eight-and-a-half-by-eleven notebook with one hundred pages. But something about it seemed to call out to him—as if its unique destiny in the world was to hold the words that came from his pen. Almost embarrassed by the intensity of his feelings, Quinn tucked the red notebook under his arm, walked over to the cash register, and bought it.

After locating that passage, I continued to reread. When I once again encountered the fictional Paul Auster, I was seized with a sudden curiosity as to whether the real Paul Auster had ever written an essay on Don Quixote along the lines of that described by his fictional counterpart in the novel. I logged on to the online catalogue of the public library and found that there was a copy of Auster’s Collected Prose sitting on the shelf at a branch not too far away. I was in an instant gratification sort of mood, so I set off on foot to collect it myself rather than arranging to have it sent to my local branch.

This mission accomplished, I retired to a nearby coffee shop with the book. There was no Don Quixote essay included in the Collected Prose but there was much else of interest. I had a cup of tea and a leisurely read, pausing now and again to jot something down in my notebook which just happens to be red. I assure you that I didn’t acquire it under the influence of Auster’s The Red Notebook, as I hadn’t yet read that book when I bought the notebook. However, it is possible that the memory of Quinn’s notebook had a subliminal influence on my choice. Certainly my conviction when I bought it that it was exactly the right notebook for me at this moment in time echoed Quinn’s sentiments in the excerpt quoted above.

I admit that I felt a bit goofy sitting there with Auster’s Collected Prose and penning notes about it in a red notebook. But then it occurred to me that any denizens of the coffee shop well enough acquainted with Auster’s work to make the connection between the two would be apt to be sympathetic to a deliberate homage or, in the alternative, to relish an inadvertent link replete with overtones of Austerian coincidence.

From the coffee shop, I made my way to yet another branch of the library, this time on the trail of a copy of Oracle Night. So long as I was fixating on Auster and notebooks, how could I resist the Auster novel that explicitly centres on a notebook? By the end of the day, I’d criss-crossed a good swathe of the city, visiting three different branches of the public library and four bookstores (who says the reading life is a sedentary one?), and thereby acquired four more books by Auster and one about him.

I always find it an interesting exercise to immerse myself in the work of one author, to begin to track the evolution of the writing, and to make connections between the books however distant in time or disparate in genre. But it’s proving a particularly interesting exercise where Paul Auster is concerned because of the extent to which the connections are out in the open. He deliberately lets the seams show. And yet, I've begun to think that this obviousness may conceal more than it reveals, layering over deeper complexities that are worth pursuing. For the moment, I'm thoroughly enamoured with Auster's work. No doubt you will hear more from me about it in future posts.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

John Irving on Researching a Novel

John Irving on researching a novel:

     For all his stature, Mr. Irving covers every inch of that meticulous, obsessive, painstaking research himself. He hunkered down in ob-gyn wards of hospitals, he says, when he was preparing Cider House Rules. He ensconced himself in tattoo parlours, many of them in Toronto and Nova Scotia, for his last novel, 2005's Until I Find You, a peripatetic quest for a father, which crisscrossed Canada on the back of its central character, Canadian actor Jack Burns.
     He would never think to let anyone do this type of research for him. "Writing is in the details," he offers.

For the rest of the article from which this excerpt comes, click here.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride on Film

A film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride hits the small screen on Sunday night. The film versions of favourite novels rarely satisfy me, particularly when they take the sort of liberties with the plot that this one apparently does. Still, I doubt that I’ll be able to resist tuning in to check it out. To see a brief trailer, click here.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Catching Up With Paul Auster

I came to Paul Auster late. In fact Brooklyn Follies, published not much more than a year ago, was the first of his books that I read. I quite enjoyed it but it was a much more conventional novel that I’d been led to expect from Auster so I was a bit disappointed all the same. I have since gone on to read some of his earlier books. On the one hand, this has confirmed my perception that Brooklyn Follies is something of an aberration in Auster’s oeuvre. On the other, it has set Brooklyn Follies in context for me such that I feel I might have seen more in it had I not read it first.

My most recent Auster read was The Red Notebook, a collection of ostensibly true stories about a series of coincidences. Are they really true stories? However improbable most of them are, only the last in the series seems forced. Does it matter? They felt true enough while I was reading that one or two of them had me on the edge of weeping. All in all, an odd and lovely little book.

What does this have to do with Brooklyn Follies? Paul Auster’s Red Notebook reminds me strongly of Brooklyn Follies protagonist Nathan Glass’s Book of Human Follies in which he seeks to document "in the simplest, clearest language possible an account of every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible" that he or anyone else has committed or been subjected to from the beginning of time to the present. Of course the subject matter of Glass’s book of follies is very different from that of the tales collected in The Red Notebook, but nevertheless they strike me as parallel endeavours undertaken in a similar spirit. Although Auster himself does not make one of his trademark appearances in Brooklyn Follies, I began to think perhaps he had slyly inserted himself into the narrative all the same. And then there is a more obvious connection in the fact that coincidence, of the same sort documented and celebrated in The Red Notebook, plays such a central role in Brooklyn Follies. These are small things, but they lead me to think that I might have discerned more layers and greater nuance in Brooklyn Follies had I been acquainted with Auster’s previous work when I read it.

I may or may not revisit Brooklyn Follies with this in mind, but I will continue to catch up on all of the books that preceded it. Auster’s next book, Travels in the Scriptorium, is due to be released this month. I’ve heard that a number of characters from his previous novels reappear in it and I want to be able to recognize them when I see them. I don’t intend to be caught without context again.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

William Boyd on Perseverance

William Boyd on perseverance:

"My debut novel was actually my fourth novel," he revealed. "I often say to young writers who have written a novel and can't get it published, 'well, write another one'."

For the rest of the profile from which this quotation comes, click here.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Beginning With a Biography

It took me a while to settle into my first read of 2007. I enjoyed engaging in the various reflective exercises connected with entering a new year: analyzing last year’s reading stats, determining last year’s favourites, and formulating reading resolutions for the forthcoming year. But that sort of thing tends to attach undue significance to the next book picked up. I kept starting books and abandoning them, some for all time, but most with a view to attempting them again later when I’m more in the mood for them.

The book that finally hooked me was Maggie Fergusson’s George Mackay Brown: The Life. I picked this one up during my trip to Scotland last spring, but it was its appearance on someone else’s “best of 2006” list that reminded me of its existence and prompted me to pull it off the shelf and crack it open.

I was hooked right from the first chapter which is unusual in a biography despite my fondness for the genre. Even when the subject of the biography is someone who fascinates me, I almost always get bogged down in the obligatory genealogical chapter that tracks back through several generations of his or her family tree. Refreshingly, Fergusson bypasses most of that here, noting only those details of family history that were important to Brown personally and to his literary development. Indeed, Fergusson devotes more space in the opening chapters to Orkney history and mythology than to family history which is just as it should be given how deeply rooted Brown’s life and his writing were in the Orkney landscape.

This was the first indication of Fergusson’s genius for biography and it carried right through to the end. At each point in Brown’s life story, she provides the necessary context deftly but unobtrusively. She must have done an enormous amount of research on a wide array of subjects for this biography but there is no point at which the background information overwhelms the subject. For example, a chapter focused on Brown’s diagnosis with and treatment for tuberculosis as a teenager is grounded in information about the social perception and the medical understanding of the disease at the time, but Brown’s experience of the disease and its impact on his life and his writing remain central.

Brown was born in Orkney and lived there his entire life with the exception of brief stints attending college at Newbattle then university in Edinburgh. Here he is at the beginning of his time in Edinburgh:

         At every turn, George felt brought up short by buildings. It was like being snared in a stone web. Compared with Orkney, where all the buildings were scoured clean by salt wind and rain, Edinburgh seemed filthy. ‘Auld Reekie’ was still a coal-powered city, and the facades of institutions like the Royal Academy and the National Gallery of Scotland, now pewter-coloured, were then black. The novelist Candia McWilliam, who grew up in Edinburgh during George’s undergraduate years, remembers moving about the city in autumn and winter under a continual pall of smoke, breathing air the colour of old vellum. Everywhere, inescapable, was the smell of coal. It collided in the air with the thick scent of fermenting hops from the breweries; and when there was no wind, and the air was damp, smog descended suddenly, so dense sometimes that you could hardly see your finger if you held it before your nose. Leaving his lodgings one smoggy October evening, the man who lived in the room below George stepped unwittingly into the path of a bus, and was killed.
         All this induced in George a kind of despair. He knew he could not go back to Orkney; for all his homesickness, he had begun to wither there for lack of direction. Nor did he see that he could ever be happy in Edinburgh. He would stick it out as long as he could, he wrote home, but the chances of his completing the four-year course were slim.

This sets the scene perfectly for me. I know the city well, but in that first paragraph Fergussen knocks my Edinburgh out of my head and plunks me down in Brown’s Edinburgh. Despite that inauspicious beginning, Brown did grow to love Edinburgh. He never fit in with his fellow university students, most of them many years his junior. But he found his place among the poets who frequented the Rose Street pubs. His time in Edinburgh spanned only a few years but it was of pivotal importance in his writing life, and it makes for one of the most interesting sections of the book.

I won’t attempt to sum up the rest of Brown’s story here, but rather encourage you to read the book for yourself. George MacKay Brown was an odd, complicated man and a brilliant writer and Fergusson has, in her first book, produced a biography fully worthy of him.

I always feel a bit bereft when ejected at the end of a good biography. But the beauty of a literary biography is that there’s a ready way back into to the writer’s world through their work. I had read Brown’s poetry and non-fiction before embarking on the biography, but for some reason I’d never delved into his fiction. I’ve now checked three of his novels and two of his short story collections out of the library, and a second-hand copy of his autobiography is winging its way toward me from a bookshop in Aberdeen. I’ve got plenty of quality time in the company of George Mackay Brown still ahead of me...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Meeting the Story On Its Own Terms

The first time that I read Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” was as required reading in tenth grade English class. The teacher of the class was not keen on female students in general, and not keen on me in particular. If the material at hand was a play or a story that lent itself to reading aloud, he assigned roles and had us do so. If one of the roles was a woman of questionable virtue, he invariably assigned that role to me. No surprise then that he had me read the female character in “Hills Like White Elephants.” That he assigned the male role to the boy who sat in front of me on whom I had an unrequited crush rendered my discomfiture complete.

The second time that I read “Hills Like White Elephants” was in a university Creative Writing class. The professor had us read the story, then write a story of our own composed primarily of dialogue. I still have it and I contemplated quoting a bit from it for your entertainment. But I thought better of that idea when I reread my story and found it to be a near complete rip-off of Hemingway’s. Nevertheless, it was a very worthwhile exercise. I was terrible at dialogue back then and now I’m told that it's one of my strengths. Hemingway’s story helped me to move some way from one pole toward the other.

It’s an enormous pleasure to reread “Hills Like White Elephants” now neither as a creative writing exercise nor as an exercise in high school humiliation, but simply as a story, meeting it on its own terms at last.

Much has been made of Hemingway’s journalistic background and of his innovation in bringing a stripped-down, reportorial style to his fiction. His style doesn’t always work for me. Perhaps paradoxically, I think it’s least effective in his non-fiction. For example, I adore memoirs of expatriate literary Paris in the 1920s, but I find Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to be a lifeless thing when set next to Kay Boyle & Robert McAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together or Morley Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris or John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse. “Hills Like White Elephants,” on the other hand, demonstrates Hemingway’s minimalism at its very best.

In this story, the reader’s vantage point is entirely external. It unfolds as a conversation between strangers upon which the reader eavesdrops, with only a minimum of descriptive detail offered to orient the scene. The characters don’t have names (apart from the twice overheard “Jig”); they are simply “the man” and “the girl.” We don’t know what they look like nor where they’ve come from. Yet before long, we know a great deal about them. For every line of dialogue, even at its vaguest and most oblique, speaks volumes. Every descriptive detail is a telling one.

My favourite line of dialogue from the story: “I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?”

My favourite descriptive detail: “He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.”

I feel as if I can grasp their entire relationship up to that point simply by virtue of that line and that detail.

The economy of words in this story is perfect. To be sure, a great deal is left out and this can generate considerable confusion. But it also offers the reader an opportunity to participate in the story. All of those gaps are there for the reader to fill. The reader is invited to imagine where the couple came from, what their life together was like before this point of crisis, and where it all will lead.

To me this is the magic not just of this story but of the short story as a genre. Jackie Kay says of the short story:

A short story is a small moment of belief. Hard, uncompromising, often bleak, the story does not make things easy for the reader. It is a tough form for tough times. If the novel sometimes spoon feeds the reader, the short story asks her to feed herself. A story asks the reader to continue it after it has finished or to begin it before it began. There is space for the reader to come in and imagine and create. There is space for the reader to think for ages, to mull the impact of a story over, to try and recover from it!

For me “Hills Like White Elephants” is that kind of story. Indeed, my Hemingway rip-off that I referred to above was titled “Reunion” and in it I imagined “the man” and “the girl” meeting up again ten years later, what they would say to each other, and what that would reveal about what had happened in between.

For other perspectives on "Hills Like White Elephants" and to participate in a discussion about the story, click over to A Curious Singularity.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Next Up at the Short Story Discussion Group

Next up at the short story discussion group is Ernest Hemingway’s "Hills Like White Elephants", first published in 1927.

The discussion begins tomorrow, Tuesday, January 9th. Participants are invited to begin posting their thoughts on the story at A Curious Singularity then. If you’re not yet a member of the short story discussion group and you would like to join, please e-mail me. Of course, anyone can contribute through the comments sections of the posts without officially joining the group.

I look forward to the discussion.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Favourites from 2006

Here are my ten favourites of the books that I read in 2006, listed in alphabetical order by author. For books that I’ve reviewed on this blog or elsewhere, I’ve quoted short excerpts from and provided links to my reviews. For those that I haven’t, I’ve endeavoured to provide you with enough information below to give you a sense of what each book is about and what I thought was so good about it. Incidentally, it was an interesting exercise to reread all my positive reviews back to back. Different things appealed to me in different books but there’s definitely a sameness to the vocabulary that I used to describe the appeal. It seems that if I really like a book, I’m apt to tell you that it’s “powerful,” “fascinating,” and/or “deeply satisfying.” Perhaps in addition to the resolutions that I’ve already outlined for the forthcoming year, I should pledge to vary my critical vocabulary more…

Caroline Adderson, Pleased to Meet You (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2006).

In my review of this one in The Women’s Post, I wrote: “Adderson's stories are powerfully compressed, as good short stories are by definition, but they never feel rushed. They unfold organically, each at its own pace. Along the way they offer up a multitude of stunning moments through precise, evocative, often unexpected images. These stories are by turns unsettling and uplifting, sometimes both at once. […] [Caroline] Adderson is a master of the short story form, and it's a great pleasure to see her return to it after the two successful novels that followed her first collection. […] Pleased to Meet You is a fine collection that is worth savouring.”

To read my full review, click here.

Howard Akler, The City Man (Coach House Books, 2005).

This novel features prose that works like poetry. It’s a short book with very short chapters, some only a paragraph or two long. Yet it evokes an extraordinary richness of detail and brings vividly to life a moment in time, 1930s Toronto, and a particular sub-culture, “whiz mobs” (pickpockets) that inhabit the city’s Jewish underworld. Eli Morenz, a newspaperman recovering from a nervous breakdown, is in search of the story that will get him back in the game. When he stumbles across pickpocket Mona Kantor, he thinks he’s found it. But of course, it’s not that simple… The voices of the characters are pitch-perfect, replete with period slang without any sacrifice of comprehensibility. The City Man is an utterly fascinating gem of a book.

M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party (Candlewick Press, 2006).

This one is billed as a novel for teenagers but it provided this adult reader with plenty of food for thought. I didn’t write my own review of it since I handed my copy over to my niece the minute I finished reading it. So I’ll direct you instead to Matthew Cheney’s review at The Mumpsimus in which he very eloquently articulates what makes this novel such a spectacular read:

Regardless of how it is sold, Octavian Nothing is an astounding book. It tells the story of a slave before and during the American Revolution, a boy whose mother is brought to the colonies from Africa and sold, along with her young son, to a society of scientists that has some similarities to the American Philosophical Society and its ilk. He and his mother become part of a strange experiment, and the nature of that experiment changes over the course of the novel, until eventually Octavian escapes and joins a militia fighting against the British. The story is episodic and picaresque, the many years of events linked together through the authority of Anderson's narrative voice, which is mostly built from Octavian's own words, though as the tale progresses more and more other documents are inserted, including newspaper clippings and letters from various other characters. Linking it all, too, are themes of freedom and restraint, of liberty and slavery, science and myth, knowledge and ignorance. These themes are handled deftly -- inextricable from the story and characters, yet always present, emerging from the conversations and events in ways far more complex than in even many heralded novels about such subjects. […] Complexity of themes and ideas is certainly welcome, but it is the quality of writing and structure that differentiates the well-intentioned novel from the great. Octavian Nothing is intelligently structured and brilliantly, beautifully written.

Barbara Caruso, A Painter’s Journey: 1966-1973 (The Mercury Press, 2005).

This book is essentially a transcription of a journal that Caruso kept in her early years as an artist. In it she documented her struggle, both material and creative, to establish herself as a painter. In my blog post about it, I singled out as particularly interesting the explicit links that Caruso drew throughout between her reading and her painting. I concluded: “Caruso’s voice is an honest, uncompromising, funny, smart and deeply thoughtful one. Whatever your artistic medium, whether you situate yourself as a creator or as an audience member, there is much of interest for you in A Painter’s Journey. I’m coming away from it thinking much more deeply and self-consciously about my creative process as a fiction writer.”

For more of my thoughts on this book, click here.

Mark Haddon, A Spot of Bother (Random House, 2006).

This novel tells the story of 61-year-old George Hall. The characteristically understated “spot of bother” of the title is George’s descent into madness after he discovers a lesion on his hip that he believes to be terminal skin cancer. In my blog review I praised it for “manag[ing] to be at once uproariously funny and highly disturbing,” and concluded: “It doesn’t gloss over any of the distressing details of George’s deteriorating mental state. Yet in the end the novel is somehow affirming in its depiction of life and family relationships in all their visceral messiness.”

For my full review, click here.

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, The Nettle Spinner (Goose Lane Editions, 2005).

Many of you know Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer in her role as an editor at Bookninja. You should also know her as an enormously talented fiction writer. Her first novel, The Nettle Spinner, is riveting. In it, Kuitenbrouwer retells a Flemish folk tale (the nettle spinner of the title) and at the same time updates it, setting the contemporary version amid the sweat and the blood and the black flies of a treeplanting camp in northern Ontario. The result is a marvellous, powerfully sexual, dark modern fairy tale.

Annette Lapointe, Stolen (Anvil Press, 2006).

In her first novel, Stolen, Annette Lapointe takes the reader deep into the psyche and into the past of twenty-something Rowan Friesen, who makes his living as a thief and a small-time drug dealer on the fringes of a farming community not far outside of Saskatoon. Rowan is rarely likeable but always fascinating. In my review of the book, I praised Lapointe’s powers of description as “precise and idiosyncratic,” noting that: “The accumulation of detail over the course of the novel verges on overwhelming yet it’s deeply satisfying. It meshes very effectively with Rowan’s compulsive nature and that of the tech-geeks, meth addicts, and sufferers of mental illness that people his world.” I opined that Stolen is “a powerful and unconventional novel” that “marks a very impressive debut” for Lapointe.

To read my full review, click here and download the July-August 2006 issue of Word: Canada’s Magazine for Readers + Writers.

Lynn Perkins, Criss Cross (HarperCollins, 2005).

Criss Cross is a children’s/YA novel that focuses on a group of fourteen-year-old friends as they move through a spring and summer in their hometown of Seldem: Debbie who wishes that something different would happen to her, something good, soon; Hector who’s learning to play the guitar, dabbling in song writing, and trying to get up the courage to approach a girl in his guitar class who he has a crush on; and Lenny whose voracious reading of science books has translated into a mechanical ability that has him headed toward vocational school instead of university. It’s not an “issues” novel with a grand trauma at its centre but rather a gentle exploration of the subtle-on-the-outside, major-on-the-inside sort of shifts that are apt to occur in an adolescent summer. In my blog review I wrote: “The structure of the novel combined with the lyrical language used throughout give it a whimsical quality, but ultimately the characters are so fully drawn, so fallible and real, that it retains a sense of solidity as well.” I concluded, simply: “I loved this book.”

For my full review, click here.

Lisa Robertson, The Men: A Lyric Book (BookThug, 2006).

I can’t provide a better description of this dazzling collection of poems than that which appears in the publisher’s catalogue:

The Men explores a territory between the poet and a lyric lineage among men. Following a tradition that includes Petrarch’s Sonnets, Cavalcanti, Dante’s works on the vernacular, Montaigne, and even Kant, Robertson is compelled towards the construction of the textual subjectivity these authors convey - a subjectivity that honours all the ambivalence, doubt, and tenderness of the human. Yet she remains angered by the structure of gender these works advance. It is this troubled texture of identification that she examines in The Men. How does a woman of the present century see herself, in men’s lyric texts of the renaissance, in the tradition of the philosophy of the male subject, as well as in the men that surround her, obfuscating, dear, idiotic and gorgeous as they often seem? What if ‘she’ wrote ‘his’ poems? At once intimate and oblique, humorous and heartbreaking, composed and furious, - The Men seeks to defamiliarize both who, and what men are.

This is definitely a book of ideas, but it is also a great pleasure to read simply by virtue of the way the words sound and feel.

Thomas Wharton, The Logogryph (Gaspereau Press, 2004).

In my blog review of The Logogryph, I described it as “a collection of highly original fictions” that “contains pieces written in the guise of myths, folktales, short stories, poetic fragments, philosophical musings, and academic treatises” which together add up to “a whole history of books and of reading.” I pronounced it “a brilliant book” and suggested that it would “stay with me for a long time.” It is and it has.

For my full review, click here.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


William Boyd begins his new novel Restless with an irresistible hook. Here are the first two paragraphs:

         When I was a child and being fractious and contrary and generally behaving badly, my mother used to rebuke me by saying: ‘One day someone will come and kill me and then you’ll be sorry’; or, ‘They’ll appear out of the blue and whisk me away—how would you like that?’; or, ‘You’ll wake up one morning and I’ll be gone. Disappeared. You wait and see.’
         It’s curious but you don’t think seriously about these remarks when you’re young. But now—as I look back on the events of that interminable hot summer of 1976, that summer when England reeled, gasping for breath, pole-axed by the unending heat—now I know what my mother was talking about. I understand that bitter dark current of fear that flowed beneath the placid surface of her orderly life—how it had never left her even after years of peaceful, unexceptionable living. I now realise she was always frightened that someone was going to come and kill her. And she had good reason.

The narrator is Ruth Gilmartin, a struggling single mother and a graduate student, making a living teaching English as a second language while her doctorate languishes unfinished. Her mother Sally Gilmartin has lived a fairly conventional life as an English housewife for more than thirty years. But, as Ruth soon finds out, she began her life as someone else entirely. She is Eva Delectorskaya, born in Russia, and recruited by the British Secret Service at the age of twenty-eight in Paris in 1939. In alternating chapters, Restless tells Ruth’s story of the summer of her mother’s revelation, and Eva’s story of her recruitment, training and perilous life as a spy during World War II, first in Europe then in the United States.

Eva’s story is every bit as riveting as Boyd’s enticing opening would lead you to expect, right from the moment when her new identity as spy crystallizes for her:

She realised suddenly that everything had indeed changed, that she was now looking at the world in a different way. It was as if the nervous circuits in her brain had altered, as if she’d been rewired […] She understood now, with almost distressing clarity, that for the spy the world and its people were different than they were for everybody else. […] She thought about what Romer had said, about his one and only rule, and she thought: was this the spy’s particular, unique fate—to live in a world without trust? She wondered if she would ever be capable of trusting anyone again.

The answer to Eva’s question may seem obvious, but the thought processes and the experiences that lead her to that answer are no less fascinating for that.

The weakness in the novel lies in the segments devoted to Ruth. There is plenty of interesting detail to savour in her story too, though obviously it doesn’t have the same urgency and suspense that Eva’s does. But somehow Ruth never coalesced into a coherent character for me. Her voice was inconsistent, and many of the details of her life struck me as convenient for the story rather than integral to her character. For example, her status as a graduate student served the plot well at a moment when it was useful for her to have some research skills and some academic contacts. But there was no point prior to that at which she demonstrated any passion for scholarship, not even the conflicted feelings about it that one might expect to encounter in a graduate student thoroughly estranged from her doctorate.

The novel also falls short in the looseness with which the alternating narratives are wound together. Eva’s story stands on its own; it was written for Ruth but it predates her. Whereas Ruth’s story is unfolding alongside the revelation to her of her mother’s true identity and secret life. Yet the implications of that revelation for Ruth’s life and the effect on her relationship with her mother are barely touched on. After the nuance and complexity with which the themes of trust and betrayal are explored within Eva’s story, it seems a lamentable missed opportunity to have left those themes hanging in so far as the relationship between Eva (Sally) and Ruth is concerned. Boyd is an enormously talented writer. He could have done much more with this aspect of the novel and I wish that he had chosen to do so.

For the reasons articulated above, I think that Restless is deeply flawed. Yet Eva Delectorskaya’s story is such a fascinating one that the novel well worth reading all the same. Ultimately I recommend it, albeit with reservations.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Bookshop Binge

Today I went on a fieldtrip to a second hand bookshop that I had never visited before. Getting there involved two different bus routes and a bit of a walk but it proved to be well worth the effort. The “literature” section was extraordinarily well stocked with pristine copies of many of the books on my wish list. Lots of them were old Penguin Classics editions for which I seem to have a weakness. Looking up at the shelves and seeing all those little penguins winking down at me gave me a positively buoyant feeling. I think that their effect on me was readily apparent to the owner as he immediately took himself off to another part of the shop having discerned that leaving me alone to browse for a while was in his best interests. Ultimately I came away with:

Anton Chekhov, A Life in Letters (the excerpts from his letters quoted in the introduction to his Selected Stories whetted my appetite for this one);
Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories (the A Curious Singularity discussion of “A Hunger Artist” has got me keen to read more of Kafka’s short fiction);
Dorothy Parker, Complete Stories (I own a couple of her collections of verse but none of her fiction and this struck me as an oversight when Bloglily recently mentioned her intention to read the stories); and,
Virginia Woolf, Flush (until today the only gap left in my collection of Woolf’s fiction, essays, and biography—and the first time I’ve ever come across this particular book on the shelf of any bookstore).

That final point about my Woolf collection requires me to back up a day, since as of yesterday morning I still had five of her books left to acquire before I could complete my Woolf reading project. But I poked my head into my local second hand bookshop yesterday afternoon to see if anything new had turned up, and there they were, four of the five on my “still to buy” list neatly lined up next to one another, marked with lower than usual prices for this particular shop: Night and Day, Between the Acts, The Complete Shorter Fiction, and Roger Fry. Clearly they were meant for me.

All in all, a fine couple of days of book shopping. Of course, my reason for investigating the far flung second hand bookshop today was to see if there were any George MacKay Brown books to be had. I came away empty-handed on that score so, as ever, the book quest continues...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Reading Across Borders Challenge

One of my resolutions for 2007 is to expand my reading horizons by dipping into the literature of countries and regions into which I have rarely ventured and, relatedly, by reading more works in translation. Others in the litblogosphere have expressed similar intentions so I’m proposing a challenge that I’m dubbing the Reading Across Borders Challenge. The precise contours of this challenge must be tailored to the individual participants. But the idea is to determine which countries or regions tend to dominate your reading and to commit to reading a number of books over the course of 2007 which take you beyond those countries or regions. In the last couple of years, my reading has been dominated by books originally written in English by authors from Canada, the U.S., and the UK. For my Reading Across Borders Challenge, I plan to read at least ten books by writers from other parts of the world and to ensure that at least half of those ten books are works translated into English from other languages.

I’m off to a good start, having recently begun reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (Italy), and with Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles (Poland) lined up to read for the next Slaves of Golconda discussion. There are also plenty of other books already on my TBR pile or on my wish list that fit the bill including:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (Nigeria);
The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel (Russia);
Gregoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest (France);
Mircea Cartarescu’s Nostalgia (Romania);
Vikram Chandra's, Sacred Games (India);
Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City (China);
Upamanyu Chaterjee’s English, August (India);
Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World (Austria);
Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga (Sweden);
Javier Marias’ Fever and Spear (Spain);
Guillermo Martinez’s, Oxford Murders (Argentina);
Ferenc Molnar’s The Paul Street Boys (Hungary);
Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes (Japan); and,
Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (Turkey).

I’d be very grateful for other recommendations though. Indeed, many titles on the above list were brought to my attention through enthusiastic mentions by fellow litbloggers.

Let me know if you plan to join me in this challenge and, if so, what shape your Reading Across Borders Challenge will take.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Reading Resolutions for 2007

In 2007, I plan to do the following:

1. Begin my Virginia Woolf project in earnest: For more than a year now I have been plotting to read Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life and to read (or reread) Woolf’s novels, short stories, and essays chronologically alongside it. Briggs' book focuses squarely on the work, with each chapter devoted to the genesis, writing process, and reception of one or a group of Woolf’s books, so it’s the perfect framing device for my reading project. Over the past year I have filled most of the gaps in my Woolf library and I’m ready to begin.

2. Make good on my plan to institute a monthly “Small Press Spotlight” feature: At the end of June, I announced that I was launching a new feature called “Small Press Spotlight” on this blog. This is how I described the endeavour: “At least once per month, I’ll shine the spotlight on a different small/indie press whose books I think deserve your attention. I’ll tell you a bit about the history of the press and, where editors are willing to talk to me, its editorial vision. Then I’ll highlight three or four recent titles that have convinced me that any book the press publishes is worth a look.” Alas, I did not follow through in 2006, but I will do so in 2007.

3. Keep a more detailed reading journal: This blog is my most detailed reading journal as far as my response to individual books goes, but its scope is limited. I don’t document everything that I read here and I don’t want to. My comprehensive list of books read originally took the form of a hand-written reading journal. Last year, I abandoned that in favour of keeping a virtual list on LibraryThing. The latter is very convenient, particularly when it comes to generating year end stats. But I think that I lost more than I gained in the switch as I stopped keeping track even of the dates that I started and finished books. Thus I have no record of the ebb and flow of my reading in 2006 nor of the books that I started but didn’t finish. This year, I’m going to resurrect my hand-written reading journal and to increase the detail of it, recording not just dates started and finished but also what led me to pick up each book in the first place, where it came from and so on. I’m inspired in this by Carl V. who wrote in his New Year’s post of being “very interested in how mood, time of year, outside influences, blog book reviews, challenges, etc. effects what [he] read[s]” and of his intention to explore these things by keeping a more detailed reading record. I share his interest in these facets of the reading life and I plan explore them in similar fashion.

4. Read books from a broader range of countries and which originate in a broader range of languages than in previous years: For the last two years, more than 95% of the books that I’ve read were originally written in English by authors from Canada, the U.S. or the UK. It’s time to expand my reading horizons. I’m plotting a reading challenge to address this which I will outline in my next post.

5. Become more diligent about making blog comments and responding to them: This isn’t a reading resolution, but it’s entirely blog-related so it belongs here all the same. My reading life is enriched enormously by reading other people’s blogs and by the comments that readers of this blog make in response to my posts. Often, however, when I’m feeling stressed out and pressed for time, I don’t manage to post the comments that occur to me in response to the many insightful and though-provoking blog entries that I read elsewhere. Nor do I manage to respond regularly to the very interesting comments that readers generously leave here. I will endeavour to change that this year. I agree with Litlove and Cam and others who have written recently about the enormous value not just of litblogs themselves but of the exchanges and discussions that emanate from them. I want to participate more fully in those exchanges and discussions than I have in the past and to thereby become a better blog citizen. My deepest thanks to all of you for adding so much to my reading life. Happy New Year!