Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Sun Also Rises

        Having not read a classic novel in a while, I decided to seek one out, and as always, my favourite Chapters store pulled through. Directly after walking through the revolving door I came to a table of "Must Read" books. After a quick glance I found this weeks book, The Sun Also Rises, written by Ernest Hemingway.

        The Sun Also Rises was Hemingway's first big novel, and immediately established Hemingway as one of the great prose stylists, and one of the preeminent writers of his time. It is also the book that encapsulates the angst of the post-World War I generation, known as the Lost Generation. This poignantly beautiful story of a group of American and English expatriates in Paris on an excursion to Pamplona represents a dramatic step forward for Hemingway's evolving style. Featuring Left Bank Paris in the 1920s and brutally realistic descriptions of bullfighting in Spain, the story is about the flamboyant Lady Brett Ashley and the hapless Jake Barnes. In an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealized love, and vanishing illusions, this is the Lost Generation.

        Jake Barnes, Hemingway's narrator with a mysterious war wound that has left him sexually incapable, is the heart and soul of the book. Brett, the beautiful, doomed English woman he adores, provides the glamour of natural chic and sexual unattainability. Alcohol and post-World War I anomie fuel the plot: weary of drinking and dancing in Paris cafés, the expatriate gang decamps for the Spanish town of Pamplona for the "wonderful nightmare" of a week-long fiesta. Brett, with fiancé and ex-lover Cohn in tow, breaks hearts all around until she falls, briefly, for the handsome teenage bullfighter Pedro Romero. "My God! he's a lovely boy," she tells Jake. "And how I would love to see him get into those clothes. He must use a shoe-horn." Whereupon the party disbands.

        But what's most shocking about the book is its lean, adjective-free style. The Sun Also Rises is Hemingway's masterpiece--one of them, anyway--and no matter how many times you've read it or how you feel about the manners and morals of the characters, you won't be able to resist its spell. This is a classic that really does live up to its reputation.

        Ernest Hemingway ranks as the most famous of twentieth-century American writers; like Mark Twain, Hemingway is one of those rare authors most people know about, whether they have read him or not. The difference is that Twain, with his white suit, ubiquitous cigar, and easy wit, survives in the public imagination as a basically, lovable figure, while the deeply imprinted image of Hemingway as rugged and macho has been much less universally admired, for all his fame. Hemingway has been regarded less as a writer dedicated to his craft than as a man of action who happened to be afflicted with genius. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1954, Time magazine reported the news under Heroes rather than Books and went on to describe the author as "a globe-trotting expert on bullfights, booze, women, wars, big game hunting, deep sea fishing, and courage." Hemingway did in fact address all those subjects in his books, and he acquired his expertise through well-reported acts of participation as well as of observation; by going to all the wars of his time, hunting and fishing for great beasts, marrying four times, occasionally getting into fistfights, drinking too much, and becoming, in the end, a worldwide celebrity recognizable for his signature beard and challenging physical pursuits.

The Flying Troutmans

        A few weeks ago I read Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness, and fell in love with the book. Toews just has a knack for writing kid characters that are hard to not relate to. She has them down to the melodramatic poetry they scribble into notebooks and it's simply incredible just how much growing up she can stuff into them without losing that sense of childhood. This week I decided I wanted to read another one of her books. I chose The Flying Troutmans, and once again was held captive by the story, and the characters that filled it. Toews’s writing is a unique collision of sadness and humour, and The Flying Troutmans is a dark story, but it's also a never-ending series of hilarious adventures.

        We are first introduced to Hattie Troutman. She finds herself returning to Winnipeg from Paris to assume guardianship of her niece and nephew, Thebes and Logan, following the mental collapse of her sister, Min. Having been freshly jilted by her French, adjective hating lover, Hattie is in a tenuous emotional state herself, but ripe for change and used to picking up the pieces when Min falls off the rails.

        Shortly after Hattie’s arrival, a suicidal Min is hospitalized. Desperately in need of a game plan, Hattie impulsively takes the kids on the road to find their father, Cherkis, who was banished from his home years ago by a raving Min and who now lives somewhere in the western U.S. Thus the quirky trio—purple-haired, wise-beyond-her-years Thebes, recently expelled brother Logan, and overwhelmed Hattie-embark on their journey.What follows is a Little Miss Sunshine–like quest in which the characters learn about themselves and each other as they weather car repairs, sleazy motel rooms and encounters with bizarre people. Toews's gift for writing precocious children and the story's antic momentum redeem the familiar set-up, and if the ending feels a bit rushed, it's largely because it's tough to let Toews's characters go.

        Travel is a natural portal to memory, and here it is used effectively as a segue into Min and Hattie’s complex past. What emerges is a portrait of a sibling relationship dictated by equal parts love, dependency, and disease. In other words, it’s a deeply problematic relationship, but one not easily dismissed.

        Familiar elements from Toews’ previous novels – the road trip, missing parents, a story told in hindsight, teenagers suddenly thrust to the helm – recombine effortlessly here. The journey at the novel’s centre gives the narrative a momentum wholly absent in A Complicated Kindness, which dealt with the suffocating, static atmosphere of a Mennonite community. The considerable charm of Miriam Toews’ fiction comes, in part, from her ability to create characters in situations of long-term duress with a brilliantly emulsified mix of repression and humour, punctuated by bursts of real emotion. In The Flying Troutmans, Toews’ unsunny topic is mental illness – something on the periphery of, but never so solidly confronted in, her previous work. And Toews is now an old hand at writing the kind of precocious teenage dialogue, with its flatly ironic tone, that made the movie Juno seem like a revelation to so many last year.

        This is a book that builds its complexity so subtly and imperceptibly that the inevitable sense of deep engagement feels almost like sleight of hand. Toews writes in a high-energy, original voice filled with love, fear, humour and originality. Miriam Toews is an extraordinarily gifted writer, one who writes with unsentimental compassion for her people and an honest understanding of their past, the tectonic shifts of their present and variables of their future. I would definitely recommend this book, and look forward to reading more of Toews work. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011


I had my eye on Freedom by Jonathan Franzen for quite some time, but I didn't know if I would be able to finish it in seven days so I kept putting it off. Then at work we had our annual Secret Santa, and after a week of chocolates and cards, I received this hefty book on the final day. Without the pressure of reading beginning to end in one week, I had no excuse not to dive right in. Franzen has artfully fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.

Freedom is a wrenching, funny, and forgiving portrait of a Midwestern family. Patty and Walter Berglund find each other early: a pretty jock, focused on the court and a little lost off it, and a stolid budding lawyer, besotted with her and almost burdened by his integrity. They make a family and a life together, and, over time, slowly lose track of each other.

The Berglund's were the new pioneers of old St. Paul, the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter's dreams. Together with Walter, environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man, she was doing her small part to build a better world.

But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz, out rocker and Walter's college best friend and rival, still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become "a very different kind of neighbor," an implacable fury coming unhinged before the street's attentive eyes?

Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic story of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom's characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time

"The awful thing about life is this:" says Octave to the Marquis in Renoir's Rules of the Game. "Everyone has his reasons." That could be a motto for novelists as well, few more so than Jonathan Franzen, who seems less concerned with creating merely likeable characters than ones who are fully alive, in all their self-justifying complexity. Their stories align at times with Big Issues--among them mountaintop removal, war profiteering, and rock'n'roll--and in some ways can't be separated from them, but what you remember most are the characters, whom you grow to love the way families often love each other: not for their charm or goodness, but because they have their reasons, and you know them.

A Red Herring Without Mustard

After reading the first two Flavia de Luce adventures in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and The Weed that Strings the Hangman's bag, I was thrilled when I noticed the third instalment, A Red Herring Without Mustard on the new releases shelf. This book is a splendid romp through 1950s England led by the world’s smartest and most incorrigible preteen. Flavia de Luce remains irresistibly appealing and continues to charm us.

In the third installment of this bestselling, award-winning, sister-poisoning, bicycle-riding, murder-investigating, and utterly captivating series, Flavia de Luce must draw upon Gypsy lore and her encyclopaedic knowledge of poisons to prevent a grave miscarriage of justice.

“You frighten me,” the old Gypsy woman says. “Never have I seen my crystal ball so filled with darkness.” So begins eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce’s third adventure through the charming but deceptively dark byways of the village of Bishop’s Lacey. The fortune teller also claims to see a woman who is lost and needs help to get home—and Flavia knows it must be her mother Harriet, who died when Flavia was less than a year old. The Gypsy’s vision opens up old wounds for our precocious yet haunted heroine, and sets her mind racing in search of what it could mean.

When Flavia later goes to visit the Gypsy at her encampment, she certainly doesn’t expect to find the poor old woman lying near death in her caravan, bludgeoned in the wee hours. Was it an act of retribution by those who thought that the woman had abducted a local child years before? Certainly Flavia understands the bliss of settling scores; revenge is a delightful pastime when one has two odious older sisters. But how can she prove this crime is connected to the missing baby? Did it have something to do with the weird sect who met at the river to practice their secret rites?

While still pondering the possibilities, Flavia stumbles upon a corpse—that of a notorious layabout and bully she had only recently caught prowling about Buckshaw. The body hangs from a statue of Poseidon in Flavia’s very own backyard, and our unflappable sleuth knows it’s up to her to figure out the significance. Pedalling her faithful bicycle, Gladys, across the countryside in search of clues to both crimes, Flavia uncovers secrets both long-buried and freshly stowed—the dodgy dealings of a local ironworks, the truth behind the Hobblers’ secret meetings, her own ancestor’s ambitious plans—all the while exhausting the patience of Inspector Hewitt. But it’s not long before the evidence starts falling into place, and Flavia must take drastic action to prevent another violent attack.

But who better to sum up the plot than Flavia herself? “It was all so confoundedly complicated: the attack upon Fenella, the gruesome death of Brookie Harewood, the sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance of Porcelain, Harriet’s firedogs turning up in not one but three locations, the strange antique shop of the abominable Pettibones, Miss Mountjoy and the Hobblers, Vanetta Harewood’s long-lost portrait of Harriet, and underneath it all, like the rumble of a stuck organ pipe, the constant drone of Father’s looming bankruptcy.

Barrelling along on her bicycle through the leafy, sun-dappled lanes near her home in the English countryside, Flavia de Luce rides out of the pages of Alan Bradley’s new mystery and straight into our hearts. She’s got all the attributes that you’d expect to find in a middle-aged amateur sleuth: a solid network of connected villagers who pass on trivial bits of information that turn out to be important, an insatiable curiosity, a determination to see wrongs put right and an unwillingness to stay out of things that are really none of her business. Except she’s 11. And in this remarkably self-possessed girl, Alan Bradley has created one of the most endearing protagonists the traditional mystery genre, typified by the works of Agatha Christie, has seen in a very long time.

As satisfying as the mystery is, the multiple award-winning Bradley offers more. At this point in his series, he allows Flavia to reveal her insecurities and frailties so readers who found her insufferably precocious in the first book, with her vast knowledge of chemistry and just about everything else, may warm to her in this one. Despite the hard-shell appearance of her disdain for her sisters, she is deeply hurt by their cruel taunts, and as she grieves the aching, unbearable loss of her mother, Harriet, who died when Flavia was a baby, she exposes the depth of a wound that will never heal. There is almost an allegorical, fairy-tale quality to her life – the mean older sisters, the father trying to raise three demanding, idiosyncratic daughters on his own. The only thing missing is the wicked stepmother.

The book is beautifully written, with fully fleshed characters, even the minor ones such as odd-job man Dogger and Mrs. Mullet, who rules in the kitchen. The descriptions are vivid and lyrical: “Now, almost two weeks into the harvest, most of the countryside had traded its intense summer green for a paler, grayish shade, as if Mother Nature had nodded off a little, and let the colours leak away.”

The title turns out to be a sly play on words. We know the importance of the red herring in a mystery story as a literary device to distract the reader from what’s important or to point her in a different direction. But it can also mean an extremely strong-smelling fish, and the heavy odour of fish in this story is a real clue, not a red herring.

Happy Ever After

A couple summer ago I started reading the Bridal Quartet series. I was looking for an easy "summer read" and soon fell in love with the characters and concept behind the story. Following four driven, and independent women, their seamless wedding planning business, and their journeys to find their own one true loves, these books pretty much capture every girls dream. Norah Roberts recently completed the series with Happy Ever After, tailing the last of the four best friends.

As wedding planner for Vows, Parker Brown manages to make every wedding the perfect day for her clients. From demanding brides to feuding guests to last-minute menu changes, Parker can handle anything and anyone with aplomb. Nothing and no one rattles her, until Malcomb Kavanaugh unexpectedly kisses her one day after helping her fix a flat tire. At first, Parker dismisses the kiss as just another twist to Malcomb’s always flirtatious nature, but as it turns out, the sexy auto mechanic really is interested in starting something with Parker. Somehow, though, the whole idea of a serious romantic relationship with Malcomb is enough to rattle her. Roberts, the reigning Queen of Romance, brings her Bride Quartet series to a splendidly satisfying conclusion with another deliciously sexy and delightfully humorous contemporary romance that perfectly celebrates the importance of love, friendship, and family in any woman’s life.

When God Was a Rabbit

I always enjoy Heather's Picks, the CEO of Chapters and Indigo's personal favourites. So this week while browsing for a new book, I went to the table that holds her most recent picks and noticed one that I had not seen before. This weeks fabulously quirky novel, When God Was a Rabbit, written by Sarah Winman was a genuinely captivating read. It was at times laugh-out-loud funny, at others gut-wrenchingly sad, this book is peppered with unique and complex characters who are so original, well-observed and believable that you'll be completely absorbed into their world. It is a story of siblings, friendship, secrets and love, told with sadness and humour. It perfectly captures the hazy, magical nature of youth and all its mysteries, against a backdrop of real-life events.

On the brink of adolescence, Elly observes the world with both a childish sense of wonder and the unflinching, no-nonsense perspective of a young person. Her world is shaped by those who inhabit it: her loving but maddeningly distractible parents; a best friend who smells of chips and knows exotic words like 'slag'; an ageing fop who tapdances his way into her home, a Shirley Bassey impersonator who trails close behind; lastly, of course, a rabbit called God. In a childhood peppered with moments both ordinary and extraordinary, Elly's one constant is her brother Joe.

Twenty years on, Elly and Joe are fully grown and as close as they ever were. Until, that is, one bright morning and a single, earth-shattering event that threatens to destroy their bond for ever.

Spanning four decades and moving between suburban Essex, the wild coast of Cornwall and the streets of New York, this is a story about childhood, eccentricity, the darker side of love and sex, the pull and power of family ties, loss and life. More than anything, it's a story about love in all its forms.

Just a little over half way through this book, we are brought to the morning of 9/11. This may sound bad, but I started to loose interest. I couldn't see how this storyline could be different from the countless others on this topic. However, being a person who cannot not finish a book, I continued turning the pages, and I am so glad that I did. As the events of 9/11 came into focus, Winman handled it in a refreshing and unpredictable way. The plot continued to be compelling throughout; rendered with an appealing frankness, precision and emotional acuity.

I think what I liked most about this novel is that it was a rollicking family story - in which we get to know a fairly large cast of eccentric and unconventional characters and follow them through some tricky decades. It is recognizably true and heart-breaking in equal measure. Winman's narrative voice is beautifully true, with a child's unsentimental clarity which maintains its energy; and even at her most precocious, Elly never wears out her welcome.

Before I Fall

A few weeks ago I had been asking people for suggestions of books to read, and one of my friends had mention Before I Fall, written by Lauren Oliver, which became this weeks read. To be honest at first I was not very interested in this book, hence me putting it off for several weeks, but the guilt of my friend asking me every few days if I had started was more than I could handle. Before I fall is a story starring a popular high school girl. Now I wasn't much of a fan of high school girls when I was in high school, so to dedicate a week of my life to read about them, was almost more than I was willing to do, but this book surprised me. Before I Fall is smart, complex, and heartbreakingly beautiful. Lauren Oliver has written an extraordinary debut novel about what it means to live—and die.

What if you had only one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life? Samantha Kingston has it all: the world's most crush-worthy boyfriend, three amazing best friends, and first pick of everything at Thomas Jefferson High—from the best table in the cafeteria to the choicest parking spot. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it turns out to be her last. Then she gets a second chance. Seven chances, in fact. Reliving her last day during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death—and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.

Admittedly this book started out a little slow, but as Oliver, in a raw, emotional, and, at times, beautiful voice, explored the power we have to affect the people around us in this intensely believable first novel, I was drawn in and eagerly awaited to what Samantha would learn, and how she would deal with her situation.