Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

Gina Moynihan tells how she cheated on her husband and embarked on an affair with Sean Vallely, who was also married. The thrill of forbidden passion is masterfully evoked by Irish author Anne Enright. Gina's voice is distinctive and intelligent. I liked her very much, despite her poor impulse control. Here she describes the sensual pleasures of kissing:
     "After the kiss -- the five-minute, ten-minute, two-hour kiss -- the actual sex was a bit too actual, if you know what I mean." (p. 34)
     "Another epic kiss, a wall-slider if there ever was one, I feel like I am clambering out of my own head, that the whole usual mess of myself has been put on the run by it." (p. 69)
     "I think how kissing is such an extravagance of nature. Like bird song; heartfelt and lovely beyond any possible usefulness." (p. 70)

At the crux of this tale is Evie, Sean's young daughter who has epilepsy. In the contemporary Dublin setting, with the wreck of two families mirrors the crash of the Irish economy. I don't know how I managed to choose three novels about marital infidelity in a row, but this is the strongest of the three, thanks to Enright's accomplished prose.

Readalikes for a similar strong voice in a short novel with a contemporary setting: The Spare Room by Helen Garner; Molly Fox's Birthday by Dierdre Madden.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Night Life of Trees by Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti

The tree of songs, squirrel dreams and a ceremony performed for a tree's first fruit - these are only a few of the stories in this gorgeous art book from India. "In Gond belief, trees stand in the middle of life, and the spirits of many things live in them." Three artists of the Gond tribe of central India contributed paintings which have been hand silk-screened onto black paper. Each artwork is paired with a tale narrated by the artist.

An example: "Snakes and Earth. The earth is held in the coils of the snake goddess. And the roots of trees coil around the earth too, holding it in place. If you want to depict the earth, you can show it in the form of a snake. It is the same thing." The illustration by Bhajju Shyam shows seven snakes with their heads as the roots of a tree and their bodies forming the branches within a thicket of twigs. In another, a pair of trees called "The Marriage of Desire and Intoxication," the story is of a human husband and wife who were turned into the trees of cannabis and alcohol.

See images (with prints for sale) at the Ashvita website. Lovely!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Vital Signs by Tessa McWatt

When Mike's wife Anna suddenly begins speaking nonsense at age 59, it is clearly a serious health issue. The doctors call it jargon aphasia. Mike tries to make the most of their time together, knowing Anna's death may come at any moment. His biggest dilemma is whether or not to come clean about an affair that he had years earlier. He would like Anna's forgiveness, but doesn't want to add to her distress.

It's a tender portrayal of a longtime marriage. The story is somewhat slight, but three adult children in the family add texture, as does the rural setting an hour outside of Toronto. I especially liked artist Aleksandar Macasev's whimsical illustrations depicting Mike's attempts to communicate with Anna when he was at a loss for words.

I prefer McWatt's earlier novel, Step Closer, but the central question in Vital Signs interests me and I'll probably mull over this book for quite a while.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Big Why by Michael Winter

The Big Why is a sensual fictionalized journal of real-life artist Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), covering the time in his early thirties when he lived in Newfoundland. It was shortly before the start of the first world war when Kent decided to move from New York City to the little town of Brigus, where only one house had indoor plumbing. Kent lived in a tent inside an abandoned cottage while he fixed the place up before sending for his wife and children.

Life in Brigus was austere for everyone, since fishing and sealing were the main occupations. There is a strong contrast, however, between the cultural attitudes and outlook of Kent as compared to his Newfoundland neighbours. These differences, together with Kent's inability to be faithful to his wife, provide the tension in the story. It's a character study of an artistic temperament, an idealistic man who has trouble curbing his impulses. After Kent has left Newfoundland, he has a conversation with his friend Bob Bartlett, a polar explorer who also lived in Brigus:
     "The question is not, he said, were you loved. Or did you love. Or did you love yourself. Or did you allow love to move you, though that's a big one. Move you. The question, Rockwell, is did you get to be who you are. And if not, then why. That, my friend, is the big why."
It's telling that this speech comes from Bartlett, who is identified as an "invert" (gay) in the book.

I loved the Newfoundland vocabulary and expressions, like boo-darbies (fairies), the dunch (numbness), measuring in quintals (114 pounds), swiling (hunting for seals) on swatchy ice in a clever boat, walking in your softs (barefoot) and making fish (preserving salt cod) on flakes.

It doesn't help to clarify the difference between a dory and a skiff, but this bit of dialogue between a couple of teens watching a small boat is entertaining:
     "Tom: Look at that skiff.
     She's a skiff.
     She's a dory, boy.
     Go on, you useless article.
     Look at the rake on her.
     Look at the side, the ramp.
     Okay, a flat.
     She's a dory, okay? A dory.
     What about the V in the back there.
     That's a little skiffish. but she's a dory.
     What about --
     Ah shut your face.
     Go fuck yourself."

Marital infidelity is a theme throughout, and not just between Kent and his wife, Kathleen. The morning after Kent and his best friend Gerald (Kathleen's cousin) have been on a drinking binge in New York:
     "There was a note on the table. His eyes blinking back flashes of wet. He was holding the note.
     I hate it when my wife asks mechanical engineers to go to California with her."

A nonstandard orthography is used throughout the book, with minimal use of apostrophes (i.e. didnt, theyre, wasnt) and no quotation marks to differentiate internal and external dialogue. It took me a little while to get used to this, but it added to the intimate feeling of Kent's journal.

I was pleased to see that both the hardcover and paperback editions of The Big Why have art by Rockwell Kent on the cover. The frank and lusty sensuality in The Big Why reminded me of another historical novel about a real artist, As Above, So Below by Rudy Rucker.

NOTE: Michael Winter has a sibling, Kathleen Winter, who is the author of Annabel.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Grace by Elizabeth Scott

Grace, a member of the rebel Hill People, has been trained since childhood to be a suicide bomber. At 17, she is sent on her big mission to do her part in overthrowing the ruthless dictator of her homeland. Something goes wrong and the story opens with Grace's efforts to escape her country safely. She tells her story in first person present tense, filling in the backstory as she journeys towards the border.

The premise is intriguing and I mostly enjoyed this until it got too preachy in the final 20 or so pages. I was also uncomfortable with the first name of the evil dictator - Keran Berj - which is awfully close to the Islamic holy book when coupled with religious zealot suicide bombers.

I'd recommend this dystopian science fiction to Hunger Games fans in Grade 9 and up, especially those readers who are interested in philosophical questions.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat

Ka is a New York lesbian sculptor whose father has been her main muse and model for her work. It isn't until Ka is well into her adulthood that she learns a shocking truth about the man: under the Duvalier regime in Haiti, her father tortured and killed people. The Dew Breaker is an amazingly powerful story about forgiveness and redemption.

The novel is told in a series of short stories, a form I like very much. (Click on the 'story-cycle' tag below to link to others that I've reviewed.) I'm grateful to Amy at Amy Reads for drawing my attention to this book, since I've wanted to read something by Danticat for a long time and Amy's review spurred me to action. The audiobook [Recorded Books; 6 hrs, 45 mins] that I listened to was narrated in the lovely voice of Robin Miles. I enjoyed her nuanced interpretations of Haitian-accented English.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

As Above, So Below: A Novel of Peter Bruegel by Rudy Rucker

In this rich imagining of the life of 16th century Flemish painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rudy Rucker  uses one of Bruegel's works to title each chapter.  The novel spans the second half of his life, to his death at age 44. It begins in 1551 with his trip to Italy and subsequent return to Antwerp as a young man, then the progress of his love life, friendships, and family life as he built a following for his work (and dropped the 'h' from his surname). His paintings and drawings contained veiled political and religious commentary, a risky thing during a time when treason and religious heresy were punishable by death.

Art lovers and fans of historical fiction will find this book interesting. I picked it up before heading off to Belgium and only got halfway through before my trip. Now that I'm home, I just couldn't seem to get back into it, so I read the final chapter  to see how things turned out and it feels like that is enough. It was nice that the storyline involving Bruegel's gay friend, mapmaker Ortelius, is also wrapped up in the final chapter.

I learned a lot, but it isn't exactly a page-turner. Rucker's style is often more like a university lecture (albeit an interesting one). Here's an example: "Leaning against the wall were two great oak panels, nearly five feet across and four feet high, each of them painted with hundreds of little figures, too many to count.* Bruegel and his patron Nicolas Jonghelinck called them wemel paintings. The word wemel meant 'seethe' or 'boil'; it was the word they'd used in Bruegel's village to describe the motion of a mass of insects:** like ants, like the roly-poly bugs found under a rotten log, or like the springtails in a wet pile of duckweed at the river's edge."

While I was in a museum in Brussels, it was a thrill to see the original painting that was used on the dust jacket of this book, The Fall of the Rebel Angels. Reading As Above, So Below, (well, as much of it as I managed) gave me a greater appreciation and a deeper understanding of the early Flemish art I saw on the trip. In the story, Bruegel spends hours examining the paintings of his hero, Hieronymous Bosch. This gave me the idea to take my time with similar art, since so much is going on in them. I felt rewarded to spy such things as a street vendor cooking waffles in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. And then I went outside to enjoy waffles on the streets of Brussels...

*A quibble - I believe stars are too many to count, but not figures in a painting.
 **Why didn't he just put a period here?
Pieter Brueghel II; detail from a copy of his father's work.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fair Play by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson is a Swedish/Finnish lesbian author who wrote and illustrated books for both adults and children. I picked up Fair Play (at Audrey's Books in Edmonton) for two reasons: I was excited to see something new (to me) by Jansson and I'll read anything with an introduction by Ali Smith.

Fair Play is a collection of short stories that together form a novel. It's about a long-term loving relationship between two artists, a writer/illustrator named Mari and a photographer/artist named Jonna. As Ali Smith points out in her introduction, these characters are clearly autobiographical. Jansson's lifelong partner and travelling companion, Tuulikki Pietila was a graphic artist and the women spent over 40 years together.

In the stories, Mari and Jonna deal with ordinary things like jealousy, disappointment and irritation. Their unfailing willingness to sort things out and the trust that they will succeed are very appealing qualities. Their love is so obviously rock-solid. I was intrigued that the two women have connected, yet separate, living spaces. (Sort of like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, but without the histrionics.)

Some of the stories are also set on a tiny island where Mari and Jonna spend summers in a cabin. "The room had four windows because the sea was equally beautiful in all directions." Jansson's writing (translated by Thomas Teal) is as light and airy as the seaside cabin. Each word seems to fit exactly right, shipshape and freshly scrubbed. Jansson makes it look so easy.

Fair Play reminded me of a story-cycle I read years ago, The Riverhouse Stories by Andrea Carlisle, not only because they are both about the life of a lesbian couple, but especially for the gentleness, kindness and fable-like quality these books share. Fair Play is possibly the best book I've read so far this year.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Linger by Maggie Stiefvater

"This is the story of a boy who used to be a wolf and a girl who was becoming one." The first sentence of the prologue pretty much sums up the second book in the Wolves of Mercy Falls series. I enjoyed the first book, Shiver, but am less enthusiastic about Linger.

I know that part of my antipathy is because of the audiobook narrators [Scholastic; 10 hours, 40 minutes]. Usually I like it when alternating character voices are interpreted by different performers, but not this time. Three of the four - Dan Bittner, Pierce Cravens and Jenna Lamia - spoke so slowly that it drove me nuts! They sounded like dimwits. Only Emma Galvin, as Isabelle, sounded like a normal person.

Isabelle is attracted to a new werewolf, Cole, whose personality is as prickly as hers. That worked very well. The lovey-dovey relationship between Grace and Sam proceeds as it was laid out in Shiver, but Grace's parents have made an odd about-face. In the first book, they were negligently oblivious. In Linger, they do everything possible to keep Grace and Sam apart.

The change in Grace's parents seemed so out of character that I pondered this after finishing the book. In the end, I concede that they may have been shocked by what they saw as a breach of trust by their daughter and that's why they over-reacted. They continued to be bad parents. At the core of the story is the theme of breaking free from expectations and fulfilling your own destiny. Bad parents provide a better foil for this action.

A nice aspect of the audiobook is the inclusion of original music composed and performed by the author. You can hear it while watching the lovely trailer Stiefvater created using paper cutouts and stop motion filming.

Linger ends in a cliffhanger, but even without that, I am curious enough about the final outcome to plan to read the final book in the series, Forever.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones

I'm back from Belgium with lots of good memories, a head cold that started after I landed in Edmonton and a laptop that refuses to connect to the internet. On a borrowed machine, doped up on medication and probably jetlagged too, here is a review of one of the books I read on the trip.

Author Lloyd Jones is probably best known in North America for his novel Mister Pip. The Book of Fame is also a New Zealand award-winner. It's a fictionalized account of the true story of the original All Black team of young rugby players who travelled to the UK in 1905 where they astounded sports fans with their skill. I know next to nothing about rugby but I was swept up in this amazing tale.

Over the course of a year, the New Zealand team lost only one match out of 35 games. "For the record, we scored 830 points and conceded 39." You don't have to know anything about the scoring system to recognize what a feat this was. Final scores give a good indication of their prowess: Oxford (47-nil); Bedford (41-nil); Munster (33-nil); Yorkshire (40-nil). Their crushing itinerary had them sometimes playing two or more games per week. They suffered broken ribs and collar bones among other injuries and illness and continued to win against the top British teams. The men came from humble backgrounds - farmers, miners, civil servants - and their first impressions of England exemplify this: "There appeared to be little in the way of landscaping left to do."

The choice of first person plural narration is an inspired and perfect choice because the men worked so well as a team they were like one individual with many bodies. The only other time I've read a novel in this viewpoint is in Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters. The format Jones used could be loosely described as verse. Vignettes, fragments of newspaper accounts, personal journal entries and list poems are all part of the mix. There are accounts of game details too, of course, but I never felt overwhelmed by too much sports talk.

When I finished the book, I immediately felt the need to watch an All Blacks haka on YouTube. I could imagine the impression it would make on the opposing team!

I highly recommend The Book of Fame to readers who enjoy travel writing or historical fiction with a focus on people and everyday-life details. It's a must for rugby fans.