This book didn't review well with Canadian media, and I'm attributing that to lazy reading. A bold statement, but it's one I'm prepared to stick with....moreThis book didn't review well with Canadian media, and I'm attributing that to lazy reading. A bold statement, but it's one I'm prepared to stick with. It makes me a bit sad this book wasn't better received, because Freehand Books deserves major props for their editorial choices. Every book I've read by Freehand has been solid, and it hurts my ex-publishing heart that they may soon close their doors. They recently suspended acquisitions and are phasing out their acquiring editor position, which is pretty much the kiss of death for this little Broadview imprint. And that's super lame.
Not Being on a Boat is about a divorced, retired man named Rutlege who has just purchased a lifetime retirement package on a cruise ship. He's in it for the long haul, set to travel the world by sea until he dies. We never actually learn much about Rutlege and his previous life, save for the fact that he's a divorced ex-entrepreneur with some questionable business practices. He's also pretty much a sociopath, which is a brave character trait for a first-time author to be tackling.
I can see how some might find the writing tedious, as events in the book are VERY slow to unfold. The story is narrated by Rutlege, whose flat, monotone voice is expertly crafted to actually BE tedious. The first half of the book describes Rutlege's daily activities, which include interactions with his personal butler, Raoul. Rutlege is in a constant state of evaluation, as he is very preoccupied with the quality of the customer service on the boat. He's forever acknowledging when he receives good customer service, mostly from Raoul, and complaining when the slightest thing is amiss, mostly to Raoul. After these evaluations, the reader always receives an emotionless, logical explanation for the positive or negative criticism--something that continues even as things start to go very wrong aboard the ship.
For a story that completely lacks a character arc, I was still captivated by what would happen to Rutlege as circumstances on the boat become increasingly apocalyptic. I despised the character but had no desire to stop reading, which in itself is demonstrative of Keith's talent. A quarter of the way through the novel, an encounter with civil war on a tropical island leaves a portion of the ship's residents taken hostage. This event is the catalyst for the slow deterioration of conditions on the ship, which is then unable to secure the necessary supplies for basic operations (food, water, and fuel, namely). Despite this major setback, the ship continues to put customer service at the forefront of its priorities to the point of ridicule. The ship's first-class dinner is reduced to the most meagre ingredients, yet it's still considered a black tie event. The boat is running out of clean water, to the point where bathing is limited, yet residents are drinking the finest champagne in the world. Even as Rutledge is made privy to the ship's difficulties, he is insistent that he be treated as one of the elite. Therein lies the book's massive satirical bend, Keith triumphantly skewering our society's sense of entitlement as it relates to what money can buy.
So many elements of the story just seemed to jive. The setting, a cruise ship, couldn't have been more perfect to showcase North American, baby-boomer excess. Rutlege is the supreme asshole that everyone has encountered at least once, whether it be at the table next to us at a restaurant or in line at a department store. As long as consumerism exists, that asshole will always be complaining that he isn't getting what he paid for. He'll always demand better treatment for a slightly higher price, and the sad thing is that he'll receive it if he pays. The Rutlege/Raoul dynamic highlighted this notion spot-on, as Rutlege understands paying a little extra for some special attention. It's interesting, too, when that dynamic changes as things start to get really bad on the ship -- or even more interestingly, how little the dynamic changes given the massive shift in circumstance. I won't give away the details, but it's this tidbit that indicates the amount of craftsmanship invested in the writing of the book.
I'd encourage anyone to pick up this gem, published by an independent press in Alberta. (less)
I bought this book from a second-hand store in Paris. I'm French-Canadian but my French has become rusty over the years, so I've dedicated myself to r...moreI bought this book from a second-hand store in Paris. I'm French-Canadian but my French has become rusty over the years, so I've dedicated myself to reading more books in what is supposed to be my first language. And where better to start than Paris?
But I can't really review this book. This is the first French title I read in eight years, so I don't yet feel qualified to comment on its translation due to my eroded French. It's not that I didn't get it, as I'm still quite fluent. It's just those little undertones, nuances, and symbology that make language such a delicious little indulgence have perhaps flown over my head a little, even though I did start to settle into them after reading about two thirds of the book. A lot of words simply escaped my understanding, and I'd only really *get* them after some serious consideration.
And how best to comment on a translation, anyway? Do I praise the writer or the translator? Hmm. This will be something to hash out once I get a better handle on mon français.(less)
Every Canadian book publishing professional should read this book. Roy MacSkimming has written the one-stop-shop book on the history of book publishin...moreEvery Canadian book publishing professional should read this book. Roy MacSkimming has written the one-stop-shop book on the history of book publishing in Canada, spanning from the early-twentieth century to 2003 when the book was published. He discusses the birth of such established presses as McClelland & Stewart, University of Toronto Press, MacMillan, etc., in addition to the advent of independent book publishing in the 60s, headed by House of Anansi, Coach House, New Star, etc. I'm fairly certain he covers the beginnings of every Canadian press established before 2003, although he obviously spends more time on the heavy hitters. The last quarter of the book is then dedicated to the demise of publishers such as Stoddart and Hurtig (which I found especially interesting since I used to live in Edmonton), the rise of multinationals such as HarperCollins, Pearson, and Random House, and also the impact of Chapters Indigo on the industry as a whole.
I can imagine that many outside the book publishing industry might find the content a little dry. But as someone who's worked in the industry for four years, I thought The Perilous Trade was a fascinating and illuminating read. It was exciting to read about industry folk whom I've actually heard of, although I'll admit that it was often difficult to follow all the name dropping. I'm pretty sure I've already forgotten a lot of the people mentioned in the book in relation to which press they worked for and/or started. But I've never been good with names in the first place, so this isn't a criticism against the book.
After reading this book, I wish more than ever that I had been a publisher during the 60s and 70s--those people had it made, and they didn't have to worry about e-book pricing or XML workflow. They published books because they believed in Canadian writers and Canadian content. What a concept! While this is of course still the driving force that keeps that ever-creaking publishing wheel turning, hippie-era publishers seemed more likely than present-day publishers to say, "Fuck it, I'll probably lose money on this book but I'm publishing it anyway because it's awesome." So what if they were drunk or high on acid when they decided which books to publish? It obviously worked out because some damn good authors emerged from that time, and Can lit is better for it.
It wasn't always this way, of course, and MacSkimming describes in great detail the financial struggle many publishers weathered in order to remain in business. But that in turn resulted in much of the cornerstones of present-day publishing, such as grants for publishers and writers, the Canada Council, the Association of Canadian Publishers, the Literary Press Group, and the general sense of community that occurs when an underappreciated industry needs to strengthen itself internally to stay afloat. Because back then, publishers got together to harass the government a hell of a lot more than they do now to get what they want. And get this--the government used to listen. (Well, sometimes. The Mulroney government really fucked over Canadian publishers with bullshit free trade agreements and allowing the infiltration of foreign businesses into the Canadian market. So that's shitty. But at least I know the story behind that after reading MacSkimming's book.)
My only gripe about the book is that it included no insight into the future of Canadian book publishing, which I thought was a bit cowardly. I realize the book is meant to focus on the history of the Canadian book publishing industry, but I think MacSkimming may have skipped out a little early and consciously avoided commenting on where he thinks the industry is headed. While 2003 may have been early to speculate on the advent of digital publishing, I think at least some mention of it is essential to the text, and he really did sidestep the whole issue. But there's a new(ish) edition of the book that was released in 2007, so I imagine this oversight has been touched upon in the latest version.
The Perilous Trade is essential reading for those in the Canadian book industry, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to better understand Canadian literature, writers, and the cultural sector as a whole. (less)
When I bought this book two days ago from Type Books here in Toronto, the woman who sold it to me was hella pumped that I was buying it. "Please promi...moreWhen I bought this book two days ago from Type Books here in Toronto, the woman who sold it to me was hella pumped that I was buying it. "Please promise me you'll read this one first," she said. "It's a-ma-zing." I kept my promise and read it in two sittings, it was that riveting.
In the beginning, however, it is a frustrating read. It's written in the voice of Jack, a five-year-old boy who's been locked up his entire life in what is basically a toolshed. He's the product of his mother's abduction and subsequent rape by her captor, "Old Nick". When we meet Jack and Ma, she has been imprisoned for seven years.
At first the language chosen to depict Jack's thoughts seemed a little too "cute". The use of proper nouns for inanimate objects like "Plant" and "Wardrobe" seemed like a too-obvious stylistic choice, an easy way to make clear that Jack is young and has never been exposed to "Outside". I guess I just thought the approach would be a little more subtle, more intricately crafted. Nonetheless, Donoghue masterfully lives and breathes this voice on a grander, more global scale, and one can't help but admire the achievement.
(As an aside, I love writers who take risks and experiment with styles that may even be offputting at first [Saramago comes to mind with his obvious lack of punctuation]. And I'm glad that, as a reader, I push through the first few "period of adjustment" pages, as I find that I very easily grow accustomed to new styles and appreciate their flow with great ease after I've settled into them.)
This book manages to be both beautiful and fast-paced, which to me is actually quite rare. I've read many beautifully written books that are painfully slow to get through, and of course everyone is familiar with shit writing that moves you through a story at lightning speed (The Da Vinci Code ring a bell?). Yes, the book is slow to get going, but I basically devoured everything after the 70th page.
Most importantly, I think Room is a gorgeous depiction of the love a mother has for her son, even if that love is totally tainted by the awful circumstances of its creation. I can understand why this is Donoghue's most talked-about book, I would definitely recommend picking it up.(less)
The Time in Between is a sad book. All the characters are longing for something they can't have, and each of them reacts to this in their own ways. It...moreThe Time in Between is a sad book. All the characters are longing for something they can't have, and each of them reacts to this in their own ways. It was heartbreaking to watch these people tirelessly search for something they can't possibly find, because what they want is so abstract that it doesn't exist or only exists in the "time in between". Half of them don't even know what they're looking for yet they feel incomplete without it. The book is constructed around this theme, and sadness seems to permeate through each carefully built sentence, the tone in each line of dialogue.
This was my first David Bergen, and I wasn't disappointed. You would think the depressing content would weigh heavily on the reader, but there is an ease with which he writes that lightens the load. Heavy content, effortless narrative. He's totally mastered this combination, and as a result the eye glides over the text without stumbling.
I'm thinking I'll read The Retreat next, I've heard it's even better.(less)
It takes a lot of moxie for a man to try writing from the point of view of a woman. Perhaps before beginning to write he sees the women in his life a...moreIt takes a lot of moxie for a man to try writing from the point of view of a woman. Perhaps before beginning to write he sees the women in his life a little differently. Maybe he starts to pay more attention to the inflection in his wife's voice, his sister's tired eyes, the way his mother absentmindedly puts a hand on his shoulder. Maybe he pushes past the conventions of daily conversation to gain access to the last time they felt intruded upon by a man, whether relatively benign or beyond painful. And now he is listening with a new ear, one that craves authenticity yet also gains understanding by remaining so open.
Richard B. Wright has a lot of moxie. Not only does he write from the perspective of one woman, but several. Clara, the eccentric small-town teacher; Nora, the adventurous New York radio starlet; Evelyn, the lesbian alcoholic writer who moves to Hollywood. It's 1930s Canada and the US, and these women are clearly expected to behave a certain way. Yet they all break social convention in their own way while trying to fit into the roles created for them by men, enduring the consequences of their choices and, sometimes, involuntary events. Wright captures the voices of these women in such a convincing way that I would have sworn this book was written by a woman had I not seen the author's name on the book's cover.
The story is linear and not linear in several ways. A lot happens in this 415-page book, and there are many rises and falls throughout the narrative. This does create some tedious bits to get through, but they're broken up quite nicely by surprises. Did I ever want to slap Clara sometimes! But hey, poor girl comes from a small town where she can't fart without someone talking about it, so I guess I can't blame her.
Wright is up there on my list of great Canadian writers, of which there are so many. I read his latest (?) October a couple years ago and could sense I was in the company of some awesome talent, so I'll definitely keep reading him. I'd love to one day meet the man who can invoke a woman's voice better than some women writers can. (less)
Comfort Food for Breakups doesn't disappoint. As its title indicates, reading this book is like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket while chowing down...moreComfort Food for Breakups doesn't disappoint. As its title indicates, reading this book is like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket while chowing down on a favourite childhood dish. Bociurkiw intermingles memory and food in such savoury language that you really taste her words, smell each described dish, and feel each emotion bubbling up from the pot. I'd recommend picking this up on a lazy, winter day--but not if you're on a diet!(less)
There is so much to discover within the pages of this book. Although it is a more personal account of Iraq's history and culture, I feel there is a lo...moreThere is so much to discover within the pages of this book. Although it is a more personal account of Iraq's history and culture, I feel there is a lot of truth spoken about what the media does not show us about the war in Iraq.
Leilah Nadir was born to an Iraqui father and British mother. She writes about Iraq from a risky point of view, as she has never set foot on Iraqi soil. In spite of this, she is an important voice for the Iraqi people and the horrors that have ravaged their country since the Iran-Iraq war of the 80s. Through years of correspondence with family members, she paints a vivid portrait of an Iraqi citizen's daily struggle in a war-torn country. However, she does not forget to describe Iraq's prosperous times, its beauty and its history, which is being needlessly destroyed as I write this review. She doesn't mince words--while Iraq's roots are beautiful, her family members are wracked with loss and feel their country will never be the same.
I recently attended an event to hear Nadir read and speak with other memoirists, who discussed that memoir, in itself, tends to be a more subjective truth, a truth where the author has the right to take certain liberties for the sake of an arc. Nadir spoke very firmly about the importance of accuracy for her book, comparing "liberties" to the lies of the Bush administration regarding weapons of mass destruction as a justification for the war in Iraq. She said, loosely, "How could I take such liberties when those very liberties have been used by the US government to justify ruining an entire nation?"
When I approached Nadir after the discussion to have my book signed, I told her I admired the women in her family, who are strong, independent, and far from submissive. I noted this as an important element in the book, as it does much to dispel the idea of Iraqi women "belonging" to their male counterparts, as we so often hear from the media. "You know," she said, "I really wanted that to come across, because I often hear, as another justification for the war, that US troops are attempting to liberate women and save them from oppression. But this argument is absolutely false, because women were never really repressed in the first place, not like in Afghanistan. They are more oppressed now, after this said liberation, than they ever were before."
I think everyone should read this book. While keeping in mind that it is a personal tale, it is an important piece that expresses what the Iraqi people are currently powerless to say.(less)
Butala is a person who will dig, dig, dig until she is satisfied with the level of detail in her narrative. This kind of detail is irritating at first...moreButala is a person who will dig, dig, dig until she is satisfied with the level of detail in her narrative. This kind of detail is irritating at first--if I had to read one more five-page description of the vastness of the prairies in Saskatchewan one more time, I was going to throw the book across the room.
BUT, I've got to say, once you get past the first fifty pages, this book is a gem. It serves to remember a girl who shouldn't be forgotten, who was brutally raped and murdered in 1962--a case that remains unsolved to this day. To truly know this girl, Butala reaches back to a more simple time in a once simple place: post-war Saskatoon, a place where people felt safe enough to sit by the side of the river at night, alone, even if that person is a 23-year-old nurse whose timeless beauty would attract the attention of men of all kinds. At the end of the book (which is truly disturbing, by the way), Butala has managed to paint a crystal-clear portrait of someone who easily could have become just another victim whose violent death will (more than likely) remain unsolved forever.(less)
I was born just after Trudeau finished his fourth and final term, so it was interesting to find out what I missed. I come from a family who adore Trud...moreI was born just after Trudeau finished his fourth and final term, so it was interesting to find out what I missed. I come from a family who adore Trudeau, which I suspect is largely based on his fight for bilingualism in Canada (my family is French-Canadian from Ontario). More interesting was it to find out why Albertans dislike Trudeau so much, as I discovered while living in Edmonton for several years. The polarization fascinated me after years of hearing about what a great man he was.
Just Watch Me presents Trudeau in a balanced light, I think. English doesn't shy away from discussing Trudeau's many failures, out of which, funnily enough, some of his greatest successes emerged. I don't yet know enough about politics to fully be able to critique English's assessment of Trudeau's reign, nor do I read enough political biographies to gauge whether or not the book lacked focus. It did seem heavy-handed at times, like English had way too much information and wanted to cram it all in, but who am I to say that some of the content didn't belong? I don't think I'm in a position to do so.
While this book was a bit of a slog at times, I do feel like I have emerged from the reading with a much better understanding of Trudeau and the politics of the time. At the very least, it must have been refreshing to have a prime minister who cared so much about the people of Canada, and who didn't back down and compromise what he believed in. This book made me wish I had been around for that, as I don't think a comparable prime minister has been in power during my lifetime. (less)
Lemon wins my unofficial award for Most Surprising Turnaround. At first I was outraged that I had bothered to pick it up, as I was greeted by yet anot...moreLemon wins my unofficial award for Most Surprising Turnaround. At first I was outraged that I had bothered to pick it up, as I was greeted by yet another angsty and cynical adolescent voice that reminded me of that whiny asshole in Catcher in the Rye, which I thought was overrated and annoying. But after the first 75 pages I could see Lemon had distinct value, and that this whiny adolescent really did have something important to express. I warmed to her voice quickly after my initial judgment of it, and I was pleasantly surprised by what she had to say.
Lemon is one of the world's youngest misanthropes, and understandably so: her biological mother gave her up for adoption, after which she was taken in by a womanizing creep and a bipolar lunatic. Her adoptive parents get divorced, and she's then shuffled between her father's second wife's house and her mental case mother, who tries to convince Lemon to kill herself with her. Then her father's second wife is stabbed by one of her students, her father leaves said second wife for another woman, and her adoptive mother ends up in a mental institution for the third time. It all seems like a bit much at first, but then it's topped off even further by one of the most disturbing rape scenes I've ever read. Where's my cherry?
But we can forgive the melodrama because Lemon always seems to emerge as a heroine. She wears her anger as armor, and despite her age, I found her to be one of the strongest female main characters I've ever come across in literature. Strube has mastered the art of character arcing through first-person narrative, and it's obvious she's a playwright in addition to a novelist. The maturation of Lemon's voice is beautifully subtle, and the vulnerability that emerges in the climax of the book is completely satisfying. Strube made it easy to cheer for Lemon.
Definitely read this if you're a feminist, or just a fan of really strong first-person voice. Coach House Books did well in nabbing this one.(less)
When it comes to Atwood, I should just learn to be patient and trust that I will feel satisfied by the end of the book. While A Handmaid's Tale instan...moreWhen it comes to Atwood, I should just learn to be patient and trust that I will feel satisfied by the end of the book. While A Handmaid's Tale instantly hooked me, The Blind Assassin took some time -- but I'm glad I stuck it through. After 350 pages, I couldn't put it down.
But a horrible thing happened to me while reading this book. I looked it up on Wikipedia, just to find out about awards, reviews, etc. And there it was, right in the middle of the page no less, the revealed ENDING of the book. I was not impressed, as I was only 400 pages through and, as those who have read it know, barely getting my feet wet. I won't spoil the ending here, but just a word of caution: DO NOT look this book up on Wikipedia before you're finished! (Seriously, Wikipedia entries don't usually give away the ending like the one did.)
I've been grappling with exactly WHY I liked this book in the end, and also why I hated its beginning. Did I simply give up on hating the book because it's Atwood? Do I feel like a traitor to Canadian literature if I even DARE to hate Atwood? After much thought, I don't think my vacillating like/dislike of the book has anything to do with Atwood herself, rather my own frustration at not knowing everything up front, which is actually quite ridiculous because a writer who knows how to reveal things at just the right time is usually brilliant. Because then, when things are finally revealed, I am so much more satisfied because these things were kept just out of reach for so long. That's the case with this book.
So, a word of caution: if you're like me, you will hate the first half of this book. You will mistake you're frustration with mere boredom, and you will consider dropping the book entirely. But don't do it. Because Ms. Atwood will not disappoint you.(less)