10-pages-in book review: Blackbird House

I’m about half way through Alice Hoffman’s 2004 book Blackbird House. I stumbled across it the other day on the remaindered table at Chapters. Including the tax and my membership discount, I paid a stellar $2.83 – for the hardcover!

Although the price was the first thing that caught my attention (how can I resist a hardcover for less than the price of a magazine?), it was the reviews on the cover that sealed the deal. On the front cover, there’s an endorsement by Kate Atkinson. On the back cover, reviews compare Alice Hoffman to two of my favourite Canadian writers, Alice Munro and Carol Shields. As if that weren’t enough, there was a mention of magic realism, and I was hooked. Not even one page into the book, and that’s all it took.

Blackbird House is an evocative, haunting set of linked short stories about a farm on an isolated cape in Massachusetts. Spanning from 1778 to the present day, they are more vignettes than stories; each one in the same place but centred around a subsequent generation of occupants. The farm, with its murky pond and fields of thistle and rampant sweet peas, becomes a character in itself and we watch it tranform through the ravages of time and occupancy – and tradgedy.

If I ever become a fiction writer, I think my genre of choice would be magic realism. I’ve always been fascinated by the genre and its casual acceptance of things whimsical and magical. In this book, a boy befriends a blackbird who cannot fly, and the blackbird turns white with loss and fear on the night the boy is lost at sea. Two centuries later, the snowy white bird still flits about the farm. And the colour red runs through the lives of the occupants of Blackbird House – a vibrant, sensous red at odds with the quiet desperation of many of the farm’s occupants. There’s the red of Ruth Blackbird Hill’s boots; the blood red fruit of the pear tree beside the house; the stain of cranberries on Larkin Howard’s hands; and the names of red-headed sisters: Garnet, and Ruby. And blood – viscous red blood spilling, flowing, and rising with passion.

I’ve never read any of Alice Hoffman’s work before (she also wrote – among other things – Practical Magic, later a movie with Sandra Bullock), but after savouring her writing the way one might savour a fine meal, I’m ready for more. The word that keeps coming to me is ‘evocative’. These aren’t plot-driven sketches, although plenty happens. They aren’t even character-driven, as you never get to know a character well enough to understand their motivations. Like an impressionist painting, you can’t analyze the individual brush strokes to see a realistic representation, but when you give over scrutiny of the detail to simply experience the whole, you connect on a more funamental level with the people, and with the place.

The stories of Blackbird House are not uplifting, inspiring stories. They are quiet, often tragic stories of loss and endurance set in an unforgiving place. And yet, there is love, and patience, and perhaps most surprisingly, a stoic sort of hope. As the dust jacket for the book succinctly summarizes, ‘this is the irresistable story of a house, its inhabitants, its history, and the ghosts that haunt a spit of land.’

At the very least, it was well worth the less than $3.00 I paid for it!

10-pages-in book review: JPod

I’ve been trying to write this latest 10-pages-in book review for the better part of a month. When I was thirty or forty pages into the book, the place where I usually am when I start fleshing out a review in my head, I wasn’t sure what to say. So I kept reading, and my opinion of the book kept changing, and then I was so close to being done that I figured I might as well just read the whole damn thing.

And then I still didn’t know what I wanted to say.

If you’ve been around for a while, you know I have a huge literary crush on Douglas Coupland. For as long as I’ve been reading him – and I’ve read all his books – he has always had a knack for observing the same things I was observing, of thinking the same things I was thinking, of wondering the same things I was wondering – and for writing them with a satiric flair that makes me weep with envy. And I think that’s why I’m so conflicted about jPod.

JPod is the story of – well, even that’s not so easy to nail down. How about jPod is the name a sextet of misfit video game programmers give themselves. They all have surnames beginning with the letter J and are housed in the same quadrant of the Vancouver tech firm that employs them, thus jPod. They are familiar characters from other Coupland novels – smart, tech-saavy, ironic, and playful. They work long hours and have no significant lives outside of their cubicle walls, but seem to spend most of their days surfing gore sites on the Web and writing up mock descriptions of themselves as if they were items for sale on e-Bay. When the marketing geniuses decide the skateboard game they are coding needs a benevolent turtle character inserted into it at the last minute, they go to great lengths to sabotage the game by programming a rampaging Ronald McDonald terrorist easter egg into it. They search for meaning in technology, in games, in each other, and expend the majority of their time finding ways to avoid growing up.

Some other stuff happens, too. The narrator, Ethan Jarlewski, has to deal with a burgeoning crush on the new girl in the next cube, a mother with a cash crop of pot in her basement and a tendency to infidelity, a father who desperately covets a speaking part in a movie, and a tenuous but growing connection to an oriental crime boss with a penchant for ballroom dancing. By the end of the novel, though, Ethan’s biggest problem is his new nemesis: Douglas Coupland himself, who goes from self-referential cameo to central character.

Yeah, it’s a strange little book. The plot at some points is simply preposterous, but with Douglas Coupland you know that he’s using irony and satire to make a point and that the preposterousness is intentional, if not a little bit annoying. Also rather odd is his inclusion of a numbing 23 pages (yes, twenty-three) of the first hundred-thousand digits of pi and the 972 three-letter words that you can legally use in a game of Scrabble. More contextual, at least, is the inclusion of the infamous Nigerian spam e-mail, reprints of random product labels, the nutritional information from a bag of Doritos, and the Chinese characters for the words shopping, boredom and pornography.

Despite, or perhaps because of its peccadilloes, lots of people are liking this book. It’s been long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, given annually to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story fiction collection published in English. Many reviews are calling it a sequel to Coupland’s popular Microserfs. It’s all good, and on the whole I enjoyed reading it. And yet, I had some difficulties with it, too.

After all, I’m no longer the young ingenue searching for meaning and a greater purpose to life that I was back when I Generation X knocked me on my ass back in 1993. (I honestly attribute my reading that book as one of the forces that launched me out of a bad marriage and into a reinvention of my entire identity). Heck, now I’m part of the establishment, a suburban mother of two almost three, happily married and finding meaning in my life every time I look into my childrens’ eyes. Although I clearly recognize the ironic, fun-seeking tech geeks at the centre of this story, and I’m close enough to this world to get most of the inside jokes, I’m still having a hard time relating to characters so fundamentally empty that when you strip away all the hip cultural references and ironic asides and winks and nods, there’s nothing left. These characters spend so much time looking to the Internet and popular culture for personal relevance and meaning that they’ve gone from characters to caricatures, and that’s too bad.

I can recommend jPod unequivocally. It’s easy to read, broken up as the narrative is by all the other games and minutia Coupland has doodled in the margins. It’s fun, well-written, and despite the silliness of some of the plot lines, a good story.

I guess what I want is something more grown-up now. After all, poster-boy though he was for Generation X, Coupland is almost ten years older than me, and if I’m feeling my age, I can’t help but wonder if he’s not feeling that way, too. I so love his writing, his keen eye for minutia, and his wit. I guess I’d like to see more of what he thinks of us right now instead of us half a generation ago, and what that means as we all settle down and settle in for the long haul.

Ten-pages-in book review: Hitching Rides with Buddha

I know, I know, I just did a 10-pages-in book review last week. And, I just reviewed another book by this same author a couple of months ago.

But I’m so happy to have back-to-back excellent books to read, and I know it’s summer reading season and I for one am desperate for recommendations for something to read myself, and I have such a literary crush on Will Ferguson now that I just can’t help myself.

I’m about half way through Hitching Rides with Buddha: A Journey Across Japan, the very funny and insightful travel memoir of one witty Canadian who takes a break from teaching English in Japan to follow the sakura, the much-celebrated wave of cherry blossoms that flows up and over Japan each spring.

Here’s how Will (I’ll take the liberty of using his first name, because I truly hope we can be drinking buddies some day) describes the seminal moment when he decides to undertake his journey:

One year, drunker than usual, I announced to my circle of Japanese teachers that I was going to follow the Cherry Blossom Front all the way to Hokkaido, at the northern end of Japan. Or rather, that is what was reported to me. I don’t recall making this vow exactly, but I was repeatedly reminded of it. My supervisor, for one, constantly fretted over my plans. (…)

Anyhow, I had committed myself to discovering the True Heart of Japan. “William is going to follow the sakura all the way to Hokkaido,” my supervisor would tell people at random, and I would grimace in a manner that might easily been taken for a smile. I stalled three years.

When I finally did set out to follow the Cherry Blossom Front north, I went armed only with the essentials of Japanese travel: a map, several thick wads of cash, and a decidedly limited arsenal of Japanese, most of which seemed to revolved around drinking or the weather. (“It is very hot today. Let’s have a beer.”)

He sets off, a Gaijin-san (“Mr Foreigner”) curiousity hitchhiking the entire length of Japan (across seven islands, roughly the distance from Miami to Montreal) for no real reason except because he can, and because so many of his Japanese colleagues tell him either it can’t be done or he is crazy to try.

If one day I were to become a famous and celebrated writer, I should be very flattered to have someone observe, “Her writing is very similar in style and substance to that of Will Ferguson.” I love his keen eye for the quirkiness of those around him, I love his barely subdued wit and his gentle self-deprecation, and I simply I love how he strings words together.

It was these qualities that made me pick up this book in the first place because to be totally honest – I wasn’t all that interested in Japan, or travels in Japan, or Japanese culture. Not there is anything wrong with Japan, or the Japanese; it’s just not a culture that has ever captured my curiousity before. I have friends who have and would love to travel to Japan, but it never even cracked my own top ten of places I’d some day like to visit. Until now, that is; until I read this book.

Hitching Rides with Buddha has piqued my curiousity about Japan in more or less the same way that Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw inflamed my love of my own country. Did I tell you one of the inspirations for our Quebec City trip was Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw? Will Ferguson didn’t write specifically about Quebec City, but he reminded me that there are many, many exquisite places to visit within a day’s drive of here, and that could do worse than spend a few days exploring Canada and understanding our own history a little better.

This memoir, Hitching Rides with Buddha, is the antithesis to the standard Frommers or Lonely Planet tourist guide, and far from the usual dry and trite assessment of the Japanese people and culture. There is a constant tension between Will’s status as an outsider and the intimacy of his perspective on the lives of the ordinary Japanese citizens he encounters while hitchhiking that makes his story compelling as well as descriptive. Will’s insight into both people and place, and his alternating affection for and exasperation with the Japanese makes both the author and his subjects charmingly endearing.

By the way, if you’re looking for this book in the US or UK, it was published under the title Hokkaido Highway Blues. An author’s note in the newly released Canadian edition tells the reader that Hitching Rides with Buddha was the author’s original choice for a title, but that “the title was nixed by the American publisher on the complaint that it sounded too religious. Sigh.”

I’ve been both extremely lucky and kind of annoyed to find two great books to read back-to-back through the early summer reading season. ‘Annoyed’ because The Historian was so page-turningly compelling that I could barely stop reading long enough to make dinner or put the kids to bed, and other niceties like personal grooming and work had to take a number to get my attention. Hitching Rides with Buddha will bring me through to next week, but I’ve still got two weeks of holiday time at the end of July and the beginning of August to pass.

What have you read recently that’s worth recommending?

Ten-pages-in book review: The Historian

I started writing my ten-pages-in book reviews after a book so knocked my socks off that I was worried I’d never love a book in the same way again. That book, The Time Traveler’s Wife, was easily one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Here we are, just over a year later, and I’ve finally found a worthy successor, another book in which I have completely lost myself, not to mention track of time when I’m reading and a will to do anything but curl myself around it and see what happens next.

I’m reading The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel ten years in the writing. I had heard enough buzz about the book to request it from the library, but it took a full five months for my name to claw its way to the front of the queue and by then, I had pretty much forgotten whatever I’d heard about it. When I flipped open the dust jacket and read it was a historical novel about Dracula, I almost put it aside unread. I’d done the same to Anne Rice’s latest tome, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I read about two pages and a good chunk of the author’s notes at the end, but I just couldn’t commit myself.

But this book, The Historian – this book, I couldn’t put down after two pages. From the first five paragraphs, I was hooked. True, it is about Dracula, but more importantly it’s a set of intertwining quest stories, an exploration of the relationship between fathers and daughters, a whole series of mysteries, a romance, a suspense story and just about the spookiest thing I’ve read since the latest Stephen King novel. Reading it on the back deck in the blazing June sun, there was more than one instance when my skin puckered in goosebumps at a particularly eerie turn. It’s a damn good book, an amazing book, and I’m quite distracted to be sitting here telling you about it when I know it’s waiting for me, only half-way finished, upstairs.

The book jumps back and forth in time to follow three storylines. In the current day, it’s 1972 and a motherless sixteen-year-old American girl living in Amsterdam with her diplomat father stumbles upon a secret from her father’s past. She finds a mysteriously blank book, save for a rather eerie woodcut of a dragon, and a series of letters that begin, “My dear and unfortunate successor.” As the story unfolds, her father, Paul, tells his own story of his quest some twenty years earlier to prove that Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler, was not only real, but still ‘alive’. His story also tells the story of his own mentor’s quest to prove the same thing some twenty years before that, and the three stories weave a tight rope of surprisingly linear narrative. Stories inside stories inside stories, like riddles and reflections and ripples in time – it’s a breath-taking and sweeping story told with exquisite attention to place and detail. When Paul disappears in the current day, his daughter sets off across Europe to find him, and instead finds evil pursuing her.

As I said, I’m about half way through. So far, Kostova seems to have figured out what I once read Stephen King speak to – that the monster you can’t see is far more frightening than the monster you can. At this point, the evil is only just beginning to reveal itself, although its presence has been alluded to and foreshadowed by the layers of congruent stories.

It could be overwrought and over the top. It’s not. It could have the gothic grotesques and arabesques that Anne Rice brought to Interview with the Vampire and so many of her other books. It doesn’t. What it has is incredible attention to atmospheric detail, so you truly feel like you are in Istanbul in the 1950s, or in Radcliffe Camera on the campus of Oxford University in 1972, or in the court of Sultan Mehmed in the fifteen century. And it has a rollercoaster of a plot, with twists and dives and hairpin turns that will keep you awake at night. And it has compelling characters, characters with whom you are fully engaged from the first time they are sketched out on the page.

I’m conflicted – should I continue to elaborate on how simply gobsmacked I am by this fabulous book, or should I shut this down and go read it some more?

Right. Good choice. See ya!

Ten-pages-in book review: The Unwritten Girl

I’m trying to diversify my 10-pages-in book reviews a little bit. I’ve worked in some memoirs, a travelogue, plenty of CanLit, some anthologies and a pulp mystery. Today, we venture into the world of young-adult oriented fantasy in a charming book called The Unwritten Girl.

It’s a classic quest tale with a literary twist. Protagonist Rosemary Watson is a bookish sort, teased by the more popular kids in school. When her brother Theo becomes lost in a book – literally – she and the vaguely mysterious but kindly new kid in town, Peter McAllister, are drawn into a quest through the Land of Fiction to rescue him. In the Land of Fiction, they must overcome challenges based on the books Rosemary has started but was unable to finish.

It’s a simple story, cleanly (perhaps even sparsely) written and with little depth to the characters, but it’s entirely engaging. I planned to stop after the first 60 pages or so to write this review, but I kept creeping forward, devouring a few more pages and then a few more, until I’d devoured most of it over the course of a few rides home on the bus.

The Canadian blogosphere is not a huge space, and it’s through that connection that I “know” first-time author James Bow. He is, among other things, the organizing force behind the Canadian Alliance of Non-Partisan Bloggers. I had seen he had a book coming out, and had received an invitation to the Ottawa launch a few weeks back, which I couldn’t attend. But my curiousity was piqued enough to want to take a look at a book by someone roughly in my demographic, from Ontario to boot, who actually managed to write a book. I was, quite honestly, pleasantly surprised by what a clever, charming little book it is.

The book is by turns adventurous, spooky and laugh-out-loud funny. I love the sense of fun James brings to this story. For example, in the Land of Fiction, Rosemary and Peter are escorted by a wise character called Puck (yes, the Shakespearean one) and they have the following exchange:

“What is that?” asked Peter.
“An idea—the fruit of an idea tree.” Puck grinned.
“Ideas grow on trees?” said Rosemary.
“Where else would they be?” said Puck. “Tis a shame they are not more common.” He bounced the ball once and twirled it to Peter and Rosemary. Written in black text on a white stripe were the words, “What if rugs could fly?”
“Ideas fall from the trees and are blown across this beach,” said Puck, “and into the great black sea that surrounds the Land of Fiction. In time, they build the land itself.”
“Neat,” said Peter, “But why is this ‘fruit’ made of rubber?’”
“So I can do this,” said Puck. He snatched up the ball and bounced it off Peter’s head.“I am bouncing an idea off you!”

Reading this book reminds me very much of how I feel when I’m reading the Harry Potter books. A detached, older me is impressed by the creativity, the ideas, and how the book comes together, but mostly my (barely repressed) inner-fourteen-year-old is blissfully wrapped up in a rollicking good tale.

10-pages-in book review: Come Back

Today’s review is being written not at the 10-pages-in point, but after I have read the whole book. I’m glad I finished the book before I posted my review, too, because had I written it before I finished the book, it would likely have been a much less favourable review.

Today’s book is Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back. It is the shared memoir of Claire Fontaine and her 15 year-old-daughter Mia Fontaine, told in alternating first-person narrative. It follows Mia as she tumbles from seemingly happy, successful prep-school student to a drug-abusing, self-hating homeless teen on the run, and then follows her difficult recovery at boot camp-type schools in the Czech Republic and in rural Montana. It is a harrowing, painful, but ultimately redeeming story of a mother and daughter whose bond is stretched beyond capacity, but never breaks.

Claire Fontaine herself sent me an e-mail offering me this book to review, and I had a strong sense of obligation to keep reading it because of that. It was, especially at the beginning, a difficult book to read. Early in the book, Claire describes the abuse she and Mia suffered at the hands of her ex-husband. I found it nearly unbearable to consider the sexual abuse three-year-old Mia endured, and still can’t quite understand the denial and obliviousness that Claire claims upon realizing that it has had a traumatic and life-long impact on Mia.

It took me a while to invest in Claire and Mia emotionally, too. Mia’s early passages are full of contempt for her mother, her surroundings, herself – and it is difficult to reconcile this angry, troubled young woman with Claire’s insistence that Mia was a loving daughter who, at fifteen, still liked her mother to sing lullabies to her over the phone when her mother was working late – right up to the night Mia runs away from home. It’s hard to believe they are experiencing the same reality.

As Mia works through her recovery in a ‘school’ that has rules that require students to be locked down, be silent unless spoken to by staff, and line up heel-to-toe every time they move from one room to another (they are even forbidden from looking out the window), Claire is forced to face her own demons in a parallel recovery program for parents. I found Mia’s burgeoning self-awareness fascinating and redeeming, her mother’s slightly less so.

In the end, I’m glad I kept reading. Claire’s story of a mother’s determination to save her daughter is compelling, written with passion, hard-won insight and humour. It’s Mia’s story, though, that makes this book worth reading. Reflecting on her long journey, Mia writes:

It’s funny how things come full circle. Morova and Spring Creek’s philosophy is based primarily on accountability, of being aware of your choices so you don’t wake up miserable one morning and wonder how you got there. But, it’s ironic that the most powerful lesson I learned, the awareness that you alone create your reality, is one that children instinctively know. It never occurs to them that there’s anything that they can’t do or be. And it shouldn’t occur to adults, either; we’ve just grown accustomed to living with limitations.

I even learned a little bit about myself from this book. Claire, like someone we know who shall remain nameless, has control issues, and her insight into that through the parallel program for parents gave me insight into myself. And Mia’s examination of how it was her mother’s intense love that both impelled her to hide from that love in the dark world of drugs and worse also helped bring her back into the light gave me greater understanding of my own issues about needing parental affirmation.

I liked this book enough to share it, so I’m stealing an idea from Wonder Mom. I’ll pass this book along to a randomly selected commenter at the end of next week. If you’d like me to enter you into the draw, drop me a note in the comment box. To make it interesting, tell me something you did as a teenager that you hope your kids never do.

Edited to add: if you’d like more information about Claire and Mia Fontaine and some of the projects they are working on, or some resources for families dealing with abuse, you can visit their Web site at http://www.claireandmia.com.

10-pages-in book review: Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw

This is the 15th edition of the 10-pages-in book review, and one of my favourite books to date. I’m reading Will Ferguson’s Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw, and you can officially add Will Ferguson to my list of literary crushes, along with Douglas Coupland and Nick Hornby.

Will Ferguson has a lot in common with Douglas Coupland, now that I think about it: both are Canadian and of more or less the same generation as me, both have a satiric touch that makes me laugh out loud, both spent time teaching ESL in Japan (Ferguson brought home a Japanese wife on his return to Canada), both are ferverent nationalists in a Gen-X slacker kind of way, and both have a keen eye for our national idiosyncracies and write about them with such effortless panache that I stop mid-paragraph to admire the prose sometimes.

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw is part travel memoir, part history book, part love letter to Canada. In each chapter the author visits a different city (or town, or Fort) in a different province, and in visiting describes both the modern-day place and the history that sculpted it. In effortless strokes, he links his own personal history to the history of the nation, and his descriptions of the quirky characters that make up the threads of our national tapestry make me that much more fiercely proud to be Canadian.

One of many unforgettable vignettes describes a turn of the century shipbuilder who walked – walked! – 1000 kms from Minnesota to Saskatechewan, back to Minnesota and finally back again, and then built a giant ship on the prairies, determined to sail home to Finland. From Saskatchewan. Who would’ve guessed that Saskatchewan isn’t landlocked?

From the fur trade to prairie prohibition whiskey tunnels to polar bears to the übercolonial Victoria, this is a gorgeous series of sketches of Canada, and Canadians. But it’s the author’s personal insight and observant eye that make this book so entirely charming. Pardon the long passage, but I loved this bit of description of Will and his son taking a ‘rest stop’ on the side of highway one traveling night:

Things I learned while standing on the side of the highway in the middle of the night, trying not to get peed on as I hold a three-year-old so that he doesn’t trip or fall down a ditch as he looks up and the night sky and asks questions about the moon while he pees (invariably) into the wind:

(1) Although warm initially, pee very soon becomes cold.

(2) If you get pee on your shoelaces, there is nothing you can do. Your shoelaces will never dry, and you will never get the odour out. Best to throw them away and start anew.

(3) There are a lot of stars. Man, there are a lot of stars. Out here, beyond the refractive fog of city streetlights, the sky is awash with them. The Milky Way – it’s like a river of rhinestones; it spills across from horizon to horizon. Thousands and thousands of stars.

(4) Cars on the highway travel really fast. You can hear the rishing pitch of Doppler-effect waves pushed in front of them, then blast past, rattling the air. When we are inside our cars, hurtling across a landscape, we don’t realize how quickly we are moving – until we stop.

Walking back to the car, shoelaces damp, son on shoulders, I say in my wise and fatherly way, “You know son, long ago, sailors and sea captains could guide their ships by using the stars.”

“Really?” he says. “How?”

I stop. Think about this for a moment. “I have no idea.”

The book is peppered with self-deprecating and gentle (oh so Canadian) humour like this. I don’t often have a lot of patience for non-fiction books, but this one is so entirely endearing, not to mention educational (did you know the name Moose Jaw has probably nothing to do with the jaw or any part of a moose, and instead originates from the Cree word moosgaw, meaning “warm breeze”? Or that polar bears are so dangerous that the town of Churchill has demarcated “do not enter” zones in polar bear season?) that I could go on quoting from it for quite some time.

I’ve read some of Will Ferguson’s other books, and didn’t find them quite so appealing. I wasn’t overly fond of How to be a Canadian – while clever, I found it to be a little bit contrived. I did enjoy the biting satire of Happiness(TM) , but it got just a little bit long toward the end. This one, though, is by far my favourite. I can’t believe the sheer volume of things I learned about this country I love so much – and in his eastward progression that starts in BC, I’ve only made it as far as Ontario and still have all of eastern Canada yet to go. I’m already wondering how I can plan a trip to visit some of these places – Saskatchewan and Manitoba have never been more fascinating.

Canadian history has never been so engaging, so charming, so funny and so interesting. They should teach this version in school!

10-pages-in book review: Behind the Scenes at the Museum

I’m a little bit shy of 100 pages in to Kate Atkinson’s 1995 debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but from page one I was hooked. The protagonist launches herself at the reader with the declarative first two-word sentence, “I exist!” at the moment of her conception, and drags you with her as she gets to know her slightly twisted and eccentric British family.

Kate Atkinson can write. Oh, how I wish I could write like this! And it’s her first novel, which makes me unsure whether I want to admire her or dislike her for such a perfectly constructed and beautifully written story. Her prose reminds me of Margaret Atwood at her best, but without the overt intellectual challenge that Atwood’s work so often has. In fact, now that I think of it, she also reminds me a great deal of Alice Munro, except that her spin on magic realism is more satiristic realism. And speaking of powerful Canadian woman writers, there’s more than a passing resemblance to Carol Shields here, too. Hmmm, no wonder I like it so much.

Each chapter (so far) juxtaposes a year in the life of Ruby, the protagonist, with a”footnote” from her past, a clever device Atkinson uses to jump back and forth in time. The footnotes are almost as long as the chapters, and tell stories from Ruby’s maternal ancestors, so far through the first and second world wars. Although the footnotes are colourful and interesting, they’re not as enjoyable as the main narrative simply because they lack Ruby’s delightfully wry voice and insight. She describes her first lonely night outside the womb, in the maternity ward:

It’s very dark in the night nursery. Very dark and very quiet. A dim blue light shines in one corner, but most of the cots are just black coffin-like shapes. The darkness stretches out to infinity. Space winds whip through the icy interstellar spaces. If I reached out my tiny, wrinkled fingers that look like boiled shrimp, I would touch – nothing. And then more nothing. And after that? Nothing. I didn’t think it would be like this. It’s not that I expected a street party or anything – streamers, balloons, banners of welcome unfurling – a smile would have done.

My only complaint so far is that the book is packed so tightly with an excess of quirky characters in three different generations that I’m having trouble remembering who’s who. (This, admittedly, may be as much a problem with my inability to hold a thought in my head lately as with any fault in the narrative.) And while her writing is simply gorgeous, there is a grim brutality just beneath the surface in parts of the story that for some reason I am finding very unsettling. And yet again (she hedged), I admit that the grimness of some of the characters is compelling in itself. Ruby’s mother in particular, the chronically overwhelmed and underenthused (and unfortunately named) Bunty comes to mind as a character that I find profoundly unlikeable – but relentlessly interesting nonetheless.

One of the first books I reviewed was a later Kate Atkinson book, Case Histories, but I wasn’t nearly as fond of that book out of the gate as I am of this one. I think, in fact, this one may turn out to be one of my favourites. Highly recommended!

(More than) 10-pages-in book review – Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined

In a rare exception to my (patent pending) ten-pages-in book review, today’s review comes after I have voraciously consumed and thoroughly enjoyed the entire book.

Today I have the great honour of hosting a stop on the blog book tour for Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined. This book is an anthology of small works of fiction, literary non-fiction and poetry that have appeared in the Literary Mama e-zine and have been lovingly assembled by editors Andi Buchanan and Amy Hudock.

Remember the book review I did last week, where I complained that the book was sterile and devoid of emotional impact? I said it lacked any insight into the act of mothering. This wonderful collection is the antithesis of that. It teems with emotion, with meaning, with – with – well, with motherness. In every single piece, I found something that resonated with me. The essays moved me – some to tears, some to laugh, many to think.

Here’s how much I liked this book: Andi was nice enough to send me a courtesy copy for review, and while looking for it earlier this week to put a few finishing touches on this review I realized that my copy had disappeared. Gone. Last time I saw it, it was dangerously close to the pile of mostly-digested weekend newspapers (which are now consumed over the course of days instead of hours). I suspect it got recycled. But I’m going to buy myself a copy, because I liked it that much.

Anthologies are perfectly suited for busy mothers who love to read. Dipping in and out of this collection was like snacking on indulgent little treats, rather than sitting down to the full meal that is a novel. I stole 15 minutes after my shower one Saturday morning to read Cassie Premo Steele’s charming fiction vignette Chocolate, about a mother navigating the minefield of teenage sexual curiosity while making a cake with her daughter. I was moved to messy public tears on the bus while reading Heidi Raykeil’s Johnny, an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir about losing her infant son. After enjoying Jennifer Eyre White’s essay Analyzing Ben one Sunday afternoon at the tail end of naptime, I was compelled to read parts out loud to Beloved and couldn’t get through them without snickering.

I could go on all day drawing your attention to this morsel or that throughout the anthology. I usually find myself only skimming poetry, partly because I am intimidated by it, but I am haunted by Megeen R. Mulholland’s Miscarriage of an English Teacher and have gone back to it several times. The sense of struggling for control, of insisting on the importance of the mundane, of breathing in tiny irregular breaths because you can’t open your lungs enough for a full breath – it’s exactly how I felt after my own miscarriage.

This book makes me want to write. It has inspired me. And I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way; I just mean that it makes me want to find the time and to really try my hand as a writer. It sure satisfied the reader in me!

By happy coincidence, my friend and bloggy mentor Ann Douglas is also hosting a stop on the LM blog book tour today. It was through Ann that I was first introduced to Literary Mama last year – and for that I am deeply grateful.

You know what this book is? It’s a perfect Mother’s Day gift. No, scratch that – it’s the perfect gift for a mother, just because.

10-pages-in book review: Woman First, Family Always

I’ve been agonizing over this review.

About a month ago, I received an e-mail out of the blue, asking me if I’d be interested in receiving a book to review. I was so excited and proud to have been deemed worthy of solicitation! (Yes, I am easy to please.)

Before I get into the actual review of the book, I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts on the process. Maybe it’s because I’m a communicator by day and a blogger by night, but I’m fascinated by how bloggers have become a market worth targeting. Businesses are quickly learning that bloggers are valuable opinion leaders. We’re the ‘connectors’ in Gladwell’s Tipping Point model, the ones who build networks and share information. Bloggers have reach, and even those of us with only moderate readership have a strong voice. We’re turning traditional marketing models on their ears in many ways, and smart businesses are ready to take advantage of it.

It’s flattering to have been chosen to get a free book, but I’ve recently heard of bloggers being offered all sorts of cool stuff to review: DVDs of the Electric Company, free cleaning products (!), and even trips to Amsterdam.

And now the crux of my dilemma. I received the e-mail offer, and I said ‘Sure, I’d love a free book.’ There were no strings attached, no promises on my part to do any kind of review, let alone a good one. The publicity agent gave me some background info and a couple of jpegs, should I wish to incorporate them into my review. And less than a week later, my brand new book arrived.

The problem is, I didn’t really like it. In any other circumstance, I would have posted a scathing and sarcastic review of this book. I would have had a lot of fun mocking it. But I want to be nice, because they were nice and sent me a free book. So here we go.

I’m reading Kathryn Sansone’s Woman First, Family Always. Kathryn is an American mother of ten kids, and the book is her way of helping you live your life with the same level of success, satisfaction and happiness that she has achieved.

Kathryn was ‘discovered’ by Oprah (yes, that Oprah) when she attended a taping of Oprah’s show for her 40th birthday, and in the post-show chat had the opportunity to tell Oprah that she was staying fit even though six months pregnant with her ninth (!) child. Oprah was enamoured, so much so that she paid a visit to the Sansone family and even featured them in her monthly magazine, and shortly thereafter voilà, Kathryn became an author. She says, “[Oprah] referred to me as the role model of motherhood – quite a hefty title, but one that makes me think I might be able to affect a wider group of women with some practical advice that has helped me through the years.”

(pauses to gather thoughts and dial down sarcasm-meter)

The book is divided into three sections – Your Self, Your Marriage, and Your Family & Kids – and each section has 30 ‘reflections’ ranging in length from a couple of paragraphs to a couple of pages. They are not quite self-help, but neither are they anecdotes; they fall into a bland and colourless netherworld between the two. For example, reflections in the “Your marriage” section include:

11. Don’t Nag
12. Argue – the Right Way
17. A Little Lipstick Goes a Long Way
19. Make Your Bedroom Your Sanctuary
20. Date Nights are a Must

Similarly, the “Your Family & Kids” section includes reflections titled:

7. Be an Emotional Coach
11. Mind Their Manners
19. Teach Kids to Manage Time
And even,
22. Select the Right Paediatrician for You.

As you might have guessed, I had trouble garnering anything helpful from this book. Sansone isn’t an expert – she doesn’t even have Dr Phil’s questionable qualifications. I’d forgive her lack of credentials in a minute if she had an engaging voice or a unique style to her writing – after all, you don’t need a license to mother, and she’s had a lot of experience. And it’s not the content I have issue with; it’s all reasonable advice. It’s just that it’s so sterile it’s devoid of any traces of humanity. It’s a self-help book written by a Stepford Wife.

A book written by a mother of ten kids has a lot of potential. I mean, I come up with stuff with only two kids, and she’s got five times the source that I do. I’d’ve loved to hear how you manage laundry for 10 kids, or what mealtimes must look like, or even how you get from one place to another with that many people to corral and transport. What’s it like delivering that 10th baby – do you need a sling to hold it in place for the last trimester? How do you make sure each child gets individual attention when they outnumber the parents five to one? But, unfortunately, rather than intriguing insight into the author or her day to day life, you get some platitudes and suggestions for living well.

She seems like a nice lady, she really does. And anybody who can raise ten kids has my respect. In the end, her key point that you have to love yourself and treat yourself well is a good one. Heck, I’d say 90% of the book is filled with good advice. And I’m really flattered that her publicist sent me the free book. So go ahead, take a read of it and let me know what you think. But I just couldn’t warm up to this one.