Tag Archives: CanLit

4: Annabel

AnnabelAnnabel by Kathleen Winter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the Fall 2013 VPL Book Sale.

Read in March 2014.

View all my reviews

I decided to read this after I listened to Canada Reads 2014 because a) it sounded like a compelling story and b) it was already on my shelf thanks to the library book sale. Here’s the trailer:

I was pulled into the story right from the beginning, and thought the first part of the book (about up the point where Wayne starts school and Thomasina leaves town) was very good. And then, gradually it lost its hold on me. In retrospect, thinking about it, it had the feel of a book where the first chapters had been polished and reworked for a long time, so that every detail was perfect, while the rest had been finished much more quickly and not given the same level of attention. Writers, you know what I mean. Which is not to say that the latter half of the book wasn’t good, it just wasn’t quite as compelling as the beginning.

In 1968 Labrador, Jacinta and Treadway have an intersex baby (in this case, the baby has both male and female parts: one testicle and one ovary, a penis and a vagina). Treadway decides they will raise the baby as a boy, and name him Wayne. (Note: I’m using male pronouns because that’s what the book uses.)

Their neighbor, Thomasina, who helped deliver baby Wayne at home, is the only other person (at first; later there are doctors/nurses) who knows their secret. Shortly after Wayne’s birth, Thomasina’s husband and daughter (Annabel) drown in a canoeing accident. Thomasina starts calling the baby Annabel. Wayne likes the secret nickname but doesn’t understand it until much later.

As Wayne grows up, steps are taken (surgery, hormones) to ensure his masculine characteristics develop and his feminine ones are suppressed. But the Annabel side of Wayne refuses to disappear. She likes synchronized swimming and sparkly stereotypically-girly stuff. Which, sigh. Just once I’d like to see someone write about gender without mentioning clothing/activity preferences. Those are social norms, not biological imperatives. Anyway. Jacinta supports Wayne’s “feminine” interests but hides them from Treadway, who wants Wayne to grow up to be a manly man.

VPL Fall Book SaleAfter a promising beginning, the story drifts. Thomasina leaves Labrador to go traveling. Treadway goes out on his trapline. Jacinta retreats into herself. I got interested in these characters and then their development just stopped. Which leaves us with Wayne. And here I run into the same problem as the last book I read. There’s not enough thinking—insight into Wayne’s mind. There is some—it’s definitely not the extreme blankness of Mary in The Outlander—but Wayne’s mind (especially after the dramatic incident spoiled in the Canada Reads debates) should have been buzzing and we just didn’t see enough of that.

Also, there are strange gaps. For example, Jacinta is originally from St. John’s and it’s made clear that she misses it very much. However, she never goes back there for a visit and there’s no insight into why. This needs an explanation! It’s not like she’s on the other side of the world. It’s a ferry trip.  (According to their website, it’s 1 hour, 45 min. So it would be like living on Vancouver Island and never going to visit your family in Vancouver.)

At times it felt like Winter was aiming for magical realism but didn’t quite get there. The improbable injury that robs Wayne’s friend Wally of her singing voice, the impossible [SPOILER ALERT] self-pregnancy. The thing is, neither of these things were necessary. Wally’s voice could have been lost in some other more plausible fashion. Wayne’s pregnancy didn’t lead to anything plot-wise, so was it even necessary? Especially since there was an incident later in the book that could have led to a plausible pregnancy, with plenty of dramatic fallout. (I think that would have been a much better choice story-wise. Terrible for Wayne, obviously, but good for the story.)

The pop culture references—music, TV—felt off to me, like they were maybe 5-10 years older than they should be. And at first I thought, well, maybe it’s supposed to be indicative of the fact they live in the boonies and didn’t have access to new music, but then I remembered that the radio station I liked best at the end of high school, because it played the newest music, was from St. John’s (we got some radio stations along with our cable service)—and surely they can pick up St. John’s radio stations in Labrador. So.

I was really thrown off by the fact Wayne was born 1968, but his class graduates in 1985. There’s no mention of his entire class skipping a grade. Does Labrador not have grade 12? I actually went and looked this up. And I found that in fact Newfoundland/Labrador didn’t have grade 12… until 1983. Kathleen Winter was born in 1960 so she would have graduated after grade 11, which is probably why she wrote it like that. But still, it doesn’t fit with the timeline of the story—Wayne’s class would have graduated in 1986—and an editor should have caught it. (I don’t blame the author—honest mistake—but how did everyone who read the manuscript before it was published miss it? Well, at least I learned something new 😉 )


3: The Outlander

The OutlanderThe Outlander by Gil Adamson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From the Fall 2013 VPL Book Sale.

Read in Jan/Feb/March 2014.

View all my reviews

It feels like it took me forever to read this book, and honestly it kind of did. Not quite as long it as the start/end dates indicate since I set it aside for the two weeks when I watched the Olympics in the morning instead of reading, but still.

The setting: 1903, in western Canada. Mary Boulton aka “the Widow” is 19 years old. She had a baby, which died, and then she killed her husband (not a spoiler). She fled, pursued by her husband’s twin brothers, who are giant redheads. You might think the giant redhead thing will have some significance later on, but no.

Mary can’t read, although she seems to have had a relatively privileged upbringing (i.e. one where she would have been taught to read). You might think the fact she can’t read and uses an elaborate system of symbols to hide the fact would play a significant role in the story, but no, not really.

Her backstory is that she lived with her widowed father who basically ignored her after her mother died because he was wrapped up in his grief, and her grandmother, who was more the cold-prickly than warm-fuzzy kind. They had servants, and when Mary got married at 18, she had no practical skills. Oh, except she can sew. I admit I’m baffled at what she was doing for her first 18 years (didn’t she go to school? why did no one figure out she couldn’t read? the grandmother seemed like the kind who’d expect a girl to write thank you notes and that kind of thing, so you’d think she’d have clued in even if father was oblivious. if marriage was her grandmother’s goal for her, why wasn’t she taught how to cook and stuff? so many questions).

Book Sale (part 2)Anyway, first she’s taken in by an elderly woman but spends her time plotting her escape. When the giant redheads catch up with her, she flees, stealing a horse and some other items. She ends up in the mountains, loses the horse and is near death because she has no survival skills (see above) when she is found by “the Ridgerunner,” a 30-something loner/outlaw/hermit-type who does have survival skills. They hook up but then he freaks out because people, man, they’re the worst! (even when they’re 19yo girls you’re hooking up with) and takes off, leaving her alone in the wilderness once again. She stumbles around some more (still needs to work on those skills). Eventually she’s found by another man—who happens to have the horse she stole and then lost—who takes her to safety.

She ends up in the town of Frank. (And here I have an “ohhh” moment. Now I know what’s going to happen.) She lives with the Reverend Bonnycastle aka Bonny, as his housekeeper, basically. Because she has so many skills in that department. He has this whole lengthy backstory, but like many other threads, this leads nowhere in particular.

The story makes it seem like she’s the only woman in the town, which is… weird. I know Frank was a mining town, so it’s logical for men to outnumber women, but no other women seems hyperbolic. Or Hollywood movie-ish. Take your pick. 😉

She begins vomiting. You know what that means!

One of the cover blurbs called this a “page turner!” I found it to be the opposite. As I crawled through the text, I tried to pinpoint what was missing. It wasn’t the writing. It wasn’t the plot. Finally, I realized what it was. There’s not enough thinking. Mary’s like a non-human animal. Her needs/wants are water, food, shelter, sleep, sex. She doesn’t know how to do anything (except sew, which is just sort of put out there, not really developed as a characteristic) and she doesn’t have any interests beyond taking care of basic physical desires. Ok, eventually she wants the Ridgerunner (in particular). I guess that was just too little, too late for me.

I had sympathy for Mary and her predicaments, but I also found her really boring. It felt like she was not very smart, which is an odd choice for a protagonist. I mean, I get wanting to eschew the “protagonist is the best at everything” trope, but… reading about her reminded me of having a conversation with someone who just isn’t very bright. I wished her well, but if I had to spend much more time with her I’d have stabbed myself in the eye.

29: The Killing Circle

The Killing CircleThe Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From the VPL Fall 2013 Book Sale.

Read in December 2013.

View all my reviews

I picked this up at the book sale because I’d been hearing Andrew Pyper’s name a lot—not for this book, but for his most recent one. So I had no idea what this was about, but I had some vague idea that he wrote mystery/thriller-type books, which seemed promising.

The Killing Circle opens with a prologue. The protagonist’s son vanishes at a drive-in movie. Then the story flashes back in time four years to explain the events leading up to the son’s disappearance.

VPL Fall Book SaleJournalist Patrick Rush has always wanted to write a novel, but can’t think of anything to write about. Though he works for a newspaper (the “National Star”) and writes for a living, he considers himself a failure as a writer because he hasn’t written a novel. That said, he’s not actually that interested in writing (i.e. being a writer); he wants to have written (i.e. to be an author). His best quality is his self-awareness regarding this distinction.

He hates his job. He used to write about books, but now the paper has him writing about TV (under the byline “The Couch Potato”), which he considers beneath him. Pop culture, blech! Writing about pop culture, double blech! Whatever, dude. I’ll take your job. Pop culture, yay! Writing about pop culture, double yay!

Patrick is a single father, his wife having died shortly after his son’s birth. In the beginning, he doesn’t explain how she died, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. His son is four in the flashback, eight in the present time period of the story.

He sees a classified ad for a writing circle and calls the number. The man who answers mysteriously gives him an address and not much other info. He waffles about attending, but of course ends up going and finds himself in a room with a motley assortment of characters, each one weirder than the next. They introduce themselves. The next week they are to bring a piece of writing. Patrick, naturally, can’t think of anything to write about. He dashes off a crappy paragraph at the last minute. The others read their stories, all weakly-disguised memoir, and none particularly intriguing to Patrick except one. One story he’s transfixed by. He has a tape recorder in his pocket and presses record while the woman reads.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It has all these elements that seem like things that would coalesce into a book I’d love, and yet…

Partly it’s that I spent the majority of the book thinking “this isn’t going to turn into an undead thing is it?” Eventually it became clear that it wasn’t, at which point I was immensely relieved, but it was too late, I think. I’d spent far too long wondering if ghosts or zombies were going to appear the next time I turned the page. I expect I’d have had a different experience if this hadn’t been my first book by this author, but as first-time reader, it read like he wanted readers to believe there was going to be a supernatural element.

And then there’s Patrick, who is a whiny malcontent. Yes, his wife died, but everything else about his character is so grating it cancels out any sympathy that may have generated. He’s just a miserable person. Which would be fine, if the story made me care about what happened to him regardless of his unpleasantness (it didn’t) or he was interesting enough that his unpleasantness didn’t matter (he wasn’t). The writing, on the other hand, was fine. And here I must invoke the Dan Brown thread: story/character will always win over writing.

I will say the ending was satisfying in that cheesy-TV-movie kind of way where you end up rooting for the villain because the protagonist is so unintentionally annoying.

Hmm. It occurs to me I may have found this a more compelling story with a different point-of-view character. Maybe told from the villain’s perspective. I had way more empathy for the antagonist (whose actions were evil, but underlying motivations had gray areas that could have been explored). Or maybe omniscient, get into everyone’s heads. Perhaps it was not the best choice to have the character who keeps saying he has no story to tell—who bores himself—tell the story.

26: Friend of My Youth

Friend of My YouthFriend of My Youth by Alice Munro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the Book Shop in Penticton.

Read in October 2013.

View all my reviews

I picked this as my next read after Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize. I had several Munros on my to-read shelf so it seemed like the right time to take one off the pile.

Most of the stories are about women of Munro’s generation, women who, like her, married young and (often) later divorced. I wonder if somewhere in her oeuvre there’s a story about a woman who gets stuck using her first husband’s name for the rest of her life because that’s the name she first published under? We could have known her as Alice Laidlaw.

In Munro’s bio, it’s stated that she left university after two years because her scholarship only covered two years. But I’ve often wondered about that, the official reason, and reading the stories in this collection makes me wonder more. Canadian tuition is nothing like American tuition, even now. Back in the day anyone working full-time in the summer/part-time during the school year would have made enough to cover expenses for the year, assuming they lived frugally. In Munro’s writing, there’s always the official story, the one we tell—to others, to ourselves—and then there’s what lies beneath. Like many of her characters, Munro married immediately after leaving university. Unlike some of her characters, she didn’t return to school later. Which she could have—UVic opened in 1963, when her older daughters were school-age and her youngest daughter hadn’t yet been born. But I’m guessing by that point she didn’t think she needed any more school. She was already a writer.

Speaking of UVic, it’s always a surprise when one of her stories is set in Victoria or Vancouver. In this collection, there are two. “Five Points” (in part) and “Differently.” People always talk about her being from Southern Ontario and her stories being set there, but she actually lived for twenty years in BC (from the early 1950s to early 1970s; her 20s and 30s) and all her children were born here. Presumably, the older ones at least consider BC home, not Ontario.

Anyway, onto the collection.

In “Friend of My Youth” a woman recalls the stories her mother told her about the two years she spent as a teacher before being married when she lived with a family of “Cameronians.” The narrator is a writer so she imagines the ending, the part of the story she doesn’t know.

I had my own ideas about Flora’s story. I didn’t think that I could have written a novel but that I would write one. I would take a different tack. I saw through my mother’s story and put in what she left out. My Flora would be as black as hers was white. Rejoicing in the bad turns done to her and in her own forgiveness, spying on the shambles of her sister’s life. A Presbyterian witch, reading out of her poisonous book. (20-21)

In “Five Points” Brenda is a having an affair with Neil. Brenda is only a few years older but feels like the age gap is more because she married and never left town and Neil is from Victoria and has moved around. There’s a story-within-a-story of a convenience store (Five Points) from Neil’s childhood and the daughter of the family who owned it. Brenda and Neil’s relationship has lost its initial sheen, is starting to sour.

What Brenda has seen of Victoria, in pictures, is flowers and horses. Flowers spilling out of baskets hanging from old-fashioned lampposts, filling grottoes and decorating parks; horses carrying wagonloads of people to look at the sights.

“That’s all just tourist shit,” Neil says. “About half the place is nothing but tourist shit. That’s not what I’m talking about.” (27)

(That made me lol. Encapsulates the whole people-who-have-actually-lived-in-Victoria vs. people-who-haven’t dichotomy.)

In “Meneseteung,” a first-person narrator tells the story of the “poetess” Almeda Joynt Roth. I’ve read this one before, in the English course I took a few years ago. Meda is a spinster, but for a time the town thinks she may marry widower Jarvis Poulter. Then one summer morning she thinks she’s found a dead woman at her back gate and runs to Jarvis for help.

She puts a wrapper over her nightdress and goes downstairs. The front rooms are still shadowy, the blinds down in the kitchen. Something goes plop, plup, in a leisurely, censorious way, reminding her of the conversation of the crow. It’s just the grape juice, straining overnight. She pulls the bolt and goes out the back door. Spiders have draped their webs over the doorway in the night, and the hollyhocks are drooping, heavy with dew. By the fence, she parts the sticky hollyhocks and looks down and she can see.

A woman’s body heaped up there, turned on her side with her face squashed down into the earth. (65)

In “Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass” middle-aged biology teacher Hazel goes to Scotland after her husband, Jack, dies to see the places where he spent time during the war. They had planned to go together, of course. Hazel expects the people he always talked about will have left or died, but it turns out they’re all still there. No one remembers her husband, though. Or at least they say they don’t.

She doesn’t mind letting people know that when she was in her thirties she had what used to be called a nervous breakdown. For nearly two months she was unable to leave the house. She stayed in bed much of the time. She crayoned the pictures in children’s coloring books. That was all she could do to control her fear and unfocussed grief. Then she took hold. She sent for college catalogues. What got her going again? She doesn’t know. She has to say she doesn’t know. Maybe she just got bored, she has to say. Maybe she just got bored, having her breakdown.

She knew that when she had got out of bed (this is what she doesn’t say), she was leaving some part of herself behind. She suspected this was a part that had to do with Jack. (83)

In “Oranges and Apples” Murray marries Barbara, a clerk in his father’s store. After his father dies, he runs the family business into the ground. Now Murray and Barbara run a small camping resort. The story shifts between past and present, filling in their backstory. Barbara is a bit of an enigma.

And it turns out that she doesn’t want to be a teacher, or a scholar, or a librarian, or an editor, or to make television documentaries, or review books, or write articles. The list of things that Barbara doesn’t want to do is as long as your arm. Apparently she wants to do what she does—read, and go for walks, eat and drink with pleasure, tolerate some company. And unless people can value this about her—her withdrawals, her severe indolence (she has an air of indolence even when she’s cooking an excellent dinner for thirty people)—they don’t remain among the company she tolerates. (111)

Books from The Book ShopIn “Pictures of the Ice” retired minister and recent widower Austin tells everyone he’s moving to Hawaii to marry a widow, but it turns out he’s really going to middle-of-nowhere Ontario to work himself to death.

She thinks now that he knew. Right at the last he knew that she’d caught on to him, she understood what he was up to. No matter how alone you are, and how tricky and determined, don’t you need one person to know? She could be the one for him. Each of them knew what the other was up to, and didn’t let on, and that was a link beyond the usual. Every time she thinks of it, she feels approved of—a most unexpected thing. (155)

In “Goodness and Mercy” Averill and her mother Bugs (aka June) are on a passenger-carrying freighter, crossing the Atlantic. Bugs is dying but they have kept this a secret from the other passengers. Averill is coming to terms with her mother’s impending death.

The captain did not seem to her a needy man. He did not need to disturb you, or flatter, or provoke, or waylay you. None of that look at me, listen to me, admire me, give me. None of that. He had other things on his mind. The ship, the sea, the weather, the cargo, his crew, his commitments. The passengers must be an old story to him. Cargo of another sort, requiring another sort of attention. Idle or ailing, lustful or grieving, curious, impatient, mischievous, remote—he would have seen them all before. He would know things about them right away, but never more than he needed to know. (167)

In “Oh, What Avails” Joan and Morris grow up with their widowed mother in small-town Ontario. Joan leaves town; Morris doesn’t. Joan marries, lives with her family in Ottawa. Later she divorces, moves to Toronto, manages a bookstore.

She doesn’t understand yet that she doesn’t want to take anything back to Ottawa because she herself won’t be staying in the house there for much longer. The time of accumulation, of acquiring and arranging, of padding up the corners of her life, has come to an end. (It will return years later, and she will wish she had saved at least the wineglasses.) In Ottawa, in September, her husband will ask her if she still wants to buy wicker furniture for the sunroom, and if she would like to go the wicker store, where they’re having a sale on summer stock. A thrill of distaste will go through her then—at the very thought of looking for chairs and tables, paying for them, arranging them in the room—and she will finally know what is the matter. (202)

In “Differently” Georgia visits her dead ex-friend Maya’s widower in Victoria and remembers how everything—their friendship, her marriage—fell apart.

The people who came into the store liked the look of a girl—a woman—like Georgia. They liked to talk to her. Most of them came in alone. They were not exactly lonely people, but they were lonely for someone to talk to about books. Georgia plugged in the kettle behind the desk and made mugs of raspberry tea. Some favored customers brought in their own mugs. (229)

In “Wigtime” Anita runs into her childhood bff Margot while she is caring for her dying mother. Margot married the school bus driver (presumably after he divorced his wife) and had five kids.  Anita became a nurse (Margot’s pre-hooking up with the bus driver ambition), moved to the Yukon, married a doctor, divorced, got a PhD in anthropology.

People who approved of the course Anita had taken in life usually told her so. Often an older woman would say, “Good for you!” or, “I wish I’d had the nerve to do that, when I was still young enough for it to make any difference.” Approval came sometimes from unlikely quarters. It was not to be found everywhere, of course. Anita’s mother did not feel it, and that was why, for many years, Anita had not come home. Even in her present sunken, hallucinatory state, her mother had recognized her, and gathered her strength to mutter, “Down the drain.” (255-256)

I think that’s a good place to end 😉

25: Certainty

CertaintyCertainty by Madeleine Thien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars (4.5)

From the Fall 2010 VPL Book Sale.

Read in September/October 2013

View all my reviews

This was my favorite book so far this year. I contemplated giving it a 5. Let’s call it 4.5 stars.

Ansel’s significant other Gail died suddenly six months earlier. She was a freelance radio producer. He’s a doctor, works at a TB clinic. He’s still close with her parents, Matthew and Clara. They all live in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest residential neighborhood.

Matthew is originally from Sandakan (in North Borneo prior to WWII; now part of Malaysia), which was occupied by the Japanese during WWII, when he was a child. After the war, he and his mother leave Sandakan, and later he goes to Australia to study at the University of Melbourne. There he meets Clara, who grew up in Hong Kong. Together they move to Vancouver, because at the time Canada was accepting Asian immigrants and Australia was not.

Clara has an English degree but ends up starting her own business as a seamstress when she can’t find work as a teacher. Matthew has a history degree but ends up working in a restaurant, becoming a cook.

More 55-cent BooksThe summer before Gail died, Ansel had an affair when Gail was away. He eventually broke it off and told Gail about it. She is not sure why he confessed, how he wants her to react to this information. Now, he finds it hard to believe the affair actually happened.

When Matthew was 18, just before he moved to Melbourne, he returned to Sandakan for a visit, reunited briefly with his childhood friend Ani. While Matthew moves first to Australia and later to Canada, Ani moves to first to Indonesia and later to Holland. Once, Gail sees a letter from Holland in her parents’ home. She doesn’t understand its significance but when she’s in Holland doing research for a story she’s producing, she contacts Ani’s husband Sipke and meets up with him.

Certainty is a non-linear story of family and love and migration. The story moves back and forth through time, slowly revealing information. Relationships are always uneven; one person always loves more. There’s a lot of restraint in the writing. Everything is not spelled out; you need to read between the lines.

Thien’s dialogue—the way that the characters talk about things, real things, not the weather—reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s.

23: The Singer’s Gun

The Singer's GunThe Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bought at The Book Warehouse.

Read in September 2013.

View all my reviews

I discovered Emily St. John Mandel via The Millions, where she’s a staff writer. Like me, she grew up in BC with an American parent. Unlike me, she was eligible for American citizenship via that parent and now lives in Brooklyn. The Singer’s Gun is her second novel. Her background—she originally thought she was immigrating illegally to the US—informs the story.

The main character of The Singer’s Gun is Anton Waker. Anton’s parents sell stolen goods (such as architectural bits pilfered from buildings being renovated or torn down) for a living. Anton’s cousin Aria, who is six months older, moves in with them after her mother gets deported and her father goes after her. After high school Aria and Anton start selling fake social security cards and passports. Aria is the leader; Anton is the follower.

BooksEventually, Anton decides he wants out. After seeing an Anton Waker who just graduated from Harvard quoted in a newspaper, he requests a copy of “his” diploma, and with it begins living his dream life as an office drone. That’s not sarcasm—it actually was his dream to work in an office—he just didn’t want to bother taking the normal steps it would take to get there.

He becomes engaged to Sophie, a cellist who has no idea about his past. She does, however, seem to have cold feet about their wedding. For his part, Anton seems to care more about his one-eyed rescue cat than he does Sophie. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that ;)) If the wedding ever takes place, Anton and Sophie are scheduled to go to Ischia, Italy on their honeymoon. Meanwhile, Aria hasn’t gotten over the fact that Anton abandoned their business and Anton’s employer has obtained a big contract that requires it to do background checks on all its employees. Uh-oh.

Anton’s the center of the book, but there’s a secondary protagonist, Anton’s secretary, Elena James. Elena grew up in Inuvik (a place so far north it makes Oslo look sunny and toasty by comparison), and came to New York after high school on a full scholarship to Columbia University. Unfortunately, she dropped out after one semester, putting her in an awkward position immigration-wise. She doesn’t want to return to Canada, especially not to Inuvik. At one point, she tries to explain why to another character:

“There’s nothing up there.”

“You’re talking about a lack of employment?”

“No, I’m talking about a lack of everything. A loss of potential. It’s hard to explain. There’s just… it’s a narrowing of possibilities,” she said. “Even the smartest people end up doing nothing much with their lives, because there’s nothing to do. It’s not just Inuvik, it’s everywhere in the world that’s small and remote. Fewer things are possible in places like that.” (230)

That may be the best explanation I’ve come across of the feeling I had growing up in very small towns, why I couldn’t wait to escape, why I always raise my eyebrows at stories where the protagonist realizes the life they’ve built in The City is empty! and the only place where their life will be complete! is the Quirky Hometown they never should have left. 🙄 I was in a simmering panic for years, first worrying that I wouldn’t get out, and then when I did, worrying that it wouldn’t last, that eventually I’d end up forced back to some small, narrow place. Which maybe seems crazy, but I guess it’s a bit like leaving a cult. You have to reprogram yourself to believe that it’s ok to do things like (gasp) live in a city.

Of course, there’s a bit of irony to Elena’s remark in that some of the key characters do end up in a smallish, remote-ish place. Not nearly as small and remote as Inuvik, though.

With its themes of identity, (im)migration, and dislocation, this was one of my favorites so far this year. I’ll definitely be reading Mandel’s other novels.

18: Eating Dirt

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life With the Tree-planting TribeEating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life With the Tree-planting Tribe by Charlotte Gill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bought new at Chapters.

Read in July/August 2013.

View all my reviews

I learned about Eating Dirt via Emily St. John Mandel’s review at The Millions  (which, btw, is hands-down my favorite literary site / online magazine that is not TC). I was hooked by the opening paragraph: “My father was a treeplanter. It isn’t a job that very many of my fellow New Yorkers seem to have heard of—” Wait. There are people who haven’t heard of treeplanters?! Oh, but of course there are. Undoubtedly the same people who think “every” fledgling writer grew up with the ambition to be published in The Paris Review or The New Yorker. Meanwhile, many of the fledgling writers who grew up knowing all about treeplanters had never even heard of The Paris Review or The New Yorker. Perspective!

I never treeplanted, but it would be a lie to say I didn’t consider it. I certainly did. it was a good-paying job! But I’d spent plenty o’ time in the forest and I was terrified of the boredom that I knew awaited me. It practically drove me mad just thinking about it. (To be honest, just reading this revives that anxious feeling, even though I know I don’t feel the same way now about repetitive tasks without distractions (that’s writing-in-my-head time!). In fact, now I’d probably deal just fine with the monotony; I am the person who runs without music, after all. Back then, an iPod may have made all the difference. Too bad they didn’t exist when I was in university.)

Anyway, it’s a bit weird reading a book where you can picture everything so clearly. The landscape, the little towns, the shabby motels, all the forestry stuff. I always think it’s funny when someone says they’re from a “small town” (population 50k). Haha! 50k, small. Good one!

Aside: I’ve started wondering how many people have actually spent much time outside of cities. Like, even amongst people who have moved/traveled a lot, the impression I get is that it’s mostly jumping from one big city to another big city. Which… would give you a really different impression of the world than seeing the spaces in between.

Eating Dirt starts out in early spring (February) on northern Vancouver Island, in places like Holberg and Port McNeill, where the planters stay in cheap motels and rental houses. Scenes of the crew are interspersed with passages about forests and forestry.

Another aside:  the area of Vancouver Island is 31,285 km2  / 12,079.2 sq mi. The area of Oahu is 1,545 km2 / 596.7 sq mi. That’s less than 5% of the size of VI. It’s so… little! Is it really as covered in freeways as Hollywood would have me believe? Where are they going?!

After early spring on Vancouver Island, the crew moves to the Sunshine Coast (which is the mainland, but inaccessible by land) to Jervis Inlet and Seymour Inlet where they stay at a logging camp and on a boat. This is middle-of-nowhere. There are bears. Naturally. Gill writes about cedar—natural history, early history.

She dips into summer planting in the interior and up north (Mr. PG!) and back to the coast in fall, but then returns to spring on the coast, her frame for the book. The foray into summer planting ties back to how her career as a treeplanter began—with the university students arriving for the summer.

She writes in plural first person. There are occasional “I” references, but it’s mostly “we.” It’s composed as if she’s describing a single season, one year, but likely it’s a compilation of all the years she spent planting. This is her goodbye to that part of her life.

From the descriptions I’d read, I expected more of a memoir. I’m not sure I’d describe this as a memoir. It is based on her personal experience and she’s writing from that perspective, but it’s not about her. It’s personal in a “this is important to me” kind of way, but it’s not personal as in “here are all the tmi details of my life” kind of way. Her partner is also a planter but we learn no more about him than any of the other characters. It’s about treeplanters (“we”) and treeplanting, not about Charlotte-the-Treeplanter. And also, as mentioned above, the crew parts of the book are only about half of the text. The other half is natural history, biology, ecology: all about trees and forests, which makes sense seeing as it was published by the David Suzuki Foundation.

I am realizing that I really like narrative—fiction and non—with nerdy biology stuff in it.

14: Room

RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the fall 2012 VPL book sale.

Read in May 2013.

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Here’s one I probably don’t need to say much about. You’ve either read it or you’ve read about it. My question going in was “will it live up to the hype?” The answer: yes.

Jack, the narrator, is five years old. His mother, who he calls Ma, is 26. They live in a 12×12 room, which turns out to be a garden shed (spoiler? I think that horse has left the barn). Jack thinks Room is the whole world and everything else is “TV” (imaginary). Jack calls everything by proper nouns: Bed, Wardrobe, Door. This is partly because there is only one of each of these things in his world. But also, I wondered if it didn’t partly come from the children’s shows he likes to watch. For example, he’s a big fan of Dora, and Dora’s backpack is called Backpack.

Ma has managed to shelter Jack from the reality of their situation, but now that he’s five, he’s starting to ask questions. She decides to tell him the truth. Events start snowballing from there.

What I thought was particularly impressive about Room was the pacing. It starts off at an almost oppressive pace, detailing the minutia of a day in the room. But then just when you start to think “I’m not sure how much more this I can take” Donoghue shifts gears, and the story speeds up to an almost frenetic pace. Finally, she slows it down again, letting readers catch their breaths.

I know some readers didn’t like the story being told in Jack’s voice—they find kid-voices annoying or question the authenticity of his thoughts—but I think to tell this particular story, it had to be from his pov. If it were told from Ma’s pov, it would be a story we’ve heard before. We also have no trouble imagining how we’d feel if we were kidnapped/falsely imprisoned. So telling the story from Ma’s pov sets up a very different narrator/reader dynamic. Jack’s situation is outside the realm of our experience . Readers have to work harder to understand his perspective, not because he’s a child, but because we (with few exceptions) didn’t start off life like Jack did.

tl;dr: It is easy for us to empathize with Ma; we have to work to empathize with Jack.

And that’s why I think the last part, when Jack is suffering from sensory overload, when he wants to go back, is so important. This story is not about freedom, as it would be if it was told from Ma’s pov, but about adjustment. Jack has to adjust the entire framework of his life experience.

VPL Fall Book Sale

13: The Flying Troutmans

The Flying TroutmansThe Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the Spring 2011 VPL book sale.

Read in April 2013.

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Hattie Troutman was living in Paris with her boyfriend, but returns home to take care of her sister Min’s kids when Min has a psychotic break and is hospitalized. Hattie is 28; her nephew Logan is 15 and niece Thebes (short for Theodora) is 11.

Hattie is unsure about taking on this responsibility and decides to take the kids and go look for their father, Cherkis, who left years before. Which means… road trip! Yes, this is a road trip book. Love. Most of the story takes place on the road. Naturally, they have a crumbling van and stay at cheap motels in dusty towns populated by quirky characters.

They start in South Dakota, where Hattie knows Cherkis used to live. There, they get a lead that he moved to California, so they head off cross-country. On the way, they have adventures (of course).

I’m not sure when this is supposed to be set, but they drive across the border without showing ID and Hattie keeps making calls to the hospital to check on Min’s condition from pay phones, so I’ll assume back at least a decade (it was published in 2008).

I think I’ll stop here lest I say anything spoilery. I loved this book.

VPL Spring Book Sale

12: The Cottage Builder’s Letter

The Cottage Builder's LetterThe Cottage Builder’s Letter by George Murray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the Book Shop in Penticton.

Read in April 2013.

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Since it was poetry month, I thought I’d read some poetry. This one’s been on my to-read shelf for a while (how long? not sure. I think it’s probably from my 2009 trip to the Book Shop). You may be familiar with George Murray as the proprietor of the (sadly no-longer-updated) book blog Bookninja.

Most of the poems in The Cottage Builder’s Letter are narrative poems (stories in poetry), many of them multi-part. A number of the poems are semi-formal in construction, e.g. poems consisting of all 3-line stanzas or all 2-line stanzas, poems where a phrase/word sequence is repeated in each line or stanza.

This was one of those books that I wanted to like more than I did. The writing was good; the poems skillfully composed, but for whatever reason, I didn’t really connect with them. Maybe it was that there were too many unfamiliar references. I’m not sure.

I did like this one, especially the last stanza:


Maybe you know how
to live in a way
that isn’t just about breathing,
but I don’t —
so please: reserve this
space for me.

(Rest here a moment
without thinking)

In what manner you choose
to keep your books:
I know this little part of you,
hold it sacred —
it’s your other secrets,
if any, that are not safe with me.

The Cottage Builder’s Letter, 55