Archive | February, 2010

The Road – An Experiment in Bleakness

25 Feb

I enjoyed The Road by Cormac McCarthy a lot more than I thought I would. And by enjoyed, I mean I found it fascinating in a sick, addictive way.  I had to read some passages twice because the first time, my brain didn’t quite comprehend just how horrifying they actually were (“Wait, he didn’t mean….Ohhhh.”) I bawled like a baby at the end and nixed plans to see the film that weekend because I needed time to “recover.”

Naturally, I am recommending this book to all my friends.

The Road doesn’t have a particularly complex plot, and it doesn’t even leave you with many strong impressions of its two characters, a man and his son. It’s just got an idea that claws into your brain and won’t let go. McCarthy presents us with a post-disaster world so bleak that it automatically sets itself apart from any other disaster book I’ve ever read. His vision of apocalyptic America is one of all out nuclear winter (although he never really says what happened) – no plants, no animals, barely any sunshine. Just the occasional bit of leftover processed food (and it’s already been a few years, so even those reserves are dwindling), a charred landscape, and a few cannibals along the way.

You know pretty early on that McCarthy isn’t going to give his characters or his readers any easy outs. There’s no silver lining or hope of paradise around the corner. And he does not let us forget it. It’s impressive to see how many different ways there are to say that the view out there is (as he says) “hellishly bleak” and that the weather is (as I say) fricking freezing. The Road’s new guide to the American countryside includes choice phrases such as, “nights dark beyond darkness,” “cold glaucoma dimming away the world,” and “ashen scabland” (and this is just a very small sample).

Despite the aggressive sparseness of McCarthy’s dialogue (“I dont want you to get sick. / I wont get sick. / You havent eaten in a long time. / I know. / Okay.”) and his stingy attitude towards apostrophes, the man’s got a vocabulary under his belt. He’ll write five pages of monosyllables, and then come out with a head-scratcher like “cauterized terrain” or “cold autistic dark.”

This book is special because it makes you completely believe in its version of the future. I’m still obsessing over it weeks later and haunting wikipedia on bedtime topics like “nuclear winter” and “existential risk.” Between this and Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and the Canadian government’s disaster survival website (“Is your family prepared?”), I’m just one award-winning dystopian novel away from building a damn shelter.

Lazy Monday Post

22 Feb

You know the feeling – you’re reading along, totally engrossed in a story, when someone rudely interrupts you and forces you to put your book down. Hypothetically here, your “boyfriend” tries to talk to you, or your “train” arrives at your stop.

What’s a reading girl to do if there’s not an actual bookmark on hand? Some of my bookmark substitutes have included a smaller book, a migraine medication prescription, and a jar of jam that I took from a hotel room.

What’ve you had to use in a reading emergency?

Fifth Business Goes On Tour!

17 Feb

Canongate’s Meet at the Gate site is inviting writers to highlight books from all over the globe for their World Literature Tour, so I decided to do my bit and write about Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business for the Canadian stop of their tour.

I loved getting the chance to think about one of my all-time favourite books, especially since it gave me an excuse to read it yet again. But it was harder than I expected. When you don’t like something, it’s easy to say – the dialogue was wooden, the plot didn’t make any sense, there were no surprises. But how do you describe what makes a book magic?

Here’s my full post, from Meet at the Gate:

Fifth Business is my favourite book, so an impartial review this ain’t, but it’s not easy explaining why something has earned a permanent spot on your nightstand. I first read it in a university “Can Lit” class and have since haunted used bookstores in Toronto, looking for every other Davies book (a feat I just achieved over the holidays, thanks to Eliot’s Bookshop on Yonge Street).

Fifth Business combines the readability of a bildungsroman with the intrigue of the mythical, philosophical elements that have become Davies’ calling cards. It’s narrated by small-town Ontario boy Dunstable Ramsay (later renamed Dunstan, making him just one of the book’s “twice-born” characters), from the age of ten to the time of his teaching retirement. It’s the first of The Deptford Trilogy, but easily stands alone.

The various stages of Dunstan’s life are marked not so much by what he does, but by who he meets: Eternally glossy millionaire (and “lifelong friend and enemy”) Percy Boyd Staunton, his own personal “fool-saint” Mary Dempster, world-famous conjurer Magnus Eisengrim, eccentric old Jesuit priest Padre Blazon, and (my favourite) the monstrously ugly but preternaturally wise Liselotte Vitzlipützli (or Liesl).

What sets this apart from other life stories is that Dunstan himself is not made out to be the star. He’s told by Leisl that his role in life is not to be the hero, but to be the Fifth Business, based on the idea that operas must feature a hero, heroine, villain, villainess, and one more character – a fifth, who plays a supporting role to the more glamorous characters but is nonetheless essential to the story.

Davies uses these kinds of Jungian metaphors all the time, and for me, they help to make the story bigger and more mysterious. Even better, they allow me to think of my own life in larger, more theatrical terms. The story’s best mystery comes right at the end, and can be summed up with the line, “Who Killed Boy Staunton?” ­(here’s a tip: just whisper that into the breeze to get in good with any Canadian Lit buff).

Looking for Love Stories

15 Feb

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day (or, as it’s known in some cultures, the Festival of Cinnamon Hearts), and I enjoyed reading blogger’s thoughts on their favourite love stories – or lack thereof. Lots of stories have great romances in them (Lyra and Will – swoon!), but are they love stories? Are stories with happy romantic endings (ie. the couple actually ends up together – not separated eternally by parallel universes or genetic time traveling diseases) automatically relegated to the mush pile?

Simon at Savidge Reads and Sasha at Sasha & The Silverfish both mentioned that they haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, a love story favourite. I adore P&P, but not really for the love. Austen’s sassy heroine and powers of subtle sarcasm make this book for me – but Mr. Darcy is a bit of an afterthought. I think of him as more of a prize for Lizzy playing her cards right.

Once you start to think about it, you realize just how few love stories there are in modern literary fiction. Is it because it’s just so hard to make people believe in a happy story? Because writers themselves have especially crappy love lives? I heard once that L.M. Montgomery always had a hard time writing realistic love scenes because it’s not something she really had any personal experience with (would love to get the source for that if anybody knows it).

What are your favourite love stories? How do you think writers manage to avoid mushy territory? With humour, sex, or a bigger overall plotline?

Not creepy at all...

Reading 2666 (or, Why Did I Do This To Myself?)

12 Feb

I am still slogging through 2666, and I keep looking longingly at my beautiful stack of new books that look so modern and shiny and short by comparison (especially Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes). I’m reading other stuff in between, but I feel like my whole reading process has slowed way down, all because of this big fat masterpiece.

I’m still waiting for it to get good (granted, I have about 800 pages to go, so it could happen), but I really don’t think I can take any more dream sequences. It’s not fun when a regular person says “it was like I was in my old school, but it wasn’t a school, y’know?”, and it’s not much easier to follow when Bolaño does it, either. Though I must admit, one of the nightmares really was terrifying (Liz Norton and the mirror, and the person in the mirror is herself, but not herself, y’know?). And I kind of appreciated the fact that after one of the long, meandering, metaphorical passages that the book is full of, a character actually says “Really, I’ve just been talking nonsense.” Yeah, thanks. When do the murders start?

I’m a huge fan of Robertson Davies, so you’d think I’d be up for the wide, sweeping epic thing, the symbolism and the academic squabbling.  Then again, I think I read Fifth Business two or three times before it became my favourite book, and I am not going to read this sucker again.

So why am I forcing myself to finish it? Because a friend lent it to me and sweetly wrote on the inside, “Dear Lija, Hope you enjoy this as much as I did. x”! And if he’s going to be so delightfully casual about enjoying this monster of a book, I sure as hell better at least finish it.

Writer’s Questions – Anna Lawrence Pietroni

2 Feb

I’ve been reading a lot of bare bones writing lately, which I’ve enjoyed, but sometimes you start to miss colourful adjectives and complex sentences. This is where Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni came in.

Ruby’s Spoon takes place in the fictional Black Country town of Cradle Cross, in the 1930s. It doesn’t technically involve magic, but it has some mysterious folktale elements running through it that appealed to me (witches and mermaids!).

It’s hard to describe Pietroni’s writing as anything other than musical – her words follow a clear, resounding rhythm and each sentence could be its own little poem (which is why I took a while to get into the groove of reading her). It makes sense that the village kids chant schoolyard songs to taunt Ruby, the book’s lonely teenage heroine. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that Pietroni was able to so honestly describe her own writing for me instead of jumping on the self-deprecating bandwagon. Oh, and she wrote part of Ruby’s Spoon in a garden shed (see, writers? All you need is a shed!).



What are you reading right now?

Sarah Bakewell’s ‘How to live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’ and Jackie Kay’s short story collection, ‘Wish I was here’. I’m also rereading ‘The Secret Garden’ (Frances Hodgson Burnett) and slowly savouring ‘The Gift of Stones’ by Jim Crace.

What’s the last book you read that made you think, “I wish I’d written that?”

I don’t really think that way – I tend to marvel – but if I did, it would be ‘Fugitive Pieces’ by Anne Michaels.

Are there any books you feel you “should” read but don’t really want to read?

Ulysses, James Joyce.

Do you have a favourite fictional character?

I love Dicey Tillerman and come back to ‘Dicey’s Song’ (Cynthia Voigt) whenever I can. She’s stubborn, fierce, loyal and totally engaging.



Are you writing anything now?

I’m in the very early stages of a new story about a family in Severnsea in the late nineteenth century. It’s set in the same fictional universe as ‘Ruby’s Spoon’, but I’m so happy to be writing about the coast after living with Ruby’s yearning for the last few years.

Do you have to write in the same spot all the time?

Not at the moment, because I’m in the very early stages of writing a new story and this part of the process is very fragmented. I like to work where there are people. When my children were younger and I wasn’t getting much sleep, I wrote at a café that sold coffee in a pint cup with two handles. That helped, along with the fact that it’s not polite to put your head down on the table for a quick snooze in a café.

When I’m further into the writing, I like to work in the same place: I wrote much of the final draft of ‘Ruby’s Spoon’ in a shed at the bottom of my garden where there were no distractions, my books and papers were close at hand and I could dash back to the house to fill the kettle when I needed more tea.

Who reads your earliest drafts?

‘Ruby’s Spoon’ was the first extended piece of prose I’d written, and right at the beginning I’d thrust every new paragraph on anyone who showed an interest. When I had something approaching a draft, I showed it to a friend who’s a literary agent, and she and her assistant read and commented on every iteration that followed. When I have a proper draft of the next story I’ll share it with them, but otherwise I’ll keep it to myself.

How often do you come back to rework sentences?

When I first started writing in earnest, I was seduced into thinking that I had to get the words right straight away: it felt easier to labour over a sentence than to do the freewheeling exploratory writing that allows the characters to tell their stories. But later on, I found myself reworking less and less – just a bit of culling. Some sentences spill out and never get touched again. These are incredibly rare and when they appear it feels like magic.

Do you read fiction while you’re writing?

Hardly at all, unless it’s relevant to what I’m writing. I might read something I’ve read repeatedy before (like Sara Paretsky’s fabulous V. I. Warshawski books, or Harriet the Spy).

Do you think you have your own writing style?

Oh yes, whether I like it or not.

How would you describe it?

Lavish and rhythmic. I admire lean prose with clean lines, like Tove Jansson’s writing – her touch is so light and the detail sings – but I suspect I’ll always write about dirt under the fingernails and get excited about metaphor. There is a strong rhythm in my head that can be a bit tyrannical and dictates the number of syllables a sentence must have, but I’m grateful for it.



This story came out of a writing exercise with the prompt words “spoon, button factory, witch, fire.” Were those really the only words?

My mum suggested ‘sleepy’ as well as ‘button factory’ because I kept yawning, but I rejected that word early on. I still have the piece of paper. I was doing a short writing course and we were given the task of writing the opening pages of a novel by the end of the week. Isa Fly turned up in the button shop in those first pages, and Captin, and Ruby in the chip shop. It wasn’t a fully formed story: it had the title and these characters from the start, but it took five and a half years to get from that little sketch to the final draft.

Which word was most important in inspiring the story?

It’s really hard to pick one out. The four elements were so enmeshed from the beginning. I can’t isolate one from the others. Strangely, ‘spoon’ was the least significant at first – in that first sketch it was just something Isa used for sorting buttons, but in the end it arguably became the most important.

How much did your childhood hometown influence the fictional town here, Cradle Cross?

It was hugely influential. Cradle Cross took on its own shape and identity, but certain elements of Halesowen – the steep hills, the backyard nail-making – found their way into the narrative almost unchanged. When I was growing up there was a cake shop in the town that looked like it was sinking into a hill, and that was the starting point for Maison Hester’s; parts of the Lean Hills can be mapped onto the Clent Hills and I know precisely where Ruby’s house, Hunting Tree, should stand. I consciously chose – and sometimes doctored – names from the area that held some meaning for me. Ludleye, for example, is the old name for Lutley, the part of town where I grew up and where (I recently discovered) my ancestors lived and worked nail-makers, just a few hundred yards from our house.

Cradle Cross is a place in a specific time, and it was shaped more by my grandad’s tales of growing up in the 1930s than by my own experience of the town in the 1970s and ’80s. He was born in a street next to Grove’s Button Factory and his descriptions of the smell of the horn on rainy days set the tone from the beginning.

Can you explain the importance of representing the Black Country dialect and accent?

Once I’d realized that I had to write about my hometown – or at least revisit it to find my way into writing in a more concrete, less folktale way – the characters started to speak this way. I found that I couldn’t compel them to speak differently and I didn’t want to. It’s an idea or suggestion of the dialect rather than a transcription – there is no single Black Country dialect, and it varies from town to town – so I limited myself to a few critical words like ‘cor’ for ‘can’t’ and ‘day’ for ‘didn’t’. My parents don’t speak in dialect but I grew up hearing it and you don’t forget those cadences of speech.

Is/Was the Cut really so dirty?

There are old canals somewhere in my hometown, but I wasn’t aware of them until I started writing Ruby’s Spoon. My sense of the Cut comes from reading about living and working on canals in the early part of the twentieth century, from what my mom told me and from seeking them out as an adult. I know people are working hard to make them thrive again now, but I find neglected canals ominous and troubling, just like Ruby.

Anna Lawrence Pietroni in the Black Country

My Heart Is An Autumn Garage

1 Feb

Confession – I used to say that J.D. Salinger was one of my favourite authors, until I started to get the feeling that it wasn’t cool, and that only moping teenagers identified with his writing. And like a lot of people, I’d kind of just assumed he’d kicked the bucket a long time ago, until he resurfaced to stop that crappy-sounding Catcher sequel from being published.

But now it’s time to say that Franny and Zooey is still one of my favourites and probably the most re-read book in my collection (I have the occasional bout of insomnia, and always turn to the same handful of books to calm me down during the night). It has the best description of a bathroom ever – who didn’t want a good long smoke in the tub after reading it? And the dialogue between matriarch Bessie Glass and bathing beauty Zooey Glass is truly LOL-worthy (a term which I promise I only bestow upon things that actually make me laugh. Out loud.)

“The word is ‘washcloth,’ not ‘washrag,’ and all I want, God damn it, Bessie, is to be left alone in this bathroom. That’s my one simple desire. If I’d wanted this place to fill up with every fat Irish rose that passes by, I’d’ve said so. Now, c’mon. Get out.”

“Zooey,” Mrs. Glass said patiently. “I’m holding a clean washrag in my hand. Do you or don’t you want it? Just yes or no, please.”

“Oh, my God! Yes. Yes. Yes. More than anything in the world. Throw it over.”

And for the record, his famously liberal use of italics doesn’t bother me at all.

I read a lot of Salinger stuff over the weekend (like Dave Eggers’ love letter in The New Yorker and The Onion’s ode to phonies), as well as the required number of stories-locked-up-in-a-safe theories. By far my favourite tribute was this one, from Jezebel’s Sadie Stein. She ends it with an anecdote that’s just too good not to rip off and include here:

On that note, the other day I met a guy on the street. “If I was gonna talk to you it was now or never,” he said, by way of introduction, “and I can see from your face that you wish it had been never.” After that I felt bad, and he was clearly a lot younger than me and harmless if weird, and it was broad daylight, so we walked together to the subway. His name was David. He was obviously an enormous fuckup. He talked incessantly and told me he’d been kicked out of community college recently and was living at home. His mom was a big activist, which had made him apolitical. His dad lived “somewhere in Asia, not sure.” He was also sleeping with a “cougar,” and also a girl his own age, even though she was “a cornball and a social-climber.” She was insecure, “but maybe she should be – that sounds bad, but maybe that’s okay, sometimes – because she doesn’t have her own shit going on. I mean, she’s into shit, but she doesn’t have her own shit.” He didn’t like to read but, and here he produced, Mark David Chapman style, a copy of Catcher in the Rye (the burgundy one) from his backpack. “That’s some shit, right there,” he said, and replaced it. It occurred to me then that he was sort of much more of a logical heir to that book than all the preppy fashion-spreads and disaffected actors put together, and something about it made me very happy. “Well, I’ll be seeing you,” he said when we reached the subway (although this was obviously not true) and got on his bike to go to “the Jewish Center, because on Thursdays they have free cookies.”