Archive | April, 2010

The Real Alice Munro

27 Apr

I was standing in Gatwick last Saturday, waiting for my sister’s plane from Vancouver to roll in, when I saw a dude holding a handmade “Alice Munro” sign with the same Vancouver flight number on it. In a heartbeat I abandoned my good waitin’ spot and hightailed it over to the Alice sign’s vicinity, where I prepared my best flustered but not too flustered “Oh hi there, I’m a big fan!” speech. I decided I would tell her that Lives of Girls and Women was one of my favourites. I cursed the fact that I’d chosen to read The Help this week instead of Too Much Happiness. I rummaged through my purse looking for something else autographable. Maybe my notebook. But not the pages where I’d written BUY MILK or THIS BOOK SUCKS.

In the end, my sister showed up and I couldn’t just wait around like a creep. I asked the guy if he was waiting for the “real” Alice Munro and he laughed and said that, no, it was just his cousin and I was the second person to ask that. I felt a bit bad that this lady would probably hear about how she was just a poor imitation of the real Alice Munro. Then later I thought it would be funnier if it turned out that she was the real A.M. but her Brit cousin just wasn’t aware of her literary celeb status.

My Money, My Choices

20 Apr

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of free books (well, I think it’s a lot). I’m also a big fan of my local library and an assertive gift recipient. I’m also an enormous tightwad. So when I decide to spend my hard-earned moolah on books, you know I really mean it. It’s kind of like splashing out on your favourite band’s CD even though you’ll probably just listen to it on your computer/ipod/some other mp3 player that I don’t know about. The point is, you support them. And handing over your debit card to a real human being perversely adds to the excitement of listening to their new offering.

At the moment, I plan on spending my pounds on these books:

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (third in her trilogy of highly addictive, wonderfully violent YA books).  When it comes out on August 24, natch. Not that I’ve ever seen the countdown clock.

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. My non-fiction tastes, weirdly, coincide with my young adult fiction tastes. The more apocalyptic, the better. The sci-fi-like science book promises to detail what would happen to the world minus the humans, but with all our crap.

The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore, by you know who. Somehow, without ever having read her stuff, I’m sure I will love it. And I could use a short story fix.

You didn't see this.

Books Today: Hilarious, with Extra Sad

14 Apr

Whenever I read a book that really captures my idea of modern life, it’s always one of the hilarious/depressing variety (a combo that I tend to gravitate towards). I think Nick Hornby’s How to be Good made the mold for this one: middle-aged woman hates her husband, hates her kids sometimes, makes witty observations about “bleeding-heart liberals” and “people like us,” who believe in good things theoretically, but don’t actually do anything. Cue quirky outside character and fast-paced dialogue. End with a scene more grim than the one we started with.

Why does dark comedy seem to be the best way to express our modern problems? Because most of us can’t even talk about this stuff to our best friends without throwing in a generous dose of self-deprecation and self-defensive jokes. Got a pesky debilitating mental illness? Make a quip about taking your “crazy pills,” or forever hold your peace.

I’ve recently added two books to my collection “People these days. So sad, but with a finely-tuned sense of wit!”: The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter, and The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews.

For the sake of laziness, and because I’m super-busy on Twitter right now, I will now refer to The Financial Lives of the Poets as Financial Lives. It’s no surprise that Hornby gave his stamp of approval to this recession-themed tragicomedy. We’ve got a sad-sack (but kind of cool and self-aware, obviously) middle-aged protagonist, Matt, complete with journalism-induced unemployment and a quietly failing marriage plotline that gives a nod to Facebook (he only knows about his wife’s maybe-infidelity because he reads messages between her and an old flame). He’s terrified that they’re about to lose their (way-out-of-their-league-in-the-first-place) house. He doesn’t tell his wife because of the whole macking on the ex-boyfriend thing, so naturally, he decides to sell pot to make some cash, you know, just for a while. He’s realizes that in these stressful times, there’s a whole untapped market of grown-ups who used to get high, and are now nostalgic and desperate enough to start again, provided there’s a completely non-threatening, loafer-wearing dealer in the picture.

Is it a really a spoiler if I say that his stoned path to redemption fails spectacularly?

I wouldn’t be able to stomach a story that hits so close to home (newspapers are all dying, you can’t make a living as a journalist anymore – lalalalala!) without the funny parts. I confess I skimmed the actual poetry passages (see Twitter comment, above), but the dialogue in Financial Lives made it for me: funny, natural, chock-full of zingers. If this book were a song, it would be catchy as hell.

At first, it sometimes seems like books peppered with modern references (7-11, automated phone systems, Facebook, Wilco?) are trying too hard. But after I get used to all the brand names and band names, I wonder why more books set in the present-day don’t include these inextricable parts of our lives.

Here’s an example of Matt’s particular blend of sad-sackness:

Perhaps the most pathetic thing about long-married guys like me is the delusional list that each of us keeps in our heads, a list of women we think are secretly attracted to us. Amber was always at the top of my delusional list. Even now, in my beaten-down state, I can’t help but have a kind of muscle-memory that she’s crushing on me a little (ooh, out-of-shape, middle-aged unemployed guy, yum) – an assumption for which there is absolutely no evidence.

Makes fun of himself? Check. Apes modern speech patterns? Check. Sad? Hmm, pretty sad, but maybe not soul-crushingly sad.

No, when I’ve got a hankering for a story that will tickle my funny bone and make me question the point of it all, I turn to Canadian fiction.

The Flying Troutmans has its own smart-ass, pop-culture-wise narrator. However, while Financial Lives is mostly funny, with the darker recession-themed plotline to add depth, The Flying Troutmans is mostly depressing, with some snappy dialogue to make you not want to kill yourself.

Hattie is forced to give up her free-wheeling life in Paris (which is, surprise, actually not so fun, since her flaky Ashram-bound boyfriend dumps her but promises to communicate telepathically) to go back to Manitoba and take care of her clinically depressed sister Min’s kids. She loves the kids, but doesn’t relish the idea of being saddled with them forever, so they all pile into a van and head stateside to search for the children’s father, who was long ago driven off by the mercurial Min.

At first the children seem pretty standard: the sulky, reticent teenage boy and the eternally chatty, uber-quirky, purple-haired eleven-year-old Theodora. But Theodora (aka Thebes) isn’t just cute-weird. She’s desperately attention-seeking, heart-breakingly pathetic, socially-alienated weird. And her penchant for speaking in faux hip-hop lingo even though she’s a “skinny white kid” isn’t just played for laughs:

Pop says when Lo wakes up we’re outie, she said.

Thebes, I said. This talking thing? The way you talk, it’s –

No, no, she said, shhh, please don’t tell me how to talk. I have to do it this way, okay? I won’t always. She looked like she was about to cry again so I told her no, no, it was fine, she could talk however she wanted, it was stupid of me to have brought it up, we were good.

Thebes is a bright, creative, compassionate kid who also happens to be compulsively annoying for some very good reasons. I think this character hits a few extra nerves for me because she reminds me of someone I love, who also talks and talks and talks, often out of nervousness or just plain excitement. This run-in at a bronco event made me burst into tears:

She yelled out the numbers in German and then French and then Spanish. She was very excited and had to be reminded constantly, by the family of haters behind us, to sit down and stay down, they’d paid their money to see the bronco bustin’ and dang if they were gonna have some wild foreign retard leapin’ up every second and blockin’ their view.

[…] She watched the rest of the cowboys silently. Tears were running down her face and getting mixed up with the cotton candy.

Let’s go, I said. I grabbed her hand and pulled her out of the bleachers and down the ramp and outside into the not-so-fresh night air. Lights were flashing and people were laughing and screaming. We walked over to a dark, empty piece of grass behind a heifer barn and sat down.

Go ahead, I said.

It’s just that . . ., she said.

I know, I said.

It’s just that . . . I’m not retarded, she said.

I know that, I said.

I just want Min, she said. She never yells at me. She thinks I’m beauti–

You are, I said. She couldn’t get very far past that before it all erupted and she was sobbing in my arms and then all the captive little heifers in the barn next to us joined in, crying and lowing like a bovine choir of angels in solidarity with Thebes.

I love that this book reminded me that beautiful writing doesn’t have to sound old-fashioned or stuffy. And both Financial Lives and The Flying Troutmans made me realise that an author shouldn’t have to ignore Converse Chucks or social networking or lame attempts at ebonics to write something with meaning.

Landed – What Separates a Good Book from a GOOD Book?

2 Apr

There’s nothing like a beautifully written but ultimately sorta forgettable story to make me think about the books that are “me” versus the kind that somehow miss the mark, although they are undeniably good.

Landed’s premise is powerful enough – middle-aged Owen deals (badly – by kidnapping his two kids and running off on a dangerous open-air camping trip) with the aftermath of a car accident which kills his daughter and leaves him minus a right hand. There’s no question that Tim Pears can write. His prose is poetic but never comes off fake or contrived. Thankfully, his style alone was captivating enough to keep me interested.

Because somehow the story itself didn’t come together for me, which I think I can blame on the uneven plot and structure. Its potential was watered down with some stylistic hiccups that I just couldn’t get past. The back-story takes up a full half of the book, but the real plot just doesn’t pack enough of a payload to make it all worth it.

The book begins with an official collision investigator’s report. Then there’s a long flashback detailing Owen’s childhood trips to the countryside near Welshpool (and this aside is in turn interrupted by a presentation from an occupational therapist about Owen’s phantom limb pain). The pace picks up with a section narrated by Owen’s estranged wife, which is finally followed by the “true” story, the fateful kidnapping romp, which moves in a meandering, dreamlike fashion not suited to the second half of a book.

I actually fell in love with the section dedicated to young Owen’s formative experiences in the countryside. I don’t always go for description-heavy passages, but reading about this quiet boy obsessively tracking a family of badgers and trying to keep them secret from his unsentimental grandfather struck more of an emotional chord with me than the later sections between him and his kids – which I suspect were supposed to have me shedding a tear or two.

Although I’m making this story sound slow, that’s not to say I had to slog through it  (if that were the case, I wouldn’t be saying I enjoyed it at all – a truly slow story is like my reading kryponite). But when it was over I felt like, “what just happened?” – not because my mind was blown, but because I thought surely, after all that, it was going somewhere else.