October 31, 2010

Light Lifting - Alexander MacLeod

This book, the 4th in my Giller read-athon, arrived in my mailbox this week. It is a collection of short stories, and I found it to be a very fast read.

As I said in my review of This Cake is for the Party, I find it very difficult to review short story collections. Overall, my impressions of this one are mixed.

I found the voices in the different stories to be clear and distinct, and I found myself drawn right into the action, almost immediately. Each story is distinct, and as expected, I found myself strongly relating with some stories, and not with others. And similar to This Cake is for the Party, the stories were just the right length for "short" stories - long enough to really be able to get into them, but not so long as to be considered a novella.

My biggest critique is in the structure of some of the stories themselves. Most of them just seem to end abruptly, with no real ending or resolution. This usually left me wondering, well, what was the point of that?

My least favourite story? I didn't strongly dislike any of the stories. Possibly "Wonder About Parents". It seemed very disjointed, jumping back and forth in time between 3 periods in the life of a couple with no resolution to any of the story lines.

My favourite story? Hands down, "The Loop." It is the story of a kid (age 9-12) who has a delivery job on his bicycle for a local pharmacy. He poignantly describes the homes and lives of the lonely house-bound people that he visits. This really resonated with me, as my current job is as a home care physiotherapist, and I visit many of the people described in their homes because they can't get out to visit the physiotherapist. I never before realized how many lonely people there are out there. Really, a visit from the physiotherapist should NOT be the highlight of a person's week. I am going to give away the ending, because that is really what made the story so impact-ful - the narrator quits his job after a traumatic experience, in order to preserve what is left of his child-like outlook on life.

So another mixed review for this one. I have one book left on the Giller short-list to read, and I'm not sure if I am going to get to read it before the prize is announced on November 9 - I just received an e-mail from the store I ordered it from, telling me that it is on back-order and won't be shipped until mid-November.

This counts towards The Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.

And so, with just over a week left until the prize is announced, my current Giller standings are:
3. Light Lifting
5. ?

October 20, 2010

Annabel - Kathleen Winters

I don't know why, but I had been avoiding this book. Something in the premise didn't appeal to me. But now I have read it, and I'm glad that I did.

It is the story of Wayne/Annabel, a hermaphrodite born in 1968 in rural Labrador. His father decides that his son is to be brought up as a boy and so surgery is done to turn him into a boy, and hormone pills are introduced at the age when he should reach puberty. As might be expected, Wayne's female side begins to shine through, both in physical and intellectual ways. I won't reveal the ending here, but it involves Wayne/Annabel coming to terms with both halves of himself; the male and female within.

There are lots of interesting issues and questions brought up in this story. The question of sex vs. gender. In terms of sex, Wayne/Annabel is both male and female. But in terms of gender, he is brought up as a male, but later in life she begins to identify more as a female. In the end, he comes to terms with and relates to both genders.

I also can't help but wonder what would have happened if Wayne's father had made the opposite decision - to raise Annabel as a daughter. Would the same issues and conflicts have arisen? I suspect that they would have been less traumatic on Annabel than they were on Wayne. Given the culture of the time and place, Wayne as a boy was expected to be almost hyper-masculine - out trapping and hunting with his father, while showing off for the girls. Whereas a tomboy-ish girl probably would have stood out less (though Wayne's best friend, a girl, was bullied and ostracized for being different than the other girls).

It also brings up the effect that having a child who is considered different has on the parents, though not in great depth. Wayne's father tends to isolate himself from his family, spending more and more time in the bush letting his mother raise Wayne. While Wayne's mother ends up sinking into a deep depression later on in her life. In the end, there is a role reversal, and Wayne's father ends up closer to him than his mother.

I found the first couple of chapters (especially the prologue) tough slogging, but once I got into the book, it was a fast and engaging read.

My only other criticism was that I found a few of the secondary characters to be more interesting than the more central characters. I would have liked to know more about Thomasina, a family friend and the only person in the community outside of the family who knows the secret. She was a much more richly drawn character than Jacinta, Wayne's mother, but she disappears for the entire middle section of the book. And my favourite character was Wally, Wayne's best friend for a year or so. She has the potential to have a whole book written about her, but instead, after a roaring introduction, she fades away until she is re-introduced towards the end of the book, almost as a plot device.

This counts as another selection towards the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set. And it puts my Giller read-athon on hold, as the other 2 shortlisted books, while ordered, have yet to arrive in my mailbox. I've started instead into a classic that I somehow managed to miss along the way.

And so my personal Giller standings, in order of preference, are:
1. The Matter with Morris
2. Annabel
3. This Cake is for the Party
4. ?
5. ?

On a not-quite-unrelated note, I was browsing the Governor General Literary Awards shortlist earlier this week. Annabel is the only book to appear on both the Giller and the GG shortlist; however the GG shortlist includes one of the Giller long-listed books (Cool Water by Dianne Warren) and the two books that I was hoping to see on the Giller shortlist (Motorcycles and Sweetgrass and Room). The Boy in the Moon is also on the GG non-fiction shortlist.

October 15, 2010

The Matter with Morris - David Bergen

I finished this book (my second read in the Giller shortlist) last night, and I loved it. I found the story very compelling, and well paced, and optimistic at the end.

The main character, Morris, is watching his life fall apart around him. His son was a soldier recently killed in Afghanistan, his wife has kicked him out, his eldest daughter won't talk to him or let him see his grandson, and his younger daughter, at age 17, is dating a man twice her age. He regularly uses an escort service (where he meets one of his son's friends who is working there); he is carrying on a correspondence with a woman in the US who's son was killed in Iraq, which may or may not develop into more; and he is on leave from his job as a syndicated columnist as his writing fell apart after his son was killed.

Morris is a very flawed character. In his own words, he describes the burden that he has to carry around with him, "his tremendous pride, his fear, his love of sex and high-heeled shoes, his envy and rage, his shame." And yet I was drawn to him, for who of us is without flaw. His flaws are balanced out by the good - his generosity, his love for his family, his introspection and wanting to make his life better. At times I found myself comparing (favourably) this book to Girl Crazy, another story of a man watching his life fall apart around him. In that case, I found nothing sympathetic in the main character, and found the characters to all be very flat and two-dimensional. In this book, I found the characters to be very well rounded, and with depth that is revealed throughout the book, and, well, human.

There are moments of profound sadness in this book. When Morris writes to Ursula about his son, "I am afraid of many things. Of sleeping and dreaming of my son and then waking to find that I was only dreaming. Of the darkness, of death, of life itself, of plodding through the day, always aware that i am alive when my son is dead." And yet the book as a whole left me with a sense of hope.

I'm sure that this book isn't for everyone. It is very introspective and lacking in action. However I enjoyed it unreservedly. I'm glad that it made the shortlist as I likely wouldn't have read it otherwise.

This counts as a selection towards The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

And the current standings in my Giller reading challenge (in order of preference):
1. The Matter with Morris
2. This Cake is for the Party
3. ?
4. ?
5. ?

This Cake is for the Party - Sarah Selecky

This was my first read from this year's Giller shortlist; and I always find it difficult to write reviews of short story collections. Each story is unique, and it is difficult to see the book as a whole.

There are 10 stories in this collection, and I found that I read my way through them fairly quickly. Almost all of them were in the 20-30 page range, which I find to be the perfect length for short stories - long enough to be able to get into the story, but not so long that I get bogged down with too many characters and plot lines.

My one criticism is that most of the stories are told in the first person, and I found it hard to distinguish between the narrative voices in many of the stories. The typical voice is female, 20-30 years old, repressed and unable to speak her thoughts freely, and somewhat whiney. However it is the stories that break this bold that stand out in my mind, now that it is almost a week since I finished this book. The story featuring a middle-aged male looking back on his life with his slightly-crazy wife; the story about a teenage girl about to be orphaned; the young couple torn by the ethical decision of whether or not to report a friend's daughter to the Children's Aid Society.

My least favourite story? Go-Manchura. I just wanted to slap the main character and tell her to pull herself together and get some confidence in herself.

My favourite story? Where Are You Coming From, Sweetheart? From the first sentence, I was drawn into the story of Christine, and how inevitable the ending would be. And by the time the ending came around, I was in tears.

This is the first collection of stories from Sarah Selecky. I don't think that it is perfect, but I do think that if she keeps writing, her stories will get better and better, and I look forward to reading more of them.

This counts as a selection towards the Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

So... My personal Giller reading challenge (in order of preference) stands at:

1. This Cake is for the Party
2. ?
3. ?
4. ?
5. ?

October 5, 2010

Musings on the 2010 Giller Shortlist

Well, it's that time of year again. The 2010 Giller Prize shortlist was announced today, and so now I will attempt to read my way through the shortlist before the prize is announced on November 9. The only thing is, this year, I don't know if it will be possible.

I headed out to the local bookstore after work today, armed with a list of the books on the shortlist. But I could only find copies of two of the five books on the list! I suspect that in this case, it is because the books on the list aren't terribly well known, and thus weren't stocked by the local store.

The list is as follows:
The Matter with Morris (David Bergen)
Light Lifting (Alexander McLeod)
This Cake is for the Party (Sarah Selecky)
The Sentimentalists (Johanna Skibsrud)
Annabel (Kathleen Winter)

Of the five books, I not only haven't read any of them, but had only heard of one of them before the longlist was announced a few weeks ago (B. Kienapple reviewed Annabel back in the summer with a mixed opinion). And after only being able to find 2 in my local bookstore (The Matter with Morris and Annabel), I had to split my online order between 2 sites in order to find copies of the other three. What the?!?!?!? Two of them should arrive in time for me to finish them by my self-imposed deadline; but Chapters.Indigo tells me that Light Lifting may not arrive until mid-November.

There were also a couple of books that I have read in the past year that I was a bit surprised not to see on the list, notably Room by Emma Donoghue, and Motorcycles and Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor. However, given the propensity of book awards to list controversial books, I was glad to see that Girl Crazy by Russell Smith did not make the list!

So I guess the bottom line is that I don't know what to think about this year's list. I will read my way through the list though, and decide what I think for myself. In the past, I have generally enjoyed the Giller winners (generally much more so than the GG winner); however last year the format changed and the push was made towards non-Canadian jurors, and I haven't necessarily enjoyed the shortlisted books (notably The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon last year). It almost seems as though the flavour of the award has changed. But I really shouldn't pass judgement until I have read all of the books on the list (if they ever arrive).

Ready... Set... Read!