Posts Tagged ‘A Reader Reports’

Murder as a Fine Art

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Hello, friends. It’s been a pretty unhealthy few weeks in my household. Nick is going into his 5th straight week of viral bleurgh (three separate viruses one after the other, we’re pretty sure) for which his lungs are taking a beating, and I strained my back last week before promptly coming down with a cold. Basically, he can’t breathe and I can’t move. We’re like the dangling punchline of a bad joke.

So it was with a powerful need for diversion that I opened David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art.

It was recommended to me by Toronto children’s author Monica Kulling, whose work I love. Monica said it reminded her of the Agency novels and I’m always simultaneously worried and intrigued when someone says that. I mean, Monica meant it in the nicest possible way, but good grief – what if it’s crap?

In this case, however, I needn’t have fretted. Murder as a Fine Art is a wide-ranging, tightly plotted book with an absolutely terrific premise: controversial essayist and notorious opium-addict Thomas de Quincey comes back to London at the age of 69, is drawn into a re-enactment of the most gruesome mass-murders England has ever seen, and solves them in the company of his clever, independent daughter, Emily, and two members of Scotland Yard.

The novel is ferociously well researched, hits a number of great Victorian themes (rational dress, anti-Irish prejudice, the 1854 cholera outbreak, the Opium Wars) and sets out to have a good bit of deliberately cheeky fun, too. Morrell’s de Quincey has a distinct and instantly recognizable conversational voice, both elegant and incisive. And in Morrell’s vision, there’s nothing de Quincey can’t do, given sufficient incentive (and laudanum, which I’ve written about before.) In any fictionalized form, de Quincey would be a genius. But in this thriller, de Quincey - an elderly man in poor health, a drug addict of nearly five decades – can leap from moving carriages, outrun an elite group of soldiers in the fog, defend himself (with only a teaspoon) against an armed and highly trained killer, climb trees while handcuffed, disguise himself to elude professional spies, and mobilize an improvised army of beggars and prostitutes for the sake of “England”. It’s so audacious it makes you laugh, even while you indulge in the fantasy.

Things that might trouble a reader? Lots and lots of graphic violence, which is certainly not to everyone’s taste. Morrell also assumes that you know absolutely nothing about Victorian London and lays it all out for you in a straightforward way. (Sometimes this is jarring: the repeated mention of giving a poor child “a cookie” each week for learning to read the Bible, for example. It’s okay, editors! We’ll figure out that “a biscuit” is both a treat and a bribe.) I didn’t mind it, though.

And while I was treating my own back with heat, Tylenol and arnica gel, it was doubly good fun to read about the miraculous pain-relieving properties of laudanum. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with my trusty hot-water bottle.

How was your week, everyone? What are you reading?

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A Reader Reports: All Over the Place

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Hello, friends. Last week, I mentioned Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, which I read in just two sittings last week. Apart from that, I’ve been reading in a patchier, less-focused fashion for the past little while. Part of it is because I’m nearing the end of Rivals in the City, so I don’t have as much mental space for other fictions. And part of it is the fact that it’s spring, and I’m restless, and sunshine-starved, and eager to start gardening. So today, I have one book to recommend to you and a few others that I’ve dipped into and plan to keep reading.

Pamela Branch, The Wooden Overcoat

I’d never heard of Pamela Branch, but I picked this up for its cover and made the decision to buy it based on the author bio: “Pamela Branch was born on a tea estate in Ceylon. She… studied art in Paris and then went on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Returning to the East she lived for three years on a houseboat in Kashmir, trekking in the Himalayas in the summer and skiing in the winter. She travelled extensively in Europe, India, the Middle East and Africa. She died in 1967.”

The novel is vivid and memorable, in a rather unexpected way. It doesn’t start especially well, the solution to the puzzle has nothing to do with the plot itself, and the title has nothing to do with the mystery. There is zero emotional development for any of the characters, who are all two-dimensional types. Yet it’s deliciously, almost appallingly breezy (a houseful of aspiring artists tries repeatedly – and fails repeatedly – to dump a quickly increasing number of corpses, whom they call “the Loved Ones”) and extremely funny. Branch has a brilliant eye for detail (“Fan cleaned her teeth. She was experimenting with a new way of spitting toothpaste when she saw from under her eyelashes that the woman in the opposite window was still watching her.”). But it’s the setting I really adored: 1950s Chelsea, seedy, decrepit, still in the age of ration cards (following the Second World War). And I love that Branch wrote a really funny and gruesome murder mystery by breaking so many rules. I’m eager to read the rest of her small body of work.

Fuchsia Dunlop, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China

I’m only a few chapters into this memoir, but I think I object to Dunlop’s subtitle: I suppose some will enjoy the pun on “sweet-sour”, but it would be more accurate to jettison the stereotype and call it “bittersweet”, I think. Or better, simply “A Memoir of Eating in China”. Apart from that, I’m enjoying it tremendously. I have Dunlop’s first cookbook, Land of Plenty (published in the UK as Sichuan Cookery), and cooked from it quite a bit before I began producing 35 meals and snacks each week for small children. (Do the Sichuanese feed their toddlers numbing Sichuan peppercorns? I’d love to know.) But I didn’t realize that Dunlop was such a skilled writer. I am entranced by her descriptions, moved by her account of her first months as a foreign student in Chengdu, and desperate to know how things develop.

Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction

Didion in 1970. Photo credit: Julian Wasser/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Confession: I’ve never read anything by Joan Didion. I planned to read The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s memoir of losing her husband to a sudden heart attack, but was distracted by other books – and, definitely, a shyness about the subject matter. (After all, I intend to read Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened of, too, but I never think to myself, “You know what would be perfect to read next? That one about fearing death.”) But I recently ran across a reference to Didion’s 1968 classic series of essays about the hippie movement, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The idealism of the hippie movement has been a big topic in our house for the past few months – we’re in a comparable moment of cultural crisis, I think – and so I’m in. I’ve only flicked through, but I think I’m going to become a Didion convert. Her most prominent trait for me so far is, in Graham Greene’s words, “the splinter of ice in the heart of a writer”. I can’t wait to be frozen.

What are you reading? Have you read any of my picks this week?

 

 

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Art and life

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Mea culpa, friends. I missed my usual blog post last week (long, boring story: sick children, sick parents, no babysitter). This week, I was planning to write about some of my recent reading, and then the Amanda Berry story broke. I’ve been debating all morning about whether to go ahead with my post because the subject matter is so grotesquely timely, but I think I will.

Last week, I picked up a second-hand copy of Room, by Emma Donoghue. It was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2010.

I had planned to read it some time ago, but other books intervened. This time, I opened the first page and fell right into its clutches. If you’re not familiar with the book, its narrator is a five-year-old boy named Jack who lives, with his mother, in captivity in the place he knows as Room. I couldn’t believe what effective use Donoghue makes of Jack’s voice, his limited and incredibly clear-eyed comprehension of the world. It was beautiful and terrifying and utterly compelling. And then I read the news about Amanda Berry’s recent escape.

I don’t want to capitalize on someone else’s tragedy. But I will say this: at one point, after Jack and his mother are free, a smirky journalist asks them, “So after your rescue…” And Jack’s mother corrects her: “Escape.” Jack’s mother is braver, smarter, and tougher than one can easily imagine, and that’s because she has to be, in order to live. The only other point I want to make is that Room works because it’s the least exploitative telling imaginable of a story that shrieks horror and taboo. It’s about Jack and his mother, their bond, and how they negotiate their worlds.

I’ll talk about other books another day, I think. For now, I just want to remind myself that it’s possible to think about Amanda Berry, Gina deJesus, and Michelle Knight outside the news cycle: without prying questions, without salacious speculation, and with hope for their future. They are more courageous than we can know.

 

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A Reader Reports: Boys’ Club

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Hello, friends. I just noticed that I completely forgot to blog last week. Apologies. I don’t know what to say except that I may have lost the entire week, while I was at it. Am I really a week older, with almost nothing to show for it? *headdesk*

It’s been a while since I talked about my recent reading. There’s been a lot of distraction, a little crafting, many bits of the New Yorker (one day, I’ll read every article in a given issue, but I don’t think it’ll be this year), and three astoundingly good books, in particular:

Ordinary Thunderstorms, by William Boyd

Ordinary Thunderstorms starts as a straight-up thriller of the best kind: bold, expansively imagined, and genuinely, well, thrilling. In the opening scenes, a rather bland young academic becomes a murder suspect and loses his identity through a chain of small but damning accidents. It is one of the most terrifying things I’ve read precisely because the protagonist Adam is, as his name suggests, such an Everyman.

The novel makes its way through different contemporary Londons, which I loved, and there’s a juicy corruption scandal at its heart. But an interesting thing happens along the way, which is that the pace of the thriller starts to meander and it doesn’t really matter, because the social world of the novel is so fully realized that you become fully engrossed in that, instead. It’s a thriller that becomes an examination of different lives, and which then refuses fully to resolve itself. I really enjoyed that perversity of genre.

I could pick at a few things here – Adam’s academic career is given unnecessary prominence, I think, because it offers a nice conceit for the title but there’s exactly one point in the plot at which it really seems relevant. Otherwise, Adam could have been a classicist or an economist or a linguist and it wouldn’t really matter. But overall, I enjoyed this immensely and am now obsessed with William Boyd’s work.

The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger’s Child is wonderful – a selective survey of the twentieth century through the lenses of poetry, biography, and gay culture. The novel is also an extended joke about literary detective-work: just as you think it’s going to turn into a gay Possession (by A.S. Byatt), it pivots again and stumps you. The Hollinghurst novels I’ve read until now (The Swimming-Pool Library; The Line of Beauty) have been set in exclusively – almost claustrophobically – male worlds, so it’s interesting to meet a major female character, Daphne, who’s well delineated, moderately sympathetic, and also completely infuriating.

Hollinghurst’s historical research is wonderfully detailed. I’d never wondered about the working lives of English bank tellers in the 1960s, but I can picture them now. This is also a novel about place, but unlike Ordinary Thunderstorms, it’s about the way time overlays places and things, and transforms them quite unrecognizably.

 

Any Human Heart, by William Boyd

After Ordinary Thunderstorms, I couldn’t wait to read another William Boyd novel. Then I remembered that my husband’s been after me to read Any Human Heart for years. I flicked through it idly several years ago but didn’t find it compelling then. Now, it’s entirely the reverse, and I’m haunted by Logan Mountstuart, its protagonist, in the best possible way.

Any Human Heart is a fictional diary and one of the best things it does is remain convincingly the voice of the same person, even while he ages from teenager to old man over the course of a century. There are jokes (like Zelig or Forrest Gump, Logan Mountstuart meets an absurd number of celebrities, including Hemingway, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, and Picasso). There is heartbreak – oh, is there ever heartbreak. And there’s the entire twentieth century as a backdrop for this unbelievably rich and unpredictable life. I can’t say enough good things about it.

One of the funny things about this instalment of A Reader Reports is that all 3 books are by men – a reversal of my usual pattern. What are you reading right now? Do you tend to (unconsciously) favour male or female writers, or are you that rare thing, a balanced individual?

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A Reader Reports: Lost in Booktopia

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Hello, and welcome to the third edition of A Reader Reports! I love talking to you about recent reads; I can’t believe I waited so long to make it a blog feature. I’ve been reading like a fiend lately (reading while breastfeeding = win!) and without a particular program – just falling into whatever book is new to me and nearby, with amazing and enlightening results.

Zsuzsi Gartner, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

I read Zsuzsi Gartner’s first short-story collection, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, in 2000 and fell for it, hard. I admired Gartner’s prose style, eye for detail, and satire. I also loved her prickly relationship with Vancouver; the city is practically a character in itself. Having loved the first book so much, I was very anxious about the new one.

I should have had more faith. Gartner is better than ever – funnier, angrier, fiercer, bolder, subtler. She’s still primarily a satirist, writing within a long tradition but in a slightly futuristic, quasi-fantastic, dystopian world. She’s still terribly funny, too, and her vision is so dark that you flinch as much as you laugh. And yes, she still detests Vancouver. And pretension. And most people, apparently. But she now displays more compassion for the characters she scourges, and that’s what makes this a finer work of art. There’s real empathy here, and a sense of mourning for a world gone terribly, probably irredeemably, wrong.

Andrea Levy, The Long Song

One reason I resist e-readers is because they deny me one of my favourite habits: browsing other people’s bookshelves. I love, love, love peering into people’s brains via their reading habits, as well as how and where they keep their books. I spotted this one on top of a small pile in my parents’ living room. I’d never heard of it, although clearly I should have. It’s an absolutely first-rate historical novel about Miss July, a house slave on a sugar plantation in early nineteenth-century Jamaica. Beautifully written, bursting with respectful and vivid dialect, and funny. You might not see much room for humour in life under slavery, but Levy is persuasive on this subject. Life, no matter how brutal, is tricky and surprising and leaves room for humour if you’re the sort of person to see it. She clearly is, and the result is utterly memorable.

Jill Paton Walsh, The Attenbury Emeralds

You may already know how much I adore the detective fiction of Dorothy L. Sayers and especially her sleuth, Peter Wimsey. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Gaudy Night, please do so as soon as possible. I dream of writing (but will never manage) a mystery novel as good, or a romantic couple with the depth and heart of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. This knowledge doesn’t stop me from reading and re-reading Sayers with utter pleasure.

All Sayers fans feel the same way, so Jill Paton Walsh risks life and reputation in writing a continuation of their story. The mystery here is beside the point; all really want to know is What Happened Next with Peter and Harriet. And this shows: while the mystery is twisty and fairly clever, its structure is inherently broken-backed and the dénouement should have been stronger. But the life stuff – the ongoing romance, the family story – is really, really good. Paton Walsh’s research into the post-war period feels authentic and she creates a complex and believable life for Peter (the younger son of a duke, and thus a central part in a class system that’s beginning to feel its irrelevance), Harriet (his detective-novelist, bluestocking wife), and their family. It’s a satisfying book when you’re reading for Peter-and-Harriet and using the mystery as a pacing device. This sounds like faint praise (or passive-aggressive criticism), but it’s a significant achievement and Paton Walsh’s writing is clean and elegant in its homage to Sayers, especially when giving voice to the other members of the Wimsey family.

Miriam Toews, The Flying Troutmans

This novel really shouldn’t work: it’s a self-consciously zany, neurotic, roadtripping, coming-of-age saga about a family with serious mental health issues. It’s largely, deliberately, plotless. It’s written almost entirely in dialogue. It ends with redemption. And it’s absolutely fantastic.

Miriam Toews has a brilliant ear, an enormous amount of sympathy for misfits, and a fine understanding of the endless difficulties of being a weird kid. The Flying Troutmans is like a perfect rebuttal, or a reverse-engineered recipe: take all the groan-inducing clichés of CanLit. Add a fiercely self-conscious wit. And suddenly, you have a completely addictive firecracker of a novel. (In fact, between them, Miriam Toews and Zsuzsi Gartner offer a brilliant and convincing refutation of all that people complain of in Canadian literature.) This was SO good, you guys.

Robert van Gulik, The Chinese Maze Murders

Oh, I’m ambivalent about this one. Robert van Gulik was a diplomat and scholar of ancient Chinese detective fiction. He knew far more about the Chinese tradition of murder-mysteries than I ever will. His aim in writing (this novel is part of a series featuring his sleuth, Justice Dee) was to share that tradition with contemporary Western readers, and in this he partly succeeds: I learned some interesting details about justice and daily life during the Ming Dynasty, and enjoyed van Gulik’s period-style illustrations.

But even now, I’m not sure how much of what I disliked was due to the genre/tradition, and how much was van Gulik’s own contribution. The narrative style is mannered and stilted, the characters are entirely two-dimensional, and most of the twists in the plot were given away in the jacket copy! The one element that I know was van Gulik’s idea (the identity & motivation of the last murderer) is very much a sensationalist cliché of his time (the 1950s), which I can’t help reading with a modern sensibility. Finally, this edition (published by the University of Chicago Press, which really ought to do better) also contains a number of distracting typos. Still, it has novelty value and while I wouldn’t read another Judge Dee mystery, I appreciated learning a little about a different tradition of detective fiction.

How about you, friends? What have you been reading?

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A Reader Reports: Hot Streak

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Hello, and welcome to the second instalment of A Reader Reports, which is very much what the title promises. I’ve had an absolutely wonderful streak of books lately – so much so that I’m a bit worried about what’s coming next, in case it doesn’t live up to its predecessors. The Fabulous Four, in the order I read them, are:

Shadows on the Moon, by Zoë Marriott

I flicked this one open quite casually, thinking that I might just browse a little before saving it it for a while. Then I read the first paragraph: “On my fourteenth birthday when the sakura was in full bloom, the men came to kill us. We saw them come, Aimi and me. We were excited, because we did not know how to be frightened. We had never seen soldiers before.” But it’s not just a tense, fast-paced adventure story. Zoë re-tells the Cinderella story in a way that makes Suzume, the main character, a real heroine: determined, resourceful, intelligent, and brave. She folds into the story cultural details about a country that resembles, but is not, feudal Japan. And she plays with the idea of what it means to be exotic with witty, thoughtful results.

Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

I’ve raved about Claire Tomalin here before, so I’ll keep this brief. I cannot imagine a more sensitive, satisfying exploration of Jane Austen’s elusive life story. Tomalin fills in the gaps gently, suggests enticing possibilities, and offers a thoroughly convincing theory for Austen’s quiet period. She also reads the novels with authority and her argument about Sense and Sensibility (until now my least-favourite Austen novel; Tomalin claims it’s a conflicted debate about propriety and Romanticism, which intrigues me) makes me want to re-read it more attentively.

Plain Kate, by Erin Bow

This book just won – and entirely deserved to win – the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award! It’s a stunner of a novel about an orphaned carver girl, the Plain Kate of the title. The novel is a fairy tale, a ghost story, a coming-of-age tale, and a meditation on family, all told in beautifully precise and elegant prose. And did I mention the talking cat? I cried myself to a  pulp reading this and the world is a better place for its existence.

Faith Fox, by Jane Gardam

I love Jane Gardam’s work. She’s a ruthless observer of human weakness, yet affectionate towards the ridiculousness of her characters’ behaviour. She creates absurd situations with outrageous levels of coincidence, yet they feel absolutely realistic at the same time. Faith Fox is a baby whose mother dies in childbirth, setting off a series of actions and reactions – Faith is just the catalyst. As always with Gardam, it’s not about the plot at all; instead, I revel in her language, her astoundingly precise and surprising characterization, and her gift of being able to see into so many different times and places and minds with such clarity.

Whew. So. What have you been reading?

P. S. I bought Shadows on the Moon and Plain Kate with my own money; Jane Austen and Faith Fox were gifts from my husband, who is also clearly on a hot streak.

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A Reader Reports: Postpartum Edition

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Hello, friends. You know how, from time to time, I talk about what I’ve been reading? I’m going to start calling it A Reader Reports (not least because the initials spell “arr”, me hearties!) and making it a regular-ish feature.

At the moment, I spend most of my time with a floppy-yet-lunging baby and trying to remember critical things like where I left my coffee cup. As a result, I have 2 new criteria for things I read:

1. Words must be served in snack-sized portions. Short stories are great. Fact-packed non-fiction is even better, because I can drop it when necessary and remember where I left off (most of the time) without having broken the spell.

2. The pages must lie flat and stay open while my hands do other things.

I know, I know – the second stipulation is just absurd. I hope one day to have one hand free to hold a book. But in the meantime, here’s what I’ve been pecking at.

I confess, I wasn’t sure I’d like a blog-inspired book about gardening. I’m not a good – or even mediocre – gardener. I’m also suspicious of blog-spawned books, which are so often single-idea stunts rather than thoughtfully constructed narratives. But Merilyn Simonds’s A New Leaf: Growing with My Garden is absolutely terrific. Simonds has a warm, expansive, wry, and sometimes sly voice that invites you into her world. She’s great on rituals, mistakes, frustrations, and unexpected delights. And she’s always learning, always experimenting. It’s a powerful blend of everything I love, all applied to a subject I know little about. Merilyn Simonds makes me want to garden like a fiend – assuming that fiends do, indeed, garden. I’m a little afraid of this new force she’s unleashed within me. For now, it’s all held in check by the fact that I have no hands with which to turn the pages, but I can plot. Oh yes.

In our house, we have a strict rule about magazines: anything more than 3 months old gets recycled, whether it’s been read or not. Unless it’s a classic car mag. Or Top Gear. Or a design mag. Or that one about restoring old homes. Or… you get the idea. We are drowning in old magazines. But the stockpile has come in very handy with the appearance of Rule #2, above, and I’ve been reading old issues of the New Yorker, in particular, from cover to cover. (The image above comes from its profile of Jaron Lanier. I’d link it, but subscription’s required.)

I’ve been reading snippets of Joe Moran’s Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime for months, now. But I suspect this may be the best way to read it. It’s a light-hearted book of social anthropology, crammed with details you immediately have to relay to the people nearest you (even if you’re in a doctor’s waiting room – trust me on that one). If you read it in a long session, the details begin to overwhelm you and they’re less delightful than they might otherwise be. And that would be a shame because they’re amazing, in both senses of the word.

And that’s my report for the past month or so. What are you all reading?

*Also, a little reminder to those in the Greater Toronto Area: I’ll be at the Mississauga Central Library on Saturday, August 27, from 2-4. Tickets are free, but you must have a ticket to attend. More details here. Hope to see you there!*

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