Thursday, October 28, 2010

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Author memoirs are ify territory for me. On the one hand, I'm fascinated by their lives and their writing habits; on the other hand, if I know too much about them it distracts me when I'm reading their work. Maya Angelou said good writing reads as effortless, and I want to enjoy it that way without being bogged down by the backstory. But, there are always exceptions, and Haruki Murakami is one.

Murakami's memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running came out two years ago. In it, Murakami details his life not only as a writer, but as a marathon runner, and by extension, about his musical taste. As anyone who as read any of his novels knows, Murakami references a lot of jazz and classical music, as well as a litany of North American pop-culture references. Those details tend to stand out in stories set in various parts of Japan, but fit perfectly into Murakami's personality (as far as he's described himself here, anyway).

The through-line of the memoir is the relationship between Murakami's writing and running. Before he became a novelist, he ran a jazz bar in Tokyo. After deciding he'd rather be a writer, he sold the bar to forge ahead as a novelist. But, after spending days sitting down, Murakami realized he was getting fat, so he started running. A year later, he ran the original marathon: covering the distance between Athens and Marathon.

Murakami has run marathons all over the world and completed several triathlons. For most people, training for those events would be quite enough to keep them busy. But no, Murakami has also written over a dozen widely-acclaimed books, worked as a visiting professor at several universities and maintained a marriage. How does he do it? Well, he does it the boring way: he comes up with a routine that works, and he sticks to it.

In a lot of ways, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is centred around Murakami's four months pr preparation for the Boston Marathon. It is, at its core, a memoir about a routine that balances his marathon training with his writing. But Murakami is a writer who knows how to make ordinary things - like looking for a lost cat - into endlessly interesting and bizarrely intricate endeavours. He writes about running in way that draws in runners and non-runners alike, and balances the details of his training schedule with stories about his past and details about his writing processes.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running isn't a long, drawn-out memoir; rather it's a snapshot of a man who refuses to only have one focus in his life. Murakami's life, as described here, explains a lot of the cultural references and themes of his novels without going into exhaustive detail. But Murakami doesn't give too much away; rather, like in his novels, he offers enough details to pique your interest, but leaves other aspects vague. Murakami draws you in, but doesn't let you get close enough to think you know it all. He's a great writer, and he knows exactly what turn of phrase will put you where he wants you, all the while keeping you engaged.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
by Haruki Murakami
First published in 2008 (cover image shown from Bond Street Books edition)

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I've mentioned my interest in weird books before, but Kurt Vonnegut's books go well beyond just being weird. Vonnegut seems to delight into taking a strange premise, and then taking it several notches beyond. In Timequake that premise is going back in time, which has been enough of a starting point for many an author. But Vonnegut is his own man, so moving back in time isn't enough for him.

The titular timequake goes like this: everyone in the world is catapulted back in time 10 years, from February 13, 2001 to February 17, 1991. For an added twist, Vonnegut wrote this book in 1996, but inserted himself as a character so he could be part of the discussion in 2001. So, everyone goes back in time. But, instead of being able to make changes (because they retain their memories) they just have to go through everything again. Basically, their brains remain unchanged from 2001 – they have all their memories and education, etc. – but their bodies have changed and, oddly, have their own minds. 

This is what I mean by Vonnegut not being satisfied with regular weird. Going back in time: fairly routine science fiction trope. Going back in time with all your present memories but no ability to change the past: Vonnegut's slice of the scifi pie. Because, as it seems, Vonnegut isn't interested in allowing his characters to race against time to change their futures; he's interested in what happens when you lose free will and just get carried through life with a complete disconnect between your brain and your body.

Vonnegut also takes delight in the moment when, after the 10-year rerun, people's free will returns and they don't know what to do. A lot of them fall over, because they aren't used to having to walk on their own anymore. There are a lot of car accidents, airplanes falling from the sky, and general disaster. But don't worry about it too much, because both Vonnegut the character and the failed science fiction writer Kilgour Trout (Vonnegut the author's semi-autobiographical projection) do alright. They manage to not be in moving vehicles, or crossing the street, or swimming, when their free will returns.

Vonnegut is hilarious, and his outbursts and insertions (by which persona, it's hard to say) are enough to make this novel worth reading. But there's much more to it than that. Just think about having to experience a rerun of every moment from February 1991 to February 2001. As Vonnegut points out, it means that although you get to experience all the joys again, you also head right into disaster and despair with absolutely no recourse. Sure, you can think to yourself "I get through this," but that doesn't necessarily make it easier. The lack of free will, coupled with a kind of omniscient knowledge is hell. So in some ways, Timequake is an exercise in reminding us how lucky we are to have the past in the past.

For the writing style – and the laughs – alone Timequake is worth reading (you can pretty much open it to any page at random and have a good chuckle). But it's also a pretty sophisticated piece of science fiction, completely grounded in our reality but about something that could never actually happen. And to be honest, having it happen in a novel is quite real enough.

by Kurt Vonnegut
First published in 1997 (cover image from Berkley International edition)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Conrats to The Carnivore

At last night's Toronto Book Awards presentation, those present in the Toronto Reference Library's Appel Salon were treated to some great hosting (both by CBC Metro Morning's Matt Galloway and outgoing Mayor Miller). Of course, politics is running through everything at the moment, as Toronto is heading into a pretty big mayoral election, and the importance of funding the arts and libraries tinged a lot of what was said last night.

Each of the nominated authors received cheques for $1,000, as well as the opportunity to present their nominated book – and its relevant Toronto locations – in short individual films. It was really nice to see authors talk about the city as though it was a literary character. It seemed that all the nominated novels were really embedded in the city, and the that the same story could not have been told elsewhere.

That was especially true of the winning novel, Mark Sinnett's The Carnivore (ECW Press), which tells the story of a marriage disrupted by Hurricane Hazel. Sinnett, who brought his wife and very cute son to the event, took home the grand prize of $11,000 (his $1,000 for being a finalist and the winner's $10,000), which is no small prize in the world of literary awards.

The other nominees were:
Seán Cullen, for Prince of Neither Here nor There (Puffin Canada)
Carey Fagan, for Valentine's Fall (Cormorant Books)
Lauren Kirshner, for Where We Have to Go (McClelland and Stewart)
Dragan Todorovic, for Diary of Interrupted Days (Random House of Canada)
Congratulations to them all. Setting, and especially place, is an incredibly important part of a well crafted story, and it's always nice to see that recognized.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Paper Moon

Every once in a while, I get really lucky when buying used books. Often, this happens when I'm travelling and, in need of something to read, I wander into a used book store with no specific purchase in mind. When I was a kid, my family and I were away somewhere, and I happened upon Joe David Brown's Paper Moon – I think it was being sold for a dollar or something. The reason I can't remember where I bought it, though, is because all my memories of reading the book are of me being in a car, driving through a Depression-era landscape. Clearly, this never happened, but the story took such hold of me while I was reading it that it invaded my memories, totally blocking out everything else.

Paper Moon was originally titled Addie Pray, but after the movie came out they rereleased the novel under the new title, which I like better. Addie Pray is a good title insofar as it introduces you to the narrator and main character of the story, but it seems too absolute about the relationship of the characters, and seems less ephemeral. Paper Moon, on the other hand, introduces you to a more interesting story – one of big dreams that may or may not be attainable, an era of necessary imitation (the real thing just cost too much) and the idea of illusions, which are the foundation of every good scam.

And Paper Moon starts with Addie, who is just a little girl despite her assured voice, telling the story of how her mother was killed in a car accident with another man. It isn't really a sad story, though, at least not the way Addie tells it. Really, she's quite matter of fact about the whole thing. It's implied that her mother was a prostitute, and that Moses "Long Boy" Pray may be her father, since he was once a customer of her mother's. He denies this, but is still charged with driving her across Alabama to her aunt's house. Before setting out, Long Boy talks the brother of the man who was driving the car in which Addie's mom was killed (still following?) to give him $200 for Addie's care on the road. That is a lot of money, but Long Boy gets it because he is rather persuasive.

Addie, though, overhears the conversation and later demands the money. Well, Long Boy has spent most of it, so he promises to raise the money along the way to her aunt's. First stop, Bible scam. The novel is full of descriptions of Long Boy's scams, but this is really the first one Addie witnesses. This is his genius: He looks up women who have been recently widowed and goes to their homes, pretending to be a specialty Bible salesmen from whom their late husband has ordered a personalized Bible. Naturally, they're caught of guard and, in their grief, he is able to get quite a bit out of them for the Bible. Addie gets in on the scam by pretending to be his daughter and they become quite a lucrative pair.

But, then they meet Miss Trixie Delight, a stripper who quickly winds Long Boy around her finger. Addie is furious when she finds out that, not only is Long Boy directing his attention at Miss Trixie instead of at her, but has also spent all their money on a new car to impress her with. Addie, who is beyond precocious, devises a scheme to get rid of Miss Trixie, thereby getting Long Boy all to herself again.

Honestly, this book is hilarious. I've heard of Addie being compared to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think her voice is much closer to Baby's in Lullabies for Little Criminals. Scout was a pretty good little girl, all things considered, and Addie is so mischievous and, in a strange way, totally suited to the small-scale crime that Long Boy has introduced her to that she kind of crackles with life on the page. Brown's dialogue is so good in this story because he lets Addie talk like a child, but in a way that shows she's a child who has spent most of her life with rather disreputable adults.

In a lot of ways, this is a strange sort of love story. Not, I should say, in a Lolita sort of way, but in a familial way. Addie loves Long Boy because she wants to believe he's her father, and because he's fun, and because he kind of encourages her to get into trouble. On the flip side, Long Boy loves Addie in a way because, despite his denials, he seems to want to be her father. I get the sense that he likes the weight of that responsibility – even if it's only so he can justify his scams to himself. He and Addie also make a great crime duo, which is just fun to read about.

Paper Moon is a story about life on the road, and the strangely symbiotic that can develop between people who come to rely on one another. Addie and Long Boy are each other's family, even if they can't prove there's a biological link, and in the late 1920s, when the Depression is beating people down, their relationship gives them a kind of buoyancy. 

Paper Moon 
by Joe David Brown
First published (as Addie Pray) in 1971 (cover image from Four Walls Eight Windows edition)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Governor General's Literary Awards Finalists

The GGs (as they're known) are the most comprehensive literary awards in Canada. The awards celebrate works in seven categories of both English and French literature, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, children's writing, children's illustration, and translation (both French to English and English to French). This year's list has 70 finalists, which is just too many to write here.

Here are some highlights:

English-language fiction
Sandra Birdsell for Waiting for Joe (Random House Canada)
Emma Donoghue for Room (HarperCollins)
Drew Hayden Taylor for Motorcycles and Sweetgrass (Alfred A. Knopf Canada)
Dianne Warren for Cool Water (Phyllis Bruce Books)
Kathleen Winter for Annabel (House of Anansi Press)
French-language fiction
Marie-Clair Blais for Mai au bal des prédateurs (Les Éditions du Boréal)
Martine Desjardins for Maleficium (Éditions Alto)
Agnès Gruda for Onze petites trahisons (Les Éditions du Boréal)
Dany Laferrière for L'énigme de retour (Les Éditions du Boréal)
Kim Thúy for Ru (Éditions Libre Expressions, Groupe Librex)
English-language poetry
Richard Green for Boxing the Compass (Signal Editions)
Michael Harris for Circus (Signal Editions)
Daryl Hine for &: A Serial Poem (Fitzhenry and Whiteside)
Sandy Pool for Exploding into Night (Guernica Editions)
Melanie Siebert for Deepwater Vee (McClelland & Stewart)
French-language poetry
Francis Catalano for qu'une lueur des lieux (L'Hexagone)
Marie-Josée Charest for Rien que la guerre, c'est tout (Les Herbes rouges)
Carole David for Manuel de poétique à l'intention des jeunes filles (Les Herbes rouges)
Danielle Fournier for effleurés de lumière (L'Hexagone)
Pierre Nepveu for Les verbes majeurs (Éditions de Noroît)
The winner in each category receives $25,000 and the publisher of each winning author also receives $3,000. On top of that, each non-winning finalist – all 56 of them – receive $1,000. That means that the GGs give out $448,000 in one swoop. That is huge, and it means that both writers and publishers have some major incentive to turn out consistently good work.

Congrats to all the finalists. The winners will be announced next month, so stay tuned.

(Image used the logo for the Canada Council for the Arts)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

And the Man Booker Prize goes to...

... Howard Jacobson for his novel The Finkler Question, making him the first author to win the prize with a comedic novel.

Of course, this means that Canadian Emma Donoghue's Room didn't win. But, congratulations to her, to Jacobson and to all the other shortlisted authors as well.

Although winning a literary award with as much international weight as this is good for any author's reputation and book sales, Jacobson will also take home the $50,000 purse that accompanies the notoriety. Not too shabby, really.

(Image shown the cover of The Finkler Question, published by Bloomsbury.)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Blue Castle

Growing up, I was kind of obsessed with Lucy Maude Montgomery. I loved the Anne of Green Gables series (which will no doubt pop up on here one of these Thursdays) and the Emily of New Moon books. Then, maybe ten years ago, I discovered that Montgomery had written a couple of more adult stories, one of which is the relatively scandalous The Blue Castle

Maybe it's the setting – in Ontario's Muskoka region rather than small-town Prince Edward Island – or maybe it's just that Montgomery was a little older, but although the writing style is similar to her earlier novels, The Blue Castle just takes everything one glorious step further. Where Anne Shirley was a little prissy, Valancy (just the name tells you Montgomery was letting her hair down a little) is wild, filled with inappropriate desires and, shockingly, not afraid to act on them. 

The set-up is this: Valancy is an old maid (she's 29) and lives with her mother. She is described as unattractive and a little sickly (her mother is always forcing Purple Pills down her throat, although there's no evidence they do any good), and more interested in her books about the wilderness than in finding a good man to settle down with. Valancy's strangeness is brought into sharper focus when she's compared to her good sister Olive, who is beautiful, submissive and engaged to be married to a very respectable fellow.

Then one day Valancy gets a letter from her doctor. She has a heart defect, it says, and she has one year to live, but could be killed at any time from a strong shock. For many people, this would sound like a death sentence; for Valancy, though, the letter is license to live. After she gets over the shock of it, she tells her family exactly what she thinks of them and then leaves home to care for Cissy Gay, an old school friend who is dying of consumption. Cissy had a child out of wedlock and is therefore considered a scandal by the town. Her situation is not helped by her father, known as Roaring Able because of his frequent drunken outbursts. They are the exact opposite of Valancy's family and she loves living with them.

While caring for Cissy, Valancy becomes acquainted with Barney Snaith, a friend of the family's who lives alone on an island in the bush. He's quite affable and Valancy is surprised to discover that she loves him – of course, she assumes she is too ugly to be loved by any man, so she keeps that to herself. But then Cissy dies and Valancy is forced to decide whether to continue living with Roaring Able (which would be totally inappropriate and scandalous) or to move back home (completely undesirable). Valancy, who has still told no one about her heart condition, decides to do neither. Instead, she tells Barney about her diagnosis and proposes marriage, based on her belief that she'll die in a year. He accepts and they head out to his island.

Valancy loves living in his little cabin. She plays housewife during the day and they take walks in the woods together and then she reads to him from the nature books she loved to read when she lived with her mother. She doesn't take Purple Pills and she feels perfectly healthy and happy. For his part, Barney seems like a lovely man and treats her very well; for Christmas he even surprises her with a gift of a pearl-bead necklace, which she is thrilled with.

Then, in the spring, they're taking a walk along the railway line when Valancy's shoe gets caught. There's a train coming and Barney has to cut the laces and pull her out of the shoe in order to save her. Crisis averted, except that with her heart problem, the shock should have killed her. They both realize what that means and Barney disappears into the woods (ostensibly to think) and Valancy heads back to the doctor, where she discovers that she received a letter meant for someone else. On her way back to Barney's she meets a gentleman on the road, one Dr. Redfern, maker of the horrid Purple Pills. She discovers that Barney is his son (and heir to the fortune) and had never touched his trust fund due to a falling out some years back. But, her necklace was in fact real pearls and had cost $15,000, which is how Dr. Redfern came to know the whereabouts of his son. It also turns out that Barney is the author of Valancy's favourite books.

She leaves, thinking he will think she was using him for his money; instead, he thinks she's gone because she can't stand to be associated with his family after all the lies he has told. But, because this is an L.M. Montgomery novel, you just know that it all works out in the end.

Besides having some of the more outrageous names of any Montgomery book, The Blue Castle also has some of the crazier drama. It isn't part of a series, so Montgomery had to put all her plot points into one novel, which makes it quite a fast-paced read and a rather rollicking story. Where some of her earlier stories get weighed down with morals and religious elements (not a criticism so much as an observation), this one eschews all of that. Or rather, Valancy does. Those societal norms and pressures are very much present, but by allowing Valancy to be free of them, Montgomery frees herself of them as well. In some ways, I wonder if Anne Shirley was a foil for who Montgomery was, and Valancy represents what she wished she could be. That's pure speculation, but in a lot of ways, they are two sides to the same daring and imaginative coin.

The Blue Castle
by Lucy Maude Montgomery
First published in 1926 (cover image from Seal Books edition)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Giller Shortlist 2010

In the interest of tantalizing book lovers across the country, the Scotiabank Giller Prize is edging ever closer to announcing this year's winner. The longlist was announced two weeks ago and the shortlist was announced today:
The Matter with Morris by David Bergen (Phyllis Bruce Books/Harper Collins)
Light Lifting by Alexander McLeod (Biblioasis)
This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky (Thomas Allen Publishers)
The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press)
Annabel by Kathleen Winter (House of Anansi Press)
Both short story collections are still in the running, as is the much talked about Annabel. In a month, we find out who wins. In the meantime, someone needs to start a fall book awards pool.

Image used a compilation of the covers of nominated books.
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