Thursday, July 28, 2011


I try really hard not to give up on a book once I've started it. Usually, that's not a problem because I'm a pretty quick reader and I'm pretty choosey about what I read. That said, every once in a while I start a book and think Oh shoot, this is not what I want to be reading. Generally, though, I slog through and either it gets better and I'm glad I did, or I never quite connect but I finish nonetheless. On the rare occasion, though, I realize that the discomfort is intentional, and even if I don't particularly enjoy the main character, I still become a little attached. That was the case with Rawi Hage's Cockroach.

Cockroach is set in Montreal in the winter and it follows the story of an unnamed narrator who is an immigrant from an unnamed country. We learn early on that he has recently been released from a psych ward, where he was placed after trying to hang himself in the park. As a condition of his release he has to see a therapist once a week, and it's through those brief meetings that we learn about his past. But the therapy sessions, which are usually brief, are hardly the most revealing sections of the book. Rather, because the entire novel is narrated from the perspective of the unnamed man, we spend the whole book in his head, rocked around by his sudden mood shifts and frequently unsure if what he's telling us is real.

The narrator lives in a filthy apartment crawling with roaches. Although he often attempts to kill them, he also sees himself as one of them – small, resilient, and able to get in anywhere. This last skill is one he puts to use as a thief. After he marks someone and follows them home, he waits until the right moment and goes in. He never seems to steal anything of value, though, mostly he breaks into homes and apartments so he can see what that person's life is like, take personal objects of little or no monetary value, and eat food from their fridge. He's careful not to leave a trace that he was there, though, because the narrator would rather sold onto that information until it can do maximum damage to the person's sense of security. As a reader, though, you can never be quite sure if the break-in has occurred at all until the confrontation because so much of what he describes sounds like fantasy, not least of which is his method of breaking in – he crawls in through the drain, he tells us, or under the door. He becomes a cockroach. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Man Booker Prize longlist

I'm a little behind, since this list was announced yesterday, but oh well. It will be a little while until this list is whittled down to the shortlist, so you still have time to pick favourites. The shortlist will be announced on Sept. 6. Each of the six shortlisted authors will receive £2,500 and the winner of an additional £50,000 will be announced on Oct. 18.

There are three Canadians on the longlist this year – Patrick deWitt, Esi Edugyan, and Alison Pick – so patriotically speaking, they're the ones to watch (the publishers listed here are for the UK, since that's where the award is based).

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape - Random House)
Sebastian Barry On Canaan's Side (Faber)
Carol Birch Jamrach's Menagerie (Canongate Books)
Patrick deWitt The Sisters Brothers (Granta)
Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues (Serpent's Tail - Profile)
Yvvette Edwards A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld)
Alan Hollinghurst The Stranger's Child (Picador - Pan Macmillan)
Stephen Kelman Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)
Patrick McGuinness The Last Hundred Days (Seren Books)
A.D. Miller Snowdrops (Atlantic)
Alison Pick Far to Go (Headline Review)
Jane Rogers The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
D.J. Taylor Derby Day (Chatto & Windus - Random House)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Peter Behrens explores his family's past in The O'Briens

I spent a lot of time thinking about The O'Briens by Peter Behrens over the couple of weeks. Not only did I write about The O'Briens, but his blog tour made a stop here, and then I interviewed him for a profile over at the National Post (it was in Saturday's paper). Luckily for me, he has a lot of very interesting things to say. Here's a teaser of my Post piece:
Fifteen years ago, when Peter Behrens first sat down to write about his family, he got partway into the story before realizing he needed to go further back in time. Before he could tackle these characters, he felt he had to tell the story of their ancestors. It was a good move: The detour resulted in his 2006 novel The Law of Dreams, which went on to win the Governor General’s Literary Award. But Behrens never really stopped working on his original ambition, and, after more than a decade of work, The O’Briens was published earlier this month.

This sprawling story follows the titular family for 70 years, but although the title makes it sound like a family saga, the novel is really all about the life of Behrens’ grandfather, Joe O’Brien, who died when Behrens was 17.

“I suddenly needed to find out everything I could about my grandfather,” says Behrens, whose granddaddy’s varied industrial career was well-documented. “He left a fairly wide paper trail, so I could find out certain facts about him and his business career … I’m not all that interested in genealogy or even family history as such, but I needed to know all that stuff, and it became clear to me that I was going to write it in a novel.”
Read more at The Afterword.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Holding Still For As Long As Possible

Sometimes I choose a novel specifically because it's set somewhere I'm unfamiliar with, or somewhere I only know a little. That kind of escape allows me to focus on the story, rather than every little detail of place, and I think that's probably why we see so many vague or generic towns and cities in literature; it isn't that the author is being lazy, it's just that they'd rather you not fixate on those details. Reading a novel that takes place somewhere I know well, on the other hand, is a very different experience. It can be kind of exhilarating to read about characters who live and work in a neighbourhood you know well, especially when they're about your age. Also, specificity of place can lead to specificity of story, which is to say, while the author may be making general observations about a generation or a demographic, by being specific about where things are happening the story is less likely to universalize. In Holding Still For As Long As Possible, Zoe Whittall manages that balance beautifully.

The novel is set in Toronto, mostly in the Trinity Bellwoods and Parkdale neighbourhoods. If you aren't familiar with these areas, that's fine, as much as I talk about setting, what's important is that this is somewhere that exists. The streets that Whittall refers to are real, as are many of the bars, restaurants, and hospitals, which roots the story much more firmly, making it seem almost possible to run into the characters. The story alternates between three perspectives, and the first-person voices are so distinct I can't imagine the kind of work Whittall needed to do to move between them. Josh is a transsexual paramedic (he transitioned years ago), his girlfriend Amy works in the film industry, and Billy (short for Hillary) is a former teen idol kind of star who know suffers from acute anxiety. The descriptions seem almost self-consciously interesting when they're written out like that, and in some ways that's the point. Each section is told entirely from inside one character's head, so it's like we're getting to know them at the same time as they're getting to know each themselves and each other.

In a lot of ways, this novel is about turning points. All the characters are 25 and have been in long-term relationships since they were teenagers. At the beginning of the novel, Billy and her longtime girlfriend break up, which is why she moves in with Josh and Amy's friend Roxy, which is how she meets Josh. Josh and Amy have been together since they were 18 or so, and they live together, but things are not what they used to be. In a weird way, Holding Still For As Long As Possible is like a coming-of-age novel for an older generation. Very few writers talk about your 20s as anything but a time to be young and party, and while there's youth and partying in the novel, the underlying theme is that life in your 20s is kind of hard. But, Whittall doesn't generalize, and although things are tough for each character, even those going through the same things (break-ups, job insecurities, etc.) don't experience them or deal with them the same way.

The story is framed by details related to Josh's job. Each section starts off with a paramedic call (not one that Josh is working, but it's a great little device to casually introduce us to his coworkers) and Josh's job is definitely the most fully described. Of the three, Josh is probably the main character, and we learn a lot about his backstory. He talks about his family a bit, and although he also discusses being trans, it's never in a way that's separate from himself. For example, in his childhood memories of playing with his sister, he is a little girl, and he talks about his former long hair. There's no pop-out 'how to build a penis' section or anything, and you never once question Josh as a man, and neither do his coworkers. As Josh and Amy's relationship falls apart, he becomes closer to Billy and they end up dating.

It's hard to pinpoint what this novel is specifically about because Whittall does such a good job at making it about everything. It's about what it's like when relationships end, but also the excitement and anxiety about new relationships. It's about how sexual preference and gender identity aren't rigid, and sometimes labels (like lesbian) can be restrictive and sometimes meaningless (Billy dated Maria for almost a decade, then she dated Josh – there is not need to over-analyze these decisions). And it's also about being in your mid-20s in a post-9/11 and Hurricane Katrina world (the novel is set in 2005) and how those events have shaped a generation of adults.

Holding Still For As Long As Possible is a pretty quick read, not because it's short or insubstantial, but because it's so absorbing you can't put it down. There's a sense, reading this book, that you hold real lives in your hands; each character feels so complete and true that you can't help but care about them, and feel a little bereft once you finish. It's a beautifully written portrait of the life of these characters is like, and although it's fiction, it's a perfect example of how reading something real and vivid can be just as fulfilling and engrossing as something escapist.

Holding Still For As Long As Possible
by Zoe Whittall
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Writer Charlaine Harris is a Trubie too

I had a front-page feature in the National Post's Arts & Life section today all about Charlaine Harris, author of the books that inspired HBO's True Blood. I interviewed her on Monday and although the interview felt a little choppy, the story has been getting rave reviews amongst Trubie-set. If you run out now you might still be able to grab a copy of today's paper, otherwise the story is up on The Afterword. Here's how it starts:
You need look no further than the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings franchises to see how riled up fans can get when novel adaptations aren’t done just so. Those are movies, though, so maybe things are a little different in the TV world — at least, they are for Charlaine Harris. As the author behind the Dead Until Dark series that inspired HBO’s True Blood, Harris says she doesn’t mind one bit that the TV series and the books don’t quite match up — in fact, she prefers it that way.

“I think it gives you two entertainment experiences with the same characters, and there’s a lot to be said for that. I would be very bored if they copied the books exactly, and I’m never bored,” Harris says of the show, which she watches every week like any other devoted Trubie. “I love it. Love the show. I love the cast, I love the crew, I love Alan [Ball, series creator and producer]. We have a very cordial relationship, which is not the Hollywood norm, and I love doing appearances with them, it’s a lot of fun. And of course I’m constantly surprised by what he and his writers come up with.”
Read on...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Q&A: Peter Behrens

Peter Behrens' new novel – a follow-up to his Governor General Award-winning The Law of Dreams – came out this week and he's working the blog circuit. House of Anansi got in touch with me last month about participating; yesterday I reviewed his book, and today I have a Q&A I did with him via e-mail.

Peter Behrens

Q: Did you envision yourself returning to this family when you wrote The Law of Dreams?
A: I began this novel before Law of Dreams. While I was writing it I realized that the Famine was one of the key to understanding Joe's character. So I stopped, went back, researched, and wrote the famine novel. Then I could write The O’Briens.

Q: After your first novel did so well did you feel pressure when you sat down to write The O'Briens
A: No pressure. But setting out to write a novel is always a bit frightening. Intimidating. There are moments when it seems impossible that will ever be finished. That I will know enough to be able to write it and finish it. Each book is a separate thing, a separate experience. The stories in my 2 novels are linked – but the books are totally different animals. They breathe differently, smell different, speak in quite different voices.

Q: It's unusual to read a novel that sees a character do from his teens to his 70s, was it challenging to spend that much time with Joe?
A: No. He is closely based on my grandfather. I was curious, very curious about him. I wanted to try to understand him a little better. I should say, I don't believe it's possible to “know” in the sense of “understanding” other people thoroughly, completely. Even "understanding" ourselves is a mystery quite beyond our grasp. Yet “realist” novels often pretend that characters can be "explained" wholly. But ...we are all secret beings wrapped up inside ourselves. I can offer glimpses of Joe.
But I wanted to spend all this time in Joe's company. He is very interesting to me. He is an intelligent man, yet a mystery to himself, as well as to his wife and children. Introspection not his forte. Forward motion all the time. He knows/feels LOVE but in such a blunt instinctive way; he's almost like a patriarchal animal watching over his brood/children. His instinct is to protect them, protect them, protect them....from what? The world? Someone in the book says that being loved by Joe felt a lot like being hated.

Q: You write from several points of view in this novel, did you have a favourite (or a voice you connected with best)?
A: No, I feel very attached to them all. But I guess I had most fun with Frankie. She's sharp, questioning, subversive.

Q: It seems like the family is touched by every major event of the era, how much time did you spend researching this novel?
A: Not quite true, for example they had no experience direct or indirect with The Holocaust...but they were certainly touched and shaped by the wars of the century, by its economic booms and busts...I've always been deeply intrigued by history, have read history and thought about it all my life. I only undertstand the present by seeing historical dimension. I can’t begin to understand anything or anyone until I have some grip on their history. That's how it works for me. Other people don’t need the historical dimension in the same way. It's in my hardwiring though.
The story of the O'Briens is based on my family's story. I always knew it, it seemed powerful to me, a set of myths I had to reexamine and query and explore.

Q: This novel is ripe for summer reading – big books are great for vacations – what are you hoping to read this summer?
A: Well I'm on a book tour now and have a with me a big fat paperback edition of Hilary Mantel's novel, Wolf Hall. And I've just finished Hampton Sides' Hellhound on His Trail a nonfiction account of the summer of 1968, the assassination of ML King JR in Memphis, and the effort to find and capture his assassin.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The O'Briens

Peter Behrens' new novel – a follow-up to his Governor General Award-winning The Law of Dreams – came out this week and he's working the blog circuit. House of Anansi got in touch with me last month about participating, so I'm reviewing the book today, and tomorrow I'll post a Q&A I did with him. 

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a fan of layered perspectives in a novel. When it's done well, it's one of my favourite devices because it allows you so much insight into what's happening. Rather than having to infer what other characters feel and think you get the chance to understand their perspective, which generally enriches the story. Peter Behrens' The O'Briens is a novel about that titular family, starting when Joe O'Brien (our main man) was a teenager in the forest of the Ottawa Valley during the 1890s and leading us through his life until the 1960s. 

The novel starts out from Joe's perspective. His father died in the Boer War and it's just his mother, himself,  his brothers, Grattan and Tom, and their two sisters left in the wilderness. Then Joe's mother remarries a drunken fiddler, who beats her and molests the two sisters. Joe, only 16, has already started a relatively profitable lumber business when he decides to deal with his stepfather. Joe takes the man to the barn and beats him (with his brothers' help) to within an inch of his life. Shortly thereafter Joe's mother dies and he packs up his brothers and sisters and moves them out of the wilderness, which is the only thing they've ever known. Joe is driven. From the get-go he knows he wants success in business and to marry a woman who is better than he is, with whom he'll have children. After seeing his brothers and sisters safely entered into various religious schools – his sisters go on to be nuns and his brother Tom becomes a priest – Joe heads west to seek his fortune with a railway contract. 

In the following section, which is also quite long, we're introduced to Iseult – Joe's future wife. She grew up on the East Coast of the U.S., but after her father's suicide she and her mother moved to Pasadena. When Iseult is in her early 20s, her mother dies, so she decides to move to California and leaves for Venice. She has money from her inheritance and her plan is to buy a little house where she can be alone and feel the air and the sun and just breathe. Iseult has a kind of crippling asthma, so light and airy spaces are what she dreams of. In the first real estate office she enters, who should be behind the desk but Grattan, Joe's brother. Grattan sells Iseult a little cottage and through him she meets Joe who's in town for the winter because the railway is too frozen to continue working on. They have a very brief courtship and then they get married. 

The rest of the novel's sections are somewhat shorter than the first two, and they follow Joe and Iseult up into the Rockies where Joe is working on his railroad contract and where Iseult loses their first child. The marriage never really recovers from that, but they do eventually have three more children – Mike, Margo, and Frankie (short for Frances). Although Mike is born out west, by the time the girls have come along Iseult and Joe have moved east to Montreal, where Joe sets up a construction company and starts building houses and bridges and roads. The family seems to travel constantly, and very little of this half of the book is told from Joe's perspective; rather, Behrens focuses on Iseult and the kids, especially Mike, to tell us what Joe is like.

This is a family story, both about the family Joe built around him and his brothers and sisters, but it is not an entirely happy one. Joe's sisters die during the Spanish Influenza epidemic, Iseult takes the kids and leaves for a while, and Grattan is a pilot in WWI and comes home a completely different person, among other things. There are several different plots going in the second half of the novel (which happens when you have several narrators) and the sections start to feel a little choppy as they jump through years without really explaining what happened in between. Nonetheless, at this point I was pretty involved with the novel, so I forgave the missing pieces in favour of what was there, which is a lot. 

It's ambitious to take on this kind of multi-generational family saga, especially during an era when so many things of historic significance happened. The family touched by almost every major event of the early 20th century, which makes this novel a kind of alternative way to learn history, especially where war is concerned. Usually a big novel like The O'Briens would be released in the winter, but a thick and interesting book is perfect for taking on vacation, and although this isn't always a cheerful story, it won't entirely take the wind out of your sails either. It's a summer novel that asks you to think and engage, and in return gives you something to sink into.

The O'Briens
by Peter Behrens
First published 2011 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The girl who was left behind: Eva Gabrielsson on her life with Stieg Larsson

Eva Gabrielsson's book, "There Are Things I Want You To Know" About Stieg Larsson and Me is a kind of roving memoir about her life with the famous author (they were together for 32 years). When I met her the other week we talked about Stieg, their life, and the rumour of the fourth Millennium novel. The piece ran in the National Post on Thursday, but you can still catch it on The Afterword. Here's a start:
As Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy was becoming a worldwide bestseller, a different kind of story was taking shape in his family. Larsson’s sudden death in 2005 left Eva Gabrielsson, his life partner of 32 years, completely bereft. She went into shock, stopped eating, became depressed and then discovered there was worse still to come. Larsson and Gabrielsson lived together for 30 years, but because they never married or had children, by Swedish law, she was entitled to nothing. 
In her new book “There Are Things I Want You to Know” About Stieg Larsson and Me(the quotation comes from a letter Larsson wrote to her before going to Africa in his twenties), Gabrielsson offers a kind of memoir about her life with Stieg, the Millennium< trilogy, and the years of legal battles and disappointment that have continued. Gabrielsson says she never intended to write a book, but after compiling her hand-written diaries in an effort to make sense of what had happened to her, she realized someone had to stand up and talk about Larsson and where his work came from. 
“I’m very reluctant to be this public figure,” she says, sitting in a boardroom in the Toronto office of Random House Canada. “I just did it because there was somebody who had to talk aboutMillenniumand Stieg and I owed it to him, and I find it easy to because, as I say, I didn’t do the writing, but a lot of the content is mine and my ideas. So I know how to talk about this.”
Read the rest...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Various Positions

Every spring, Toronto hosts Doors Open, a weekend where a on of interesting buildings in the city open their doors to the public and offer tours or at least access of their facilities. This year, our first stop was the National Ballet School. It's a gorgeous building and the tour took us through a number of the studios while the guide talked about what the classes were like and how the school worked and where the students went on to after finishing. It was a fascinating look at a kind of elite and off-limits world, and Martha Schabas' debut novel Various Positions offers something very similar, only darker.

Various Positions is mostly set at the National Ballet School, but rather than sticking to the hallways and the large and bright studio spaces, Schabas takes you into the locker rooms and the residences as well as the studios, which somehow seem less airy than I remember them being. Georgia breaths ballet, and after  years of intense study and practice, she gets an audition to the school and then gets in. She's 14, and when she starts at the school she is going into Grade 9. Ballet is the primary activity, but she and the other girls (there are only two boys in the class and Georgia barely glances at them) have two hours of school a day. 

It is a rigourous program and Roderick, their teacher and one of the most senior instructors, is very hard on them. I don't mean that in the way Victorian novels describe teachers as hard on their students only to have them turn around and pass out ice cream on the last day of class. Roderick is a realist and has no problem telling a 14-year-old girl that her thighs are too big and therefore unattractive in a ballet context, or that she's too tall and if she doesn't start excelling she won't make it. He is blunt and straightforward and Georgia, who resembles the balletic ideal, thinks he's wonderful. Initially, she sees Roderick focusing his criticism on the girls who go out to the nearby Coffee Time to meet boys from the local high school, who Georgia calls the sex girls, and she decides his criticisms are based on his disdain for their sexuality. So Georgia decides to be sexless, to be more serious, to be perfect.

But then something changes and she decides that sex is in everything. Any time Roderick touches her to adjust her position, she reads into it, and the feelings she doesn't understand or like in her body become something she anticipates with a kind of longing. Georgia lives at home and her parents' marriage is a mess, so instead of turning to her mom or her step-sister Isabel for answers, she turns to Google. And instead of helping, it gives her school girl themed porn, and Georgia decides that is how she can get Roderick. Although Georgia does have friends, she remains mostly a solitary figure, and she lives a lot in her own head, mapping out scenarios and then becoming distraught when they don't work out.

Eventually she takes things into her own hands, actively pursing Roderick, and everything crashes down around her. As the reader, you can see this coming. At 14, Georgia is unable to comprehend the potential consequences of her actions, but the tension Schabas creates between the reader who can see and Georgia who cannot propels the novel forward. I could barely read some parts because I am a wimp and I could barely stand to know what Georgia was going to do, but the story was so compelling I couldn't put it down. 

Various Positions raises a lot of issues that are not normally talked about when it comes to young girls: questions of desire and bodies and responsibility. Placing these problems at the forefront of Georgia's story makes this book much darker than you might expect, for reasons that are not strictly ballet-related. Schabas has integrated a lot of contemporary feminist issues into the novel, which gives the story a relevance that separates it from many other stories about girls this age. Georgia is not blameless here, but neither is she entirely to blame, and Schabas works beautifully with that uncertain space. 

Various Positions
by Martha Schabas
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from Doubleday edition)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Martha Schabas' debut, Various Positions, sees ballet and sex as a case en pointe

I'll be writing about Various Positions on Thursday, but in the meantime, I wrote a profile of Martha Schabas for the National Post. It's in today's paper, or you can check it out on The Afterword. Here's a little bit to start you off:
When Martha Schabas was five years old, she took her first ballet class, kicking off a decade of intense training and dreams of becoming a ballerina. Then, at 15, she was kicked out of the National Ballet School’s summer program for having bad feet — her arch wasn’t pronounced and she had a low instep. “I just didn’t fit into the ideal,” she says. “That very precise balletic ideal.”

Although she quit ballet after that, Schabas has now returned to the National Ballet School in her debut novel, Various Positions. Despite its setting and the balletic ambitions of Georgia, the 14-year-old central character, Schabas didn’t set out to write a ballet novel. Initially Georgia was older, but as Schabas started to dig into the issues of feminism that interested her, she says the character just started getting younger.
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