Thursday, April 26, 2012

Instruction Manual for Swallowing

If you read this blog with any frequency, you will have noticed (I'm assuming) that I don't give books rankings. I don't rate books with stars or out of 5 or 10, or in any other way compare them on a fixed scale. Lots of blogs do this; Goodreads does this; I decided not to from the get-go. I was not good at marking on a bell curve when I marked assignments as a TA and I'm not good at it as a reader. How does Roald Dahl compare to Michael Ondaatje? Does a 2/5 ranking mean a book isn't worth reading? How much better is a book that rated a 3/5? Ultimately, my fear is that I would compare a book to the ones I had recently read to try and find a numerical value for it, and if I were coming of a string of truly excellent reads (as I am now), it just wouldn't be fair; likewise, sometimes I pick up a book at exactly the right moment and it suits my mood perfectly, whereas reading the same book at the wrong time would leave me feeling very differently. Suffice to say, I'm glad I don't rank books because I would have a tough time deciding what to do with Adam Marek's short story collection Instruction Manual for Swallowing.

This introduction probably makes it sound like I didn't like this book, but if you've read my About page, then you would know I don't bother writing about books I don't like. (Is that disingenuous? I don't think so.) Anyway, Marek's collection of stories is weird. I tend to like weird, as I've said before, and indeed, I liked many of the stories in Instruction Manual for Swallowing. Take, for example, the first piece in the book, called "The Forty-Litre Monkey." It is a bizarre little story about a man who goes into a pet shop looking to buy a pet for his girlfriend. Her pets have both recently died: the cat tried to eat the lizard and then choked on it, so they effectively killed each other. Weird and darkly hilarious (my mum used to say we couldn't have birds/fish/rabbits, etc. because it wouldn't be fair to the cats, now I know why). In the pet shop, the man is enticed by the owner's description of the animals not my weight, but by volume, and when the owner invites the man to come and see his "forty-litre monkey" (no, that is not a euphemism), he takes him up on it. What follows is a look into the (fictional, I hope) world of competitive monkey rearing. The story is weird and dark and takes you somewhere unexpected: it sets you up for a lot, is what I'm saying.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Seen Reading

I do most of my reading on my commute, which is long enough that I can generally read a book a week without breaking a sweat. To get to work (and then get home again) I take a streetcar, a subway, and a bus – the holy trinity of Toronto transportation. It can be tempting, sometimes, to complain about how long it takes, or how many transfers I have to make, or how I pretty much never get a seat, but really, it's an hour and half of designated reading time, and how can I complain about that? Sometimes people approach me to ask about what I'm reading – how I like a certain book, whether I would recommend it, how I found it, etc. – and I often glance up from the page to scope out what else is being read in the vicinity. Clearly, I am not the only one who does this, although, unlike Julie Wilson in her new book Seen Reading, I've never kept good enough notes to construct lives for my fellow transit readers.

Seen Reading is a book of microfiction – think one-page short stories – that is entirely inspired by the readers Wilson encounters on her own Toronto commute. She takes notes of the reader's gender and appearance, what book they're reading, and what page they're on, and then uses these details to build a small story, sometimes with a clear connection to something about their appearance and book choice, sometimes not. As a premise, it's gold, but in lesser hands this slim collection of stories would fall flat, or become repetitive. It's a definite testament to Wilson's imagination and the constraints of a one-page story that make Seen Reading an engrossing little collection.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Alone in the Classroom

I recently realized that, although I've read a lot of books, I rarely get the chance to read multiple books by the same author. It's kind of weird, actually, because I distinctly remember choosing books specifically because of their author when I was a kid: Janet Lunn, L.M. Montgomery, Jean Little – all authors whose catalogue I plowed through with delight. I'm not sure when that stopped. I might be just that I'm reading more contemporary authors now, so there's less of a back-catalogue to devour, or, perhaps, that I find myself increasingly drawn to first novels. Whatever the case, when I was reading Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay I was struck by the fact that it's the third book of hers I've read, and that it's felt like a while since that was the case, and that being familiar with an author changes the way you read his or her work.

The last Hay novel I read was her Giller-winning Late Nights on Air (the first was A Student of Weather), which also gave me the opportunity to interview her for the Journal (the Queen's student newspaper, which I was very involved with as an undergrad). Hay has a lovely voice – simultaneously soft and strong – a fact I would never have remembered except that when I began reading Alone in the Classroom it took up residence in my head. It wasn't quite as if Hay was reading the novel to me (I didn't talk to her long enough for that to happen), but every once in a while, a bit of description would so remind me of Late Nights on Air, or the way she talked about writing, that there it was. Anyway, none of that really says anything about the novel, I suppose, but perhaps it's part of why I responded so well to it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


It's Easter this weekend, and even though ours isn't a family prone to big family get-togethers (we're too spread out), it is nonetheless a holiday steeped in family memories of egg hunts time together, so perhaps that's why I've been feeling the family nostalgia lately. When we were kids, for example, my parents, and my dad in particular, used to tell us stories about when they were little kids. Even now when we get together with our extended family from one side or the other, the evening or weekend or whatever inevitably (and wonderfully) becomes all about retelling the same big stories and, if we're lucky, a new one will slide in amongst all the familiar ones. A lot of these stories are ones I know so well that I'm sure I'll tell them to my kids, albeit in a heightened, more exaggerated form, because that's what tends to happen when family stories get passed down. In Touch, Alexi Zentner's debut novel, he ups the ante of the family story in dark and thrilling way to tell a story that is both familiar and completely his own.

Touch is set in the backwoods of B.C., in the (I assume) fictional gold rush/mill town of Sawgamet. The story is told by Stephen Boucher, now in his mid- to late-40s, who grew up in Sawgamet, left for Seminary school at 16, and has now returned to replace his step-father as the Anglican minister and to bury his mother, who is on the verge of death. It's winter in Sawgamet, but not the kind of cruel, punishing winter he remembers. Things have gotten better in Sawgamet, in part thanks to the demand for lumber instigated by the Second World War, which is raging in the far-away background of this novel (Sephen served as a chaplin during the First World War, but that details doesn't figure much into the novel). Stephen has returned home, and as his mother lays dying and he and his wife and their three daughters begin to settle into the rectory, he is understandably drawn to memories of his childhood and the family stories he heard growing up.

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