Thursday, June 28, 2012


It's strange how, sometimes, a book you really want to talk about leaves you without the words to do so. Certainly there are books that leave you so shellshocked that the very idea of starting a new one seems crass and somehow inappropriate. It's too soon, you think. At the opposite end are those books most often referred to as "beach reads," which hold you in their thrall until the last page, at which point you toss them aside and pick up another, typically only remembering their finer plot points when walking home by yourself late at night (assuming, of course, that your beach reads are terrifying, which mine almost always seem to be). There are, I'm sure, lots of kinds of books in between these two extremes, but the two I most often seem to encounter are books I can't stop talking about, and books I want very much to talk about but can't manage to do in a sensible way. Even that sentence borders on what I'm talking about. It's as if you want your words to be so precise, to do the book justice, but in the face of this author you feel yourself unworthy. Bare with me, because this is how I feel in the face of Lisa Moore, and most recently about her short story collection Open.

Open is so hard for me to talk about, I think, because Moore's style is so distinct, and her characters so full, that it's very hard to step away and shake your head clear in order to engage in any kind of critical thinking. The layered descriptions, the scraps of memories, the various characters, all continue to play through your imagination long after you've finished reading. This is something I love about Moore's writing, but also something that frustrates me. The through-line that binds the stories in Open together is relationships. In each story, a relationship – and often more than one, with friendships balanced against marriages – is in flux; in all the stories, characters' memories are overlaid with their present circumstances, which creates a swirl of images that can at times be disorienting for both the character and the reader. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Above All Things

As the world gets smaller, it seems that of all things, Everest is what gets closer. I know a disproportionate number of people who have been to the Everest base camp. When I was in Nepal volunteering a few years ago, a helicopter ride around Everest was a fairly common tourist activity, if an expensive one (I did not to it). Beyond base camp, though, it seems to be more a matter of money than one of skill to actually climb the mountain. Since the last Everest tragedy, numerous reports have come out from experienced climbers who have watched as first-timers have used oxygen the entire way up, or are learning to belay (a fairly basic technique) on the upper slopes. The reality of Everest today loomed large for me while I read Tanis Rideout's debut novel Above All Things, in part because her ability to carve out the historical grandeur of Everest is all the more impressive for its modern ubiquity.

Above All Things is the story of George Mallory's third and final Everest attempt in 1924, and Rideout divides the narrative between the mountain, moving between George's perspective and that of young climber Sandy Irvine, and England, where George's wife Ruth waits for news. The division is beautifully done, and allows Rideout to maintain the tension and suspense of the climb while providing different insights in what was at stake as well as rounder perspective on George Mallory himself. That being said, Ruth's presence in the novel is not simply to serve as a vessel for facts about her husband: she is as deep and broad a character as he is. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

All Wound Up

I was never a Seinfeld superfan, but it is pretty much impossible to avoid the show, so I've probably seen close to two-thirds of the episodes. There are lots of funny moments and quotable lines, but one of my favourites is George Costanza's fear about his worlds colliding. This is usually only a concern if you're a different version of yourself at work than you are at home (or whatever), and to be honest, I embrace it when my worlds collide, because it's too much work to keep things separate. In this case, I suppose it's my blog worlds that are colliding. In addition to Books Under Skin, which I've been maintaining for nearly three years, I also have a more traditional life-y blog (mostly about knitting, but also cooking, travel, etc.). I have no plans to merge these blogs (or start reviewing pattern books), but a book did recently cross my desk that fit both blogs too well to pass up. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's All Wound Up is a collection of memoir-style short stories, wonderfully written and thoughtfully organized, and largely about knitting.

It's a bit niche, I'll admit, but All Wound Up is hilarious, and since much of the stories Pearl-McPhee tells involve her adventures parenting three teenage daughters (something my parents would relate well to, I suspect), you absolutely do not have to be a knitter to enjoy her work. I often read books about cultures, places, time-periods, and professions I have no experience with, and I enjoy them very much. Those books are a way for me to engage with something I would otherwise be cut off from; certainly, when I read a book set in a town or city I know well, I feel a different connection to it than I would if it were set somewhere I've never been, but in both cases, if the writing is good and the story is compelling, that added knowledge is just a bonus, not a necessity. So it is with All Wound Up, which made me laugh a lot – sometimes with the half-guilty laugh that comes when you recognize yourself in a situation, but more often because Pearl-McPhee can somehow make everything seem fresh and funny, and do so without being in the least bit mean-spirited.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Complicated Kindness

Generally speaking, when I start reading a book, I keep going until I finish it. Lately, I've had the excellent luck to pick up one good book after another, but it doesn't always go like that. Like most avid readers, the sheer number of books I read means every once in a while I'm going to get a dud. For some reason, I don't like with the characters, I don't care about the plot, or whatever. It happens to everyone. For a lot of people I know, if they aren't hooked by a certain point, they stop reading; there are too many good books out there, they reason, to keep going with one that isn't keeping them up at night. Fair enough. I, though, usually stick it out. I have faith that something is going to happen (someone saw something in the book to make it worth publishing), so I plow on, and sometimes I'm rewarded and sometimes I'm disappointed, but very rarely are unfinished books left in my wake. Somehow, though, a really good one was. For the life of my, I cannot remember why I left Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness after only a dozen pages – I was probably distracted by something else – but I am so glad I picked it back up, because my goodness what a wrenching, funny, hoot of a book it is.

A Complicated Kindness is the story of Nomi Nickel, a teenage Mennonite living in East Village Manitoba in the late-'70s/early-'80s, I would guess. Half of Nomi's family – the better looking half, according to her – are gone, which leaves just her and her dad, Ray. Her mother, Trudie, has been gone for a while, and her older sister Tash left before that. Their whereabouts is a mystery, which leaves all possibilities open to Nomi's imagination. Ray is quiet, religious, and affectionate in a buttoned-up sort of way. He writes Nomi notes suggesting she go to school that day, he appreciates her system of cooking dinner based on an alphabet system (m-day might mean macaroni, or meat, or mushrooms, or whatever). Nomi runs wild.

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