Monthly Archives: November 2007

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

Both this book and the last one (Nervous System) were books that other people loaned me, saying “I think you might like this.”  It’s always interesting to see what other people think you might like.  Kind of a glimpse into how they perceive your interests. This one was loaned me by my boss, and it’s a memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional family.  Since our workplace is basically “Dysfunctions R Us,” I guess Tim was safe in assuming I’d enjoy this sort of book.

Memoirs about dysfunctional childhoods are practically a sub-genre these days, and I’ve read quite a few of them — from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes to Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors.  Jeannette Walls’ story of a nomadic childhood being dragged around the US by her brilliant but alcoholic father and her free-spirited artist mother, living in artistic and intellectual freedom but grinding, gut-wrenching poverty, is one of the most enjoyable examples of the genre. There is a bit of that, “Oh my goodness, how much worse could their lives get?” kind of fascinated horror here for the reader, but there’s also some real insight, and warmth, and tenderness.  One gets the impression that Jeannette Walls knows perfectly well that her parents did a terrible job of being parents and that she and her siblings did well to get out of their childhood alive — but there’s also a strong sense of love and respect.  She honours her father and mother for what they did well, even if it wasn’t much.  As for what they did wrong — well, that’s the stuff great memoirs are made of.  I really found this book fascinating and kept turning the pages quickly.  The ending is bittersweet but affirming, just like it should be.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

Nervous System, by Jan Lars Jensen

When Canadian writer Jan Lars Jensen had his first novel accepted by a publisher, things seemed to be going well.  But Jensen’s life quickly started to unravel.  He had had no previous diagnosis of mental illness (though there was a history of mental illness in his family, but then, whose family doesn’t have some history of mental illness?), but as he awaited the publication of his book he began to experience severe anxiety and delusional thoughts.  He came to believe that the repercussions of publishing his novel (Shiva 3000, a futuristic sci-fi novel based on the gods of Hindu mythology, which apparently had some potential to be read as offensive by some Hindus) would lead to the collapse of his own life and eventually to world war.

All authors are nervous when a book is going to be released, but this was obviously out of control.

After a suicide attempt, Jensen ended up in psych ward.  Nervous System is the story of his bout with mental illness and subsequent recovery.   Jensen does a great job of giving us the inside view of mental illness — the delusional thoughts that guided his actions during his breakdown.  He does a great job of taking us inside the mentally ill mind and demonstrating how the most outrageous acts seem completely explicable in that state of mind.  The recovery part is surprisingly low-key — it’s not a stirring “overcoming adversity” theme at all.  It’s more like, “Eventually, I got over that.”

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Filed under Canadian author, Nonfiction -- memoir

Passion, by Jude Morgan

Unlike the last book I reviewed, Conceit, to which I brought a lot of preconceived notions, Passion took me by surprise. In many ways.

It has some similarities to Conceit, and indeed to my own novel The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson, in that it’s about a women who are known to history mainly because of their association with famous writers. Passion explores the lives of the women who loved the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley and Keats. Three of the women — Byron’s psycho-chick obsessed lover Caroline Lamb, Byron’s sister-lover Augusta Leigh, and Keats’s fiancee Fanny Brawne — are shadowy figures in literary history apart from their connection with the men in their lives. The fourth, Shelley’s wife Mary, is of course a literary figure in her own right, the creator of Frankenstein and the daughter of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. All four become central figures in their own stories here as Passion takes turns viewing the short and intense lives of these three poets through the eyes of the women who loved them.

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Conceit, by Mary Novik

I heard about this book, through the publishing grapevine, long before it was ever released, and made a mental note at the time that I would want to read it.  My anticipation was based on knowing that the novel dealt with the life of one of my favourite writers, seventeenth-century love poet and priest John Donne, and his romance with his wife Ann.  When the book finally came out and was long-listed for the Giller prize, I was confident enough to do something I rarely do — throw down the money to buy a hardcover copy before even reading it.

I’m not going to say I regret the decision, because Conceit is a beautifully written and intriguing book, but I will admit it was not as engrossing as I’d hoped.  Primarily, it’s the story of Donne’s daughter Pegge and her lifelong obsession with her father’s memory.  Pegge seeks to uncover the truth of the passionate love between John and Ann Donne — a story Donne tried to downplay by rewriting his own history after he became a clergyman.  He attempted to suppress the passionate and erotic love poetry which had made him famous in his earlier life; Pegge believes that in doing this he also silences her dead mother and denies the reality of the love they once shared.

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The Lollipop Shoes, by Joanne Harris

I’ve enjoyed many of Joanne Harris’s previous novels, the best-known of which is probably Chocolat.  My personal favourite is Gentlemen and Players, which I read earlier this summer and found absolutely engrossing, and quite a departure from her earlier work.

The Lollipop Shoes is like Chocolat meets Gentlemen and Players.  The main character of Chocolate, Vianne Rocher (now travelling under the name Yanne Charbonneau) takes the lead again in this novel.  Four years have passed since the events of Chocolat, but the conflict at the centre of Vianne’s life is still there: can she continue working magic as a witch in a society (a very narrow version of French Catholicism whose main creed seems to be sucking all the fun out of everything, and I’ve mentioned in other reviews how tired I get of Harris caricaturing all Christianity under this one cloak, but anyway) that considers her magic evil?

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Lisey’s Story, by Stephen King

I’ll admit it: I’ve never read a Stephen King novel before this. For many years I just knew that Stephen King was an immensely popular writer of horror novels, which pretty much guaranteed I would never in a million years ever pick up one of his books, since I find real life quite scary enough without adding horror fiction into the mix.

Then I read King’s On Writing and realized that I liked how he wrote about writing, and about himself and his own life. His voice was engaging and often wise. I began to think, “It’s too bad he writes in a genre I can’t stand, because I’d kind of like to read one of his books.”

I mentioned something about Stephen King in a piece I wrote on my old website and described him as a good but not great writer, after which I was tickled to get a shocked email from the immensely talented Joshilyn Jackson assuring me that King was undoubtedly a great writer. Then this summer one of my good friends recommended Lisey’s Story as a King novel she had loved which, she assured me, was not too horror-y at all.

I read it. Everyone’s right. Stephen King really is — well, I’m not sure how one qualifies as a great writer, but he’s a very, very good one.

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All Gone Widdun, by Annamarie Beckel

Maybe it’s because I read Cloud of Bone so recently, but I found myself in the mood to read something else about the Beothuk, and I picked up this novel from a few years back which I’d somehow missed reading when it first came out.

All Gone Widdun is another telling of the story of Shawnawdithit, last of the Beothuk. The focus here is on the last couple of years of Shawnawdithit’s life, the time she spent with William Epps Cormack. Cormack dedicated himself to a belated effort to save the Beothuk from extinction, but by the time he mounted an expedition to go look for them, no Beothuk were to be found in the Newfoundland interior. He then turned his attention to bringing Shawnawdithit from the outport home where she was living in obscurity as a domestic servant, into St. John’s where her status as the last of her people could be properly appreciated — or exploited.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical, Newfoundland author