Monthly Archives: January 2011

Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher’s memoir is based on her live stage show, and it’s not hard to tell. Her often funny tale of growing up in Hollywood and become a pop icon at nineteen has the rhythm of a stand-up routine, and it probably works better on stage than on page. That’s not to say it absolutely doesn’t work as a book, just that you can easily imagine it as a live performance and the main effect you’ll probably be left with is wishing you could have seen Fisher’s schtick live.

Carrie Fisher really has had an amazing and troubling life, and the material is certainly here for a thoughtful, reflective memoir, but this isn’t it. Pretty much everything is played for laughs, and the development is very non-linear, hopping from punchline to punchline. Still, it’s entertaining in a fluffy way (though sometimes it feels wrong to laugh at such tragic material, and this is one way in which I think being in Fisher’s actual presence, seeing her perform this live, would work better). You’ll read this quickly, so whether you like it or not, at least you won’t feel too much time has been wasted on it. If you want to get some real insight into the troubled and troubling celebrity lifestyle from someone who’s lived it, though, you might want to wait for a different book.

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The Lake Shore Limited, by Sue Miller

Sue Miller is simply one of the most deft and skillful novelists writing today, and any discussion of great fiction that leaves hers out is lacking something, if you ask me.  The Lake Shore Limited, her latest, delivers everything readers have come to expect from Miller.

Of course, if you read mainly for plot, you’re probably not a Sue Miller fan. It’s fair to say that very little happens, in terms of big plot action, over the course of The Lake Shore Limited.  Even though there’s a story about the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the core of this novel, that action is far in the past, and during the period of time covered by the novel, not much occurs.  A playwright attends the first performance of her new play, as do several other people.  The lead actor gives an excellent performance. Several people meet over dinner and drinks, and have conversations.  Three couples have sex (only one coupling is described in any kind of graphic detail). People remember a lot of past events in lengthy, detailed flashbacks.

All that sounds like the antithesis of good novel writing, but it’s not. It’s just that you should be aware of what kind of novel you’re picking up — literary, thoughtful, reflective, heavy on character development.  Miller’s four main characters — the playwright, her dead lover’s sister, the sister’s friend who’s attracted to the playwright, and the lead actor in the play — are each given two chapters to develop their backstory and their present situation.  Each of these chapters is filled with subtle touches that develop character; everything is shown, not told, leaving readers to do a lot of the work and draw their own conclusions. Sue Miller is definitely a thinking reader’s novelist, and reading her work in comparison to some of the crudely obvious characterization I’ve seen in other novels recently is a breath of fresh air. Don’t read her for fast-paced action, but do read her for deftly drawn characters in whose lives you can become completely absorbed.

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Second Wind, by Cami Ostman

There was a scathing review in the New York Times recently of four memoirs (this wasn’t one of them) which attacked the current massive popularity of memoirs, basically saying: most memoirs don’t need to be written and certainly don’t deserve to be published. Most of your lives are not that interesting. I’m still mulling over the ideas raised in that controversial review, because while I love memoirs, I do agree it’s far too easy these days to claim you’ve had an interesting life, or to deliberately do something to make your life seem interesting, and then get a memoir published.

I think the determining factor in whether a memoir is worth reading is not how “valuable” the person’s life is as material, but how well they tell the story. A great writer can make a mundane life sound interesting. Cami Ostman isn’t a great writer, but she tells her story well, and I enjoyed reading it.  Her story is not “memoir-worthy” by the standards of that particular reviewer: recovering from divorce and leaving her fundamentalist church, Ostman finds new purpose in her life  by taking up marathon running. The “gimmick” that sells the book and gives it its necessary hook is that she decides to set a personal goal of running marathons on all seven continents.

Her quest to make all the continents gives the book a little bit of a narrative thread; the only real suspense is whether she’ll be able to pull off an Antarctic marathon, which is not all that easy (and thus is wisely left for the end of the book). There are a lot of details here that only marathon runners would care about, but if you like stories of personal growth, there’s also some good material here about the things Ostman learned on her journey. It’s by no means a life-changing or earth-shattering book, but I found it a quick and enjoyable read. It didn’t inspire me to take up running, not even the least tiniest little bit, but I liked vicariously running the marathon through Ostman’s experience. That’s as close as I’ll ever want to get to running 26 miles on any continent.

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The King’s Speech, by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi

Having watched the movie which is sure to take home most of this year’s Academy Awards — watched it twice, and loved it — I was glad to know there was an accompanying book. This isn’t the usual case of a book coming out first and then someone turning it into a move, though — the two are separate, though parallel and related.  An informative interview with the film’s scriptwriter tells a little bit about how it all happened, and explains some of the differences between the two.

The King’s Speech, the book, is co-written by Mark Logue, grandson of the movie’s hero Lionel Logue, speech therapist to King George VI.  The connection to Mark Logue and access to his grandfather’s private papers occurred only after the movie project was well underway. It’s obvious in reading the book that the conflict and antagonism between the two main characters was “punched up” a bit to create more big-screen drama (as is so often the case) — and it’s clear, in reading the interview with screenwriter David Seidler linked above, that in writing the scenes of the King’s speech therapy sessions with Logue, Seidler was drawing as much on his own experience as a stutterer, as on anything actually known about the relationship between Lionel Logue and George VI.  In fact, when Logue’s papers were made available to the filmmakers, Seidler’s main reaction seems to have been relief that he hadn’t gotten anything too horribly wrong.

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The Night Shift, by Brian Goldman

The Night Shift is an interesting and informative book by Goldman, an ER doctor and CBC radio host.  It takes the reader through a single night in a city emergency room, punctuated with Goldman’s remeniscences of other ER patients he’s seen over the years and reflections on the state of  our health care system, some of the pressures on health care professionals, and general thoughts about medicine and health.  There are plenty of personal reflections here and it’s an intriguing glimpse into a world most of us only get to see from the patients’ point of view.

There’s nothing particularly shocking or earth-shattering here, and Goldman’s effort to organize his chapters both chronolocially and thematically can be a little strained at times, but if you’re interested in medicine and the life of a doctor, it’s well worth reading. I read this quickly and enjoyed it a lot.

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Emperor and Conqueror (Time’s Tapestry 1 & 2), by Stephen Baxter

I picked up these two books some time ago when I was working on a draft of my novel Lindisfarne , because someone told me there were scenes in the second book, Conqueror, set in the monastery on Lindisfarne in about the time period I was interested in. I figured I’d better read the first of this four-book series before starting the second, just to get a sense of context, and then decide whether I liked it enough to read the rest of the series.

With many other books on my to-read list, it took until this New Year before I finally picked up Emperor and started reading it. I wasn’t familiar with Baxter before, but apparently he’s quite well-known as a science fiction writer. Here he’s trying something different. The series is sometimes billed as “alternate history,” but in the first two books at least, it’s pretty much straight historical fiction. The only speculative element is more fantasy than sci-fi — events in Britain, beginning at the time of the Roman conquest, are being subtly influenced by a series of mysterious prophecies that may have been sent back through time.

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Winners!

My year-end Top Ten book contest is over, and it’s time to announce my actual Top Ten list AND the lucky winners!

My ten favourite books of 2010 were:

10. Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles

9. The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

8. The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

7. Waiting for Birdy by Catherine Newman

6. Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson

5. Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

4. Come Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

3. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

2. Room by Emma Donoghue

1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Thanks to everyone who played! The winners were, as promised, the first five people to send correct answers:

Stephanie, who wins a copy of Waiting for Birdy,
Dara, who gets a copy of Room,
Tina, who also wants Room,
Cathy, who told me to surprise her, so she gets a copy of Come, Thou Tortoise,
Jacqueline H, who will be receiving a copy of Waiting for Birdy.

Thanks for playing — I’m launched into another year of reading adventures, so keep checking here for my reviews!

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