Monthly Archives: May 2013

Maxine, by Claire Wilkshire

maxineLocal writer Claire Wilkshire’s debut novel follows its title character Maxine as she tries to carve out a new life for herself. Following the death of a close friend Maxine decides her life is going nowhere and it’s time to quit her job and write that novel she’s occasionally thought about writing. This was a hard set-up for me to accept because Maxine doesn’t seem to have made any effort at writing in the past – no short fiction, no freelancing, no mention of even a blog or a box of teenaged love poems hidden under her bed. It seems unlikely to me that someone with no background and experience as a writer would suddenly decide to drop everything and write a novel, but when I mentioned this quibble to other people, they said they know people who’ve done that in real life, so it may not be as far-fetched as it seems. It did, however, have the effect of making it hard for me to believe in and empathize with Maxine, and since most of the novel takes place in her head, this was a major roadblock to my enjoyment of the book.

Despite this, I was quickly drawn in to Maxine’s relationship with her neighbours’ nine-year-old son, Kyle, after she takes him sliding to help the neighbour out and Kyle wanders away. The absolute terror and panic of losing a child in a public place, layered with the fact that it’s not your child and you don’t feel competent around kids anyway, was completely real and believable to me. It probably helped, also, that Maxine loses Kyle in a place I’ve often taken my own kids sliding so I could picture the scene vividly — the sense of place was created far more effectively for me in this scene than it was at other points in the novel. Maxine’s unfolding relationship with Kyle and his parents is the core of the novel and was often both amusing and rewarding. I found the direction Maxine’s writing career took far less rewarding, particularly after a plot twist so unbelievable it left my head spinning. I realize it was meant to be played for humour but I think bringing the funny in a highly realistic novel like this is a fine line to walk — scenes have to be ridiculous enough to be funny yet realistic enough to keep the characters real and believable. That’s a difficult balance and I don’t think it was always successfully done here. But the core relationship between Maxine and Kyle, exploring how a child can help an adult see the world afresh, is well depicted. Again, I had quibbles at the end with what I thought was a difficult-to-believe resolution to the story, but I found the ride there often enjoyable.

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Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

lifeafterlifeThis was the most thoroughly satisfying book I read this month and one of the best I’ve read this year so far. It’s the only Kate Atkinson book that’s brought me anywhere close to the pleasure I found in the first novel I read by her, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I loved that book and if possible I loved this one even more.

When it comes to “high concept,” this concept is as high as it gets. On a winter night in 1910, Ursula is born, but dies at birth. The next chapter narrates the exact same birth story — but this time the doctor arrives in time to save the baby. Unfortunately, Ursula dies from a fall when she’s just five years old — and is born over again on the same winter’s night, this time to avoid the fall and face other perils. Over and over, Ursula dies and gets to re-live her life — the same life in the same place with the same family, living a little longer each time as she avoids the pitfalls that killed her earlier.

This is not to suggest that Ursula is completely aware of what’s happening to her: she’s not. She has only a vague sense of deja vu and, sometimes, a sense of foreboding that leads her to avoid certainly situations that killed her last time. An early example occurs when the family’s maid goes to London to celebrate the armistice at the end of WWI and brings back a case of the Spanish flu that sweeps through the family. Later versions of Ursula know only that it’s tremendously important to stop the maid from going to London, but not why. Eventually, after several tries, the danger is averted.

This might sound like it makes for a dull story — the same thing over and over — but I found it fascinating and thought Atkinson made Ursula, the other characters, and the world they lived in so vivid I didn’t mind visiting it multiple times. The sense of time and place was incredibly well-done. Ursula lives (eventually) through both world wars in England (except for that one version of her life where she goes to Germany on vacation during her student years, falls in love with a German boy, and lives out WW2 in Germany instead) and all the various pleasures and hardships of that period are brilliantly delineated, particularly the several different times Ursula either survives or doesn’t survive the bombing of her apartment building during the London Blitz.

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that a single event — maybe a decision, like going to Germany for the summer, or maybe a random event over which we have no control — can change the course of a life, and that idea was thoroughly explored in this book. I loved all the ways Ursula tried to change her fate (often without fully understanding why) and how sometimes those changes really mattered — like the time she shoved away the boy who tried to kiss her against her will, rather than letting him steal a kiss and later rape her, which led to a completely different kind of life. Other times, her fate was the same no matter what she did, which underlined, for me, how random the path of life often is. Every time through Ursula’s story was a delight and every little detail — some details the same, some changing subtly each time — made it a pleasure to read. 

The ending wasn’t what I, or apparently several other readers, expected, but after giving it more thought I decided it was the only possible ending for this book. No matter how it turns out — or if it ever does — this book is a wonderful journey, especially if you’ve ever pondered the “what if …?” question just a little too long.

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The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway (Second-Chance Books #6)

sunalsorisesHemingway has loomed over my reading-the-classics project like a shadowy storm-cloud on the edge of a sunny blue sky. At some point, I knew, I’d have to revisit the author who made my Grade 11 English class such pure agony by writing The Old Man and the Sea. Later, in college, I read another Hemingway novel — I think it may have been For Whom the Bell Tolls . I can’t remember whether I read it for a class or whether I just read it to give Hemingway another chance, but I do recall that it left me deeply unimpressed. I think it was one of those books that I finished and thought, “What the heck just happened here?”

This time, I happened to be watching Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventures, one in Palin’s series of travel shows where he attempts to visit many of the places where Hemingway lived and wrote, and places he wrote about. During the episode about bullfighting I decided I should read The Sun Also Rises, which I mistakenly thought I’d read once before. I hadn’t. This was my first try with it, and while I definitely got more out of it than my earlier readings of other Hemingway novels, I don’t think Hemingway will ever be a favourite of mine.

It’s all about his writing style. I thought the subject matter itself was off-putting — the writer and his characters are so macho, so obsessed with manliness, so obviously sexist and racist in ways that would be impossible to put on paper today. But as I read The Sun Also Rises (which is at least partially autobiographical, it seems), I thought that that whole world of these unhappy rich expats drifting around Europe drinking, having sex and doing nothing useful could actually be quite interesting in the hands of a different author. I thought the main character Jake and the woman he sort-of loves, Brett, were potentially fascinating characters — I wanted to know much more about the motivations of both characters. But of course Hemingway’s not in the business of giving us that kind of insight. I find his writing frustrating because he seems so determined to keep us on the outsides of his characters, to treat them as shining surfaces without penetrating any further. Obviously it works for a lot of readers since his books have become classics, but to me it’s just annoying.

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The Gilly Salt Sisters, by Tiffany Baker

gillysaltThis was an example (there were three this month alone) of a book that I wanted to like much better than I actually did like it. I picked it up because I enjoyed Baker’s The Little Giant of Aberdeen County so much, and I was hoping for something just as unexpected and original with her new book. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with The Gilly Salt Sisters, there was nothing particularly fresh here either, and I didn’t find the characters quite as compelling as I’d hoped they would be.

The novel follows the story of two sisters raised in their family’s salt marsh in New England. Though most of the story takes place in the 1970s and 80s it has a strangely timeless feel to it, which might work well for some readers, although I always like to feel grounded in history. The rivalry between the two sisters, the characterizations, the suggestions of long-buried secrets and possibly curses, all felt a little formulaic to me and never seemed completely real and believable. It’s certainly not a badly-written book and I could imagine a different reader falling completely in love with it: this novel just didn’t grab me, and I’m sorry, since I really enjoy Baker’s writing.

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Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

sweettooth

This is a novel that hooked me on the very first page. The voice of the first-person narrator, Serena Frome, is (to my tastes anyway) incredibly engaging and believable. That in itself is ironic, it turns out, but for reasons that won’t be clear till you’ve finished the novel. So lay the ending aside for a moment: at the beginning, a woman named Serena Frome starts telling you a story about something that happened when she was young, and her voice drew me into the story right away.

Serena is an otherwise unexceptional girl — bright, English, upper-middle-class (the daughter of a Bishop, though not at all religious herself) — until she gets involved in espionage. Which sounds an awful lot more exciting than it is. One of the most intriguing things about this novel is that McEwan is able to write what sounds like it ought to be a spy story, and to put virtually nothing interesting about spying into it, and still make the story compelling — not as a spy novel, but as a character study.

It’s the early 1970s, the Cold War rages on and off, and Serena gets recruited to work at MI-5 after she has an affair with an older man who did some intelligence work in his younger days. There, she becomes involved in a project called “Sweet Tooth.” It’s hard to believe that in the midst of the Cold War, MI-5 did anything as dull as taking on the role of an arts-granting agency in order to fund the work of writers who appeared promisingly anti-Communist — but apparently this stuff really happened, and Serena’s task is to offer a tantalizing cash stipend to an up-and-coming novelist without letting him know there’s government money behind the “Foundation” she represents. Of course she falls in love with the novelist, and of course her secret comes out, and the resulting complication has very little to do with Cold War-era spying and everything to do with the lies we tell ourselves and others.

It’s also a story about storytelling, which you might expect if one of the main characters is a writer, or if, like me, you’ve only ever read one other book by McEwan and that was Atonement. Serena falls into the Sweet Tooth job because she’s an avid reader, though her university degree was in math. She reads widely both in popular and literary fiction, but has strong opinions about what writers should and shouldn’t do. Partway through the novel she reads her lover’s unpublished manuscript and is angered by a metafictional twist at the end: she believes authors should not intrude into their stories and should keep up their implied contracts with their readers. If you miss that clear red-flag warning (or if you didn’t read Atonement), you’ll be unprepared for the direction the book takes at the end. I was forewarned, but that did nothing to stop the pages turning quickly as I raced to the end of this novel, enjoying every twist and turn along the way.

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Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (Second-Chance Books #5)

anna-kareninaI’d avoided reading Anna Karenina ever since a bad War and Peace experience during my college years put me off Tolstoy. But it’s one of those novels that you feel culturally impoverished if you haven’t read — well, I did anyway. I knew the plot, but felt I ought to read the actual novel, consigning it to my “book-guilt” pile for many years.

As with other classics I’ve revisited this year, I enjoyed Anna Karenina a lot more than I expected to. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that the Anna-Vronsky love story took up only about half the novel, while at least as much space was given to Levin and Kitty, whose more mature and stable relationship is presented as a foil to Anna’s and Vronsky’s intense but doomed passion. Also, typical of nineteenth-century novels (and this is just as true of Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities so it’s not a Russian or French or English thing, it’s just a thing — although, interesting, it’s not true of Pride and Prejudice … hmmm…) there are endless digressions into topics that have little to do with plot or character development but are obviously fascinating to the author, and I will admit to skimming these a bit.

But when he’s getting into the heads of his characters, Tolstoy is a fascinating analyst of human psychology and although I didn’t necessarily like Anna, she felt absolutely real to me. I also felt that out of all the older novels I’ve read this year, Tolstoy is the only male writer who really “gets” his women characters and sees them as fully rounded human beings. Anna, Kitty and Dolly are real people with depth and complexity, the way Elizabeth Bennett is and the way Cosette or Lucie Manette or even (to move ahead to the twentieth century for a moment) Daisy Buchanan are not. Tolstoy really seems to get that his women characters are more than just playing pieces to be moved around the board  for the sake of the effect they might have on the real, male characters. He also seems to get that some of their unhappiness is due to the limited roles allowed them in society — Anna, for example, would surely not be as unhappy as she ultimately is with Vronsky if she did not live in a society that defined her entirely in terms of her relationship with her husband and her lover, in which she could have no other identity than that of a “fallen woman.” Tolstoy doesn’t take the next leap to say that these women’s lives might be richer and happier if they could have careers and interests of their own separate from that of their husbands and children — but then, Jane Austen doesn’t really make that leap either. At least these novelists are aware of the problem even if they don’t anticipate twentieth-century feminists in offering a solution.

Unlike my slog through War and Peace nearly thirty years ago, I did not get lost this time in a quagmire of Russian names and found it fairly easy to follow the storyline, differentiate the characters, and get drawn into the action. The edition I read was translated by Constance Garnett and very readable; a different edition which I picked up in the bookstore has the same translator but includes a lovely introduction by Mona Simpson which I wish had been in mine (the edition I read did have an introduction, just not a lovely one).

So far it’s a perfect record in that I’ve read or reread five classic novels this year and have enjoyed each one more than I did on first reading or more than I expected to. However, in May I’m tackling Hemingway and all bets are off. Check back with me later.

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