Monthly Archives: July 2014

Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan

twoboyskissingTwo Boys Kissing is a young-adult novel about, well, two boys kissing. Among other things. It’s about two young gay men, Craig and Harry, who used to be a couple but are still friends, who decide they’re going to break the Guiness world record for the world’s longest kiss as a way to make a public statement against homophobia after another young gay man in their community survived a savage beating. (It was inspired by the story of two gay college students who did indeed set a world record for the longest kiss — it’s since been broken, as records tend to be).

However, Craig’s and Harry’s thirty-plus-hour kiss is only the backdrop for the stories of several other gay teenagers, some of whom are involved in their record-setting attempt, some of whom follow it online, and some of whom are barely aware of it. Covering a span of forty-eight hours, the novel dips into a wide variety of the experiences of young gay men in America today — from those who are fully out in their communities with the support of their families, to those who are still closeted and fighting despair.

One of the most unique elements of this novel is the first-person-plural narration. The narrators who comment on the action are dead gay men, mostly victims of the AIDS epidemic, who are watching this younger generation with interest. It shouldn’t work, but it does, although sometimes the omniscient narrators distance the reader a little from the intimate moment-by-moment experience of the characters themselves. This novel is oddly constructed but also oddly satisfying, and certainly for anyone interested in a contemporary look at the experiences of gay male teenagers, it’s an important book as well.

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How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, by Lydia Netzer

toledoThere’s little doubt that “quirky” is the word most often applied by reviewers to Lydia Netzer’s How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky; I used the word myself in reviewing her debut novel Shine Shine Shine. Like her first novel, Toledo is a love story with unexpected twists and turns, one that’s hard to categorize but easy to enjoy.

The central characters, George and Irene, are both astronomers/physicists/whatever you call those really really smart people who know all about black holes and the universe and stuff. While Irene is dedicated to pure science, George’s days are punctuated by mystical visions of ancient gods and goddesses, and he’s searching for a soulmate he almost remembers, but can never quite find. Irene might just be that soulmate — but is their connection too perfect? Is it fate, destiny, or science?

As with Shine Shine ShineToledo asks (but does not necessarily answer) a lot of difficult philosophical questions inside a not-so-simple love story. Along with the science there are elements of magic realism (a major plot point hinges on the reader accepting that two people can have a meaningful conversation and transmit actual factual information during a shared lucid dream) and, of course, lots of gray areas where we can’t quite be sure what’s science and what’s magic — as with George’s visions, in addition to the lucid dreams.

I have two quibbles with this otherwise enjoyable book, one of which is the author’s fault and one of which may not be. When you create a cast of very quirky characters (and there are some extremely quirky ones in this book) and have them meeting up and doing improbable things, it’s often hard to make the dialogue sound believable. While this novel succeeds brilliantly in some scenes, in others it ends up sounding clunky and unrealistic. (That said, I realize this is a matter of opinion like everything in reading, because I read another review that criticized the dialogue, and the passage they used to illustrate the bad dialogue was one of the ones that I thought was most natural and believable in the whole book — in that passage I could hear the characters speaking out loud, which I couldn’t always).

The second problem I had was that a very significant plot point, which was revealed carefully and delicately in flashback scenes throughout the story, was given away in the book’s description in my online bookstore (and in every review I’ve read, so probably on the physical book jacket also). It’s a detail that I thought would have had a lot more impact and been much more interesting if the reader had been allowed to figure it out as the characters did; I wish I hadn’t gone into the story knowing it. You’ll notice I’ve carefully avoided revealing that detail here, a caution which will be completely meaningless if you read any other summary of this book online, but I’m doing what I can here.

If you like an offbeat love story that has its feet on the ground but its head well up in the clouds, you should pick up How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky.


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Astonished, by Beverly Donofrio

astonishedI’ve read both of Beverly Donofrio’s previous memoirs: Riding in Cars with Boys, her story about her teenage pregnancy and early marriage, and Looking for Mary, which took her life story in a very different direction when in midlife Donofrio converted, if not exactly back to her family’s Roman Catholicism, certainly to an encompassing fascination with and love for the Virgin Mary as the female face of God. Astonished continues the story with two apparently very different experiences: Donofrio is raped in her home in Mexico at the same time as she is exploring the possibility of entering a monastery.

The book follows its author through the aftermath of these two experiences — coping with the aftermath of rape, and trying to decide whether life in a monastic community is the right path for her. Though the two events were initially separate, they become inevitably intertwined: how will hours of meditation and withdrawal from the outside world affect Donofrio’s ability to process this traumatic assault? Like everything Donofrio writes, Astonished feels raw, honest, insightful and often even funny, though the events she’s talking about are far from amusing. Her voice comes through strongly in her story and I was, as always, completely drawn in to her journey.

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The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan

warthatendedpeaceI started reading this book in June, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. MacMillan’s exhaustive and detailed book examines the background to the First World War and poses the question: out of all the European crises that arose in the years leading up to 1914 in which war was successfully averted, why did this one crisis — the assassination — spark a brutal, wide-ranging four-year conflict that defined the twentieth century?

There’s no one answer of course, but MacMillan explores the politics, culture and attitudes toward war and peace in Germany, England, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary during the years, then the months, then the days leading up to the declaration of war in August 1914. She looks in details at the characters and personalities involved, from king, emperor, kaiser and czar down to generals and politicians, and discusses how their actions contributed to or helped to prevent the war. This is a great overview of the background to the conflict, intended for the well-informed general reader. It took me a little while to get through, but I plan to follow up by reading Paris 1919, MacMillan’s exploration of the treaty that ended World War One — and virtually guaranteed there would be a World War Two.

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

parttimeindian-jacketpbThis well-loved (but sometimes criticized) young-adult novel tells the funny, heartbreaking story of Arnold “Junior” Spirit, a kid growing up on an American Indian reservation who decides to attend an all-white high school off the reservation in hopes of getting a better education and a better life. In the process of doing so Arnold loses his best friends, makes new friends, confronts prejudice from both whites and fellow Indians, and explores what his native identity means to him — for better and for worse. It’s an insightful book about a teenager grappling with deep topics in a totally believable way, enlivened by the cartoons and doodles Arnold draws throughout the story.

This book has been frequently challenged and banned  — mainly, as near as I can figure out, because it contains a couple of references to masturbation (what, do teenage boys DO that???!! I’m shocked!!!) and some swear words, but I found it to be an excellent read that I’d recommend to any young person — and to adult readers as well.

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Life Class and Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

lifeclassI picked these books up because my online book club was reading Toby’s Room and I wanted to read the prequel, Life Class, as well. In view of this summer’s 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, my attention is definitely going to be grabbed by these two novels about a group of art students in London whose lives are changed by the outbreak of the war.

The main characters are all artists — Paul, who is the main character in Life Class, his sometime girlfriend Elinor whose story takes centre stage in Toby’s Room as she tries to find out what really happened to her “missing, presumed dead” brother Toby at the Front, and Kit, a talented but troublesome artist whose wartime experience leaves him more deeply scarred than any of the rest. I only discovered later that the main characters are loosely based on real artists of the era, and that one recurring minor character, Henry Tonks, was an actual person. 

This novel provides an interesting look at lives disrupted by war — I thought Paul’s scenes as a battlefield medic in Life Class were the best of the two books in this regard, and Paul the most engaging of a group of characters who can sometimes seem a little distant from the reader. This distance kept me from getting as emotionally involved in the story as I would have liked, but it was interesting reading nonetheless. One thing that really struck me that I often forget was how close to home the war was for the English — when Elinor comes to Belgium for a weekend to visit Paul while he’s at the Front, her visit is illicit and against the rules but by no means impossible. It’s such a different war experience from ours on this side of the Atlantic where men sailed away from home and were half a world away from their families and loved ones for years, which, I think, gave a distant remoteness to what was happening overseas that people on the home front in Britain would not have shared.

Overall, these were two good historical novels, but I could have used a little more emotional intensity to really draw me into the story and make me care deeply about what happened to the characters.

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The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence (Old Favourites #13)


(Note: this review contains spoilers. If you haven’t read The Diviners, I do give away a few major plot points here, though I’d argue it’s not primarily a plot-driven novel so that may not matter as much. Still, be warned).

This might just be my favourite book of all time, and I haven’t re-read it in at least 20 years. I went back to it this week in preparation for making a Writing Wednesday Book Talk video about it, and was happy to discover that it delighted and moved me just as much this time as it did the many times I read it in my early to mid-twenties.

Margaret Laurence published The Diviners forty years ago this year, in 1974, and won the Governor-General’s award for fiction. It was her last major novel, the fifth and crowning book of five novels set at least partly in the fictional Manitoba town of Manawaka (a town similar to Neepawa, where Laurence grew up). Together, these five novels (this is assuming you count A Bird in the House as a novel, though you could also call it a collection of short stories) chronicle the lives of women from this town — you have to say “from” rather than “in” because all Laurence’s major characters eventually leave Manawaka, though none ever escapes the hold the town has over them — over a time period that begins with young Hagar Shipley, heroine of The Stone Angel, growing up in the 1890s when the town is new, to middle-aged Morag Gunn, heroine of The Diviners, writing about Manawaka from her new home in Ontario in the early 1970s. 

In fact, although The Diviners is not purely an autobiographical novel (when people said it was, Laurence was fond of pointing out that “I have two children, not one, and neither of  them is the illegitimate child of a Manitoba Metis”) the parallels between Laurence writing The Diviners and Morag writing the book that she’s writing in The Diviners are many and obvious. Which leads to the first of three reasons why I think this is such a wonderful and important novel.

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