Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Middle Ground - Zoe Whittal

I received this novel from Librarything from the Early Reviewers Program. I applied for this book and other "Rapid Reads" because I thought it might be of use to my ESL readers.

This is from the back cover:
"When everything goes wrong at once, Missy Turner begins to make some unusual choices.
Missy Turner thinks of herself as the most ordinary woman in the world. She has a lot to be thankful for—a great kid, a loving husband, a job she enjoys and the security of living in the small town where she was born. Then one day everything gets turned upside down—she loses her job, catches her husband making out with the neighbor and is briefly taken hostage by a young man who robs the local cafĂ©. With her world rapidly falling apart, Missy finds herself questioning the certainties she's lived with her whole life."

Sounds like it could be interesting, right?

Well, I have to say that I did not like this book -- and that is an understatement!

I found that the characters were flat, the setting non-existent and the plot improbable and cliche -- reminded me of a tired spaghetti western. "Jerry used to beat the crap out of my older brother in the high school. He'd parlayed his schoolyard bullying into a job with the local force. I don't hate a lot of people, but I pretty much hate Jerry. Besides bullying my brother, he also tried to date-rape my sister at the prom. He still has a scar on the side of his face from a bottle she'd smashed into it." p.31

Further, I actively abhorred Missy Turner, (what a dumb name to give a character!). After being held a gunpoint, she agrees to meet up with the guy. Then inexplicably she leaves her life behind and begins to drive across the country with this new found "love", stopping periodically at hotels for sex.

Now, although I don't expect anyone to read this book, I should mention that I am going to spoil the plot for those of you who actually do chose to fork over $10.00 for this good for nothing but kindling.

So, since the guy is broke and proud and doesn't want to accept anymore that Missy Turner has been footing the bill for their meanderings, he decides to hold up a gas station. At this moment, the brilliant protagonist asks herself, "Who was this man I'd just spent the better part of two days with? The one I was fantasizing about marrying? Did losing everything in one fell swoop mean I'd lost my mind? Any semblance of intelligence and character?" (p.109) Well I can certainly answer that! Any woman with half a brain doesn't get into a car with a stranger who is known to her as a criminal and expect him to transform into a knight in shining armour!!! I mean DAH!!!! Then, even after he shoots her, she says to herself, "The weirdest thing is, sometimes I think about Red in prison and I feel bad. After everything he did, I still feel compassion. Like he's some one-eyed kitten who can't stop hurting himself. I know this is crazy. I'm still absorbing it all. I think I've still got a ways to go. The truth is, I never knew him at all." p. 118 In my opinion, Missy Turner is not only stupid but also pathetic...and insult to all women.

So what am I going to do with this book (I can't bring myself to call it a "novel".) I thought about setting it free with Book Crossings, but that seems cruel and unusual to any unsuspecting reader. Hmm, what to do???

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Cure for Death by Lightning - Gail Anderson-Dargatz

I really like this writer.

In A Cure for Death by Lightning, Gail Anderson-Dargatz sets her novel in WWII when most of the young men have left to die on the battlefields in Europe. Beth, the protagonist, is a young woman living on a farm with her parents and her brother. Her life is filled with unhappiness, hard work and poverty. Her classmate has been mauled and killed by a rabid bear, her father has become mentally unstable and sexually abuses her, her mother chooses to close her eyes to the abuse and instead converses with her long dead mother. Beth seeks refuge in a nearby Native community and in the forest, home of an unknown predator. She looks for love and escape as her brother sets off to join the army.

Michael McGowen in Quill and Quire says "It’s a testament to Anderson-Dargatz’s skill as a writer that in spite of this besieged backdrop, The Cure for Death by Lightning is a coming-of-age story that is as beautiful as it is uplifting."

I really like this writer!!!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen

From the back cover:
Orphaned and penniless at the height of the Depression, Jacob Jankowski escapes everything he knows by jumping on a passing train -- and inadvertently runs away with the circus. Thrown into the chaos of a second-rate traveling show, Jacob is adrift in a world of freaks, swindlers, and misfits.

I really didn't expect to like this novel. I actively dislike the whole idea of a circus -- caged animals and exploitation of the poor and uneducated. Further, I also tend to avoid reading historical novels especially American Historical novels which I find tend to ooze patriotic pap.

However, at the urging of many friends, I finally picked it up.

No regrets!!!

Sara Gruen is truly a marvelous story teller and perceptive observer of human nature! Right from the first page, she draws the reader in, making it near impossible to put this novel down. Also she has the ability to put herself (and by extrapolation, the reader too) into the skin of her characters.

This is a love story but not in the conventional sense. This is the story of a man who sticks to his convictions and cares for the animals who have been put in his charge, including a very stubborn and misunderstood elephant called Rosie.

From the back cover:
Water for Elephants is a dark and beautiful portrait of a crumbling circus. With warmth and whimsy, Gruen depicts an unforgettable world where love is a luxury few can afford.

Nikolski - Nicolas Dickner

I think I am a pretty good reader...but I also think I need to reread this book.

In fact, I am sure that I need to reread this book.

Set in Montreal and various parts of Canada, this novel tells the story of three different protagonists whose stories are similar in that they are all on a journey of discovery. Joyce Doucet, Noah Riel and an unnamed narrator all search for treasure in obscure places.

Somewhat reminiscent of The Waterproof Bible, there are strange references and interwoven stories that I will one day untangle.

I really need to reread this book.....

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Waterproof Bible - Andrew Kaufman

This was a delightful and strange read, very strange, wonderous strange!

From Random House: "A magical story of love and the isolation that defines the modern condition - Andrew Kaufman pulls off the near impossible and creates a wholly original allegorical tale that is both emotionally resonant and outlandishly fun.

Rebecca Reynolds is a young woman with a most unusual and inconvenient problem: no matter how hard she tries, she can't stop her emotions from escaping her body and entering the world around her. Luckily she's developed a nifty way to trap and store her powerful emotions in personal objects - but how many shoeboxes can a girl fill before she feels crushed by her past?

Three events force Rebecca to change her ways: the unannounced departure of her husband, Stewart; the sudden death of Lisa, her musician sister; and, while on her way to Lisa's funeral, a near-crash with what appears to be a giant frogwoman recklessly speeding in a Honda Civic.

Meanwhile, Lisa's inconsolable husband skips the funeral and flies to Winnipeg where he begins a bizarre journey that strips him of everything before he can begin to see a way through his grief… all with the help of a woman who calls herself God."

This novel explores how life's journey is full of twists and turns, encounters and accidents -- most of which remain unexplained and inexplicable. "If I hadn't met Rebecca and fallen in love with her, and then left her, I wouldn't be here, and I wouldn't be making this boat. So the boat wouldn't exist and neither would your question. Was it fate that I fell in love with Rebecca? And then that I left her? Or that I loved her, left her and then found this place and started building this boat? What's fate and what isn't? Where does it stop and where does it start? Is fate a part of the the story or the whole story?...I don't know. What about you?" p. 103. Answers to these questions and other life quandaries are thought by some to be found in the of the Bible...the word of God. Kaufman suggests that this idea needs to be reevaluated through Margaret's speech about the Aquatic Bible: "This book is full of lies....Beautiful, true, inspiring...But fiction. This book is filled with stories that can change your life, help you live, love, be loved. But these stories are not here to make us deny any part of ourselves. They are not here to bully us. The Bible teaches us that dying unwatered will curse your soul. How does that help us understand God? Or know God's love? It does not. It only keeps us in fear, leaving half of the grace God gave us unexplored and unused, something I feel God takes more as an insult than as a form of worship. Remember that the truth within yourself will always be greater than the truth found in these pages. These stories are here to guide us -- to help us find that truth, not to tell us what it is." p. 138 As for some great purpose in our lives, Kaufman states, "You idiot...there is no meaning. There's no plan. No script. It's not a movie. There's no lasting significance. No great reward. No right. No wrong. No punishment. No justice. There's no heaven or hell. Forget all that. There's no reason for any of this. It's all random. Everything's fucking random!" p. 163

Kaufman further reminds us that often we view our problems as insurmountable obstacles when in reality, they are insignificant. He invents a ritual for his "Aquatics" called litill. "When Aquatics are overwhelmed, they seek out the tallest object in view, lie on their backs, put their heads against it and look up. The ritual is called litill, and its purpose is to remind believers that they are actually quite small and, therefore, so are their problems." p. 116

Kaufman wants us to realize that although we have little control over the events in our lives, we have the power to determine our perception of it. "...the only difference between a happy ending and a sad ending is where you decide the story ends." p. 191 Further, we must decide whether to hold onto a past which is emotionally paralyzing or daringly stepping into the unknown. "Do you think it's cowardly, or courageous, to get rid of your past and start all over again?" p. 178... "You're about to become emotionally will feel safe. It will feel like a good thing. But that's the problem. Who's gonna make themselves vulnerable if they don't have to? Who's gonna willingly make themselves weaker? But if you don't start feeling real emotions soon, you will quite literally become nothing...You need to start feeling something. Something meaningful." p. 240-241.

This is a short little book, but one designed to make us think and laugh.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Healer - Greg Hollingshead

From the front inside jacket flap: "When Tim Wakelin, recently a widower, heads north in search of a story about a local healer named Carolyn Troyer, he enters a world that is real yet strange. Familiar landmarks disappear and extraordinary events unfold as his life becomes intertwined with hers. Even the landscape itself -- ancient rocks, myriad lakes, and cathedral forests of the Canadian Shield -- becomes a source of threat. How can he understand this strange and beautiful woman when he is no longer sure why he has really come or what is happening to him?

Until now, Caroline's life has been dominated by her parents: her cunning father, Ross, who has exerted an unspoken power over her since she was a child; and Ardis, her weak yet abusive mother. Aware that her ability to heal is only part of a mysterious process of transformation that she is undergoing, Caroline must break free of the chains of her family. Perhaps Tim can provide the sanctuary she needs, if he has the strength to survive the violent forces unleashed by his arrival."

This novel, while entrapping the reader in its suspenseful external story, is really an internal quest. Like most people, Tim and Caroline have been shaped by tragic events in their lives: Tim by the death of his beloved wife; and, Caroline by a childhood filled with betrayal and horrific abuse.

Caroline's role as a healer deals not only with the external but the internal. When Tim is injured, she is able to alleviate some of his pain. In these moments, he also comes to a startling realization: "The Earth had already brushed him like ash from her sleeve. His last chance had already passed... And he remembered a former perception, a perception undead after all, a light from far away, the cradle perhaps removed from him thereafter, until now. And he knew it must have been the fact of having once enjoyed that light and then enjoying it no longer that made refusal of it so automatic when she had tried to tell him. And one with the light was the knowledge that there is what a man has the power to convince himself concerning the world and there is what he has the power to do there. And then there is the world, the whole scene of it as it spread before and within his eye, a site of wonder, a universe of energy where iron and flesh and will and desire are no more than what they are, which is nothing, a shadow, in the light of that. And what he would not give for a glimpse of that light now." p. 311

This is complexe novel: there is the story of a girl with mystical powers and a journalist who comes to get the story in order to meet a deadline; there is the story of the accident, a hospitalization, a land purchase and a murderous rampage through the wooded Canadian Shield; there is also a exploration of the insignificance of our presence in the world, and yet, at the same time our undeniably important impact on one another.

Inevitably, as with most novels, the reader will take with him/her the lessons that speak to him/her the most...and will be healed.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Disappeared - Kim Echlin

As an intrepid traveller and a proud supporter or Canadian Lit, Kim Echlin's The Disappeared definitely appealed to me and it did not disappoint.

This is the story of Anne Greves, a Montrealer, who at sixteen, falls in love with Serey, an older Cambodian student who has been separated from his family because of Pol Pot. Eventually, Serey decides to return to Cambodia to try to find his family and Anne suffers the pain of losing her first lover. Although Anne tries to move on, she is unable to forget Serey and eventually goes to Cambodia and finds him. She finds more than just Serey -- she discovers not only the horror of Pol Pot's reign but also the indefatigable nature of the Cambodian people. Despite the terror they have been forced to endure, they guide Anne as she acclimatizes to this very different country.

One of the things that I liked about the novel, of course, were the settings in peaceful Canada as well as war ravaged Cambodia. I also liked the fact that the novel covered a significant part of the protagonist's life because we can see her as a young naive woman as well as a mature experienced woman who somehow has managed to preserve her love for her lover, Serey and her love for being in love.

Usually I am not very tolerant of what I perceive as a gratuitous and self-indulgent poetic style employed by some writers, however, perhaps because The Disappeared is not a seemingly unending piece of fiction, the poetic nature of Echlin's writing does not detract but actually effectively enriches the portrayal of the protagonist's sensitive and ingenuous nature. "I see your long silence as I see war, an urge to conquer. You used silence to guard your territory and told yourself you were protecting me. I was outside the wall, an intoxicating foreign land to occupy. I wondered what other secrets you guarded. Our disappeared were everywhere, irresistible, in waking, in sleeping, a reason for violence, a reason for forgiveness, destroying the peace we tried to possess, creeping between us as we dreamed, leaving us haunted by the knowledge that history is not redeemed by either peace or war but only fingered to shreds and left to our children. But I could not leave you, and I could not forget, and I did not know what to do, and always I loved you beyond love." p. 120

Would I read this again? Probably not. Did I enjoy it the first time? Definitely!