Where have I been? What have I read?

You may have noticed that I’ve been MIA these last few weeks. Let’s call it a summer break: after finishing up the 80 pages of academic writing I had due in April, I didn’t have too many words left in my brain for book reviews. But don’t worry. I’m back, and I’m going to tell you all about the books I read while I was away – in tiny, one-sentence reviews.

You’ll probably see longer reviews of some of these pop up in the next few weeks – let me know if there are any that you’re particularly interested in hearing about, and I’ll move them to the top of the pile.

Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? / Jean Baudrillard
This book is the result of an old, grumpy, slightly terrified French philosopher thinking a little too hard about contemporary life, and it’s both really right and really wrong about a lot of things.

The Magicians / Lev Grossman
Dosed with unabashed nostalgia for the Narnia Chronicles, Grossman reimagines what it might mean to attend a school for magicians – and still find yourself disappointed at what the world holds.

In the City of Lost Things / Paul Auster
I first read this novel in the first year of my undergrad, and it’s weirdly stuck with me – and weirdly proved impossible to find in bookstores. Strong female protagonist journeys to the (apocalyptic, chaotic, decaying) city of last things to look for her missing brother – and learns too late that the city proves just about impossible to escape.

The Vegetarian / Han Kang
A Korean woman gives up eating meat after a series of unsettling, cannibalistic dreams; this small act of resistance quickly snowballs – producing social, familial, political, and artistic ramifications.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither / Sarah Baume
Okay – stop what you’re doing and get your hands on a copy of this book, because it’s easily one of the best I’ve read this year. The old, suspicious anti-hero at the centre of this novel can’t put his finger on why he’s suddenly possessed with the urge to get a dog, but once united, the two prove oddly and inseparably similar – wounded and muddling along as best they can.

All the Birds, Singing / Evie Wyld
The best way to describe this novel is as a weird one. Sheep? Sex workers? Australia? Arson? Mysterious beasts ripping apart lambs?

The Mirror World of Melody Black / Gavin Extence
The back cover makes this sound like a fun and unsettling romp through parallel worlds, but the truth is this novel is a beautifully frank look at the inside of mental illness.

The Saga of the Swamp Thing / Alan Moore (et al)
I’ve read four of the six volumes which chronicle this version of the Swamp Thing, and even though I’m not generally a graphic novel / comic sort of person, I weirdly and truly dig the trials and tribulations of this unlikely, plant-based superhero. Apocalypse! History! Memory!

A Complicated Kindness / Miriam Toews
A Mennonite girl in small-town Canada slowly and surely comes to grips (or else to no grips at all) with the fact that her gentle religion has torn (and continues to tear) her family apart. (It sounds inane but it’s not. It’s brilliant, and heartbreaking, and clever, and hilarious.)

 

So there you have it – that was how I spent my May. What have you read this past month that you loved / hated / felt unmoved by? Is there anything on my list you want to hear more about? Let’s chat!

 

 

 

Canada Reads 2016: Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter

Minister Without Portfolio

Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio was one of the five novels nominated as this year’s Canada Reads choices – which landed it squarely on my immediate TBR.

I have to admit that the initial description gleaned from the inside flap did not thrill me: man goes to Iraq with the military, has a bad experience, returns to Newfoundland to attempt to piece his life together.

But luckily for me, this is one of those cases where judging a book by its cover turns out terribly wrong, because Minister Without Portfolio is easily the best book I’ve read yet this year. I’ve only read two out of the five Canada Reads selections so far, but I already know which one I’m rooting for.

Fun fact: Minister Without Portfolio was nominated for the Giller Prize the same year as Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing (and you can read my review here) but didn’t even make it to the short list. (For the record: this is not a choice I agree with, Giller Prize Committee of 2013!)

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Top Ten Tuesday: Five books to read if you’re in the mood for CanLit

It’s time for another Top Ten Tuesday, and I’m going to feature some CanLit. But these books aren’t just any Canadian books: they’re this year’s Canada Reads selections, which I’m desperately trying to read before I cash in my tickets to see the Canada Reads debates live and in person at the end of this month.

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The sturdy, bitter heart of Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing

draft dodgers - lynn coady

It’s difficult to describe how I feel about this collection of (Giller Prize-winning) short stories but I’m going to try anyway.

This isn’t normally the sort of book I’d pick up, because short stories aren’t really my jam. But I’m taking a class in Canadian short fiction this semester and I think it’s going to be really good for me. I mean, even if I dropped out tomorrow it’s introduced me to Lynn Coady. That’s a win.

And while I keep saying short stories aren’t really my jam, I keep finding collections of short stories that punch me in the sternum, and new collections of short stories keep ending up on the to-read pile. So maybe I should revisit the prejudices I have against short stories.

But let’s talk about Hellgoing, as much as one can talk about Hellgoing.

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Cover to Cover with Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I’ve been meaning to talk about Karen Russell for a long while – I mention her briefly in my Top Ten Tuesday fairy tale picks, and there’s a review of her short story collections in the works (I swear!), but for now let’s look at some beautiful covers. Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Russell’s sophomore short story collection, rife with gripping characters and magic realism.

The title story is about a vampire who finds relief by sinking his teeth into lemons instead of people. It’s also, in a way, a story about the surprising joys and disappointments of life.

As you may imagine, the crossroads of vampires and lemons makes for interesting cover composition:

British edition     Hardcover edition     Vampires

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Endearing, self-concious dithering: Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler

Two novelsThe best way to describe Nicholson Baker’s writing is unhurried. He has a beautiful way with tangents without derailing the narrative; while these novels could easily meander or drag, Baker keeps a firm and subtle hand pushing the reader in the right direction. This makes the perfect read for lazy days – nothing too serious, but still honest and sweet.

Both novels are narrated by aging poet and expert procrastinator Paul Chowder – and it’s easy enough to draw parallels between the protagonist and the author. Do we have a Kurt Vonnegut / Kilgore Trout situation, where the character is only a few steps away from the creator himself?

But perhaps its better not knowing. I’ve read most of Nicholson Baker’s work and I’ve grown rather fond of him. I like to think better of him than I do of Paul Chowder, who rambles knowingly and endearingly, but also edges on pathetic. He’s the sort of character you are willing to indulge – but wouldn’t necessarily want to be friends with.

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“Art for everyone, even for useless people!”: Douglas Coupland’s Worst. Person. Ever.

worst-personFulfilling the promise made in the title, Douglas Coupland’s latest novel does, indeed, introduce you to the worst person ever.

Meet Raymond Gunt.

He is the sort of person who rips a skintag from the shoulder of the woman riding the bus in front of him and becomes offended at her reaction.

He is the sort of person who says, “I’m obviously a sensitive man who enjoys the fine things in life: food, wine, and art – yay art! Art everywhere! Art for everyone, even for useless people!”

He is the sort of person who would rather eat a handful of nuts to set off a severe allergic reaction rather than deal with certain social situations.

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Ron Currie Jr. recreates himself, kills himself, and finds inspiration in nicotine patches in Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles

flimsy little plastic miraclesThe head-scratching question at the core of this novel is just how much of it you should believe.

Ron Currie Jr. is not just the author, but the centre of the story: a hapless narrator, self-deprecating protagonist and barely-successful novelist. As artists are wont to do, he finds himself sequestered on a tropical island with only his emotions and alcoholism for company while the woman he loves—the woman he wrote his first novel about—decides whether she loves him back.

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Birdwatching in small-town Indiana: Brian Kimberling’s Snapper

Brian Kimberling's SnapperI’ve always been told not to judge a book by its cover, but let’s face it: everybody does it, and sometimes it works.

Case in point: Snapper, by Brian Kimberling. Birds surround the title as though it’s a grub they would like nothing more than to dig out of a rotten stump and feed to their squawking young. Individually, they’re nothing special: mostly brown, unassuming, and the sort of birds you might see on your patio in the spring.

But put together, they draw out the best in each other – highlighting differences in markings, stripes, and patches, and drawing out the undertones of orange, chestnut, and robin’s egg blue that lurk under the foundation of drab brown. Maybe you didn’t think birds could be interesting subject matter, but Kimberling is here to prove you wrong. These birds are gorgeous and insistent, impatient to have their stories told.

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Ninety-nine bottles of pee on the wall and the search for love: Davy Rothbart’s My Heart Is an Idiot

Davy Rothbart's My Heart Is an IdiotI stumbled across My Heart Is an Idiot  in 2013, when one of the chapters made its way online. I don’t remember how I found it, only that I couldn’t stop reading it.

The chapter in question, you see, detailed the narrator’s history of peeing in bottles.

He explains the situation rationally, as though it was a completely normal situation. It started, he says, tending bar at a concert. He couldn’t leave his post, but the audience’s attention was clearly elsewhere and the bar afforded him privacy below the waist, so …

I’m sure you can figure out the rest.

This unlikely history continues as he breaks his leg and is confined to an upstairs bedroom for an extended period of time. You guessed it – the bathroom is downstairs. Our protagonist rarely makes the trek, but begins a collection of bottles filled with amber- and honey-coloured liquid.

He eventually starts sending these bottles as hate mail, which is both disgusting and intriguing.

The absurd little story trips along, so unlikely and on the edge of taboo that it remains enthralling until the very end.

In any case, by the time I reached the end of the chapter I realized that the book was non-fiction. The story, barring small creative liberties, was completely true.  Our stalwart narrator is Davy Rothbart. The history of pee-bottles is his, and it’s one of 16 odd, awkward, and wonderful stories tied together in My Heart is an Idiot.

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