Shelf Life: September 2011

As this is the fourth edition of Shelf Life, if you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity, you probably have a pretty good idea what it’s about. If you don’t, check out past editions for more info.

I’m going to try to make this as brief as I can, as we’re almost halfway through November, and I still have to get October’s written as well.

Onward:

96. Summer of My Amazing Luck, by Miriam Toews

I read A Complicated Kindness after it won the Governor General’s Award and loved it. When The Flying Troutmans came out I devoured it and declared it my favourite read in 2009, so I was eager to read Summer of My Amazing Luck when I stumbled across it in a used bookstore.

Unfortunately, this story wasn’t up to par. I wasn’t buying Lucy, the down on her luck single mom who doesn’t know who the father of her child is, and isn’t interested in finding out.

She becomes enamoured of Lish, who seems to be the heart of the novel, but I had such difficulty with Lucy that it just didn’t work for me. She lacked personality, and I never felt like I got to know who she was, and therefore, why I should care. It sounds harsh, but I adored the first two books I read from Toews, and I’m still looking forward to reading more.

Irma Voth, I’ve got my eye on you.

97. The Sexual Politics of Meat, by Carol J Adams

As both a feminist and a vegetarian, I expected to enjoy this book more than I did. (Man, I seem to be starting off with My Autumn of Lackluster Reading.)

After the first two introductory essays, I feel her point was already well made, and the rest of the book seemed like filler.

I get it, the material becomes familiar after the tenth anniversary forward, and the twentieth anniversary forward, and as the material becomes more familiar she’s able to become more concise and get to the heart of the matter, but I felt like it could have been a brief essay, and still served its purpose.

Even so, I’m glad I read it. Another tick off the list of feminist literature I feel I should read.

98. Player One, by Douglas Coupland

This was to be September’s book club pick, but the date didn’t work out for most of the members. The meeting was moved to later in October, and it’s now November and it still hasn’t happened yet, and doesn’t look likely to until at least December. Maybe January. So I’m not sure what the rest of the group thinks of it, but I kinda liked it.

After the previous month’s flop with One Hundred Years of Solitude, universally “mehed” by the group, I think this is one they’re likely to like. CanCon works with us.

Player One is Coupland’s contribution to the Massey Lecture series, told in five hours (chapters), surrounding four people caught in an airport bar during the apocalyptic fallout that happens after oil hits $300 a barrel.

In typical Coupland fashion, the novel follows with countless1 Couplandisms, new terms he coins to fit the the themes he tries to bring across. How many of them will emerge as stays in popular culture? We shall see.

99. The Sentimentalist, by Johanna Skibsrud

Winner of the Giller Prize, yet everyone I know who has read it strongly disliked it. I knew this going in, yet I assumed my reaction would be different, for some reason. There is a definition of insanity that goes something along those lines.

The novel is largely told from the perspective of a nameless, ageless, personality-less woman with no obvious function in life, or, indeed, in the book.

The real protagonist is her father, Napolean, and his experience in the war in Vietnam, fragmented and ultimately unresolvable. A continuation on the theme of Lackluster Autumn.

100. The Black House, by Patricia Highsmith

On a recent Books & Martinis Night, I went in search of more Ripley books, and finding none that I didn’t already possess (I’ve still two to go), I picked up this collection of short fiction from Highsmith.

The Black House is a collection of short stories written by Highsmith over the course of a number of years. She had such a gift for crafting character and tension in a few deft phrases. Not all stories are equally great, of course, but those that are, are excellent.

101. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer

Myths and fairy tales are the first stories we learn, whether at our grandparents’ knee, our first picture books, or the ubiquitous Disney. The very nature of the fairy tale lends itself to retelling in these various forms. They aren’t something we grow out of when we reach adulthood. We continue to experience them in their varying forms, but in our grown up stories the morality of what ensues becomes more complex, if not downright vicious.

The excellently titled My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is a collection of forty fairy tales for adults with contributions from Michael Cunningham, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, among other notable authors.

Stories are drawn from the familiar tales of the Brothers Grim and Hans Christian Anderson, to the wider ranging folk tales of Norway, Italy, Russia, Vietnam and Japan. There are few stylistic similarities between the tales, which are loosely organized by region. Each tale concludes with a note from the author explaining the origin or inspiration for the story.

In Timothy Schaffert’s “The Mermaid in the Tree”, the story of the Little Mermaid is reimagined from the perspective of the prince’s bride. Neil Gaiman’s “Orange” is innovatively told in the form of a series of numbered answers to questions we don’t see. Bit by bit the fantastic tale is revealed. Tacked on the end of “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin”, by Kevin Brockmeier, is a letter in the form of a mad lib, or, half a letter from one the right half to the left half of Rumpelstiltskin.

Not all of the stories work, but when they do they’re incredible.

102. Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon

I adored The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and this is a close second.

Grady Tripp is an aging writer, professor and pot head at work on his latest novel, the eponymous Wonder Boys. Perhaps due tot he pot, it is massive, unwieldy and largely unreadable.

The plot circles around Grady, James Leer, a brilliant, but suicidal student of his, and Crabtree, Grady’s editor and best friend, and takes place over a few crazy days.

It’s a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it works as a film.

103. Fortune Cookie, by Heather J Wood

Twenty-four year old Robin Cory is a McGill drop out working in the marketing department of a publishing company in Montreal. Fortune Cookie takes the form of her diary, spanning just over a year, from January 1090 to January 1990.

Prefacing each month is a note on the Chinese and Western astrological signs, and a fortune. Sometimes these read like astrological advice columns, other times the enigmatic fortunes cookies indicated in the title. Each concludes with a news bite that captures the headlines, which, at first, fail to make a dramatic impression on Robin’s life.

Though her best friend is a confirmed activist, it isn’t until Tienanmen Square that Robin takes her first steps to activism, for her case, in the form of writing a letter she is terrified to mail. The Chantal abortion case inspires Robin to comment, in public, on her feelings, and prompts her to attend her first protest. The fall of the Berlin Wall inspires hope, while Montreal Massacre puts things into further perspective.

104. The Corrections, by John Franzen

I know, I know. I’m a decade late in reading this, but I get it – I’m on the bandwagon now.

A modern family saga of the Midwest. A story about how we can never really escape our parents or our past. Brutally harsh insight into people and how they work, even as they are ignorant of their basic motivations. These things are all encompassed by this book.

I think I’m ready to read Freedom now.2

Bonus: The Crow, by James O’Barr

This special edition restores some of the images that were cut when the comic was first printed, as well as gives insight into the personal history that inspired the story.

I hadn’t read the comic previously, though of course I’d seen – and loved – the film, so I wouldn’t have known what was new if it wasn’t outlined in the introduction, but it makes for a beautiful comic. The artwork is incredible, and of course the story of loss and justice is as powerful as ever.

Great comic.


And that’s it for this month. Time to get to work on the (already late) October edition.

  1. Ok, I could count them, but I’m lazy. []
  2. How is it that one book always – always – leads into another? Or another five? []