Shelf Life: August 2011

June marked the first edition of Shelf Life, and July the second, so with August I bring you the third collection of brief notes on what I read this month.

You’ll notice this month’s list has gone up in a much more timely fashion. This time I took my own advice and wrote these notes as I went along. Much easier to remember and comment on the content of what I’m reading as I go, rather than long after the fact.

Some good stuff stands out this month, among them The Lacuna, and, surprisingly, The Chairs Are Where the People Go.


80. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A book club pick.  We’re trying, in fits and starts, to make our way through a list of “30 books everyone should read before 30”. There are various incarnations of the list, but most include overlapping titles, so we pick randomly from the list, as we’re all still below that dooméd age. So far the results have not been overly gratifying.

A family saga told from the founding of a town in an undisclosed South American country in an undisclosed province, to its ultimate destruction – both of family and town. At the end of the book a baby is killed and carried away by an army of aunts.

It has gypsies, flying carpets, revolutionaries, war, lots of sex and an obscure mysticism. It should be a deeply interesting book, but it’s not. Instead it was universally “mehed” by the group. We’re switching back to CanCon for September’s pick.

81. Ripley’s Game, by Patricia Highsmith

I’ve already expressed my love and devotion to my favourite serial killer. Though I don’t know if should properly be described that way, as all of his killing seems to be done almost by accident.

The “game” in question is a set up to see if some innocent fool can become a killer. The poor fellow did nothing but slight him at a party – and gently at that.

Things go awry, as they often do, but Tom always comes out ahead, that little darling.

82. The True Names of Birds, by Susan Goyette

Goyette’s first collection of poetry, published in 1998, was shortlisted for the Governor General Award in1999. I initially picked it up because Brick Books kindly sent me a few books to review, and I wanted more context for her work.

These poems revolve around domestic life: her husband, and most especially her children, as well as her own lost childhood, and her relationship with her sister. They’re lyrical and compelling, with a striking use of metaphor.

83. We Sure Can, by Sarah B Hood

I’ve been canning up a storm since I bought my first canning book back in June, Gourmet Preserves Chez Madelaine. It’s more fun than I thought, and I want to try new recipes. So, when I noticed this new cookbook  by a Torontonian author with a focus on canning local produce, I knew I had to pick it up.

This book is very much a product of its times, meaning that recipes come from the author herself, as well as friends, blogs and canning tips are offered via friends on Twitter and around the world. There’s a bit of canning history, which was fun to learn, as well as different styles.

I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet, though there are dozens I’d like to, including making my first pickle. The Indian-spiced Zucchini sounds delicious. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

84. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

I waited on reading Kingsolver because everyone seems to love her work. Now I’m sorry I waited. The hype is justified. She writes beautifully.

I wasn’t completely sold on the pseudo-diary format, but I suspended by disbelief and enjoyed the narrative for what it was. Through the power of Kingsoler’s lyrical prose Harrison William Shepherd and Violet Brown will remain in my mind for a long time.

And now I must also learn more about Mexico, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Lev Trotsky. So be it.

85. outskirts, by Sue Goyette

outskirts is Goyette’s third book of poetry, following The True Names of Birds (1998, see above), and Undone (2004). The poems are presented in italics, as if whispered in confidence. The first poems relate the changes in her relationship with her children, who we first met in True Names. Her son is now a teenager, and her daughter is leaving for university. With this comes a change in focus, from her earlier poems rooted in the mysteries and charms of domestic life, to a widening area of concern.

In “Disrupted” Goyette confronts an imperfect world; in this case, embodied by the unruly children of our neighbours. “The world sometimes is a big wet dog shaking itself”, she writes. What we want: “Life but not with a mind of its own”. We want something we can control. Yet, if the outside world must intrude, why not well dressed, and with cakes?

While there were some poems I couldn’t get inside, on the whole outskirts is a strong collection. Goyette’s masterful use of vibrant metaphor spun through long, flowing verse carries the reader through, stirring up a wealth of images.

86. Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay

Set in Yellowknife, winner of the Giller Prize in 2007, Late Nights on Air follows the goings on of a group of people working for CBC radio.

Harry Boyd is the patriarch of this little group, the once famous host who failed in TV, and now drinks heavily, with few ill effects. There’s Dido Paris, the attractive, confident one, and the young, hapless and ever-earnest Gwen Symon, who wants to get her start in radio. Much of the story revolves around romantic suspense, and it all ends pretty much as you expect it to.

87. Your Love is Murder, or The Case of the Mangled Pie, by Paul Hong

Your Love is Murder is a collection of absurdest short stories. I should say, very short stories – most are between three and four pages, and some are even shorter than that. Some are surrealist, others simply bizarre. The kind of stories where sharks float in the air, talking dogs drive their owners home, and gorillas get into U of T. Not to mention the ducks, who seem to pop up frequently, whether as characters themselves, expressions, or lost objects.

Most of the stories start without any apparent direction, and stop without resolving to a conclusion, but they’re fun to read in their utter unpredictability.

88. Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, by Matt Bissonnette

Set in Anglo Montreal in the 70s and 80s, Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock tracks five friends from adolescence to something approaching adulthood.

Chapters alternate between scenes from their present lives and italicized episodes of Bug’s life as a roadie. The only things these kids care about are music, hockey, getting high and getting laid. Continually seeking moments of happiness, Bug names each fleeting moment of bliss as “the best”, but it’s clear that – like the band, like his friends – he’s going nowhere.

This should have been a great book – it has all the things: sex, drugs, punk rock, but it’s mired in cliche. While it has its moments, unfortunately Bissonnette never really gets it together.

89. Stormthrower, by Julia McCarthy

This first poetry collection from McCarthy crackles with passion.

These poems are rooted in mythology and creation. A sequence of poems uses pottery to play with the idea of the creator and the created.

90. Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon

Set in Khazaria, circa 950 CE, Gentlemen of the Road tells the story of two friends and bandits, Amram and Zelikman, who become caught up in a plot to overthrow the bek, or temporal king.

As an adventure story it has all the things: fights, full-on battles, whores, travel, unlikely companions, plot twists – and yet I found myself counting pages to discover how much longer it would go on. It’s so awfully over-written, and I get that there’s supposed to be a charm in that – it’s a part of the genre, but there’s only so much I can bear.

I wanted to like it more. Especially after learning that Chabon had originally wanted to call it “‘Jews with Swords”, but unfortunately this one didn’t work for me.

91. The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009, edited by A.F. Moritz

This is the second volume in the Best Canadian Poetry series, the first being the 2008 collection. Series editor Molly Peacock has widened the scope of the journals under consideration to include a number of online literary journals as well.

A.F. Moritz’s introduction frames the poetry scene in Canada, and offers insight into what went into his decision to choose certain poems over others. Following the poems are brief notes about their subject or the circumstances which gave rise to the poem.

There are some real gems in here. Among my favourites are “Echoes in November”, by Robyn Sarah, and “July Baby”, by Patricia Young.

92. Like Shaking Hands with God, by Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer

This little book captures two conversations between Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer, as moderated by Ross Klavan.

The first conversation takes place in 1998 at a bookstore in Manhattan. Questions are interspersed with readings given by Klavan from each of their books, Vonnegut’s Timequake, and Stringer’s Grand Central Winter. The second conversation takes place in 1999 in a New York cafe, with Daniel Simon present as well.

The subtitle suggests that the book contains “a conversation about writing”, but this isn’t the case. Writing is touched on, but mostly in the vein of Vonnegut reminding Stringer that he doesn’t have to do it. Stringer’s written one novel, and that’s all he has to do.

The play between them is one of admiration, and that’s nice to see, but, for the most part, it reads like a chopped conversation of in the vein of “you had to be there”. Bracketed laugh tracks and applause only serve to further this feeling.

93. Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse

A re-imagining of the story of Buddha. In Hesse’s tale, Siddhartha is a man on a spiritual quest at the time of the Buddha, who is known as a Gotama.

Hesse’s Siddhartha is a rebel with a cause. Though patient, kind and dutiful, he sets out to reject the home of his father and in favour of going on a spiritual quest with his friend Govinda. They go off in search of enlightenment, but Siddhartha finds that no matter how diligently they practice and follow the guidelines of others, he can’t escape himself. So, he decides to set off on his own.

It’s one of those books you’re supposed to read as a young adult, when you’ll get the most out of it, and I regret that I didn’t read it earlier, though I still enjoyed the simplicity of its message.

94. All My Friends Are Superheroes, by Andrew Kaufman

Trying to decide which books to take on a long flight is always an arduous task. I thought I’d stick to light books, as this was an overnight flight I didn’t want anything terribly taxing.

All My Friends Are Superheroes is indeed light, and lovely. It’s a love story that opens with Lester B Pearson airport, on those uncomfortable plastic seats, right where I was sitting, waiting to board my own flight.

Tom is newly married, and his wife, The Perfectionist, is leaving him. The dastardly Hypno has hypnotized her into believing that Tom is invisible, and she thinks he left immediately after their wedding. He’s spent the past six months trying to get her to notice him, but she’s given up, and has decided to move to Vancouver.

The book is populated with superheroes with powers which are largely useless, and sometimes even detrimental to themselves, and the interludes where their superpowers are described are some of the best bits of the book. My favourite might be Fifth Business, but they’re all fun.

95. The Chairs Are Where the People Go, by Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti was working on a novel about a fictionalized version of her friend Misha Glouberman, when she decided it might be better all ’round to get him to write a book about himself instead. He wasn’t interested. So, they worked out an arrangement where she interviewed him, and recorded his responses. This book is the result of that project.

Not really a book of interviews, or even essays. Each chapter is only two or three pages long, and tackles all sorts of subjects, from the neighbourhood association Glouberman founded, the classes he teaches in things like charades or making noise, to the small revelations that occur from time to time.

It’s a neat little book, perfect plane reading, and I loved that it was largely centred in Toronto, with excursions into Harvard, Montreal, and the places that touch him.

More formal reviews of some of these titles will appear elsewhere. Details as they’re published.

All in all though, a good month’s reading.

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