Review: Sandra Beck, by John Lavery

>>Published: September 2010

>>Finally got around to it: October 2010

Never before have the words “my happiness” been said with so much genuine feeling that, given the context, the resulting tone could be nothing but sad. Such is the case with Sandra Beck, the first novel from author John Lavery.

Known for his short fiction, Lavery writes this novel with a similar conceit—as a collective mosaic of memories that, through a series of peripherals, construct an emotional, physical and sexual blueprint of the titular character, Sandra Beck. Because this book is Sandra’s story, from start to finish, though she might refrain from ever stepping into the spotlight. Instead we are treated to two divisive viewpoints.

For the first quarter of the book, we see Sandra and her world through the eyes of her daughter, Josée. To Josée, Sandra is everything. She is her happiness, her world. She is even everything a person should never be to one who loves them so completely: not enough. Never enough. She is Josée’s life and is far removed from it at the same time. Years skip back and forth like a record warped and we see the daughter’s perspective change as she awakens sexually and moves away from the relatively constricted world of her parents.

The remaining three-quarters of the book are from the mind of her husband, Paul-Francois (PF, as he’s called more often than not). For the bulk of their lives, Sandra and PF have flitted in and out of each other’s circles, coming together, clashing, moving apart and finding one another all over again. With no destination in mind, PF drives for nearly 200 pages through Quebec back roads into Montreal with Sandra as a disembodied voice sitting in the backseat of his car. We see the many ways and many places they might have met for the first time; we witness the crimes PF has struggled to process as Chief of Police, watched him struggle through an interrogation as thoughts of Sandra and her ordeal rifle through his head. PF is a complex man, a difficult to understand man as we cycle through the different epochs of his life and the varied measure of a man he has built himself into, and all of it to service the memory of the woman he loved for most of his life.

Sandra. The mother, the musician with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra who lost a foot to cancer—a procedure which the book itself, mirrored through the ones she uses to propel herself through life, uses as a crutch by which the story circles at all times. She’s an enigma—difficult to love, impossible to forget, and by the last pages of the book, someone you wish you could get to know for even a few pages more.

The story is not always clear, and in some cases the diction proves difficult in establishing a rhythm, but Sandra Beck is further evidence that some of the best work, the most experimental work, is coming out of Canada these days. I’ve been torn as to whether or not I should recommend this book, knowing full well that it has a very specific audience and is most certainly not for everybody. But in the end I have to throw my weight behind this title. It really is like no other, and in getting to know Sandra through the people that loved her, I feel like I’ve seen more deeply into the heart of a character than any I’ve read in a very long time.

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Review: Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod

>>Published: September 2010

>>Finally got around to it: October 2010

Darkness, more often than not these days, exists as the axiom of the short story. Giving us characters as fractured as broken glass, with souls as black and jagged as a hunk of coal; they lie, cheat, beat each other up, kill one another with glorious abandon, betray basic human decencies and corrupt one another with almost comical ease. Compacted fiction takes the best and worst of us and distills said elements into a mere few thousand words. With so little space to work with, it’s no wonder why so many truly effective works of short fiction leave the reader feeling as if they’ve just been mugged and left to whimper softly with a knife in one side.

It is this utterly inexorable, to-the-point humanity on display in Alexander MacLeod’s first collection of seven short stories that packs such a wallop. The characters in Light Lifting are often so cold as to appear anything but human, but their actions so recognizable—with or without cause or discernable motivation—that they could truly be nothing but. The more one gets a feel for MacLeod’s characters and style of writing, the more the prevailing coldness wipes clean and the people beneath take shape. The perfunctory use of language doesn’t sugar coat the actions of any of these characters—their filth is in the open, plain-as-day visible as the scars so many of them are wearing by the time their stories come to a violent/deadly/despairing conclusion.

At once an educated economy of phrasing and an interesting exercise in truncating information, the author pares down the descriptions to only what is needed and ends up developing a secondary language of visually heavy shotgun bursts that are entirely unexpected but incredibly effective at cutting right to the quick:

“Desired outcomes. What we want is when we want it. No way to connect where we are and where we were. This is the opposite of everything we have ever done before. Sugar pills, place savers, in the circle dispenser. Click, click, click. Be sure to pull out. Blow your load. Days sprawling. Three years to finish the thesis. No rush. Smeared towels. Breakfast at three in the afternoon. Our first real bed, the mattress raised up off the ground. First place. Tall ceilings. Candles melting in the necks of wine bottles. Sticky cast off T-shirts. Summer humidity. Sun dresses and tank tops. Thin tan lines rolling over her shoulder. Freckles. Crusty Kleenex. A rubber swirling down the bowl. Ribbed for her pleasure. Random Wednesday afternoon. Lazy like you do not know.”

What feels cold and detached at first is quickly revealed to be loaded; each story is a cavalcade of emotions and actions we likely wish forgotten. MacLeod isn’t interested in playing it safe, or washing over the little bits of darkness we can uniformly relate to with a coat of nostalgia. He’d much rather use that nostalgia—the memories of people, places, and specific times and events in our lives—as a vehicle for playing on the past and mistakes so many of us have made (or wanted to make), holding them up as if to say, “This is what’s really in there. Take a good long luck, mother fucker.”

Brilliant.

Review: Sarah Court, by Craig Davidson

>>Published: September 2010

>>Finally got around to it: October 2010

“Truth is, the humans whose company I enjoy most are those most like animals. I spent time in a brain injury ward. One boy suffered massive cerebral hemorrhages due to his mother’s narrow birth chute. The most beautiful, open smile. He experienced more moments of joy in one day than I’ll claim to in a lifetime. Most of us would be better off having our heads held under water a couple minutes. Ever see an unhappy dog, Nicholas?”

***

Life for the denizens of Sarah Court is a bit less than usual. Apart from the norm that most would be comfortable showing to the world, whether the darkness and dysfunction are there or not. But it’s not just darkness that comes through the mosaic of interwoven tales that make up Sarah Court. Each story, be it of a father expecting to dredge his daredevil son’s body out from the base of Niagara Falls or of a daughter whose life is nearly crushed out of her when her wrist breaks and a barbell drops onto her throat, has a tangibility to it that is altogether uncommon in most borderline horror/surrealist lit. That tangibility belongs entirely to the characters. They don’t feel real; they practically are real. Author Craig Davidson has pulled a series of characters that at first glance feel like a potluck of awkward and unconventional personas, but in each of them he’s managed to tap a vein that a lot of authors would miss—that little bit of blood in the water, circling them at all times, that gives weight to their pasts and their actions and musings within the stories themselves.

In short: they’re fuck ups, but fuck ups in a totally relatable way, despite being entirely un-relatable in concept.

The dialogue matches the prose—sparse and to the point. There’s little wasted space in the book’s 300+ pages. Only a couple of years old, CZP’s output is greatly increasing in quality. Their books have always had an edge and a style to them that few other publishers would even attempt, and the slightly smaller digest size of Sarah Court immediately makes it stand out as something that feels tight and substantial.

I struggled with the first story in the collection, but as I progressed through the stories (and the almost Pulp Fiction-esque manner of dissection and repurposing timelines into a new viewpoint became clearer with each newly introduced thread of familiarity), the book took on a life of its own.

Review: Room, by Emma Donoghue

>>Published: September 2010

>>Finally got around to it: October 2010

In recent weeks, thanks to the glut of the publishing industry’s awards season, several books have been on everybody’s lips. The two that seem to be going back and forth across the headlines like two dancers that just won’t leave the floor when the lights come on are Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and Emma Donoghue’s Room. And since I have next to no desire to read the Oprah-endorsed juggernaut that is Freedom (partially because it really has such a fugly cover. I mean seriously, it looks like baby’s first Photoshop job gone viciously wrong), I threw my cards in with Room and decided to see what the epic-tier fuss was all about.

Short answer? It’s very good, definitely unique, distressing beyond words and to use a current en vogue term that just won’t go away, unputdownable. With that said, it’s also not entirely satisfying.

A little bit more detail you say? The book is an amazing achievement and definitely deserving of it’s many accolades—for the authorial risk more than anything—but it is not without its faults. The most obvious of which was the narrator’s voice.

It was a ballsy move to put the emotional entry point of the book in the mind of its five-year-old protagonist, Jack, and in most cases there is no other way I could imagine the book being told and being as effective, but it was an uphill climb into that mindset. I never felt lost in the plot, so to speak. Of course it’s not possible to transpose yourself into just any character, setting or plot, but with Room I never left the lobby—always watching from afar, like the story was being dictated rather than told. I’m not sure if that distinction is clear, but it’s the best I’ve got for the moment. More to the point, the child felt, well… robotic. His mannerisms and inquisitive nature in any given moment, in spite of the sheltered world apart from reality his mom had created for him, never felt genuine. This is more a problem with how it was written than with the idea of running with the child narrator. Again, it is not written poorly by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is it written convincingly. At least not for this reader. Jack’s moments of excitement and elation felt triggered in such perfunctory ways as to be more annoying than relatable.

Would I recommend the book? Absolutely. It’s a gut wrenching, painfully disturbing book, but entirely worthwhile and eye opening in many ways. Most likely some will read this and cry foul, wanting to tell me that I’ve missed some crucial element in my reading, but if I have to be honest, I can think of so many books this year from Canadian authors that have snagged me with their writing and ideas in a way that Room simply never managed to do. Maybe this review is a product of the hype. It’s possible, like I suspect would happen with Freedom at this point, that my expectations were too high going into the book. Whether or not that changed anything isn’t the point, because when all is said and done, I was left wishing so many scenes had been handled in an incrementally different manner. Enough of those increments add up to something substantial, and that’s why Room failed to convince me that it was anything more than an engaging, often uncomfortable, sometimes enlightening experience.

Review: The Hair Wreath and Other Stories, by Halli Villegas

>>Published: September 2010

>>Finally got around to it: October 2010

Suffocation is one of the predominant themes in this collection of ghost stories, a first for Tightrope Books publisher Villegas—be it the constriction one feels in a home meant for another or a literal strand of hair that was wound its way through an unfaithful man’s teeth, fastening itself to his heart.

The ghosts in these nineteen tales are not altogether malevolent, but neither are they disinterested observers. In each case, whether they are the focus or merely the vehicle by which another’s tale is told, these ghosts are illustrative—guides of a sort as they impart some knowledge hitherto unknown to the living in each story. Nowhere is this more evident than in the longest story in the collection, “Twenty-First Century Design,” in which the home of a once-upon-a-time musician who may or may not have shot himself becomes the prison through which an entire family must traverse their own systems of values, the dissemination of which is mired in the lust for material design and the appearance of wealth, and the dissatisfaction that comes with it when one realizes that a house is never constructed as a home, rather becomes one through those that live in it.

Villegas exhibits terrific attention to the detailed actions of her characters, never once employing forceful or abrasive tactics to drive her intentions. Instead, the collected stories in The Hair Wreath form a cohesive treatise on memory—what it means to listen to it, to ignore it, to let it take control and stand in the way of one’s life—and the sometimes distressing, sometimes disturbing, embodiments thereof.

The 2010 Marathon So Far…

In no particular order (sorta how I read them, sorta scattered to the wind) and comprised of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, graphica and anything else I can get my mitts on:

1. The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell
2. Over Qualified – Joey Comeau
3. Can’t Lit – Richard Rosenbaum (ed.)
4. Push – Sapphire
5. Red Snow – Susumu Katsumata
6. Empire of the Sun – J. G. Ballard
7. Sphere – Michael Crichton
8.The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson
9. The Girl Who Played With fire – Stieg Larsson
10. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – Stieg Larsson
11. Mein Kampf – Adolf Hitler
12. South of the Border, West of the Sun – Haruki Murakami
13. Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami
14. The Thing Around Your Neck – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
15. Overclocked – Cory Doctorow
16. Rendezvous With Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
17. Little Brother – Cory Doctorow
18. Beautiful Creatures – Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
19. Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto – Simon Young
20. Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human – Matt Ridley
21. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature – Steven Pinker
22. After the Quake – Haruki Murakami
23. Big Machine – Victor LaValle
24. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – Wells Tower
25. The Elephant Vanishes: Stories – Haruki Murakami
26. White Noise – Don Delillo
27. 1974: Book One of the Red Riding Quartet – David Peace
28. 1977: Book Two of the Red Riding Quartet – David Peace
29. 1980: Book Three of the Red Riding Quartet – David Peace
30. 1983: Book Four of the Red Riding Quartet – David Peace
31. Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
32. Jazz – Toni Morrison
33. In the Country of Last Things – Paul Auster
34. The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
35. The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli
36. We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson
37. How This Night is Different – Elisa Albert
38. Nikolski – Nicolas Dickner

39. Aya: The Secrets Come Out – Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie
40. Feed – M. T. Anderson
41. James Sturm’s America: God, Gold and Golems – James Sturm
42. Lullaby – Chuck Palahniuk
43. Market Day – James Sturm
44. Black Blizzard – Yoshihiro Tatsumi
45. Wilson – Daniel Clowes
46. The Golden Mean – Annabel Lyon
47. The Final Solution: A Story of Detection – Michael Chabon
48. The Book of Daniel – E. L. Doctorow
49. Eastern Standard Tribe – Cory Doctorow
50. A Place So Foreign and Eight More – Cory Doctorow
51. Almost Transparent Blue – Ryu Murakami
52. For The Win – Cory Doctorow
53. The Bradbury Report – Steven Polansky
54. The World More Full of Weeping – Robert J. Wiersema
55. The Thief of Broken Toys – Tim Lebbon
56. Chimerascope – Douglas Smith
57. Cities of Night – Philip Nutman
58. Chasing the Dragon – Nicholas Kaufmann
59. Objects of Worship – Claude Lalumiere
60. Monstrous Affections – David Nickle
61. L (And Things Come Apart) – Ian Orti
62. Katja from the Punk Band – Simon Logan
63. Horror Story and Other Horror Stories – Robert Boyczuk
64. Filaria – Brent Hayward
65. The Warhol Gang – Peter Darbyshire
66. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
67. Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter – Tom Bissell
68. Audition – Ryu Murakami
69. Memory Wall: Stories – Anthony Doerr
70. Fear of Fighting – Stacey May Fowles
71. The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi
72. Butterflies in Bucaramanga – Tanna Patterson-Z
73. Your Call is Important to Us: the Truth About Bullshit – Laura Penny
74. Drift Child – Rosella Leslie
75. Murder in the Chilcotin – Roy Innes
76. Moon Honey – Suzette Mayr
77. Harvest and Other Plays – Ken Cameron
78. Ice Fields – Thomas Wharton
79. Un Lun Dun – China Meiville
80. The Tel Aviv Dossier – Lavie Tidhar and Nir Yaniv
81. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
82. Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins
83. Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins
84. Room – Emma Donoghue
85. The Hair Wreath and Other Stories – Halli Villegas
86. Sarah Court – Craig Davidson
87. Arrhythmia – Alice Zorn
88. Grayling Cross – Gayleen Froese
89. Santa Rosa – Wendy McGrath
90. Gangson – Andy Weaver
91. Light Lifting – Alexander MacLeod
92. Sandra Beck – John Lavery
93. Beautiful Darkness – Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl
94. Hygiene and the Assassin – Amélie Nothomb
95. People Live Still in Cashtown Corners – Tony Burgess
96. Annabel – Kathleen Winter
97. Bats or Swallows – Teri Vlassopoulos
98. The Obituary – Gail Scott
99. Before I Wake – Robert J. Wiersema
100. Major Karnage – Gord Zajac
101. The Devil You Know – Jenn Farrell
102. Transubstantiate – Richard Thomas
103. Essex County – Jeff Lemire
104. In A Strange Room – Damon Galgut
105. Sub Rosa – Amber Dawn
106. In The Mean Time – Paul Tremblay
107. Hate List – Jennifer Brown
108. Apocalypse for Beginners – Nicolas Dickner
109. A Drifting Life – Yoshihiro Tatsumi
110. Bedtime Story – Robert J. Wiersema
111. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu
112. A Single Match – Oji Suzuki