Review: Grace, by Vanessa Smith

>>Published: April 2011

>>Finally got around to it: May 2011

“You’re suggesting suffering as a choice?” I ask. “That’s your professional opinion? As a doctor?”

“No,” she replies, “acceptance. And I’m not speaking as a doctor, I’m speaking as your mother. It isn’t about choosing suffering, Grace. It’s about choice period. If you sit still in this sadness, I’m scared you’ll never get out of it again. Life is full of a million what if’s. A million unexpected twists and turns. Choosing to walk the path of one—even if it’s wrong—that’s what will get you to the other side.”

“Of what?”

“Expectations, Grace. To experience. It’s the moving that matters. The testing. Trying. That’s what being young is all about. Freedom to choose. It’s your life. It’s up to you what you make of it.”

***

Vanessa Smith’s debut novella is catharsis through emotional self-destruction. Grace tells the story of Grace Linde, a recent UBC graduate and part-time lost soul. At 22, Grace is struggling to figure out the first step beyond her Bachelor’s degree. As the youngest and least accomplished in a family of upper echelon achievers, the weight of expectation is a constant burden on Grace’s day-to-day existence. Torn between desperately seeking her family’s approval and wanting nothing to do with them, it’s the complimentary smile and unexpected attention of an older man that offers Grace the upheaval she impulsively desires. However, the price of this encounter has the potential to forever change Grace’s life.

Grace flows smoothly from beginning to end. Smith writes in partial staccato, often truncating sentences into nickel and dime thoughts—the kinds that pass through half-formed, more emotional than analytical. This perfunctory approach keeps the story moving at a quick clip, never side-stepping away from what matters most: Grace and the steady thrum of self doubt that keeps her at an ever-growing distance from those who might offer a safe and helping hand.

There’s a great deal of personal weight to every word of Grace. The author isn’t content with telling a story. Smith uses Grace Linde as her avatar-cum-confessional—exploring familial relationships through deeply intimate means. Grace is forever in conflict, wanting to have the opportunity to find herself, and at her own pace, yet subject to the dispersed and ambitious pressures of her family’s success—especially those of her mother and sister.

It’s through these conflicts, open and alluded to, that Grace earns its revelations. The experiences of the story have changed Grace, and it is clear by the end of the novella that she will not allow herself to bottom out—that she has accepted what has happened and has started to understand how it will affect the rest of her life. Most importantly, she accepts that it’s still hers to live.

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Review: The Canterbury Trail, by Angie Abdou

>>Published: March 2011

>>Finally got around to it: May 2011

At the mountain’s summit, the sun lit up the billowing cornices, turning them into glazed icing atop a giant cake, making them seem a photographer’s dream rather than a backcountry enthusiast’s nightmare. Even she, who knew better, felt drawn to the gravity-defying pile of snow. She understood Sancho’s urge to run out on the lip of white fluff, suspended on nothing but snow and air, miles above the earth. Out there, she’d be an angel, part of the miracle and closer to the divine.

***

Loosely inspired by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Angie Abdou’s second novel is a difficult moose to wrestle to the ground. This is due less to the quality of writing and more to do with the characters and the book’s structure.

Right away it’s clear that Abdou’s writing has matured dramatically in a very short amount of time, and her sense of voice is the beneficiary. While her previous book, The Bone Cage, was well written, it was also a very straightforward, two-protagonist story. The Canterbury Trail, on the other hand, is far more complex. Abdou juggles fourteen characters and four dogs—so many disparate personalities crammed into such a short novel that it warrants a dramatis personae at the book’s introduction. With a challenging and diverse cast to manage, it would be easy for character personalities to bleed together, but Abdou writes each with a clear sense of who they are and what each pilgrim brings to the table.

That being said, the size of the cast is also the book’s greatest liability. With so much carefully crafted diversity divided across several characters, the frequent shifts in perspective were jarring; the personalities were difficult to crack, to understand, as the opportunities to slip beneath their surface sheen were limited by the segmented structure of the narrative. As a result, the events of the finale left me feeling rather neutral—inspired by the haunting descriptions of mother nature’s wrath, but less than sympathetic to its lasting effect on the pilgrims’ lives. Perhaps it is this and the difficulty I had finding any sort of identification with the characters that caused much of the book’s humour to fall short.

I am not a swimmer or a wrestler—I’ve never competed in any formal sporting events—yet I was able to find my footing with The Bone Cage through the main characters’ drive, their passion to succeed at all costs. That element was very easy to relate to, and it is this aspect, the ability to relate to any of the characters, that I feel has held me back from embracing The Canterbury Trail. The skill on display is admirable, and Abdou has exhibited tremendous growth as a writer with her second novel, but the characters left me in the cold, freezing my toes in the snow and waiting for an entrance into their world.

Review: Paying For It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being A John, by Chester Brown

>>Published: May 2011

Chester Brown’s Paying For It, an autobiographical graphic novel, takes his usual honest-to-a-fault self-reflection and carries it into a subject that, for too many and possibly to the detriment of society and social rights, is still quite taboo—prostitution. More specifically, the moral, ethical, and social conundrums of what it means to pay for sex, and whether or not the perception of the relationship between a John and an escort can ever be normalized, let alone decriminalized.

Brown decides early in the book, after an unconventional break-up with then-girlfriend Sook-Yin, to explore the possibilities of a life without romantic attachments, but with fairly regular sex via escorts. He suggests that it’s the concept of ownership (deliberately manufactured or unconscious) relayed through romanticism that infects an otherwise normal personality—creating jealousy, stress, disharmony, mistrust—and drives people into the depths of romantic or personal self-destruction the likes to which few escape unscathed. Throughout 33 perfunctory chapters, Brown and fellow cartoonists (and regulars in each others’ works) Seth and Joe Matt discuss the issues and pitfalls associated with prostitution and paid-for sex in general.

It’s worth noting that Brown is an advocate for the decriminalization and social acceptance of prostitution—a case that he extends into the book’s detailed appendices. The personal discoveries he comes to throughout the book are made possible by the fact that he forced himself to overcome a stigma that he’d held onto his entire life: that it is inherently wrong to pay for sex. That prostitution is wrong, and that escorts and Johns alike are somehow “less” than others. With this barrier passed, he is free—in mind and spirit—to pursue a life void of romantic entanglements. Following his first encounter, Brown continues down his monogamy-free path with an interesting mixture of scientific curiosity and a teenage boy’s need for physical satisfaction; he has all the eagerness of a puppy with a bone (no pun intended… maybe), yet maintains an almost analytical detachment—at least in his illustrated self—from the escorts he meets.

The illustrations are clean and very spare, with little in the way of extraneous detail. When compared to his other works—most notably Louis Riel and I Never Liked You—it’s easy to see that maturity has brought confidence to his work. As uncomplicated as the individual panels are, his composition deserves special note. No escorts’ faces are ever seen, yet they are hidden in organic ways, never forced, through the structure and set-up of each scene. This is Brown’s work, after all. It’s his personality and discoveries of self on display. He’s always consciously respectful of the escorts and their need for privacy—both in real life and within the pages of this book.

Paying For It is at times unflinchingly honest. That and its somewhat-delicate subject matter may turn off some readers. But those who decide to sink a little further into the mind of Chester Brown will be privy to a discussion that few are willing to have, yet so many seem willing to cast judgement upon.

Review: The Door to Lost Pages, by Claude Lalumiere

>>Published: May 2011

Lost Pages wasn’t the only bookshop I frequented, but the books I found on its shelves were… unique. I never saw any of these books anywhere else. Bizarre Bestiaries. Dictionaries of dead, obscure languages. Maps to lands that may never have been. Essays on religions with unfamiliar names. Obscure mythologies. Accounts of wars no history teacher had ever mentioned. Such were the wares of the bookshop that fed my teenage dreams.

***

Claude Lalumiere’s The Door to Lost Pages is a strange meta-exercise in writing, and for the creative process of book publishing. Lalumiere uses short fiction, some of which has previously seen publication, to construct a tenuously linked novella of surreal encounters, bookended by a fourth wall-shattering dissection of the writer’s process—which, on a conceptual level, holds a mirror to the nigh-mythical Lost Pages bookstore and the dark god Yamesh-Lot, whose tendrils infect the world with fear and nightmares: one is a source for inspiration and salvation; the other is a bestial devourer of creation.

As was evident in his collection of short stories, Objects of Worship, Lalumiere writes with a delicate-yet-perfunctory sense of style, playing simple colours to high effect, as with the recurring uses of green blue and brown—life, sky, and earth respectively, representing an earthly realm apart from the heavens. The Lost Pages bookstore, a salvation metaphor for both the characters and for the avatar of the writer-as-self, as depicted in the coda, is North on a compass—a point of grounding for those who need it, for those who seek to lose themselves in the fantasies of possibility, because the admission of one’s reality as truth would be more disastrous than they’d care to accept. It’s existence is a questionable fact, appearing when it is needed most to defend against the nightmares that encroach upon the world.

The takeaway from the mythology these loosely connected tales provide is that salvation will not come with ease. It must be fought for, and an understanding between one’s desired self and a past or present more closely tethered to reality must be earned through confrontation. It absolutely cannot be won hiding from one’s nightmare vision of the truth amongst the stacks of a fantastical bookstore, no matter how tempting that may be.

As an exercise in creating a universal theme through short fiction—simultaneously crafting a book that is equal parts surrealist fiction and subjective first-person authorial examination—The Door to Lost Pages succeeds more on the merits of its structural experimentation than it does the implementation of its skin-thin fantasy that exists beneath a surface scraped raw.

Review: The Terminal Experiment, by Robert J. Sawyer

>>Published: May 1995

>>Finally got around to it: May 2011

“But you know, Peter, this wouldn’t necessarily simulate true life-after-death. It’s life outside the physical body—but who knows if the soulwave carries with it any of our memories? Of course, if it doesn’t, then it’s not really a meaningful continuation of existence. Without our memories, our pasts, what we were, it wouldn’t be anything we’d recognize as a continuation of the same person.”

“I know,” said Peter. “But if the soul is anything like what people believe it to be like—just the mind, without the body—then this simulation, at least, would give us some idea of what that kind of soul would be like. Then I could have something intelligent to say the next time I get asked that ‘What’s life after death really like?’ question.”

***

Robert J. Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment attempts to solve the (potentially) unsolvable by using science to determine the existence of the soul. Dr. Peter Hobson has stumbled upon one of history’s great discoveries and, using a device of his own creation, has managed to capture a cohesive electrical field as it leaves a recently deceased human body. This radical proof of concept propels him to the front of the scientific community, and the world’s stage. Not content with his limited understanding of the electrical field that may or may not be the soul of the departed escaping to the afterlife—if there is such a thing—Hobson goes a step further and creates three digital, web-based simulacrums of his self: one to simulate life after death, one to experience immortality, and a control duplicate of his personality, minus the one and only thing that might differentiate a human from a machine—a soul.

It’s not long before the experiment escapes Hobson’s control and one of the simulacrums dabbles in murder most self-serving. From this point forward, the book carries on with the steady pace of a thriller, each chapter bleeding seamlessly into the next.

As a thriller, The Terminal Experiment is exciting, easy to follow, and at times offers a genuinely unique approach to the somewhat heavy theological topics at its centre. Where the book doesn’t succeed to the same degree, however, is with the depth of examination into these fascinating concepts.

There’s a certain amount of distance at work in the way in which Sawyer has constructed his narrative. The discovery of the soulwave is monumental—world changing, as a matter of fact. As it should be—science and religion have never been the most amicable of bunkmates, despite sharing the sheets more often than either would like. Throughout the book, Sawyer peppers chapter endings with brief interludes—web and multimedia stories offering snippets of information, details on how the existence of the soulwave and the device that detects it have permeated the deepest levels of government, religion, science, and the medical community. That’s without mentioning the re-examination effect it’s had on the population at large—the soulwave helping to determine exactly when a patient has died, so that their organs are not harvested prematurely; the soulwave not appearing in foetuses until nine weeks, changing how some interpret the abortion laws, or seek to change them for the “betterment” of mankind. Through all this, Hobson has become a celebrity and a potential murder suspect, yet his status never feels as if it has reached the heights it should. A discovery of this magnitude would bring so many to his feet, begging for a piece of the pie, while others would devote their lives and careers to proving him wrong; he’d be worshipped by those who want so desperately to believe, and hunted by those that fear what such a discovery could do to the status quo they’ve worked so hard to maintain in order to delegate their power. There would be riots, mass suicides, death threats coming out of the woodwork.

Yet in the wake of what could be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science and man, the world feels… silent. Sure, the soulwave has changed some lives—given solace and comfort to some, fear of retribution for their crimes to others—but it hasn’t changed the world. Even the experiments, the simulacrums themselves feel oddly confined. Murderous as one of them may be, Hobson has managed to collect potential data on what it might feel like to experience immortality, or to know the existence and purpose of an afterlife, yet no steps are taken to redirect the criminal actions of one of simulacrums by forcing the knowledge of their incredible existence into the public’s cone of sight. It feels, on a philosophical level, as if the existence and collected data within all three simulacrums, given the recent discovery of the soulwave and what it means for humanity, would be invaluable, whatever the cost of acquiring it. Criminal research into a soulless simulacrum, coupled with the soulwave detector, could expand how people with criminal tendencies are treated and understood.

Much as I enjoyed The Terminal Experiment, it does feel like a missed opportunity to dive so much deeper into the way the entire world would shift following such a discovery—especially when it’s considered that it is science, the bare-knuckle opponent of religion since time immemorial, that’s responsible for answering one of the most important theological mysteries of our time. While a terrific thriller, The Terminal Experiment treads frustratingly close to being something that could truly stand on its own, apart from all others.

Review: Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb

>>Published (in French): 1999

>>Published (in English): 2002

>>Finally got around to it: May 2011

It is your duty to be beautiful, though your beauty will afford you no joy. The only compliments you receive will be from Westerners, and we know how short they are on good taste. If you admire yourself in the mirror, let it be in fear and not delight, because the only thing that beauty will bring you is terror of losing it. If you are pretty, you won’t amount to much; if you are not, you will amount to nothing.

***

Based on her time working for a powerful international company in Tokyo, Amélie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling is a study of willpower and the perseverance self-respect provides even under the direst of circumstances. What begins as a rather tumultuous employee-supervisor relationship quickly turns into a duel between two strong personalities, with any semblance of respect travelling in only one direction.

After making the rather grave mistake of accepting a potentially career-advancing opportunity, Amélie, the main character, finds herself the victim of her supervisor Fubuki Mori’s mistrust. Miss Mori, a woman who has spent several years rising to a modest rank within the Yumimoto Corporation, sees another woman—an unintelligent Westerner, no doubt—with confidence and the desire to advance in her career and, through either fear for her own authority or a desire to put her underling in her place, seeks out every possible opportunity to insult Amélie’s intelligence. Gradually, Amélie is demoted to jobs requiring almost no skill or intellect. The more perseverance she exhibits, the more Miss Mori seeks to strike her down. But Amélie has signed a one-year contract, a commitment she will not be bullied into breaking.

As a writer, Nothomb excels at duelling personalities. In Hygiene and the Assassin, it was a battle of wits as the journalist and the dying writer sliced one another with increasingly personal jabs, both bloody messes by the end. In Fear and Trembling, however, there is less back and forth discovery, with layers of history and psychological barriers being torn down. The battle fought between Amélie and Miss Mori is one of strength, first and foremost, as Amélie sets her sights on the end of her one-year contract as the bright light at the end of her journey. It’s all that matters. She knows her own intellect, and takes satisfaction when others in the company wage silent protests to support the valiant effort she puts forth. Whatever punishments are inflicted upon her, Amélie remains steadfast, determined to complete her contract.

Fear and Trembling is an interesting examination of the east-meets-west cultural divide, painted through the lens of the Japanese corporate culture. The abject racism on display is filtered the invisible corporate ladder, as a means of depicting the divide between the more western mentality of advancement through ambition, and the slow, painful climb from the bottom to the top—regardless of ability or worth—that is evident in the Japanese corporate culture that Amélie struggles to adopt.

Review: Up Up Up, by Julie Booker

>>Published: April 2011

>>Finally got around to it: May 2011

She sees him only in her dreams now. Coming through the forest for her. Like the Big Bad Wolf. She’s disappointed, because she’s just finished decorating herself a house that suits her every need, her heart finally content. In her dreams Ray kicks her in the stomach and they have makeup sex stronger than mortar. She knows there will never be another like this. The depth of it. The tears. The repulsion and the coming back to herself as she rides him, making those animal noises. So that even the Woodcutter, ambling through the woods, holds still, wondering if it’s pain or pleasure he’s hearing. But he is busy with another wolf, another story. And in her dream she is never rescued; she simply moves house, leaves the neighbourhood. Gets her phone number unlisted. And every time Ray finds her, she sighs and opens the door before he breaks it down.

***

A quick peak online tells me that Up Up Up is Julie Booker’s debut. That might be the case—this is her first published collection—but this is clearly writing that has been honed and pared down to the bone.

The twenty stories collected in this book show an understanding of short fiction and the absolute need for cleanliness. In some cases, these stories feel drafted through a literary variation of architectural design—sharp, exact lines and simplicity of diction as the base. Every now and then she’ll get into a rhythm, like in the pulled section above, and the language and sentence structure will start to accelerate, impressively gathering momentum with such little space to work with. It’s noir-ish in technique, minus the booze, broads and bullets. A little bit of James Ellroy, were he to write about art instructors, abusive teen relationships, and women struggling with their weight and their friendship as they trek through Alaska.

The economical style Booker employs in her word usage and sentence structure is echoed in the rather short, perfunctory conversations that her characters engage in. They don’t drawl, they don’t hypothesize, and they don’t ruminate over the ins and outs of the world. Stories like “Levitate” encapsulate a wealth of shared experiences—teasing, compromised friendships, and the youthful way we all thrive on the guilt of others to give our egos that boost we so frequently crave—in less space than most authors would use to fire their opening salvos.

Some are certainly stronger than others—the aforementioned “Levitate”, “Breakup Fresh” and “Scratch” are the standouts, while “The Exchange” is possibly the weakest of the lot—but every story in Up Up Up offers a new, complete set of concepts in its tight and to-the-point running length.