A Scottish-Canadian Blethering On About Books

Notes and reflections - not really worthy to be called reviews - written at various times over a long life of eclectic reading.

The Birth House (McKay)

The Birth House - Ami McKay

Given that this falls into a subgenre of literary women's fiction that I flippantly call the "gynecological novel", I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. A large part of that is due to the historical setting, around WW I, which gave both urgency and context to the fairly straightforward narrative of a young woman's apprenticeship in, and practice of, midwifery, chiefly in opposition to the men around her. This is largely a story of female friendship and mutual support, though I hasten to add that there are a few sympathetic male characters, notably Dora's brothers and her eventual lover. They have, however, a relatively small part to play in comparison with the three overwhelmingly negative males who create the tension in the story: the abusive Mr. Ketch, murderer of women and of Dora's reputation; Dora's feckless and increasingly controlling husband, Archer; and, of course, the obstetrical villain of the piece, Dr. Thomas.

As a woman who, if she had ever given birth, would have undoubtedly chosen to take advantage of medical science, pain relief, and the security of an institutional setting, I find myself in an odd position when asked to sympathize unstintingly with the older, less professional, in many cases highly unscientific practices and ideology of home birth and midwifery as presented here. To navigate this problem, I fall back on my knowledge of my own profound ignorance of the realities of childbearing, but also on the reassuring notion, which I devoutly hope is true, that the stark opposition of male and female, science and superstition, pharmaceuticals and plant remedies, is moderated in our own time by some mutual understanding, in a way that it was not in 1914-1918.

I said at the beginning that I'm not a fan of the gynecological novel in general. This one, fortunately for me, was character-driven rather than obsessed (as some are) with pain, blood and the fragility of life. I enjoyed Dora's gradual coming of age as a proto-feminist; near the end of the novel she travels far from her small Nova Scotia community to a foreign but friendly women's enclave in foreign but friendly Boston, where she associates with suffragists and lesbians (and her brother Charles) before returning to home base Scots Bay and her final defeat of the interloping Doctor Thomas.

The style is transparent and unexceptionable. I wouldn't characterize the novel as having a particularly vivid sense of place in comparison with some of the other east-coast Canadian novels I've read, nor is it particularly poetic in its description, but it was enough to carry the story and the characters. In enjoyed the introduction of the expected historical milestones - the Halifax explosion, the Armistice, the Spanish flu. All in all, a quick and painless read, without benefit of chloroform.

Gone Girl (Flynn)

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

Following along in my great tradition of reading the trendiest books long after their trend is over, I finally got around to spending time with Nick and Amy Dunne. I was completely unspoiled, having paid no attention whatsoever to reviews of either the movie or the book.

Well, in a nutshell, I didn't mind it - it was cleverly done - but I wasn't particularly blown away. At first I found the style (especially the Amy-diary style) irritating, but then I realized that it was deliberate and under control. The fact that there was a twist mid-book came as no surprise whatsoever, and in fact the only (mild) surprise I felt was that the unreliable narrator-twist wasn't played one more time before the end (i.e. I was completely prepared to discover that Nick had engineered the whole thing, including the manufacture of supporting documents and a "suicide" by Amy).

I fully understand why some people found the ending irritating, but that's just a variation on the trope of "evil didn't die" that shows up at the end of horror films like "Carrie", I think. It's your last, parting shudder (it walks amongst us still). With two such horrible people as protagonists, you're not going to get a morally satisfying ending short of tossing them both off a cliff - which, frankly, I would have been delighted to do at several points during the proceedings.

Oh well. It's always worth making a bit of effort to pull oneself further inside the circle of common cultural references. It felt a bit like a much-procrastinated duty, but as duties go, it was not a particularly unpleasant one.

The Girl on the Balcony (Hussey)

The Girl on the Balcony: Olivia Hussey Finds Life After Romeo and Juliet - Olivia Hussey

I'm sorry to say that I came to this because, in connection with #metoo discussions, someone mentioned a nasty sexual assault on Olivia Hussey, taking place in the same house as the Manson murders only months afterwards. I'm also sorry to say that incident is indeed in this autobiography.

 

However, I have some very tender memories of the Hussey/Whiting/Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, a film I saw (like so many of my generation) in my teens while studying the play, so I was very happy to read Olivia Hussey's stories about the making of that film, when she was herself a mere teenager. It seems she got along with Zeffirelli very well indeed, and had a little fling with her gorgeous co-star to boot.

 

For the remainder of her career, Hussey was (at least for me), one of those "I know that face" actresses; she had parts in any number of films and TV miniseries I am sure I have seen, but of which I have no very vivid recollection. It appears she struggled with anxiety and agoraphobia (she mentions it more in her stories about her youth, but she doesn't say she ever completely overcame it); that in itself is adequate explanation for why she never made that last breakthrough to the top echelon of movie stars. She appears, however, to have more or less made a go of it, right up until she was completely impoverished by a crooked manager (this is not libel - he was prosecuted).

 

She appears to have been attracted by highly extroverted and performative men: her 3 husbands were Dean Paul Martin (son of Dean Martin), a Japanese singer, and an American rock singer. The first two marriages fell apart within a few years, but the third has lasted several decades. She had a child from each marriage, and Alex, the son of the first marriage, is credited as co-author on this book. There's also quite a lot about the budding acting career of her daughter, India, from the third marriage, but very little about the middle son.

 

Hussey goes into considerable detail about her discipleship, formed early, of an Indian guru she called "Baba"; I seriously doubt that he was quite so unequivocally virtuous and wise as she portrays him, and I completely doubt all the little anecdotes she delights in of his predicting all the twists and turns of her life before they occurred. However, she does seem to have been a bit of a religious seeker, and he apparently gave her a fair bit of balance and calm, so it isn't kind to be too censorious. Her reliance on "Baba", however, seems symptomatic of another pattern throughout the book - Olivia doesn't seem to have done well, or even desired to do well, without a man to lean on. The organizing principle of the book, such as it is, is not her progression from professional role to professional role (indeed, she leaves some things out altogether, especially towards the end of her career - you would never know she's a voice-over artist, for instance) but from marriage to marriage. And of course it's her prerogative, but one often gets the sense that even her account of that progression leaves out a lot of (probably painful) detail. In her description of her relationship with Dean Paul Martin, for instance, she tells how they separated after only a few years, and divorced a few years later, but she makes it seem as though he might still have been interested in coming back to her when they were both a bit more mature. The name of Dorothy Hamill (the skater, and Dean Paul Martin's wife for a few years in the early 80s) is never mentioned, and neither is that marriage.

 

Hussey satisfies with some grace what she must know would be a major attraction of her account, namely stories about interactions with actors more famous than herself, such as Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Dean Martin (of course) and Bette Davis (apparently an absolute harridan in her late-life appearance in Death on the Nile). Hussey is not a mean-spirited chronicler; she seems quite self-aware about her own failings, and she does not complain over-much about the truly nasty financial ill luck that attended both her early childhood and her later years, though we can read into her stories about moving from place to place the strain that must have placed on her.

 

There is a section of about 3 dozen photographs, some colour, many of them family, but some from her roles; this section was very well hidden (no chapter heading) in the e-version of the book, and so came as a pleasant surprise at the end of the text. From it, we easily gather that the people around her have been the most important thing in Hussey's life, and also that she has remained into later years remarkably good-looking.

 

Recommended if you like anecdotal film memoirs of the 60s/70s.

Peter O'Toole: the Definitive Biography (Sellers)

Peter O'Toole : the definitive biography - Robert Sellers

Is this really "the definitive biography"? It's certainly the best in a very disappointing field since O'Toole's death. Notably absent amongst the people interviewed as original sources: any of O'Toole's surviving family, including ex-wife Sian Phillilps (mother of his two daughters) or ex-partner Karen Brown (mother of his late-life son). So this is definitely not the "authorized" biography, which can be a good or a bad thing. In this case, I think it has been detrimental to any real understanding of O'Toole's family life (Sian Phillips' autobiography is a useful corrective for the years when they were married).

 

I was dubious when I saw Robert Sellers to be the author, because he has also written books with such unpromising titles as "Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed" and "Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down: How One Generation of British Actors Changed the World". In other words, he gives every appearance of being one of those bloke-ish biographers who delight in chronicling promiscuity and drunkenness, as if they were something necessarily associated with great talent and in some way admirable. Mind you, to be fair, if you're going to write about Peter O'Toole, you're going to have to address both of those major factors in his life and career. But I was pleasantly surprised at the relative absence of celebratory adjectives about the alcoholism that most certainly contributed to O'Toole's dreadful health in the second part of the career (not to mention his very poor reputation amongst landlords and other property owners).

 

The sources for this book are chiefly gossipy minor players in the entertainment world, most of whom doubtless have dined out on their O'Toole stories for some time, so we must take into account the natural human tendencies to embellish and generalize. The other people involved in the best anecdotes are by and large gone from us, and can't issue any refutations (if indeed they would wish to). But in addition to O'Toole's mischief, drinking, and occasional completely thoughtless cruelty, I found that there was also a ring of truth - through repetition from different sources - in the accounts of his deep thoughtfulness about his craft, his extensive and intelligent reading, and a generosity that could be as extravagant as his narcissism. As I think I remarked in my review of "Hellraisers", O'Toole still comes off, like Burton, as someone you could see wanting to associate with, as opposed to some of the nastier drunks in his circle of contemporaries. (And lest anyone wonder, it does seem that he dabbled in drugs as well.)

 

Sellers puts to rest the old controversy of where O'Toole was born, Ireland or England, by digging up the actual birth certificate from Leeds. But he does also acknowledge throughout that O'Toole became Irish, almost by dint of wishing so very much to be Irish (he always claimed himself that he did not actually know one way or the other).

The book has a decent apparatus (index, bibliography, list of film and theatre credits), and there are citations at the end for most paragraphs, though since most of said citations are to "author's interview with X", there's really not much verification that can be done. Sellers also took the time to view the historical record in the form of TV talk show utterances (now much more available to us through youtube), and he relies relatively little on previous biographical work as far as I can see, although Sian Phillips is of course fairly heavily cited.

 

"Better than expected" doesn't seem like particularly high praise, but in fact I'm quite pleased to give this book a place on my shelves. Since O'Toole will unfortunately never continue his slim, whimsical, fascinating autobiographical efforts into the most riveting years of his career, we must rely on the more prosaic expressions (and perhaps more reliable memories?) of the people around him who may not have been his nearest and dearest, but for that very reason may have been reliable observers.

 

Recommended to fans of O'Toole and people who enjoy anecdotal biography about London and Hollywood in the mid to late 20th century.

Snap (Bauer)

Snap - Belinda Bauer

I do enjoy modern thrillers, so it's not completely unlikely that I would have read this without the Booker longlist nomination that caused me to push the "add to waitlist" button on my e-library account. And I've probably wasted too much mental energy since, wondering whether the odd halo cast by the Booker has subtly altered my expectations and in what direction.

 

I quite enjoyed this, but it had a few shortcomings that niggled at me during and after the reading. Chief amongst these was an unsupported motivation for the principal crime - a motivation referenced in the title, but really no motivation at all. I know people snap, but we got to know the villain so little that his snapping seemed not just out of character but out of the blue. The main character, Jack, was much more accessible, and in the main much more likeable, which helped somewhat to bridge over the rather distressing way he solved the problem of his mother's murderer towards the end of the book. However, I couldn't help feeling that the random vandalism and lashing out that was the nastier end of a generally nice young boy was planted more to make his violence at the end seem plausible than because it was consistent with his own back-story.

 

Marvel and Reynolds, the cops, are a nicely-balanced pair of caricatures with a good double act that provokes the occasional smile. I hope, if this is part of a series, that Rice, their female sidekick, gets a bit more to do than she did here: as a character, I felt she had promise.

 

I liked the deliberation of the initial chapters and the way the plot picked up in both pace and bizarre events towards the end. This is as it should be in a thriller. There was, however, no twist to speak of (the identity of the knife-maker was, I suppose, a bit of a reveal, though certainly one I saw coming). The only mildly unexpected thing at the end was that one of the cops suppressed some information that would have had grave consequences for young Jack.

 

Anyway, I'd recommend this for people who like thrillers anyway, but not for people who read prize literature nominees because of their literary qualities.

Obasan (Kogawa)

Obasan - Joy Kogawa

I knew of "Obasan" long before I read it; it wasn't compulsory reading in any of my high school or university courses (as it has since become, so I hear) but it was discussed, and unlike most novels its publication arguably had a material effect on society at large. It's generally acknowledged that Kogawa's 1981 imaginative depiction of the plight of Japanese and Japanese-Canadian internees in WWII and after was a contributing factor in the government's eventual (1988) apology and settlement, shamefully so many decades after the wrongs were done.

 

So it's an important novel, but was it an enjoyable read? My four stars, I must admit, are somewhat more respectful than enthusiastic. There are passages that are utterly riveting, particularly in the latter half once the characters have established themselves. I like the POV, that of a young girl, because it allows for quirky observation, and a softening (since children are resilient) of the trauma of dire material and emotional damage inflicted by the xenophobia and racist actions of the government. This does not mean that Naomi is not traumatized by the fracturing of her family, and the eventual death of both her parents. In fact, partly due to the cultural value of staying silent (referred to throughout the novel), she finds herself often in a world of inexplicable bad dreams. Naomi's silent victimhood, and that of her even more silent elderly female aunt, Obasan, is balanced by westernized and vocal Aunt Emily, whose talents for documentation and indignation bridge the gap between Naomi's remembered if rather uncomprehending childhood and her present, in which she finally finds out the fate of her missing mother. (If I say the word Nagasaki, it is probably a spoiler).

 

There is a lot of death in this novel - death of family, death of strangers, death of animals. It can get to be a bit much, and for me that was not totally balanced out by the lyricism and accuracy of the physical description, particularly that of the dry, strange province I grew up in, Alberta (actually felt it in my throat at moments). And since I come to this novel a full generation after the nation made its apologies and amends, I am not moved by the same outrage I probably would have felt as a young person in 1981 - yet still I was moved.

 

So, four stars. Read it, but not on a day when you are depressed, because although it is not a deliberately depressing novel - it is quite a bit more nuanced than that - the circumstances that gave rise to it, the mindless, careless depravity of our own society's treatment of the other, are profoundly depressing in themselves, and all too relevant today as well.

SPOILER ALERT!

Man Overboard (Jance)

Man Overboard: An Ali Reynolds Novel (Ali Reynolds Series) - J.A. Jance

J.A. Jance has a huge number of titles in her back catalogue, but this is the first one I've read. I'd characterize this as a pleasant, well-managed beach read. It has no intrusive romantic sub-plot (there are hints that the main character, Ali, and her husband had such a plot in the past, but this is book #12 in the series and their established relationship takes up little to no room in the narrative). In fact, two subsidiary characters in their company, computer nerd Stuart Ramey and up-and-comer investigator Cami, have centre stage until the last moment, when Ali mounts a rescue effort that, happily, doesn't even require her to fire her gun.

The plot of this novel turns on an implausible (I hope) premise: an Artificial Intelligence that develops its own moral compass and acts accordingly.  The world of AI is the new supernatural for most of us ordinary mortals, so I will cheerfully go along with it (just as I go along with witches in Macbeth) for the sake of the story.

Although the underlying theme of the story is a sobering one - intergenerational effects of suicides - there is nothing here either so gripping or so horrifying that it could spoil the novel's cheerful gallop towards the inevitable fate of the bad and the rescue and reward of the good. A pleasing pastime, falling in my mental classifications near to the series by J.D. Robb, though without the cloying romance aspects.

SPOILER ALERT!

Caedmon's Song (Robinson)

Caedmon's Song - Peter Robinson

According to his afterword, this non-Banks story from Peter Robinson, though published in 2003, was written in the late '80s (it's copyrighted 1990), and he made a conscious choice not to try to update it into the internet age. The 1980s setting is, in fact, one of its selling points for me; I have a curious nostalgia for the days when it was the norm to be unhooked from the rest of the world, and operating purely independently and often in the absence of definite information on any number of minor topics. It was actually possible not only to get lost, but to be lost to other people.

 

This is a two-stream narrative, both in the third person but very much focused on a single point of view, and both tracking a young woman. It becomes evident early on to an attentive reader that both streams are about the same person; what is unresolved until a little later is just how close in time the two narratives are, one detailing a horrifyingly traumatic sexual assault just barely short of murder by an established serial killer, and the other telling about the cascading ethical (and physical) horrors of seeking revenge. Unlike a detective novel, this one does not concern itself with the legal consequences of the three murders that the protagonist commits on that journey. In some ways, having found ourselves in her head all through the novel, that's a bit of relief. We get to decide for ourselves (or fail to decide) what justice might look like in the horrifyingly unjust world in which Kirsten first finds herself, and to which Martha and Sue eventually contribute. (The multiple names refer simply to successive disguises the woman takes on during her journey of revenge, not to multiple personalities in the "Sybil" sense, but certainly there is a resonance with that general notion of the traumatized fractured self).

 

I have seen mixed reactions to this novel on the review sites, partly attributable (of course) to that bane of series novelists, frustrated expectations, but partly with reasoned criticisms of what was in fact a first work, though not first published. Myself, I liked it very much, enough to give it my standard Robinson four stars. It already shows some of the strengths that make his mature work so compulsively readable: psychological complexity, a keen eye and ear for the details of the world, and a solid grasp of narrative progression and structure.

SPOILER ALERT!

Full Disclosure (McLachlin)

Full Disclosure: A Novel - Beverley McLachlin

This could have been just a novelty - a mystery novel written by an ex-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Excellence in the judicial sphere, though it implies a good mind and a decent command of language, doesn't necessarily presage excellence in fictional composition. But I thought this was much better than just a novelty, though it's clearly a first effort. There's a little bit of over-explaining.  The clues about the big reveal were far too numerous and a little too obvious. But the plot was well-managed on the whole, and there was just a little soupcon of ethical ambiguity at the end, which was a pleasant surprise. And, of course, the courtroom scenes were outstanding, with every psychological twist and turn fully understood and made clear, with its curious mix of deadly seriousness and lawyers' games.

If McLachlin felt inclined to self-reference, I only caught her at it once, and it was a funny sentence near the beginning: "The Arthur Erickson building that houses the Supreme Court of British Columbia  is light and airy, and there's a portrait of the chief justice of Canada on the wall (when she was young and looked good) to remind me that sometimes, occasionally, women do rule."

McLachlin made the interesting choice to locate her young defence attorney protagonist in Vancouver, and lurking not very far in the background is the still very sombre memory of Canada's worst mass murderer, Robert Pickton, who preyed on disenfranchised women, many of them indigenous, from the East End of that city. Though it was subtly signaled earlier on, I was still taken aback by the boldness with which the author made that horror personally relevant to Jilly, our heroine.

This is a very, very Canadian novel, from its description of Vancouver in sun and fog to its particular social and legal history to - dare I say it? - the genuine niceness of most of the main characters. I realized as I was reading that because of that Canadian feel, I was becoming unusually irritated by being confronted with spellings like "gray" and "splendor". A little thing, I know, and Simon & Schuster are an international firm, but once I noticed it I couldn't stop noticing it. It was like a small but noticeable distortion of McLachlin's voice. If she writes another - and I hope she will - I would be much happier if it were with a Canadian publisher or at least with one who will issue a Canadian/British edition.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (Johnston)

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams - Wayne Johnston

I've read a few Newfoundland novels lately, but this one, a fictionalized autobiography of Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland's first Premier, differs from the rest of them in that it is largely an urban novel, with most of the action set either in St. John's or in New York. Smallwood spent time working for the radical left-wing press in New York in his youth, and remained a socialist throughout his long political career, though his emphasis on economic development for Newfoundland meant that he controversially sided with large corporations (and foreign corporations at that) against unions in a number of major decisions. This novel is not, however, an economic or political history of Newfoundland, though elements of both are wryly scattered throughout, and the omnipresence of the historical view is very much felt through the interspersed writings of fictional historian, journalist and love interest [Sheilagh] Fielding - always known by her last name, just as she always addresses Smallwood as "Smallwood". And yes, as the title would suggest, not only are the larger dreams of the new province in Canada largely unrequited, but so too are the affections of Smallwood and Fielding, though it is hard, sometimes, to discern in which direction the unrequited feelings are flowing, both characters are so prickly, defensive and entirely caught up in their own worlds.

 

I'm not going to try to describe the way the plot winds in and out, incorporating major historical events in Smallwood's actual life like his trip on foot across the island, following the major railway line, recruiting union members; his harrowing trip as a journalist on a sealing voyage where a large part of the crew was stranded and frozen; his fraught political relationship with pre-Confederation Newfoundland politicians under the old system of colonial government from Britain; his shoestring existence in extreme poverty in New York. Nor was I particularly concerned to sort out fact from fiction in all of this. The more intriguing mystery was the characters, and how a couple of key (and likely fictional) events in their youth drove them through life. Those events involved written evidence, and the existence of written histories, and even a book of history as a possible instrument of homicide - OK, if you want more, you must read the book. And I really do think you should if you enjoy description that leaps off the page (strange, familiar, and strangely familiar settings), and characters who make you ache a bit even while they stubbornly withhold full understanding of their pain.

 

You don't need to know a lot about Newfoundland or its history to enjoy "Colony of Unrequited Dreams". You may find, however, that this fictional history about histories makes you want to know more of the truth. Heartily recommended.

Fierce (Raisman)

Fierce: How Competing for Myself Changed Everything - Aly Raisman

I truly believe that if this autobiographical piece by now 23-year-old gymnast Aly Raisman had been lived, written and published a generation earlier, it would have had the same cookie-cutter content as every other seize-the-Olympic-moment biographical publication: I had a supportive family, I had goals from early on, here is who coached me, I competed at this and placed second, I competed at this and placed first, I competed at this, placed sixth and was devastated, I got injured, I worked towards my comeback, here are my (blandly edited) feelings about my principal competition, etc. etc.

Frankly, this is still the majority of the book's contents, and what else could you expect in the biography of someone still so young, and who still has so much future income that could be drastically affected by misplaced public statements revealing too-deep or too-bitter feelings about some matter or another.  Actual personality, warts and all, is the privilege of the private and the elderly.

But this is the age of #metoo and of holding to account, and Raisman, at the tender age of 15, was by her own account initiated into the far too numerous club of the victims of sexual predator Larry Nassar.  Like too many others, probably, I admit that I read this not because I am a fan of her career (I am only a lukewarm follower of gymnastics, unlike figure skating), but because I genuinely wanted to see what she would choose to write about that. And, let's be clear, I would have been much happier if she hadn't had anything to write about in the first place.

I think she has exercised good judgment (and/or been well advised) in what she has written and left out.  She describes, but only briefly, and not repetitively, Nassar's grooming tactics and how he took advantage of the highly demanding (some might say abusive) competitive atmosphere of Marta Karolyi's isolated training camps - or similarly isolated-in-plain-sight situations when far abroad at competitions - to gain the girls' trust with gifts and sympathy. She draws her line in the sand at the details of what he did behind closed doors, to her and others. Those would, in any case, come out in the press at the time of his public trials, where she would speak out at more length, and I honour her courage and that of all her peers in doing so at that time when it would make the most difference. But clearly she is well aware that in this ghastly world, there are too many who would read such details with avid and prurient attention.  Instead, the most extended treatment of the Nasser subject comes in two specific chapters, one in which she describes how an investigator hired by the Gymnastics Association came to speak with her, and she was unable to provide details or confirmation because she still had so much self-doubt and so much faith in the authorities that she could not yet fully conceive that she had been abused and not been protected. (Her account of her subsequent call to the US Gymnastics Federation, where she was more or less told to shut up, is even more dismaying, and is no doubt part of the grounds of the lawsuit I'm given to understand she has filed against them).  The subject of the emotional effects of abuse, where she tries her best to give support and courage to readers who are being victimized (and passes on some practical information about support organizations), forms her final chapter.

If you are a fan of gymnastics, there are some solid details and some amusing stories about the competitions here (as well as some nice colour pictures). Her descriptions of her various high-level routines (which, like many Olympians, she remembers right down to each wobble) are clear and fun to read alongside the video we are now so privileged to have at our fingertips.  If you are an outsider to that obsessed athletic culture, as I am, you cannot help raising eyebrows at the still-admiring tone in which Raisman describes the culture of discipline in which extreme fatigue and injury are largely dismissed and the battles over weight and proper nutrition are constant.  If you are a decent human being, you will be left with a feeling of terrible dismay that somehow nearly all of these happy, chummy, resilient, talented young women were also dealing with periodic sexual assault from an adult whom all of the authority figures in their lives had told them they could and should trust.

It makes one look back at all those bland, "I competed here and placed second; I held true to my goals and won the Olympics"-style sports biographies from earlier generations with a wary and jaundiced eye.  Is there a flood of revelatory volume 2s forthcoming? For the athletes' sake, I hope there is no need.

Generation X (Coupland)

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture - Douglas Coupland

I am in, or at least on the cusp of, Generation X, so I must admit that i expected this curious production to resonate with me more than it did. There were flashes of recognition with some (not nearly all) of the constant string of material culture references. And I recognized, at an intellectual level, how some of the typographical oddities were signalling the malaise of the generation itself: the marginalia draws your attention away from the stories, typical of the fragmented attention of my youth; the ironic, half-clever coinages and definitions (e.g. McJob) reveal that terrible urge to define and understand in an incomprehensible world. But, at my advanced age, I think perhaps those qualities (and the immense resentment of the prior generation, also much in evidence here) are just characteristics of the youth of pretty much any generation you care to name. Or at least any generation where the young people aren't dragged into severe crisis like a World War to turn them away from looking inwards.

 

That said, the three main characters were alien creatures to me. Part of that was that even the Canadian among them (depressed, undeclared gay, dual-citizen Dag from Toronto, probably D. Coupland's nearest thing to a stand-in) is very heavily Americanized, as is the book, which is primarily set in the dusty California desert (another heavy symbol). The actual narrator, Andy, becomes most human when describing his interactions with his own relatives, but otherwise seems to be entirely lost in his own head. In fact, this book has them all - there is also a woman character who is little more than a cipher - spending more time in alternate worlds that this one, spinning elaborate stories to each other about doomsday scenarios or micro-worlds frozen in time. The stories are moderately amusing but in the end do not illuminate much about either the teller or the people being told to - except that they amuse themselves by spinning tales about appalling alternate realities. Possibly that's the point.

 

So, I didn't connect. Wrong place and time, maybe. Maybe it's just that (as with Kerouac's On The Road) I have read it at the wrong age. Or maybe it's just too self-consciously clever and hasn't worn well. It was worth the try, I guess.

Only With Passion: Figure Skating's Most Winning Champion on Competition and Life (Witt)

Only With Passion: Figure Skating's Most Winning Champion on Competition and Life - Katarina Witt, E.M. Swift

OK, once I got past the highly debatable subtitle and rather ridiculously sexed-up cover picture, this little book from 2005 was actually quite an enjoyable read. A full biography it is not, but Katarina is not the first female skater - see, for instance, Barbara Ann Scott - to combine scattered biographical facts and philosophical musings into an advice-to-a-young-skater format. At least Katarina's book doesn't include an entire chapter on the details of school figures!

 

I like Katarina, based on her pretty consistent public persona here and on tv - she's generally very down-to-earth and seems to have a strong grasp on realities both interpersonal and financial. What's more, she appears to have the capacity to form strong female friendships - notably with Sandra Bezic and with her business partner, Elizabeth. She also somehow seems to have maintained a strong relationship, though perhaps part of that is unacknowledged dependency, with a coach, Jutta Muller, whose methods in this gradually-awakening day and age would likely be described as borderline abusive. The strictures on Katarina's weight - and the skater's defence of those strictures - I found troubling. Anyway, it's clear that even 10 years after her last amateur skate, Muller was still a valued part of Witt's career. She takes her fictional young skater friend, "Jasmine" to see her training with Mueller for her latest professional project.

 

One of the self-revelations I most enjoyed was Katarina's complete awareness that she's addicted to showboating. She doesn't seem particularly worried that she thrives on being the centre of attention, and doesn't perform her best unless she's aware of multiple eyes upon her. I'm not sure she quite makes the full connection between that and the fact that she has never settled down into a marriage, but she comes close in the few fairly guarded sentences that she devotes to her longish relationship with Richard Dean Anderson. In fact, rather too much of this narrative is slightly defensive about being an independent single woman, although I can completely understand that she has had to deal with this same narrative for years from the media; all that emphasis on her femininity and her beauty (often at the expense of acknowledging her real athletic chops). That aspect of her life interested me far less than her stories of growing up in East Germany, and also the stories she introduces about some of her East German friends, at least one of whom made the dangerous crossing from East to West Berlin while the wall was still up.

 

About other skaters of her era, Katarina generally speaking follows the "if you can't say anything nice" rule; she has respectful words for Debi Thomas, and also for Nancy Kerrigan, and she openly regrets that she was so aggressively competitive with Rosalynn Sumners in the pre-1984 years, given how well they got along in the pro years that followed. And then there's this:

 

"And what was Tonya Harding like?"

"Tonya," I chuckled ruefully. "She was an impressive athlete, I must say. Her jumps were so high. She was very talented, except not in the head. Really, I don't care two cents about her."

 

She's careful, but it's not North American media-speak. I like that.

 

If you are curious about how she would describe her Playboy photo-shoot, or the '87 Worlds, '88 Olympics, the '94 Olympics, or Carmen on Ice, you'll find a bit about each of those in here, though none of them is terribly deeply examined. E.M. Swift (the same man who "co-wrote" Gordeeva's My Sergei) has done a good job eliminating any Germanic-sounding glitches from the smooth first-person narrative. There is a photo section, in black and white, not in itself a reason to buy the book, but with some fun novelties (including pictures of Katarina and Anett Poetzch wearing the same competition dress).

 

I hope we do someday get a more substantial memoir or biography, but in the meantime, this little book has earned its spot on my shelves.

The Woman in the Window (Finn)

The Woman in the Window: A Novel - A. J. Finn

I thought this was really well-done. Even though I accidentally managed to spoil myself for the final twist (and what a twist), I was completely drawn in until the very last page, largely because of the writing. The first revelation (the one about protagonist Dr. Anna Fox's family) was, I'm pretty sure, one of those that are there in order to make the reader feel good about their own instincts. There were plenty of hints dropped even within the first few pages, drawing us into a self-satisfied feeling that, ah yes, we do indeed know what is going on with this slightly addled, unreliable first-person narrator. In contrast, we are at that same narrator's mercy when it comes to impressions of all the other characters, including the one ultimately revealed as the psychotic villain, which is genuinely surprising and shocking to Anna, and therefore to any unspoiled reader.

 

Our narrator is fond of old thriller movies, and frequently has them playing, thus allowing that evocative quoted dialogue to seep into whatever alarming or puzzling thing is happening in her own life. And, too, this novel is very clearly written with movie adaptation in mind; from the pathetic-fallacy major rainstorm during the climactic events, to the devastating and echoing effects of sudden falls in scary places, to characters suddenly appearing in dramatically described light - it's as if the promised movie is already unspooling in one's head. No surprise, then, that the film rights were already sold before publication.

 

I became more emotionally involved than I expected I would in Anna's haze, her agoraphobia, her depression, and her absolutely heart-rending self-doubt when she allows herself to be pushed at one point into believing that she really did delude herself, seeing things she did not see, making up stories, sending an e-mail and photo she did not send... Gaslighted, in fact.

 

I was only vaguely aware that the gender-neutral A.J. Finn pseudonym belonged to a male author, and I thought he did a really decent job of inhabiting a female voice. In fact, the only moment when I specifically spat, "pah! male author!" was when he failed to update us on the condition of the cat in the sunny denouement. (I am like many mystery/thriller readers in that I can contemplate human murders without pain - presumably because it's part of the implicit contract - but any description of cruelty to animals puts me on edge and makes me worry inordinately. Anyway, potential readers of this novel needn't be put off my mentioning the subject; it's minor.)

 

It's always a question with a first novel from an author with another established career: is this the beginning of a long relationship, or has "A.J. Finn" written the one novel he had within him? Either way, I'm glad he got it published, and if his real-life position at the publishing house did have something to do with that, in this case the publishers got it right.

 

A very trendy title, but nonetheless heartily recommended.

A Wrinkle In Time (L'Engle)

A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle

This is a book I might have grown very attached to if I’d read it at nine or ten years of age. In those days, I would have glommed on to the brainy Daddy’s-girl main character and enjoyed the vaguely mythical shape of the story (3-Fates-like grandma figures and all), despite the fact that the book’s too short to indulge in much detailed world-building. A few years later, I would definitely have enjoyed the presence of the irritating but too-cute baby brother, although my own does not have dramatic mind-reading capabilities, as far as I know. As an adult, I am bothered by the fact that it’s too Christian and too American for my tastes; as a child, that probably would have passed muster with me, since I was far less judgmental and disenchanted in those days.

 

The emotional centre of this novel is that ghastly moment in each child’s life when they (we) discover that a parent they idolize is human and grossly fallible. It's very distressing, as a child, to find out that adults are impotent in the face of the world's overwhelming evils. The solution to the overwhelming evil in this book - simply and quite impressively named IT - is one that is cliche'd in literature, theology and popular song: love conquers everything. I've read and heard it too many times to find any sense or comfort in it (again, my 9-year-old self would probably have reacted more favourably.) However, it was quite an enjoyable short read, and I can completely understand how if someone read it in their formative years they would cling to it as a favourite book. Within a clear and straightforward narrative, it addresses a lot of the knotty philosophical questions that bubble to the surface of a thoughtful child's mind.

 

Besides, it's enormously helpful in understanding the concept of warp drive in Star Trek!

 

Christian and American biases notwithstanding, I would give this as a gift to a child without hesitation - particularly if she were a brainy Daddy's-girl.

Hag-Seed (Atwood)

Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

This is Margaret Atwood's re-telling of The Tempest, set in a Canadian prison. It's part of a series of commissioned re-tellings of Shakespeare, by a variety of authors.

 

Damn, that woman is clever. I don't go to her if I'm looking for emotional comfort, for sure, but I love watching her the way I love watching a trapeze artist or an Olympic snowboarder: sheer appreciation of someone exercising amazing skills I'll never possess. This one is full of happy recollections for an English lit major; don't know how well it would play if you were completely unfamiliar with the Tempest, though there is a helpful summary at the back.

 

There's nothing terribly realistic about the plot of the novel (it depends on a highly unlikely temporary technological takeover of the prison), but individual moments and references provoke chuckles of recognition. Take the name of the protagonist, for instance - Felix Phillips. Felix for Prospero, of course, but the "Phillips" part is obviously for Robin Phillips, who was the long-time and famously unconventional artistic director of the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival. Actually, I'm kind of disappointed that Atwood 'fessed up to that one in her afterword, and didn't let the rest of us go on feeling clever for having noticed it.

 

Likewise, the characters of the various inmates and the few outsiders are slenderly built (though I didn't feel they were stereotypes). But there is just enough depth there - Felix is dealing with, or rather not dealing with, the death of his real-life daughter, Miranda, to whose imagined image he talks while he lives out a wretchedly reclusive life. (As in the play, things improve at the end.)

 

I'm pretty sure that the critical notion that The Tempest is all about various types of prisons is not original to Atwood (though it's been so long I wouldn't even know where to start digging it out). But the way she has worked it through is entirely her, and entirely delightful.

 

Delightful. Yes, that's exactly the word. Do read it!