#69 – The Gift, by Vladimir Nabokov

I wasn’t quite able to finish this, my sixty-ninth book, in 2008. New Year’s Eve celebrations tripped me up with forty pages to go. Still, I regret nothing, except perhaps that various circumstances prevented me from giving this novel the attention it deserved during most of the month (!) that it took me to read it. (The saddest part of that being that I probably only spent about ten days with the book over that period, being distracted or busy or suffering from the holiday blues or whatever the rest of the time.) Like with most of Nabokov’s books, I finished The Gift feeling like I’d just experienced something profound without necessarily being able to identify, let alone understand, what that something was. On the surface the book is pretty straightforward; in the mid-1930s an impoverished Russian émigré poet, the son of an adventerous and quite dead minor noble, moves… Continue Reading

#68 – The Man with the Golden Gun, by Ian Fleming

I must admit that despite being a big, big fan of Fleming’s Bond series, I was a little disappointed by The Man with the Golden Gun. The opening was very promising: a brainwashed James Bond walks into Secret Service headquarters and attempts to assasinate M (whose name we finally learn, the biggest shock in the whole Bond series). Fleming is always at his best when Bond is on the ropes, a condition more frequent in the novels than the films. Once he meets up with Scaramanga in a Jamaican whorehouse and gets back into himself, the novel falls apart a bit. Mostly it’s due to how poorly Fleming handles American dialogue. Though Scaramanga is Catalan (Catalonian?) originally, he spent significant time in the United States and speaks in an American accent, and with Fleming’s notion of mid-60’s American slang. And Fleming really, really sucks at American vernacular. Scaramanga is a… Continue Reading

#67 – Entitlement, by Jonathan Bennett

I don’t norally say things like this, but I think it’s an entirely apt assessment, and I couldn’t get it out of my head the whole time I was reading this. Entitlement is Dirty Sexy Money meets A Separate Peace. For those not in the know (and judging by that fact that it’s being canceled—yet another little pleasure I’ll have to let go of—not many of you are), Dirty Sexy Money is about how lawyer Nick George’s adult life is turned upside down as he takes responsibility for cleaning up the various messes made by the Darling family, the inconceivably wealthy family he was close to when growing up. A Separate Peace is of course the vaguely homo-erotic novel about coming of age at a private school that everyone who went to public school in Ontario was made to read in high school in the 1990s. Entitlement is more or… Continue Reading

#66 – At A Loss For Words, by Diane Schoemperlen

I had expected this book to take me only a day or so to read; after all it’s not only quite short, it’s written by one of my favourite authors. It took me more than two weeks to read. Usually taking so long with a book means either that it is extremely long, or it has trouble holding my interest. Neither was the case with At A Loss For Words. Instead I found that I was so emotionally invested in the material that I found it virtually impossible to stay with the book for any length of time. If you shortened the time frame and switched the pronouns around, the plot—a writer, suffering from writer’s block, is reunited with a lost love for an intense long-distance romance, only to be callously abandoned by him a second time, with traumatic consequences—would be a pretty accurate description of the last twelve months… Continue Reading

#65 – Pardon Our Monsters, by Andrew Hood

There’s a lot of energy in this book. The opening story, “A Sound Like Dolphins,” is possibly the weakest in the book, but it also sets up nearly every story in the book with its blend of frank violence and sexuality and the every day mess that is domestic life. When we think of tales of domestic life, particularly in this country, we tend to think of rural—or at least not explicitly urban—families living lives of no real import but nonetheless dealing with nuanced emotional and moral consequences. We also tend to think of these works as focusing primarily on the lives of women. Being, as we are, nearly a decade into the 21st Century, one would hope that we could put aside in both our national literature and our national subconscious such simple, ridiculous notions such as women having more or more interesting/important things to say about domesticity through… Continue Reading

#64 – Be Good, by Stacey May Fowles

Those who know me, if I am known at all, know me as a bit of a nitpicker (okay, more than a bit). Little details can often get under my skin. I was therefore disappointed to find problems on the very first page of Be Good, indeed with the epigraph itself. There are three quotations that open the book, the third being lyrics from “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” attributed to Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash did indeed record the song in 2003, and it was released in 2006, nearly three years after his death. Cash’s five “American Recordings” albums were all excellent, but he only wrote fifteen of the sixty-eight songs on those albums. All the rest were covers. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is a traditional roots song of the kind that used to be known as a “negro spiritual” and then later just a “spiritual”, and is better… Continue Reading

#63 – Go Down, Moses, by William Faulkner

Faulkner is one of those writers who makes me feel woefully underqualified when I attempt to write about his work. Faulkner insisted that Go Down, Moses is a fragmented novel made up of related short-stories, what we here in Canada would most likely call a short-story cycle (indeed, the first edition of the book was published by Random House as Go Down, Moses and Other Stories). No matter Faulkner’s own opinion (which anyway I didn’t know until after the fact) I read Go Down, Moses as a short-story cycle. Any discussion of Faulkner’s work must necessarily deal with issues of race and family, both of which are central to this book. The various stories relate the history of the McCaslin family from a time not long before the American Civil War until roughly 1940. “Was”, which opens the book, can be a difficult story to read given that Faulkner treats… Continue Reading

#62 – The Killing Circle, by Andrew Pyper

My home town is in this novel! That’s right folks, Dryden, Ontario makes a brief cameo appearance, in all its Boréal glory. Alright, since I’ve already mentioned Dryden, I should start out by saying there are two things that bothered me about this book (pet peeve sort of things, not hugely important, but they got under my skin), and it’s better to get them out of the way before dealing with the more important parts of the novel. The first thing is distance. There’s a fictional Ontario town in The Killing Circle called Whitley. Judging from the landmarks (West of Thunder Bay, with Dryden being the next town on the Trans-Canada, etc), it should probably be roughly where the real-life town of Ignace is. Pyper describes this town as about a half a day’s drive from cottage country. Double that, and he’d be closer to accuracy. Folk in Southern Ontario… Continue Reading

#61 – Long Story Short, by Elyse Friedman

The novella, “A Bright Tragic Thing” (Emily Dickinson, right?), at just over a hundred pages, is obviously intended to be the centerpiece of this collection. Unfortunately, it’s by no means the strongest story in the book. Ultimately it’s a tragic tale, but it is—or at least I think it’s supposed to be—more of a comedy for the first fifty or sixty pages. It’s actually quite a bit like an episode of The Office or Arrested Development, in the sense that the majority of the humour comes from paying excruciatingly close attention to the socially awkward. And excruciating is the word. The premise is a good one: misfit teenagers entertain themselves by collecting kitschy souvenirs autographed by obscure, washed-up celebrities, with hilarity and tragedy ensuing. It was just too much to stay with for so many pages. It wasn’t that I got bored by Dave and Todd manipulating Murray Mortenson for… Continue Reading

#60 – Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace

I have not always been especially kind to the late David Foster Wallace in these metaphorical pages—I believe respect for the dead (and the living as well) requires both honesty and full disclosure—but those comments were always in regard to his non-fiction, and today we are dealing exclusively with his short fiction, of which I am a long-time fan. I’d read two of the pieces collected here before, the phenomenal “Mister Squishy” and “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” both in McSweeney’s. The obvious place to start a discussion of Oblivion would be with “Mister Squishy,” as it is quite clearly a DFW signature piece, and overwhelmingly verbose and precise account of a seemingly innocent and quite banal but actually bizarre series of events. I won’t say any more about it, though, as Mr. Beattie has already covered it quite well. The other story in the collection that could be… Continue Reading