Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

Let’s start with a bit of honesty here. I did not want to read this book. I remember hearing about it when it came out and heard that it was about hockey, and I was not the least bit interested. I put the book out of my mind immediately. But then (a little more honesty here) when Jian Ghomeshi put his piece on Facebook about being fired from the CBC (before we found out that he is a woman beating asshole) he mentioned that his sex life was no worse than the scenes in Lynn Coady’s Giller Prize winning novel (Full disclosure here – He was NOT referencing The Antagonist, but rather her novel of short stories Hellgoing – which looks awesome… but I still got that totally wrong). I admit, I was intrigued. Then a copy came into the library where I volunteer and so I picked it up. It was in pristine condition and $1.50; really how could I say no? Still, it sat on my shelf until a friend of mine told me that I needed to read it, and since I have never really seen her as a sports book fan I decided to give it a try. I was still pretty hesitant though.

I abhor sports memoirs, in all mediums. I am not sure why I detest them so much, but I really do. When I was in university I lived with my uncle and his 4 sons, who all played hockey; in fact, their entire lives revolved around hockey and sports in general. When they were little they would get up every morning at 6 am and stand at attention outside of my bedroom door, listening to O Canada (this is completely true. They had a jock jam’s cd with O Canada on it and they would listen to it before every game that they played). And then they would go crazy playing with their plastic mini sticks and yelling and hitting each other. It was chaos. I am pretty sure the tv in that house only had two channels; TSN and CBC, but only for Hockey Night in Canada. Except if there was a channel playing a sports movie; those got watched incessantly. I am pretty sure those boys (who are almost all grown now) can still site Remember the Titans and Miracle verbatim. Luckily I had my own tv, but I still saw Remember the Titans more times than I care to remember.

All that being said, The Antagonist is NOT a sports memoir; AND – it’s REALLY good. Other than the fact that the main character, Rank, played hockey as a kid, this book really has nothing to do with sports at all. Instead it is a deeply psychological look at someone who has been completely betrayed by someone they considered a friend, and how that betrayal then forces him to look at who he used to be and why he used to be like that. Honestly, I am not really sure how it ever got the ‘sports’ designation in the first place.

House of Anansi Press, June 2012
Gordon Rankin Jr (Rank) runs into an old friend one day, out of the blue. The two chat superficially for a few minutes and as they part, his friend tells him to check out a book that was just published by another old friend. Unassumingly, Rank checks out the book and gets hit with one of the biggest surprises, and betrayals, of his life.  The author has written a fictional story about Rank’s life including an account of an accident that, although inevitable, changed and defined Rank’s life. In retaliation Rank starts emailing the author, telling him the real story. The book consists of these emails, one after another, so the only side of the story that we ever get to see is Rank’s. He is passionate, cagey, belligerent, heartfelt and thorough. He talks about his adoption, the loss of his mother, his father’s short man syndrome and the way he used Rank, a giant hulk of a boy, to intimidate people in a way that Gordon Sr never could. His stories and memories are surprisingly insightful as he recalls being a child in the body of a man, and how people expected him to act and think like a man based solely on his size. He repeats, more than a few times, that he was only a kid; he thought like a kid, he acted like a kid. He listened to his father, because that’s what kids do. But at 15 he was bigger than most men in town, and was expected to act like that meant something. Even after the life altering incident occurs and Rank is in university, his size makes people expect certain things of him. He is expected to be a big oaf, big and dumb and good at sports. Rank does what he’s told as always, it seems at this point that he never really grew into his manhood.

It took me a little while to get into the story. When Rank starts emailing the mysterious author his emails were passionate and not always coherent. He starts and stops a lot, he’s trying to get it all out at once, and he wants his old friend to understand. To understand how horrible his life was, how horrible his father was and how horrible the betrayal was. At first he refuses to talk about his mother, and so whenever he mentions her he goes off on a tangent about how saintly she was and how he doesn’t want to talk about her. The more Rank gets into his life story though, the more I find myself angry alongside of him.

I’ve been told that this is an epistolary novel; a story told through a series of letters. It’s certainly an interesting perspective and although I was suspect of the format at first, it has grown on me. It differs from the normal first person perspective in the sense that the narrator isn’t actually narrating to us, he is narrating to the person he is emailing and so there is always going to be that skew of what he wants the recipient to see, what he wants him to feel. I feel myself getting swept up in Rank’s self-righteous anger, but I am not blinded by his side either. So many times I wanted Rank to tell people to bugger off. To tell them that he’s just a kid and just plain doesn’t know the right thing to do.

I am super interested to see where the rest of the story goes. I think that there must be more to his mother’s story, and as I am writing Rank is visiting his father and remembering why he stays away. Rank and his father have a very turbulent relationship, although Gord Sr thinks the sun and moon shines out of his sons behind. I am interested in seeing more of their relationship as adults. And I am definitely interested in seeing how Rank has come to these realizations about his youth, and how he finishes his story. Will he come to the realization that maybe being outed was the best thing for his psyche? 

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Rooms by Lauren Oliver

The old saying goes – don’t judge a book by its cover; though I have never really held with that. Not the metaphorical meaning, but the literal meaning. I’m talking actual books and actual covers. I believe that a book’s cover is incredibly important. The cover of a book is one very important way that authors can get their book some attention. When people are meandering in books stores, looking for a new book – what’s going to grab their attention first? The cover of the book. Many years ago, a friend of mine (who had never seen my book collection) was making fun of the fact that I was reading Kerouac’s On the Road. He said that I was only reading it because I had heard that it was a ‘cool’ book to read and that I probably would never have just picked it up from the bookstore. He said that ‘people’ (I put that in quotations because I am not actually sure what people he was referring to) only read books that they know, authors that they have heard of before or books that have been recommended. Now honestly, even at the time, I thought that was a load of bull. It didn’t even really make any sense, if people only read books that they know then no new authors would be discovered. But it is something that I have remembered ever since and I have always made a conscious effort to seek out books that I have no connection to, authors that I have never heard of, and… books with great covers. Because really – when you think about it – if you have never heard of a book or it author, how are you going to be attracted to it? That’s right. Its cover.

This is one of the (many) reasons that I am not fond of e-books. Besides the fact that you are never able to get the bookstore experience, wandering through the aisles, flipping through books and finding the perfect story. Now don’t get me wrong; I appreciate the convenience of the e-reader. I use one at the gym and have taken it on trips before. And I also understand that its easier for some people to hold, rather than a book; but at the end of the day I will always choose a book over an e-reader. Back to my main point however, even though you can sometimes see the cover of a book on your e-reader, it doesn’t hold the same beauty as the actual book. The covers, spines, when the pages are rough cut; there can be so much beauty in a book. Book covers have become a big thing since the advent of e-readers. Artists compete to design covers, coming up with dozens of designs before the publishers and authors choose the perfect one. Actually, maybe it possible to thank e-readers, by causing books to compete for sales it’s possible that it’s forced publishers to pay more attention to the books themselves. Make people see them as objects of beauty as opposed to just reading material.
Now I am sure at this point you are trying to figure out what I am blathering on about. Well – the cover is the reason that I decided that I wanted to read this book – Rooms by Lauren Oliver. As you can see the cover is bright orange, with yellow writing and a house on fire. It’s pretty vibrant and is definitely designed to catch the eye! In fact, it caught my eye twice; once at the bookstore, where I first saw it and added it to my ‘to-be-bought’ list, and then once again at the library where I finally decided to pick it up. After reading the synopsis of course – it’s about ghosts! And as we all know by now, I am a sucker for a ghost story.

Harper Collins, Sept 2014
Rooms is basically the story of a house haunted by ghosts and a family haunted by themselves. Richard Walker has just died and his estranged family has all come back to the old homestead to clean up and get their inheritance. His alcoholic ex-wife Caroline who has always played the victim, even when she doesn’t really want to but she can’t seem to play any other role. His daughter Minna, whose low self-esteem and daddy issues have led her to sleep with any man who exhibits the tiniest amount of interest, has come with her young daughter Amy. And last but not least Trenton, Richard’s teenage son who may be the only person he loved Richard, but who was injured in a car accident years ago and has never really recovered, and who takes teenage angst to a new level, contemplating suicide in the old family home. But the family is not alone. Alice and Sandra live in the house as well. Well, live isn’t quite the right word is it… since they’re dead after all. They inhibit the walls, the creaks in the floorboards, the dripping faucets and the flashing lights. Alice and Sandra were both killed in the house years earlier and have never left, although we’re not sure why. Alice wonders why she is there as well, she says that she has no unfinished business and isn’t that the only reason that ghosts would stick around? Alice believes that hers and Sandra’s existence must be tied up with the physicality of the house itself.

Both the family and the ghosts are currently having some trouble. Caroline, Minna and Trenton cannot stop bickering and when Richard’s will leaves a huge amount of money to a mysterious woman, things start to get pretty heated. And while Alice and Sandra are reminiscing about their own less than wonderful memories and commenting on the Walker family; a new ghost has popped up. This doesn’t seem to make much sense, since Alice is convinced that the only way a new ghost could appear would be if someone died on the property, and she has no recollection of that happening. While all of this is happening, Trenton is slowly spiralling out of control and as he comes closer to killing himself, he is also coming closer to breaking the barriers between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Oliver has done a pretty good job of setting up a series of little mysteries to be solved without distracting from the family drama and the recollections of Alice and Sandra. The actual set up of the novel is neat – the chapters with Sandra and Alice are told in first person, while the chapters with the family are told in third person. But honestly, I am not in love with this novel. I am enjoying it for sure, but I feel no real connection with any of the characters; in fact, I don’t really feel anything about them positive or negative except for Caroline. I despise her and really want someone to put her in her place, maybe slap her into taking some responsibility. Trenton and Minna are kind of annoying, although I commiserate with them – their parents seemed rather useless, but I don’t really care that much. And I find the existence of Sandra and Alice interesting, I want to know more about them and why they are still haunting the house, I am pretty sure that neither of them are very reliable, but still… I don’t really feel a connection to them. I just don’t really care what happens to any of the characters in this story.

I will definitely keep reading, I do want answers and even though I don’t really care about the cast, the storyline is pretty good. Lauren Oliver is primarily an author of YA novels and I wonder if maybe that’s why the characters are not as relate-able or believable? In my experience in reading YA novels, characters tend to not be very multi-faceted – not as well rounded or fully fleshed out as they would be in an adult novel. Regardless, I approve the cover design and am proud to say that I would have been sold on the cover alone. There is nothing wrong with wanting to read a book based on cover alone and it’s not a bad thing to not absolutely adore every book you read.  

One of my favourite teas to curl up with when I am cold is David's Chocolate Chili Chai. It provides the warmth of hot chocolate, but with a nice little spicy kick to finish it off. This is also a great tea to drink while reading ghost stories. The little kick in tea can take your mind off of the scariness of the afterlife.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Let’s start at the beginning, when you are still innocent and serene. You may know that this book is about a family of carnies, or like me, you may not since you went through a period where you only bought books based on their covers and refused to read the blurbs (And this book has a great cover, let me tell you). It’s possible you thought this book was going to be about two socially and romantically challenged geeks who just want so much to find that special someone (which in retrospect is really dumb since you aren’t really a fan of romance novels). Or maybe – if you had read the blurb, you still think this story is going to be about some geek loving, just inside the backdrop of a messed up freak show family all vying for supremacy within the carnival world (which, to be fair, is closer to the truth…) Even a page or two in you may still be feeling very innocent, after all the story starts so innocently itself. A lovely family image; all the children sitting around their parents, listening intently as their father tells them the stories of their beginnings, the children chirping in at their favourite parts, the mother correcting her husband’s exaggerations of her beauty and her talent.  But. Well. It turns out there are multiple meanings of the word geek…

This is actually the second time that I have read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I first read it a few years ago, but since it is being re-released in the UK this week, I thought I would do a quick re-read and review. I am glad that I re-read it and I wish that I had the opportunity to re-read more books. I loved this book the first time round, but now that I know the story I am getting to really immerse myself in the characters and the beauty of Dunn’s writing. But before I get ahead of myself, why don’t I tell you what this story is about.

This is the story of the Binewski family and their traveling carnival. Aloysius Binewski was running the carnival with his father when times started to get tough. Al and his new bride Lillian, or Crystal Lil, are struggling for ideas, for fame and riches. Then Al comes up with a brilliant idea; he’ll breed his own freak show. Crystal Lil is all onboard with the idea, after all “what greater gift could you offer your child than the inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?” So begins a life of ingesting amphetamines, arsenic and radioisotopes “to breed their own exhibit of human oddities”. Their results are spectacular (or terrifying). Although they have many mishaps, they end up with 4 (or 5?) special children; Arturo, or Aquaboy, with fins for arms and legs; Elly and Iphy, twins conjoined at the waist; Oly, a bald albino hunchback dwarf; and Fortunato, or the Chick, whose mysterious telekinesis allows him to be a freak, while maintaining the deception of being a norm.

The story is narrated by Oly, a grown up Oly who lives in a building with her mother and her daughter, Miranda; although neither Miranda nor Crystal Lil know it. Oly’s sole purpose in life is the protection of Miranda and her… oddity. See Miranda is the product of Oly and her brother Arty, via the Chick (don’t ask… you have to read it) and so is a bit of a freak herself. Her uniqueness has come under peril from the formidable Miss Lick, who likes to destroy beauty and so Oly must do what she can to protect Miranda, without ever letting it slip as to why. Being a freak is the most important thing in the world to Oly, it’s what her father taught her and it is what she is trying to teach her daughter, albeit from afar – “How proud I am, dancing in the air full of eyes rubbing at me uncovered, unable to look away because of what I am. Those poor hoptoads behind me are silent. I’ve conquered them. They thought to use and shame me but I win out by nature, because a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born.” This whole novel is basically a letter to Miranda telling her where she comes from.

Oly tells Miranda of her childhood. Oly, who although being a bald albino hunchback dwarf, is not really enough of a freak to make any money at the carnival. Instead her father trains her to call people to the shows and she does a lot of menial tasks for her siblings, mostly Arty. Oly is in love with Arty, she will do anything for him and quite often lies for him. You see Arty has a bit of a superiority complex, and by bit I actually mean a rip roaring superiority complex the size of China. Arty is insanely jealous when his sisters make more money than him and he can’t stand ‘the norms’, those us like you and I. He believes them inferior and is hell bent on ‘conquering’ them (yes, I used that word on purpose). “We are the things that come to the norms in nightmares. The thing that lurks in the bell tower and bites out the choirboys – that’s you Oly. And the thing in the closet that makes the babies scream in the dark before it sucks their last breath – that’s me.”  Arty will stop at nothing to take control of the carnival, and the world if he can manage it; and he’ll take down anyone, including his family, to get there.

Currently I am in the midst of Arty becoming a world famous cult leader. It’s pretty awesome; Dunn has a way of making even the most unlikeable characters loveable. You feel for them, while hating them; although they would all most likely scorn your feelings. This story is about so many things, there are so many interweaving and interconnecting themes, I am sure that I have missed many of them. It’s about the intricacies of families, the complicated relationships and feelings involved; especially when they are all competing for greatness. It’s about children learning the fallibilities of their parents “It is, I suppose the common grief of children at having to protect their parents from reality. It is bitter for the young to see what awful innocence adults grow into, that terrible vulnerability that must be sheltered from the rodent mire of childhood”. Surprisingly, and I don’t think that I noticed this on my first read through, there is a large feminist theme. The strongest characters in this novel are female, they are woman surviving and thriving in traditional male roles. They are woman who spend years living under the shadows of men, only to show their own worth and power. Miss Lick destroys beauty so that woman can succeed in their lives using their brains and not their beauty. There is also woman who has performed abdominal surgery on herself… 

This book is weird; I am not going to deny that. But if you’ve noticed, I have used a lot of quotes in this review. The book may be weird, but the writing is absolutely beautiful. I don’t know how to describe it other than beautiful, so I wanted to make sure you could see it for yourself. I would actually recommend that if you read this and like it, read it again. The first read through is about the shock and awe, it’s about the freaks and the gruesomeness. The second time around you see the beauty of what Dunn has created. I definitely recommend Geek Love to anyone with a fancy for carnivals, drug experimentation, world domination, cults, red hair, microwave dinners, incredible story lines or genius writing.

The perfect twa for this book is glaringly obvious! Cotton Candy is a rooibos tea from Davids; a combination of nut brittle, candied mango and cotton candy sprinkles. I really feel there is nothing left to be said about this perfect combination of book and tea!

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I have been hearing about Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel for the last year but only just got around to picking it up – because of my avoidance of e-books and hardbacks whenever possible, I usually end up having to wait for books to be released in paperback before I can get my hands on a copy. Normally this is not an issue, I have an (over) abundance of books waiting to be read and I like reading books after the hype has died down; I forget any spoilers that I may have read and I get the chance to search out and pick through any supplementary information that I want to read about a particular book, rather than having it all thrown at me. Sometimes, the wait is hard. This time though, I got lucky and the paperback was released after only a few months, so of course I had to pick it up! It’s funny, once I had bought my copy I realized that I actually didn’t really know anything about the story, other than it takes place in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future. This alone was enough to make me want to read the book however, with echoes of Margaret Atwood in my head… 

The same night that a worldwide pandemic hits, a famous actor dies from a heart attack while performing King Lear on stage in Toronto. A young girl watches on in horror as a paparazzo turned paramedic student attempts to save his life. Weeks later, 99% of the world’s population is dead. Fast forward 20 years, and that little girl, Kirsten, is part of a traveling symphony and Shakespeare theatre troupe that walks through northeastern North America performing for any survivors in the small towns that have sprung up along the coast line. People have learned to survive, barely, and quite often an entire town can consist of a few families living in old gas stations or restaurants. The symphony lives by some pretty simple rules – they don’t get involved in town politics, they stay away from towns where prophets or fear mongering exists, they don’t pick up stray children. They live by a simple motto as well – Survival is Insufficient – a quote from an old episode of Star Trek Voyager (which pretty much no one remembers anymore). In fact, there are not many people left who remember what life was like before the Georgian Flu; those, like Kirsten, who were children before remember little of their childhood. Life was too unstable in the first few years; all of a sudden there was no electricity, no internet, eventually gas went stale so there was no more real travel. People kept dying, but now it was from other people or the elements. Life was harsh and scary and it was easy to forget that it hadn’t always been like this.
Kirsten does try to remember some things from before – she has become a little bit obsessed with Arthur Leander, the actor who died in front of her all those years ago. She and another in the symphony scavenge houses and buildings whenever they can and Kirsten looks for anything she can find about Leander; newspaper articles, magazines, books, whatever. She is also obsessed with finding more volumes of few comic books that Leander gave her while they were performing together – Dr. Eleven V1 No 1: Station Eleven and V1 No 2: The Pursuit. Kirsten is obsessed with the books and is constantly searching for more of the story.
Throughout all of this we learn more about Leander’s life – his fame, his three wives and his young son, all told from different perspectives, at different points in Leander’s life. We are also re-introduced to Jeevan, the would-be paramedic in his former life as a paparazzo. We’ve already seen how their lives have connected once, Kirsten, Leander and Jeevan, but I believe that there must be a further connection down the line. There have already been hints of this, and I am pretty sure of at least one of the connections and I really can’t wait to see how it plays out. I am a sucker for connecting storylines.  
The story seems to be focusing on one town in particular where a couple from the symphony stayed to have a baby a few years back – but when the symphony shows up again to collect them, the couple and their child are nowhere to be found and the town is under the sway of a ‘prophet’ who declares that the survivors are of the light, and that those who do not wish to follow him can leave. Once again the midpoint has cut me off right when the drama is starting and I am quite looking forward to getting back to it. I read another review of this book where the reviewer was annoyed with the appearance of the prophet, saying that prophets are overdone in the speculative/post-apocalyptic genre, but I totally disagree. Sure, there tend to be a lot of prophets, but I think that happens in books because that’s what would happen in real life. Already, when there has been no apocalypse and the world is overrun with people, we have prophets and holy men and people who try to tell us that they are going to save us, so long as we follow their will. It makes perfect sense that in a world where there is no more security or protection these people will take advantage to rise higher than ever and gain the power they never could before.

For me, something magical happens when literary fiction and genre fiction are blended. I love both of them for their own merits. I love the way that most literary fiction tends to be character driven, getting inside the heads of people, seeing a situation from all different points of view, being lied to and manipulated by an unreliable narrator or seeing a characters motivation for their actions. I love how most genre fiction is plot driven, where you never know what is going to happen next, you get to learn about fantastical machines or races of aliens or space, or be dead center in the middle of a gruesome murder scene.  But when a book contains elements of both… that is definitely my perfect cup of tea. And that is exactly what Mandel has done with Station Eleven. I tell you, this book would appeal to pretty much everyone I know – from die hard genre fans to die hard literary fiction fans. The writing itself is beautiful. I must say, my early comparison to Atwood was dead on. Mandel has created a completely believable (and relevant given the recent Ebola outbreak) world ravaged by the death toll and slowly being put back together by the surviving humanity. However, this book is a quiet book, a quiet story. There is drama and action but it happens soundlessly and unobtrusively. That’s not quite right, but I can’t find the words that I want to express the feeling of this story. I think Mandel has set up such a perfect background for the story to play out in. I am not great at picturing things, but the imagery that she sets up makes me think of a wide open prairie, a huge vast expanse of land, flat for miles and miles, and even though the situation may be loud and wrong and scary, the land is so vast that no one can hear a sound. Does that make any sense?   I’m not sure it does considering what I know of the east coast geography. But that’s what I picture anyway.  All I know for sure is that this a beautiful story and I cannot wait to get back to it. I really hope that what I think will happen happens, and I cannot wait to see how it plays out.
I really think that the appropriate tea for this book is whatever tea you can get your hands on! At the end of the world there is no way that we are going to be able to be selective - so you make sure and hoard whatever tea you can find, cause you are going to have to make it last for a lot longer than expected... you know... when the world ends.