Giddy for the Giller #2:The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

The Imposter Bride is a decent read.

Ruth, the main character, is a Jewish woman growing up in Montreal in the 50s.  Ruth was abandoned by her mother as a newborn, leaving her husband and daughter and a mystery. Her mother immigrated from Russia right after the war, and leaves a past there that is hard for Ruth to reconcile. Identity seems irrelevant, and family ties loose.

Ruth is loved by her family and community, but spends her “growing up” years trying to let the people who loved and raised her, fill the void that was left by her mother.

The message of this book is compelling, especially about the immigrants after WWII who were missing people and their former lives. Immigrants coming into Canada were struggling to carry on and rebuild. I immediately pondered the relevance of a society built up on these issues. In the late 1940s, and during the 1950s, Canada received 1.5 million immigrants from Europe.  Among these numbers were all four of my grandparents.

The characters were a bit flat. I enjoyed the flashbacks in the story about Europe, but not the 1990s Montreal stuff because it felt forced and cliched. The interest for me in the story was the Jewish immigrants fleeing to Canada, or a place where they were meant to settle and rebuild halved lives.

There were a few circumstantial and non-relevant things that struck me as weird about this book: one, that it was set in Montreal (again, so was Inside by Alix Ohlin); also, Nancy Richler writes about Montreal, and so did Mordecai Richler, maybe they are related.

But the story wasn’t profound or new. It felt like a novel that could have been published thirty years ago. It detailed life in an older style of writing. One where the reader sees the character grow up and become someone. These are traditional Canadian novels, but I still finished it and felt enriched by it.

Cheers!

Giddy for the Giller #1: Inside by Alix Ohlin

Inside by Alix Ohlin was a fast and tidy read. The novel is made up of four narratives shoved all together into a cohesive message  about love and pain. It also explores what keeps humans together and interacting, despite all the pain.

The story seems to be the most about Grace, an idealistic therapist who wants to save people who have been wounded and broken. This desire is not isolated to just her clients, but spills over into her own relationships. Grace wants to throw herself at someone and really know them inside, but it often turns into a vulnerability. In the end, she learns emotional restraint keeping her insides inside, without compromising intimacy.

Ohlin weaves a novel that is rich with insight and care. The characters are real, although maybe a tiny bit bland. I still think it was lovely. The premise was simple, and in a way feels like anyone’s life. I was interested in the characters, but I still felt that the novel lacked a certain flair. The outcomes seemed too predictable.

I have not read a book like this is a while. It’s simple, but with enough meat to satisfy a literary appetite. I loved how Ohlin explored how we bear witness to each others pain. Mitch, Grace’s ex-husband who was also a therapist says:

Sometimes he hated himself simply because he was alive when others were not, and he wanted to wipe out the memories of every patient he’d ever had, every problem he’s caused or heard about or failed to alleviate. Other times he thought he would never forget any of these things and that it was important not to, perhaps the most important task of his life. Witnessing the pain of others is the very least you can do in this world. It’s how you know when your turn comes, someone will be there with you.

And I think this is the point really of the inside lives we hold and keep and carry. We share them to know we are alive, and so others will know we will listen too.

The Journey of Miranda Hill

*please note, this piece was originally published in November 2011’s urbanicity.

 


Writer Miranda Hill met with me in one of my favourite, unpretentious coffee shops. She leans into the dining room chair, comfortable amongst other regulars and baristas who know exactly how she likes her coffee.

Hill seems like she belongs here in this coffee shop. The community of Westdale feels like hers as well, a place where she and her family have lived for nearly three years. She has my attention; Hill is as riveting as her writing. She won the respected Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize on November 1st for her short story and first publication, Petitions to Saint Chronic. The award is given to a new author to distinguish an impressive short story, putting Hill in the same ranks as some very gifted and renowned Canadian authors, including Yann Martel, writer of Life of Pi.

We can claim this artist as our own. Hill feels supported in Hamilton, connected to a tight circle of local writers who attend each other’s book openings. The Hamilton writers are a small enough community that they can be friends. I was pleased to hear of authors living among us, chronicling our city into stories.

Petitions to Saint Chronic was written while Hill was completing her Optional Residency at UBC’s Master’s of Fine Arts program. It is about an unnamed woman and two companions; all three are drawn to the desperation of an attempted suicide. The nearly-dead man, Gibson, is broken and comatose after falling twenty-four stories. The three individuals wait, each with their own reasons for wanting Gibson to wake up. Micheline wants to help Gibson turn his life around and make him successful. Carlos wants to give Gibson the gift of God’s love. The unnamed woman is broken herself and likes Gibson just as hopeless as he is. The story explores both how much pain the woman can take before she changes her circumstances, and ultimately what inspires her to do so.

Hill is busy as a mother, wife, and writer, but she also runs a fascinating organization called Project Bookmark Canada. The organization has erected ten plaques (Bookmarks) in locations around Ontario quoting passages from Canadian literature. The text on the plaque must relate to the exact location mentioned in the book or poem.

Hamilton was recently graced with a Bookmark of John Terpstra’s poem “Giants” at Sam Lawrence Park. Terpstra’s poem playfully describes giants sitting on the edge of the escarpment. The Bookmark allows the reader to enjoy the poem while standing on the escarpment, connecting literature with our physical geography.

Project Bookmark Canada’s hope is that with funding and time, they will have Bookmarks all across the country, emphasizing how important reading is to our everyday lives.

The idea of the Bookmarks came to her while she was living in the Distillery District in Toronto, walking with her young children around the streets of her neighbourhood. At times, she found herself reading passages in books that would mention the intersections she passed every day. As Hill said in a recent article, she felt like she stepped into the stories she was reading. Her relationship with literary texts was changed as she realized how connected literature was with her physical reality.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of Petitions to Saint Chronic. It can be found in The Journey Prize Stories 23, an anthology of the finalists for the prize. Read this story and feel proud that Miranda Hill lives and writes in our community. Her first collection of short stories is coming out next fall.

ELISHA STAM is a stay at home progeny wrangler, impulsive writer, and ravenous reader. She lives downtown Hamilton. You can read more of her reviews at elishastam.wordpress.com.

Three Mini Reviews- Fiction, Non-Fiction, Cookbook

Awww….summer. You have almost past by. I filled it with Ontario’s trees and grass and lakes. But also books. Here are a few that kept my interest:

State of Wonder- Ann Patchett

This little wonder of a book joined me on my family camping trip. It was a perfect companion. Marina Singh is forty-something medical doctor who works for a large pharmaceutical company in the research department. She is sent into the thick of the Amazon jungle to investigate the death of a coworker.

Marina wants to know more details about her coworker, Anders’ death because the situation seems suspicious. She must also glean information about a research project funded by her employer, the pharmaceutical company. The research doctor, who has been in the Amazon for decades, Dr. Swenson, refuses to give information about the progress of her work. Marina must win the trust of Dr. Swenson.

This book was full of interesting characters including Marina herself, who has a past she would rather not talk about. She is a strong characzter, and despite conflicts with Dr. Swenson, natives, her own health and nightmares, she leaves the jungle a stronger and more mature woman.

This is my first book by Patchett, and I found The State of Wonder to be an easy and riveting read. The prose and the themes were reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver, but even more delicate, and satisfying. Patchett impressed me withcomplex themes like North America’s tendency to exploit cultures that are “less advanced.” She explores ownership and responsibility. The medical doctors appeared interested in respecting the indigenous cultures that they were studying. In the end all respect and obligations to those around Dr. Swenson are thwarted for her own glory.

Visit Sunny Chernobyl – Andrew Blackmore

How to start with this one? Hmm…

Andrew Blackmore traveled to the world’s most polluted places and wrote about them in a tourist-y fashion. He embarks on a journey to what he considers the most polluted and exploited places on the planet: Chernobyl, Fort McMurray and the Oil Sands, the refineries of Port Arthur, Pacific Garbage Patch, deforestation in the Amazon, the e-waste piles in China, and Kanpur, India.

The book accounts Blackmore’s travels with insight and depth. Each chapter is filled with history of how the most polluted spots came to be the most polluted spots. Blackmore’s views are uniquein the genre of environmental journalism.

His conclusions are not the ones I would think after witnessing these places of ugliness. While flying over Syncrude’s oil sands mine, he is wowed by it’s size and the giant interruption it is on the earth. Blackmore concludes that the oils sands are awful, but are small in the grand scheme of Canada, our planet and  human existence.

I was intrigued by Blackmore’s premise that we cannot destroy the earth completely. We are stripping it entirely of it’s goodness and leaving our garbage lying all around (or rather floating in the middle of the Pacific). But life is finding a way to continue in those places, and to even thrive. I was not entirely convinced, but I was glad for his insights just the same.

Blackmore’s writing was enjoyable and full of wry humour. It was bursting with characters. My favourite was the Russian Dennis, who worked at a cushy job in the government, but applied to work as a guide in Chernobyl because he was bored. As Blackmore says, this man thought boredom was worse then high doses of radiation.

The most impressive part of Blackmore’s book is that it gives justice to the complexities of these issues in our culture, while keeping them accessible to his reader. Showing a beauty to these places that exists despite the way we are ruining them. Really, he is showing how beautiful we are as humans, and our innovation to use the earth for ourselves.  His book also made the situations surrounding these places of pollution, more accessible to the average person. He made them real, rather then just a large existential example of our horribleness.

More with Less (a cookbook)- edited by DorisJanzen Longacres

 I am an excellent cook. I will not be sheepish about it. I can make something from nothing, and it will almost always taste good. I come from a family of women who can cook a soup like it’s nobody’s business and roast a winner winner chicken dinner with all the trimmings, and Oh My! The smell is just awesome.

I’ve been menu planning and cooking for my family for more then nine years. I thought I had it down to a very fine science. Yet, something has happened over the years, I’ve gotten muddled and mixed. I’ve been joining whatever band wagon is running around at the time (seasonal food or local food, or ethnic food, or food that looks delicious on pinterest). The cost of food has surely gone up in the past few years, but its not just inflation. I’ve been cooking recipes with less repetition and more complexity. I feel overwhelmed, and I end up with thirty condiments in my fridge that I use less then twice a month. I am bored of this whim cooking.

I decided to go back to the start. More importantly, my husband and I were looking to shave money off our grocery bill.  More with Less was my answer. It was published in the 1980s by the Mennonite Central Committee and is full of tried and true family recipes that promise more nutrition with less ingredients and costs. The motto of the book is: “on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited food resources.”

This is the food I’m the best at. Food that brings my kids downstairs saying, “mmmmm I smell soup”. More with Less is full of recipes and ideas to help our eating impact our world in a positive way. This means lots of veggies, fruits and grains, a little less dairy, and very little animal protein. I read last week on Grist that it takes 1800 gallons of water to produce 1 lb of grain-fed beef. I want to be socially conscientious about my menu planning.

In the three weeks that I’ve been flipping through More with Less, I’ve saved $30-$70 each week. This morning my husband opened the fridge to pack something for lunch he said he was so thankful for how much food we have. It’s filling, it’s tasty and each recipe is planned for a nice giant Mennonite family. We can even have a leftover night now! 

This is a beautiful thing. I love the Mennonites, and I love German cooking because it’s similar to Dutch. And there is also variety in the recipes with family friendly recipes from around the world. This book is going to save us money and I feel better eating less meat. I got this book at the library, but it is available at Ten Thousand Villages.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! was one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. Some of my favorite things in life are eating chocolate, learning about new things, and uninterrupted sleep (preferably through the night). Swamplandia! helped with ONE of those. It was fascinating!

This ambitious novel, written by the twenty-nine year old Karen Russell, was buzzing around on some must read lists for 2012.  Swamplandia! is a theme park deep in the Florida Everglades. It’s an almost fantastical place with gator wrestling, sensational Everglades memorabilia, a quasi-historical museum and an endangered family called the Bigtrees.

Ava is a thirteen year old girl. She has an older brother, Kiwi, and an older sister, Osceola. Her family is normal in a sense that they love each other, they have history and they are alive. But they are also a little strange. They live isolated but fulfilling lives on one of the alleged Ten Thousand Islands (not our Ten Thousand Islands) of the Florida Everglades. The Bigtree family’s connections with the rest of the world are few. One is an old  houseboat that serves as an outdated library for the very scattered community of islanders. The other is the ferry that brings tourists back and forth from the mainland to adventure in Swamplandia!

Hilola Bigtree is the mother of this family and she is also the main gator wrestler!  (exclamation point was not really necessary in this sentence) She’s good; a good showman and a good mother. But she dies quickly of cervical cancer leaving her family fragmented,  and the struggling theme park without its headliner.

Simultaneous to Hilola’s death and Swamplandia!’s fizzle is a mainland theme park opening called The World of Darkness. Tourists stop coming and the family’s way of making a living and surviving in the proud Everglades impossible due disheartening big corporation market push over.

The mourning children deal with their deep loss. Kiwi leaves the island for the mainland with intentions to make money and save Swamplandia! He ends up getting a job at The World of Darkness as a janitor.

Osceola becomes a spiritualist  using an Ouija board to try and contact her dead mother. Unfortunately, her mother is not accessible and she starts dating ghosts of young men.

Ava trains with great diligence, dreaming to be the next Hilola Bigtree, the best gator wrestler in the world. She tends and trains the gators in their pit as hard as her thirteen-year-old self can. 

Their father leaves the island to save the bankrupt island. The children believe he is meeting with investors for a few weeks, but he is actually working on the mainland as well. Kiwi is gone, and Osceola and Ava are left on their own to tend to the gators and the island. Osceola starts to become more and more bizarre. She runs away, deeply in love with a dead dredgeman to elope in The Underworld, which is where dead people go.

Ava wakes up alone with a note explaining the run away, and a promise ringing in her ears to her brother about keeping their whimsical sister grounded. She sets off with a strange, transient man who is known by locals as the Bird Man, a transient middle-aged man who scares away troublesome birds. The Bird Man’s appearance is serendipitous because he tells Ava he knows the way to The Underworld and can help save her sister.

Evil and hardship await the siblings as they follow their own way to save their realities. In the end it seems that people must be adaptable to the way the world changes. Even if it is for the worse.  Because life can always be full of love.

Why?

Swamplandia! is eerie and haunting. Some parts reminded me of The Dead Marshes of Tolkien and even though the Everglades is a real place, the book feels like a fantasy. It’s fabulously alluring and Russell uses amazing imagery to pull it off.  In the scene where Ava and the Bird Man are setting out, one lovely sentence reads like this:

We poled around the scummy crystals of the oyster beds and made a beeline for the mirror-like slough. I watched a line of water creep up his pole as the channel deepened, like the mercury in an old-fashioned thermometer, and then we broke into wild sun (page 160).

This movie is Tim Burtonesque, complete with a creepy and unreadable Johnny Depp character. I think people would enjoy the humour and stunning beauty that Ava sees. Russell draws her alive, and gritty, although slightly more mature than thirteen would allow; she is easy to root for and connect to.

Swamplandia! is thick with details. Russell knows the world of the Everglades well, and the history portrayed in the novel about the land and the people who survive there is rich and enthralling. Also, every time that Swamplandia! is printed in this lovely tome, Swamplandia! has an exclamation mark on it. It’s details like that which really won me over. 

This book made me do a lot of online research about the Everglades. I now want to go there someday and I love books that expose me to new and exciting places. Everglades is an amazing place! I read some cool stuff here: Everglades in Wikipedia, and the government website for the national park.

I also enjoyed the theme of old vs new, of history vs progress. Swamplandia! was old-fashioned and a bit out of touch with popular culture. The World of Darkness (Read: World of Disney) represents the large-scale corporations that have all but taken over the States (and Canada). Russell also talks about survival of the fittest.

The tension between these two ideas makes for a thought-provoking read. Swamplandia! was one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

What this book is about:

I was excited when I finally received this book from the library! Hurray for holds!

This is a coming of age novel about three young people in a lover’s triangle. Here’s the triangle: Madeleine has fallen in love with a man named Leonard.  Mitchell, who met Madeleine in the first year of university, has loved and pined after Madeleine for years. The unfortunate thing about Leonard is that he is manic-depressive. The unfortunate thing about Mitchell is that Madeleine doesn’t think he is “man”enough for her.

The relationship between Madeleine and Leonard is strained because of Leonard’s worsening condition. Mitchell, unable to woo Madeleine, leaves the country to find spiritual peace and personal significance.  The three have just graduated and have their futures looming over their heads.

Madeleine vows to nurse Leonard to complete mental health. After a break down, Leonard, in his vulnerability, realizes that he loves Madeleine  and fears she may leave him. He starts taking his medication again, which means that he loses his virility, energy, and intelligence. With his meds he’s not the person Madeleine fell in love with.

Mitchell travels around Europe and India for  the better part of a year, feeling hopeless because the love of his life, Madeleine, is in love with Leonard. His travels are soul-searching, and he finds himself eventually in Calcutta working at Mother Teresa’s Calcutta Centre. He comes home and finds Madeleine in the middle of her own crisis with Leonard. I won’t spoil the ending.

Read It?

This book had a bizarre and unique quality to it.  I felt content to place this one down in the evenings before bed, and yet I still picked it up every chance I could. I am trying to pinpoint why.

I wholeheartedly enjoyed Eugenides’ Middlesex. It was a big story with big heart and big characters! I think Eugenides is a brilliant story writer, his characters are unforgettable, and his plots are unpredictable. He also has an endearing quality of using interesting rants that fit in with the plot perfectly.  It’s sort of like listening to a like-minded uncle ramble on.

This book is funny. There were several moments of LOLing and smirking. There are lots of intelligent moments too; at times it felt like I was reading a nonfiction article. Madeleine sees the world most clearly through story lines and books she’s read.  When she falls in love with Leonard, she thinks along the framework of the literary theory. The novel’s several diatribes explore the love plots of works of literature. 

Eugenides uses these rants to see if we still think of love and marriage in the same terms. Do the lingering Jane Austen dreams of women my age (sigh…I’m so in love with Mr. Darcy) change the way we think about love? Is this what we aspire to in our relationships? This theme was subtle, though, and I’m not certain that he really revealed anything new to me.

The Marriage Plot is long. It might be intimidating, but I still think some people might really enjoy it. The characters are subtle, but the development of each is thorough and fresh. They are prototypical characters but endearing because they are honest and heartening.

The ending is fresh and unsatisfying, in a way that life often is.

Cheers!

—–

If you like this story, why not read some of my other posts:

Touch, by Alexi Zentner (or WHY I READ)

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

The Birth House by Ami McKay

book reviews

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