Tag Archives: fiction

The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison

silentGone Girl by Gillian Flynn was a quick read for me this past spring. I enjoyed it yet, Flynn’s magic lay not in writing a psychological mystery of amazing literary prowess, or even much thoughtfulness, but in making a book that rippled with suspense. Gone Girl was addictive. Gone Girl was a good book, but The Silent Wife is better. A.S.A Harrison wrote The Silent Wife last year but she died before she could see it published.

Jodi and Todd, married for more than twenty years,  have survived because they were willing to see each others’ strengths and ignore their weaknesses.  It is a rattling account of a familiar story, a stalwart woman and a cheating husband living in relative peace until something sets it off.

Todd’s most recent girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant. He leaves Jodi, even evicting her out of their condo. Because the two had never married, Jodi, the one with a low-income, finds out she has no claim on her home. Jodi feels threatened, and entitled to more after putting up with Todd and his infidelity for twenty years. Todd’s actions erode Jodi’s sanity, and she falls apart until she murders him.

The book’s strength is sheer interest in the characters. From the get go (first page) the reader knows Jodi will kill Todd, so the reader is interested in the set up, not the how.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Jodi, a trained psychotherapist, recounts therapy she has attended in the past.  Attending therapy was for her own professional development, but these flash backs revealed not only Jodi’s family history, but also theory about human behaviour.  It ultimately shows the reader why Jodi, someone so sane and grounded, could murder her ex-husband.  The book is heavy with description, particularly the scenes of Jodi slipping into depression, but the frill of the writing is how the reader becomes a type of therapist to Jodi.

Unfortunately, this will be A.S.A Harrison’s only fiction book as she passed away. You can read about the fascinating story of her life as an artist in Toronto in this article.

A.S.A Harrison
A.S.A Harrison

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

If you liked Children of Men, by PD James, (book or movie) or Never Let Me Go (2010) you will enjoy this sci-fi apocalyptic-y novel. Jessie Lamb is an idealistic sixteen year old who is living in a grim world.

It is the near future. Women are unable to have children. A virus, called MDS has infected all women in the world leaving them unable to have children. Women are able to conceive, but shortly into the pregnancy, the virus kicks in and the woman dies.

Jessie’s father works in a reproductive tech lab, where they have found a way to vaccinate stored, frozen embryos against the virus MDS, offering the only hope for  the future of humanity. These vaccinated babies will be able to reproduce and populate the earth. However, they need young women to incubate the babies. These women are impregnated and then put into comas before MDS can kill them. After the baby is born, they die.

In order for there to ever be new babies, young women need to sacrifice their own lives.

Jessie volunteers as an incubator.  Her parents refuse to support her, arguing that scientists will find a cure for MDS in the future. Jessie wants to use her life for the betterment of the future, but her friends and family see her self-sacrifice as a type of suicide and a cry for help.

The ethics around reproductive technologies interest me a great deal. I also really enjoyed thinking about the dichotomy of self-sacrifice and selfishness. Jane Rogers created an extreme foil where a life must be given for humanity to continue. Especially in light of our depleting resources and the increasing ozone hole. We are still not willing to sacrifice our lifestyles. If you need some more proof that this is true of humanity, read my interview with a friend of mine about climate justiceJessieLamb

I also enjoyed the idealism (or stupidity) of Jessie. Our culture does not have examples of this type of sacrifice. We are not used to any form of sacrifice. Jessie’s gift to humanity seems unnatural.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I was not entirely sold on the main character. Jessie was a bit flat, and too resolved in her decision. I found her unconvincing. But otherwise the story was interesting enough that I’d recommend this novel.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize.  Cheers!

Philida- Andre Brink

What a fresh book!

I read a lot of Canadian fiction.

book cover
book cover

That is not a complaint, but I do miss other-worldly perspectives. Philida by Andre Brink was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.  The book is set in the 1820s and 1830s in South Africa.  I quickly learned that this was a pivotal time in South Africa’s history, because of the colonial power shift from the Dutch to the British.

Philida is a slave who works as a knitting girl on a Dutch plantation. She is also the lover of her boss’ son Frans and the mother of four of his children.

Philida is special. Even before the British took over the colony, she held an intrinsic sense of self-worth and dignity. She had feelings for Frans, but only because she was treated as an equal by him.

Frans turns into a big fat jerk and decides to sell Philida and his children.

There is more to the story, too. The British set a date, in advance, when slavery will be outlawed in the cape colony (by 1834). This has intense social implications for the Dutch settlers and the African slaves that have been working for them for generations.

I loved this book because it explores the link between freedom and individuality. With the promise of freedom, Philida turns from a person who lets things happen to her, into someone with agency.

I also loved this book because of the strength of Brink’s writing. The prose is humourous, his characters full of tongue in cheek one liners. And his characters have fun little names like Willempie.

Brink is also insightful, he lays out the complexity of slave and plantation just as it is breaking down.

The most impressive though, is that the novel is based on historical records that Brink has pieced together from his own family tree.

The book has strength, it has a soul. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary, historical fiction.

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!

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.

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