October 30, 2009

The Disappeared - Kim Echlin

I actually finished this book a week ago (and stayed up far too late one night in order to finish it), but I've had a bad cold this week and have been indulging in L.M. Montgomery re-reads. I'm feeling better now, so time to get back on track with the Giller shortlist.

I knew going into it that a book set in Cambodia in the second half of the 20th century entitled "The Disappeared" wouldn't have a happy ending, but I didn't anticipate just how beautifully it would be written. The book is short (only 228 pages), and there is not one word missing or one word too many. And some of the sentences were so beautifully constructed that I would stop in my tracks and contemplate just that sentence. A lot of the beauty comes from the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas - for example: "The waiters watched and pretended not to see," or "The strangeness of my love for you is that it has made me dead in life and you alive in death."

The plot is very simple - a young girl in Montreal falls in love with a Cambodian refugee in the 1970s. The refugee returns home to Cambodia as soon as the border opens; she follows him 10 years later; they are re-united; and then he disappears. Love found; love lost; love found again; love lost again.

I have never been to south-east Asia, but with the beauty of the writing, I felt as though I had been transported there. Some day I will go, and discover if this book was realistic in it's portrayal.

One quibble with the writing style (and not only in this book, but it seems to be the case in many that are written these days). What is wrong with quotation marks? A simple punctuation mark that indicates external speech. Yes, your writing may then appear to be edgy and modern when the quotation marks are omitted, but it also becomes somewhat ambiguous and hard to follow dialogue. Hopefully this is a trend that will pass, and in the future, scholars will read books and be able to date them to this era by the lack of quotations marks (or other punctuation). And yes, I may be the only one that this bothers - after all, I am the self-proclaimed Queen of the Semicolon, and a Royal Pain in the 'S.
(Stepping off my soapbox now.)

On an unrelated note, I have been dared by my cousin to read Twilight. I have so far managed to avoid the hype surrounding the books/films, partly because the mass-marketing of them doesn't appeal to me, and neither do vampires in general; however there is now a $25 bookstore gift card riding on it. If I like Twilight better than anything else on my TBR book, I will pay up, but if another book is better than Twilight, she will pay me. Twilight will have to be quite spectacular indeed to surpass The Disappeared. I've placed a copy on hold at the local library - stay tuned here for my progress in this challenge.

The Disappeared was read as part of The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

October 18, 2009

The Bishop's Man - Linden MacIntyre

I chose to begin my Giller Shortlist read-athon with this book, since it was one that I had previously looked at in the bookstore, and probably would have read eventually even if it hadn't been nominated. And I wasn't disappointed.

Basically, it is a fictionalized account of the abuse that happened in the Catholic church that came to light over the past 15 years or so. And talk about timely. The week before the shortlist was announced, Bishop Raymond Lahey of Antigonish (Nova Scotia), who had previously worked to negotiate deals for people who had been abused by priests, was charged with possession of child pornography. In the book, the protagonist, Fr MacAskill, the "Bishop's Man," is a priest who is the right-hand man to the bishop of Antigonish, and whose main job over the years has been dealing with priests who stepped out of line. Unfortunately, both in the book and in real life, dealing with these wayward priests usually only meant shuffling them to a different diocese, province, or country. The book deals with the fall-out of this, as what happened begins to become publicly known.

While difficult in subject matter, I found this book to be very gripping and easy to read. I was reading it over the Thanksgiving weekend while staying with my sister, and my biggest fear was that I was going to finish it before I got home, and be stranded with nothing to read! (I, in fact, finished it in the Toronto airport on my way home while waiting for my flight to depart.) Admittedly, some of the foreshadowing is a bit heavy-handed, but it is balanced out by the fact that some of the foreshadowing was a red herring so I was surprised when the events unfolded. And I thought that the ending was just about perfect - all of the main loose ends tied up, with just enough ambiguity to make it realistic.

If I have one criticism, it is that the characters were a bit wooden and two-dimensional at times. Yes, Fr. MacAskill is an alcoholic, but you don't have to have him pouring himself a drink or two every second sentence. And he is a bit thick not to have recognized himself as an alcoholic, especially given his past work. And the people that he encounters don't get developed very far, with a few exceptions. But this could be because the story is told as a first-person narrative. If I were telling the story of my life, do I know the people around me well enough to make them come alive on the page? Were the characters in the book flat because the author couldn't make them rounded, or because his narrator isn't able to see them as rounded?

But it was a good read, despite all of that. And as I'm already half way through my next Giller book, so stay tuned for that review.

October 7, 2009

Too Much Happiness - Alice Munro

I love Alice Munro stories. In small doses. A single volume = a small dose. The summer I tried to read a 700-page (small print) "Selected Stories" anthology, I had to take a break 2/3 of the way through or else I would have become suicidal!

Too Much Happiness is her newest collection of short stories, and I was able to detect many familiar Munro-vian themes - loss of childhood innocence, marriage break-down, aging, inter-generational misunderstanding. However there are a few changes - I noticed more male protagonists (though I will have to look back through her other recent books to see if this is a new thing), and some of the stories end more optimistically than is her wont.

I think that what I love most about Alice Munro is her ability to draw you right into the mind of her protagonist so that you see all events happening from that character's point of view, and often to the point where you, the reader, are blind to the character's weaknesses. Then often there is a twist at the end (possibly a moment of self-revelation for the character) where you get a glimpse of them from the point of view of another.

My favourite story in this collection? "Wood." This is one of the stories with a male lead - an older man whose wife snaps out of a major depression in a moment of crisis. Just a beautifully told moment of every-day life that left me smiling at the end.

My least favourite story in this collection? The title story, "Too Much Happiness." I didn't enjoy this story as much, as it is not a typical Munro story. First of all, she took a real person (albeit one who lived more than 100 years ago), researched her life, and then told the story of the final days of her life with flashbacks to her earlier life. I think that the historical detail weighed her down too much as it was being written - it kept alternating with the very personal, character point of view that I mentioned above, with some paragraphs of bald, clumsy, fact-telling. And the title is definitely ironic, as the story does not end with the character experiencing too much happiness.

So I guess if you are a Munro fan (as I am), you will probably enjoy this newest collection; but if you are not a fan of hers, then you probably aren't going to pick this book up in the first place!

October 6, 2009

2009 Giller Prize

So the shortlist for this year's Giller Prize was announced today, and I'm none too happy. The 5 books on the list are:
The Disappeared - Kim Echlin
The Golden Mean - Annabel Lyon
The Bishop's Man - Linden MacIntyre
Fall - Colin McAdam
The Winter Vault - Anne Michaels

Now of the books on the shortlist, the only one that I've read so far is The Winter Vault, but I picked up copies of the other ones today so will comment as I finish them. The winner will be announced on November 10 so I should be done reading the shortlist by then.

What I am upset about is the omission of The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood which, if you read my review, you will see is one of the best books I have read recently. And with Alice Munro removing her name from the running (my review of her latest book should be up here tomorrow), the field is reduced from what it should be. The Giller Prize is given to recognize excellence in Canadian fiction, and I usually really enjoy the winning book, but if 2 of my favourite books of the year aren't on the shortlist... But I guess I have 4 more books to get though before I pass judgement!