June 24, 2011

Alone in the Classroom - Elizabeth Hay

I approached this book with some mixed feelings. I read Late Nights on Air, Hay's last book, after it won the Giller back in 2007 and I was not overwhelmingly impressed. The last third of it was exciting (when the group goes on the canoe trip, for those of you who have read it), but I found the first 2/3 of the book slow-going, muddled, and hard to get attached to any of the characters.

Reading this book, I could hardly believe that it was the same author. The writing style was very crisp, the story moved along, and it was the sort of book that I didn't want to put down.

One of the things that I loved about this book is that it is being told by Anne, and we see things as Anne sees them, and we learn things as Anne learns them. It is truly a first-person narrative where there is no all-knowing presence giving hints as to what is to come. (Though like N icola, I did have trouble at times, remember who the "I" was that was telling the story, especially when jumping between different generations and stories.). There were a lot of layers to this story, however in the end they all came together to tell the story of a family. I could compare it to an onion, with all of the layers making up the whole, except that I don't like onions and I did like this story!

What are some of these plot layers? There is Connie, a teacher in rural Saskatchewan in 1929, struggling to teach a student with dyslexia who is gifted in other area and struggling with a creepy principal who may or may not have "interfered" with a 13-year-old student. Then in 1937, Connie is a reporter covering the murder of a young girl in the Ottawa Valley, where her life ends up linked with Anne's when her brother meets and marries a young woman who become Anne's parents (ie Connie is Anne's paternal aunt). Anne also tells us the story of her own life, and then ends with telling the story of her mother's family and of her mother, growing up with a domineering mother (Anne's grandmother). My overall impression is that Anne had to approach family history indirectly through her Aunt's story before she could get up the courage to examine her own story and the story of her direct ancestors.

But more than the plot itself (in fact I found the plot annoying at times, with implied significance to certain events fizzling out to nothing - though isn't that the way real life goes at times?), I loved seeing how all of these layers and generations and characters came together to make a whole story. This story could have been told chronologically, beginning with Anne's maternal family and their carpentry business in the Ottawa Valley intersecting with Anne's paternal family struggling in the Saskatchewan prairie; but that would have been much less interesting.

4 good books in a row (and the one that I'm reading now is interesting too) - I'm on a roll!

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think? How would you compare it to Late Nights on Air?

June 10, 2011

Irma Voth - Miriam Toews

The world of this book has been a very enjoyable place to spend the past few days.

I am one of the few people who didn't like A Complicated Kindness, despite all of the awards that it won. I found it to be a very forgettable book. I did, however, love The Flying Troutmans that came out a few years ago (I finished reading it just a few weeks before starting this blog, so I'm afraid that I can't link to a review) and have been looking forward to reading this book for several months, ever since I heard that Miriam Toews would be having a new book published.

It is set in the Mennonite world that defined A Complicated Kindness, this time in the Mexican Mennonite community. Irma has been disowned by her father following her marriage (though she remains on good terms with her mother and her sister Aggie) and abandoned by her husband, a Mexican, non-Mennonite, sometimes drug-runner.

Irma made her first tentative advances into the world outside the Mennonite Campo when she meets and marries her Mexican husband. She has a chance to further broaden her horizons when a Mexican film crew sets up next door and offers her a job as a translator. Eventually her sister Aggie gets drawn into the film, one thing leads to another, and finally the three sisters (Irma, Aggie, and a newborn baby) end up running away to Mexico City.

This book felt a bit like a stone rolling down a hill. It was a bit slow to get going, but gradually picked up momentum so that by the end, things were careening out of control.

Ultimately though, it is a book about family. A family divided by a violent father. A new non-traditional family that forms when the sisters take off together. And even a loose family-like-unit that sets up when Irma gets a job at a Bed-and-Breakfast in Mexico City.

I really felt drawn to the character of Irma. Initially shy and withdrawn, she is curious about the world around her and outside of her experience. As her sister Aggie observes, she likes the world inside her head better than the world around her. She is forced to take on responsibilities that she didn't ask for or want, and is often over-shadowed by her younger sister. And yet she not only survives but manages to thrive and in the end, she carves out a niche for herself. I loved watching how she grew up and gained confidence over the course of the book.

One of my favourite passages in the book comes near the end when Irma is writing in her notebook / journal.
YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO DIE! I read over the original heading in my notebook, the one that Diego had given me a long time ago to record my thoughts and observations. I pondered his dark advice. I scratched out the word DIE and wrote LIVE. The that seemed cheesy and too uncooly emphatic so I added the words SORT OF. AT LEAST TRY. Even that seemed bossy so I added, in parentheses, a joke: OR DIE TRYING. Then I told myself that it wasn't funny and crossed it all, every word of it, out and started again.

My one disappointment was that this book was so short and ended so abruptly. I would have loved for it to continue for another 200 pages! And I would love to know what happened to Irma and Aggie after the last page. Sequel, anyone?

June 5, 2011

The High Road - Terry Fallis

As I mentioned in my post on Friday, I purchased The High Road, the sequel to The Best Laid Plans, on my way home on Friday before I had even finished The Best Laid Plans. Yes, I loved The Best Laid Plans that much.

I spent the weekend deep in this book, continuing to follow the exploits and adventures of Angus McLintock, fictional Member of Parliament for the fictional riding of Cumberland-Prescott. (For anyone who is interested, in real life, part of Cumberland is in the Ottawa Orleans riding; while the rest of Cumberland and Prescott are in Glengarry-Prescott-Russell Riding. Both ridings are currently Conservative, however were Liberal up until the 2006 election and still have strong Liberal turnouts. So much for Cumberland-Prescott being the "safest Conservative riding in the country!" Have I mentioned that I am a bit of a political junkie?)

In this book, Angus continued to insist on taking the high road, while wading through another election (which he actually wants to win this time); researching then writing the McLintock Report and dealing with its aftermath following the collapse of a bridge (Angus is an engineer after all); hosting the President and First Lady of the United States; and trying to influence the Throne Speech and Federal Budget.

I don't think that I laughed out loud as much in this book as in the first, but it was still a very amusing read. And engaging. I did polish it off in 2 days; and even this afternoon, I was going to read for another 15 minutes then make dinner and when I checked my watch again, 45 minutes had passed.

I continued to enjoy the narrative style which was the same as the first book - most of it is told in the first person through the eyes of Daniel Addison, Executive Assistant to Angus; with a brief journal entry by Angus at the end of each chapter giving his perspective on the story. Some of the jokes started to get a bit stale by the end (e.g. Angus and Daniel correcting split infinitives), but I was sorry to see the end of this book. The author's website announced last week that his next book is going to be published in September 2012. After spending the last week immersed in this fictional, yet eerily reminiscent of real life, world, I don't know how I am going to wait for a year and a half to read the next installment.

The one thing that this book did was make me sad for the state of Canada today. I'm afraid that our government is going downhill; and I wish that we could have one Member of Parliament with the integrity and audacity of Angus McLintock that could change the direction for the better. I suspect that the budget that is going to be announced tomorrow afternoon will have nothing in common with the budget announced at the end of The High Road. Where is the Canadian politician today that will take the high road?

June 3, 2011

The Best Laid Plans - Terry Fallis

I should probably warn any readers from the outset that this post may contain some gushing.

I loved this book!

If I had read it prior to the Canada Reads debates, I probably would have been cheering for it, even over Essex County.

I first heard of this book last summer, when Terry Fallis was one of the authors at the Sleeping Giant Writers' Festival and I was fortunate enough to sit next to him at lunch. It was a very hilarious lunch around our table, even though none of us knew each other, and I figured that if he was as entertaining in print as he was in person, this book would be a good read.

I am also a closeted political junkie who tends to come out of the closet during election campaigns, so this book was custom made for me.

The premise, just in case you don't already know, is that Daniel, a young speech writer for the Liberal Party of Canada, decides to leave Ottawa after a particularly nasty break-up with his girlfriend. As a parting promise to the party, he agrees to find a candidate to run in the "safest Conservative riding in the country." He convinces his landlord, Angus McClintock, to run, on the agreement that under no circumstances would he ever win. Of course, since it is a comedic book, a sex scandal dethrones the Conservative candidate, Angus wins, and he is off to try and change Ottawa with Daniel as his somewhat blinkered executive assistant at his side.

This book is not one that I should try to read in public, as I was laughing out loud at times. It was, however, a book that had me putting on my PJ's at 9 every night this week so that I could get an extra hour of reading in at bedtime.

It was also a very timely book, given the recent federal election. There is definitely the analogy with all of the NDP candidates in Quebec who ran with no expectation of winning (some of them having never been to the riding that they were running in, and spending the election campaign out of the country) and then ended up in parliament. There were no dates given, or names for most of the political figures in the book (they are instead referred to as The Prime Minister, The Speaker, The Leader of the Official Opposition), and the election was a fictional election based on fictional issues; but it all could have been real. Listening to the Speech from the Throne this afternoon had extra meaning, given the fact that the Speech from the Throne following an election plays a pivotal role in the book.

I have been recommending this book left, right, and centre all week, even though I only finished it today. Well, mostly left, since that is the way that I tend to vote, as well as the people that I tend to hang out with. I also purchased the sequel, The High Road, on my way home this morning, even though I hadn't quite finished this book yet.

The book isn't perfect. I thought that the romantic thread running through it was a bit unnecessary and tacked on. I also found the first part of the book more engaging and amusing. The second part was less laugh-out-loud funny, but more plot-driven.

I also loved the story-telling style. Most of the book is first-person narrative from Daniel's point of view, so we see events unfolding from his perspective. But at the end of every chapter, there is a journal entry by Angus, in the form of a letter to his deceased wife, which gives the reader his perspective, including his opinion of Daniel. I just hope that this style carries over into the next book.

In summary, the best book I have read in quite some time!