Review: Cool Water

Cool Water tells the story of the fictional town of Juliet, Saskatchewan, a small farming town of approximately 1,000 people near the Little Snake sand hills. Set over the course of a single day, it interweaves the stories of several of the town’s inhabitants – Vicki, a harried mother of six struggling with, and failing at, being the good farm wife as her family faces financial disaster, Norvel, a middle-aged bank manager overwhelmed by the responsibilities of his job and the impending marriage of his pregnant teenage daughter, and Marian and Williard, the past-middle-aged couple facing their feelings for one another after more than a decade of living in the same house, among others.

This is a book that definitely cannot be judged based on its cover (which, lets face it, is less than stellar. Let’s hope it is something they work on for the paperback edition.) It is a book that defies expectation, really, as there is no one single protagonist and no clearly defined problem to overcome/evil character to defeat/pitched climax. It is a book that is startling for what it is: a good and gentle book about average, everyday people, and how a single day can affect those lives. It doesn’t rely on excessive drama or over-the-top revelations to sell itself. Cool Water is a book that sneaks up on you, starting slowly and without great fanfare. Somewhere towards the middle of the book you find yourself caring, truly caring, about the fate of the characters. I found myself desperately hoping that Vicki, the mother of six, would get her housework done for a change instead of heading into town on a misbegotten errand trip, and I sighed in exasperation when she gets in the car anyway, knowing that this cannot bode well. I found myself cheering when Marian, middle-aged and living a quiet and restrained existence with Williard, the brother of her deceased husband, finally makes her first restrained move towards admitting her feelings for him. Simply put, you’ll like these characters and want to see them safely to their homes at the end of a long day.

What I found most interesting about the book, and part of the reason I feel it succeeds so well, is that Warren has a tremendous sensitivity and respect for her characters. She never falls back on the clichés so common to books set in rural locations and she seems to have a unique sensitivity to the challenges and change facing those who live their lives outside of large cities. The people are not hicks, they aren’t dumb, they aren’t trapped. They are people who have chosen this life, difficult though it may be at times. In telling her story she illustrates beautifully how, for the people who live off the land, sometimes there are times of bounty and sometimes there are lean times. It would be easy to make mockery of her characters, to give them the same small town treatment as, say, the TV show Corner Gas, where each character is a character. Even the character of Lila, the banker Norval’s wife, who initially comes across as “the nag” is redeemed, as we see the depth of character when faced with unexpected tragedy. And that is the greatest gift of Warren’s writing, she has a powerful sense of humanity in her writing, and she draws each character as a complete person with hidden depths (without needing to resort to deep, untold secrets or some other device).

Not that she doesn’t understand the gravity of their situation and the extreme actions Blaine has been forced to take. He’d first sold off his herd of Charolais-Hereford cross cattle, and then the bank had insisted on the dispersal of his machinery, and then the sale of all his land except the home quarter. But Vicki’s position is that they should be thankful they still have their house and they can rent out the pasture for a bit of income, every dollar helps. The bank did allow Blaine to keep an old stock trailer and one saddle horse – although not the good mare who would go all day for you, and Blaine claims the horse he kept requires an instruction manual to operate – so at least he can still drive up to Allan Tallman’s place on a Sunday for a little team roping.

Cool Water, page 84

Cool Water is a simply told book – there isn’t a great deal of dramatic description or drawn-out dialogue (it also made it somewhat difficult to find a good quote to pull for a review). I think that it is this simplicity in writing that is part of reason that the book creeps up on you so quietly. There is no gimmick here, and there’s no fancy writing to hide behind. Warren also refrains from the tendency to have a major life-altering event or revelation for each of the characters – yes, for some of the characters this day will bring about great change, but for others the events of the day will cause smaller shifts and the day will just fall back into a landscape of days that make up a life. I think this ability to leave here characters with some resolution – but not too much resolution – is why this book stayed with me long after I had closed the cover.

There are other reviews that compare this book to Annie Proulx or Carol Shields. Oddly enough, I have no desire to compare this book to anything that I’ve read recently – and I think that’s a good thing. It is an unpretentious, understated book about the basic goodness of people. I feel like a better person for having read it, and how often can you say that of a book? I highly recommend it, and can’t wait for Diane Warren’s next book.

You can read Dianne Warren’s terrific guest post here.

If you want a taste of the book, you can read the first chapter here.

Rating: A

Details:
Cool Water by Diane Warren
HarperCollinsCanada, 2010
Hardcover, 328 pages
Review copy provided by HarperCollinsCanada

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Review: The Boy in the Moon

When my husband and I set out to have a baby, we never really considered the possibility that the baby, our baby, would be born anything less than healthy. Oh sure, we discussed it briefly, but then the discussion always turned to other matters. I suspect that for most people, this is how we view disability: it is something that happens to other people, and we only ever confront it if we absolutely need to.

The Boy in the Moon is author Ian Brown’s personal story of what happens when you and your family are suddenly confronted by the birth of a child who is not “normal”. The book started out as an extensive article in the paper Globe and Mail, and was expanded vastly into this full-length account, which went on to win the 2010 Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction. Brown’s son Walker was born with a rare genetic syndrome that is so common that only a handful of people around the world are born with it. Walker, who is approximately 12 years old as of the writing of this book, is severely  mentally delayed and is unable to speak or communicate through language, still wears diapers, has a variety of medical afflictions and bangs his head obsessively with his fists. Brown describes in depth his life with Walker, and the meaning he tries to find in his Walker’s life.

What is the value of a life like his – a life lived in the twilight, and often in pain What is the cost of his life to those around him?

The Boy in the Moon, page 3

Perhaps what is most striking about this book is how Brown writes so honestly and truthfully about his son – both the moments of pure joy and the heartbreaking challenges of living with a severely mentally handicapped child with its attendant strain. He speaks bluntly of the day-to-day difficulties of raising a child with such unique needs and the demands it places on the family: the sleepless nights, the financial costs, the constant worry, but he does so without it ever striking the reader as a list of gripes or an attempt for sympathy. At the same time he is clear to note that he is not a “disability masochist” who finds pride in the physical, mental and emotional costs of raising a child like Walker. Brown is clear that this is his life, good and bad, and he is neither martyr or saint. It is refreshing point of view, and I think many of us would end up in the same place but with less freedom to say so. Society expects a great deal of the parents of disabled children, that they subsume themselves in the care of their children and to also like it. Brown’s book is a direct argument against this way of thinking. By journeying with Brown and his family into the depths of life with a severely disabled child we see why this isn’t possible, or, dare I say it, fair. As Brown himself points out, 15-20 years ago a child like Walker would not have likely survived. Medicine has made it possible for children like Walker to live, but society needs to catch up with its response and responsibilities to the families of these children.

Later in the book, Brown travels across the continent meeting families of other children like Walker. He meets parents who are frustrated or resigned, and parents who describe their disabled child as the best thing that ever happened to them. He then travels to Europe to visit L’Arche, a community for adults as mentally disabled as Walker, to try to discover what type of life Walker might have, what will he do. None of these really bring him closer to his son, and although these parts are interesting, I would say that this section is where the book lagged for me. The strength of Brown’s writing lies in his descriptions of his interactions with Walker and his own musings on the meaning of Walker’s life and Walker’s influence on the people around him, not the people he meets or the places he travels to.

The Boy in the Moon is a beautiful and honest examination of what disability means, to one family and to society as a whole. It doesn’t offer clear answers, and there is no storybook ending and is all the more illuminating for its lack of finality. It should be required reading for anyone looking to bring a child into this world.

Rating: A+

Details:
The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for his Disabled Son by Ian Brown
Random House Canada, 2009
Hardcover, 295 pages
Reviewed from library copy

Review: Galore

Welcome to the new review blog! At some point I may get around to posting a “welcome/first post” post, but without further delay I present my first review, of Galore by Michael Crummey.

What a fantastic book to start this new endeavor with. It is, quite simply, a terrific book, and one I’d suggest to anyone without hesitation. It is a difficult story to pin down – it is a historical novel crossed with a family saga, it is minute in location and epic in drama, and it is the best sort of old-fashioned yarn and fairy tale. It combines the magical and fanciful together with the hard realities of life in early Newfoundland. It is a meandering journey of a book without a destination, that is a delight to lose yourself in.

Galore begins at some undefined date in early-nineteenth century Newfoundland. The dates are relatively unimportant, with the first appearance of an actual date not occurring until page 251 of the book. It beings with the birth of a man from the belly of a whale, and follows the story of the family that rescues him, the Devines, and their enemies, the Sellers, in the small settlement of Paradise Deep on the shores of Newfoundland. From there, the story meanders through approximately 100 years in the lives of the two primary families and the cast of others that make up the struggling settlement, through the highs and lows of cod fishing and the seal hunts. There are births, deaths, marriages, feuds and religion. There is the magical – the ghost of a dead husband, babies baptized and cured by and apple trees. There is the fantastical – a haul of squid, linked in an unending chain passed boat to boat. And there are the harsh realities of a life dependent on the ebbs and flows of the ocean – the deaths at sea and starvation during rough seasons. Finally, there is the slow, gradual change of the fishing community as it eases into the twentieth century and World War I.  Most importantly, this is a story about stories – the story of a family, of a community and of a livelihood – and how those stories change shape and tone over time, and how those stories impact later generations.

Crummey was nominated for the 2009 Governor General’s Award for Galore, and it was a nomination that was well-deserved. The book grabs you from the first page, and despite a large cast of characters, manages the shifts in time and character easily and deftly. (There is a small family tree at the beginning of the book to help keep the many characters and relationships straight). Most importantly, he skillfully captures the cadence and rhythm of the Newfoundland dialect, making it feel authentic without overwhelming the reader. The dialogue flows easily, despite the lack of quotation marks (a small, personal bugaboo of mine, but which Crummey succesfully naviagates here with the us of the em-dash).

Obediah: James Woundy now, he was a lazy stawkins.
Azariah: Not quite right in the head, but sweet as molasses.
Obediah: Sweet as molasses and just as slow
Azariah: He had the one daughter. And James Woundy had all he could do not to choke on his food so there’s no telling how he managed it.

Newfoundland is a place steeped with mythology and the magical, and it imbues this book without it overwhelming it. Crummey walks the fine line of magical realism, while tempering it with the realities of life on the shore during the nineteenth century. Characters are injured, maimed or die as a result of the harshness of the land and their occupation, yet the book rarely feels morbid. In some respects, Galore feels a bit like a history lesson wrapped up in a compulsively readable story. (Indeed, one of the later characters, William Coaker, was a real person, and his history of unionizing the fishing industry is a part of Canadian history.)

It is rare that I find a book with few missteps, but Galore was one of those books. It is a fantastical adventure of a book and a world so complete that I could almost believe I was in Paradise Deep. I am now eagerly looking forward to Michael Crummey’s next novel, and will be adding his previous titles, Flesh and Blood (a book of short stories) and River Thieves (his first novel) to my reading list.

Rating: A+

Details
Galore by Michael Crummey
Doubleday Canada, 2009
Hardcover, 336 pages
Reviewed from library copy

Review: The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor

The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor was one of those books that I picked up over and over again on my many trips to the bookstore before finally taking it home. It seems any time I have a situation like this, I end up wondering just why it took me so long to get around to buying and reading the book, as it is invariably excellent. This was no exception.

Sally Armstrong is the great-great-great granddaughter of Charlotte Taylor, of the title. She states that she long wanted to write the story of Charlotte Taylor, the first female settler on the Miramichi Bay, and this book originally started out as non-fiction. However, after being frustrated by several gaps in the historical documentation, Armstrong chose to write the story as a fictional account, peppered with the known details of Taylor’s life. The effect is a very good fictional account of early Canadian history.

There are several known facts of Charlotte Taylor’s life – she left her high-society family in 1775, running away with a household servant. She spent her life on the Miramichi, where she would have three husbands and bear ten children, all of whom lived well into adulthood. She was a vehement activist on her own and her family’s behalf, fighting for her land rights and the deeds to the plots that her family cleared and lived upon – going so far as to travel to Fredericton in the company of a Native man to secure those deeds. Lastly, she lived well into her eighties, passing away in 1841 at which time she had a Native service as part of her burial.

Building upon the basis of these facts, Armstrong fleshes out her story, telling of Taylor’s travel across the ocean to the West Indies, to her time spent in a Mi’kmaq camp on the Baie de Chaleurs where she developed a lifelong friendship with the Indians and Acadians that lived there, before her marriage to a former captain. She describes in detail the arduous and dangerous task of clearing the land and building a life on the Miramichi during a time of tremendous unrest between the original settles, the arriving Loyalists from the American War, the privateers, and the Indians for whom the land belonged to first. Woven through all this is the story of Charlotte Taylor’s relationship with Wioche, the Native man who she meets when she first arrives in the Baie de Chaleurs, maintaining a relationship with him over the course of her life. While part of the story is fictional according to Armstrong, it is well-written and believable, and offers a glimmer of light and hope in a story that is often bleak in its outlook.

Taylor does not have an easy life, and some of the best writing is in Armstrong’s descriptions of the difficulties in every day life. There is a beauty in the simplicity and occasional starkness in Armstrong’s writing, as though her writing is mimicking the terrain itself. I found some comparison in her writing to that of Elizabeth Hay in Late Nights on Air, in the same simple descriptions of a difficult land and the people who make their lives there against great odds.

I did feel that the book was weakest in Taylor’s descriptions of the many historical events during this period (the clashes between the Loyalists and old settles, the process of parceling and deeding the land, the division of Nova Scotia into two provinces). Occasionally in Armstrong’s attempt to insert the known facts, The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor starts to veer into history text territory, but without the fleshing out of the details to ensure that the reader is certain of the context. Towards the end of the novel I particularly found that there was a lot of detail hastily inserted that could have been better explained, and that events were careening towards the rather hasty ending without the deftness shown in the first 3/4 of the book. Overall though, I felt that more often than not, the book came down on the right side of the delicate balance between historical detail and the fictional narrative.

I adore historical fiction but have been disappointed that most historical fiction is set in Europe. I think this is a fine addition to Canadian historical fiction, a genre I would be delighted to see more of.

Rating: A

Reviews: The End of East and The Outcast

(Not so) recently I had the opportunity to attend an author reception for Sadie Jones, a first time author, with a fellow blogger. While I was there, I mentioned to another attendee that I had planned on reviewing the guest of honour’s book, The Outcast, together with the book The End of East, written by first-time novelist Jen Sookfong Lee, which I had also recently read. I commented that I found the two novels similar in many ways, apart from the fact that they were both first books from new female authors, but that I felt that The Outcast, to be the far superior first effort. She seemed surprised that I found them similar novels and commented that that they were quite different, but in typical fashion for me I immediately found myself flustered, lost my train of thought and floundered as I tried desperately to gather my thoughts and not sound like a complete idiot. Of course, mere minutes later I could coherently organize my arguments for my position, but the moment had passed, and I never did find the opportunity to defend my position.

Lee’s novel is, loosely, the story of an Chinese immigrant family living inVancouver’s Chinatown. At a mere 243 pages, this is not a dense family epic, but rather several snapshots of the three generations of the Wong family as seen through the eyes of the not-so-dutiful daughter, Sammy Chan, who has returned home from her life in Montreal to take care of her aging mother. The story begins with the immigration of Sammy’s grandfather, Seid Quan, to Vancouver’s Chinatown, and his immense loneliness. It then follows the family as Seid Quan’s son, Pon Man, eventually joins his father in Canada and marries, and the lives of his wife and children.

I had mixed feelings about this book. As I read the book I couldn’t help but feel that Lee had taken a primer course on “powerful first novels” and “bright new voices” and had sought to put all of the elements of that type of novel into her book. Which is my verbose way of saying that the writing felt very forced at times, as though in Lee’s attempt, perhaps, to write “beautiful and compelling descriptions” she loses sign of what she was describing in the first place.

The way the drizzle stayed with her, soaked into her hair, her clothes, her sheets. It pushed itself onto her skin, huddled with her when she cried, remained cool even as she cooked at a blazing stove. Unshakeable. Like family.

The End of East, page viii

There were some parts of this book that were compelling, and the sense of loneliness and isolation shines through. I felt Lee really hit her stride when she describes Sammy’s mother’s (undiagnosed) postpartum depression. This passage was the portion of the book that struck me as the rawest, truest writing in the entire book:

It’s like a splinter, this feeling that she hates the baby so much that she would rather reach into its face and pull out its brains than take care of it for one more day. This hatred started days ago, and she thought she could hide it, control it by ignoring it and letting it fade on its own. But then it grew, attracting all the other evil feelings she has ever had about this house, this family, this country, even her own husband.

The End of East, page 141

That said, the tone of this novel is uneven at best, and the individual stories, snapshots if you will, are not connected well at all. Apart from some of the rather self-indulgent descriptions, I really felt that the single biggest failure of this novel though lies in the motivations (or lack thereof) of the daughter, Sammy. Her portions of the story are the weakest, with very little connection or explanation for her actions – actions I found inexplicable. As she is the primary narrator through which the story is told, this is a rather glaring weakness.

At first glance, Jones’ novel could not appear to be more different. It is the story of Lewis Aldridge, a young boy living in post-World War II England, and the devastating consequences for his entire family after a summer accident. It is a story of secrets and cruelty and hypocrisy and, ultimately love.

The story begins as a nineteen-year-old Lewis has just been released from jail, after spending a few years for an as-yet undisclosed crime. From there, the novel moves back in time to Lewis’ childhood, his father’s return from the war, and ultimately the accident that would take his mother’s life. We see Lewis’ life unravel as his father marries the young, flighty, and incredibly selfish Alicia.  and start the cascading chain of events that leads to the riveting climax.

Entwined with Lewis’ story is the story of the Aldridge’s neighbours (and Lewis’ father’s boss), the Carmichaels. Both families have secrets, and emphasis is placed on image and appearances and social niceties at all costs. None of the characters are likable, with the possible exception of the Carmichael’s daughter, Kit, on whom the novel ultimately hinges, but all are compulsively readable, as the novel rips through a cascading chain of events that leads to the riveting climax. (And that is not in any way reviewer-speak. It truly is a climax that lives up to the hype.)

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the book truly moves at a breakneck pace. Prior to writing this novel, Jones was a screenwriter, and her background is evident as the novel reads very much like a movie. In fact, there was a video trailer that was made for this book (it can be viewed here: http://www.rhgdigital2.co.uk/minisites/bookvideoawards/outcast.asp). While I generally don’t like trailers for books, I watched this trailer after reading the book and found it bang on to the descriptions in the novel. It was as though the novel was written at the outset with an eye to the possibility of a movie adaptation.

While I loved the flow of this book, I also found the writing to be well-executed and far more evocative than that of Lee’s novel. For example, this passage, following a Christmas time chat between Lewis’ father Gilbert, and Dicky Carmichael, his boss and neighbour, is a perfect example of the depth of understanding that Jones shows for the discrepency between exterior appearances and actions and private thoughts of her characters.

He teased out the conversation some more and wouldn’t go into detail about money, and Gilbert didn’t like him or the way he spoke or the way he stood there, but he took it, and he told himself how pleased he was, and gradually became pleased as the meeting drew to a close. It was a good deal and he was happy about it. He didn’t want to have to look at Dicky’s face any more and he wanted to take Lizzie home where she belonged and love her there. She was too good for any of them. She had her own way of looking at things. She was his and she was clever and lovely and he didn’t know what she saw in him, but he was grateful.

The Outcast, page 36

As I said, I found that there were similarities between the two books. Both are first novels from younger female novelists. Both books are stories of lonely, damaged people trying to find their way in the world. Both feature characters that are not inherently likable, and their sometimes unexplicable actions. However, where Jones excels at moving the story along, in drawing together multiple characters’ points-of-view and forming connections between jumps in time and narrator, Lee’s novel is substantially weaker in this respect leading to a disconnected, vignette feel to the nvoel. Where you get to the end of Jones’ novel and feel that you have read a story, Lee’s novel just, well, ends. All told, Jones’ novel is the better debut, and I have high hopes for her sophomore effort. Perhaps Lee will fare better in later novels, when her tone evens out, and there is less pressure to put forth a “daring and audacious first effort.”

Grades:

The End of East, C+
The Outcast, A-