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review 2018-05-17 22:47
Generation X (Coupland)
Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture - Douglas Coupland

I am in, or at least on the cusp of, Generation X, so I must admit that i expected this curious production to resonate with me more than it did. There were flashes of recognition with some (not nearly all) of the constant string of material culture references. And I recognized, at an intellectual level, how some of the typographical oddities were signalling the malaise of the generation itself: the marginalia draws your attention away from the stories, typical of the fragmented attention of my youth; the ironic, half-clever coinages and definitions (e.g. McJob) reveal that terrible urge to define and understand in an incomprehensible world. But, at my advanced age, I think perhaps those qualities (and the immense resentment of the prior generation, also much in evidence here) are just characteristics of the youth of pretty much any generation you care to name. Or at least any generation where the young people aren't dragged into severe crisis like a World War to turn them away from looking inwards.

 

That said, the three main characters were alien creatures to me. Part of that was that even the Canadian among them (depressed, undeclared gay, dual-citizen Dag from Toronto, probably D. Coupland's nearest thing to a stand-in) is very heavily Americanized, as is the book, which is primarily set in the dusty California desert (another heavy symbol). The actual narrator, Andy, becomes most human when describing his interactions with his own relatives, but otherwise seems to be entirely lost in his own head. In fact, this book has them all - there is also a woman character who is little more than a cipher - spending more time in alternate worlds that this one, spinning elaborate stories to each other about doomsday scenarios or micro-worlds frozen in time. The stories are moderately amusing but in the end do not illuminate much about either the teller or the people being told to - except that they amuse themselves by spinning tales about appalling alternate realities. Possibly that's the point.

 

So, I didn't connect. Wrong place and time, maybe. Maybe it's just that (as with Kerouac's On The Road) I have read it at the wrong age. Or maybe it's just too self-consciously clever and hasn't worn well. It was worth the try, I guess.

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review 2018-04-27 23:14
Hag-Seed (Atwood)
Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

This is Margaret Atwood's re-telling of The Tempest, set in a Canadian prison. It's part of a series of commissioned re-tellings of Shakespeare, by a variety of authors.

 

Damn, that woman is clever. I don't go to her if I'm looking for emotional comfort, for sure, but I love watching her the way I love watching a trapeze artist or an Olympic snowboarder: sheer appreciation of someone exercising amazing skills I'll never possess. This one is full of happy recollections for an English lit major; don't know how well it would play if you were completely unfamiliar with the Tempest, though there is a helpful summary at the back.

 

There's nothing terribly realistic about the plot of the novel (it depends on a highly unlikely temporary technological takeover of the prison), but individual moments and references provoke chuckles of recognition. Take the name of the protagonist, for instance - Felix Phillips. Felix for Prospero, of course, but the "Phillips" part is obviously for Robin Phillips, who was the long-time and famously unconventional artistic director of the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival. Actually, I'm kind of disappointed that Atwood 'fessed up to that one in her afterword, and didn't let the rest of us go on feeling clever for having noticed it.

 

Likewise, the characters of the various inmates and the few outsiders are slenderly built (though I didn't feel they were stereotypes). But there is just enough depth there - Felix is dealing with, or rather not dealing with, the death of his real-life daughter, Miranda, to whose imagined image he talks while he lives out a wretchedly reclusive life. (As in the play, things improve at the end.)

 

I'm pretty sure that the critical notion that The Tempest is all about various types of prisons is not original to Atwood (though it's been so long I wouldn't even know where to start digging it out). But the way she has worked it through is entirely her, and entirely delightful.

 

Delightful. Yes, that's exactly the word. Do read it!

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review 2018-01-11 22:24
The Outlander (Adamson)
The Outlander (Large Print 16pt) - Gil Adamson

Honestly, I can't imagine what Anansi Press was thinking, letting this first novel go out into the world with a title so similar to that of a pop-culture phenomenon. Otherwise, though, they have done well by Gil Adamson in both production and editing, and I'm very glad they published this interesting story.

 

Adamson deliberately distances us a bit from her characters. They are "the Reverend", "the Ridge Runner", the "Widow." The significance of "the widow" as the constant name for the protagonist -we don't get her real name until well into the book - is that it keeps at the top of our minds exactly what is always at the top of hers - that she has murdered her husband. And that same distancing relieves us of the responsibility of empathizing with her more than we want to, though you'd have to have a pretty black soul not to feel something by the end of her picaresque adventures through the Crows Nest Pass area in western Canada. The landscape is very definitely a character, and a cruel one, in this novel. It has its spectacularly climactic plot event in the Frank slide (a notorious 1903 landslide that wiped out a sizeable part of a mining town). I thoroughly enjoyed how well Adamson described it and wove it in to her story from several points of view.

 

The widow - Mary Boulton - is supported by a well-described set of supporting characters, one of whom, the reclusive Ridge Runner, becomes a romantic interest though not, thank goodness, in a conventionally sappy way that would have ruined everything we have come to know about both characters. I thought the inclusion of the Native characters was sufficiently nuanced and well-managed to meet the political correctness standards of our time, though Henry is a relatively minor character.

 

At the beginning of this novel, Mary is highly vulnerable, fumbling her way to survival and sometimes very nearly not making it. She is dependent on a series of saviours - an old lady (and her household), the Ridge Runner, Henry and his white wife Helen, and the Reverend Bonnycastle (working out his own demons of abuse in the rough mining town of Frank). But after she is finally caught by her slightly cartoonish Furies, a pair of red-headed giants (brothers of the ex-husband), Mary accomplishes her last escape from disaster without a saviour. This, I would say, is the principal emotional dynamic of the novel.

 

I did find this one a bit of a page-turner, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes period settings and interesting women's stories. I would warn off only those readers who have a strong need for emotional identification with a protagonist.

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review 2017-12-22 03:08
Away (Urquhart)
Away - Jane Urquhart

"The women of this family... were plagued by revenants. Men, landscapes, states of mind went away and came back again. There was always water involved, exaggerated youth or exaggerated age. Afterwards, there was absence."

From that excerpt from the opening page of "Away", you might be simply bemused at first. But, coming back to it after finishing this tale of multiple generations of Irish and Irish-Canadian women, it actually reveals itself to be remarkably precise and insightful.

There are three generations of women - Mary is the most remote in history, island-dweller in Ireland, who goes "away" in her mind early in her youth when she encounters the corpse of a young man washed up on her shores, and goes away again physically at the end of her life, long after she and her devoted husband make a home of sorts in the wilds of Ontario. Her daughter, Eileen, also ends up going away from reality, in a sort of dream of romance with a young man whose fate is bound up with the Fenian movement (the murder of D'Arcy McGee is one of the main historical events written in to this largely psychological novel, the others being massive flooding in Montreal, and the potato famine in Ireland).  Esther, Eileen's grand-daughter, is the third of the women who is in some fashion "away" (her last night upon the shores of the Great Lakes as her family home gives way to industrialization is the framing device of the book), and we are given to understand that she retells the entire story of her fore-mothers, not to any human audience.

This book really is all about water, and landscape, and men disappearing and reappearing in the lives of women, and women dissociating as they deal with the ills of the world. The writing is - I don't quite know how to describe it - it's light, and fluid, not at all like the staccato sound of Annie Proulx (whose "Shipping News" I recently read), but sharing with it a similar intense focus on physical detail that has undercurrents of symbolism.  I got wrapped up in the reading of it, though it seems to float on the surface of its turbulent plot, and I was not terribly emotionally involved. Rather, it was a pleasure in the reading itself that kept me in it, if that makes any sense at all.

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review 2017-12-04 22:26
Children of the Revolution (Robinson)
Children of the Revolution - Peter Robinson

I must say I'm always a bit of a sucker for the modern-day detective-novel trope of the multi-generational case, where incidents in the past affect the crime or crimes of the current day. Just as well, because it's rare to find a detective novel these days that doesn't have a "historical" element. What I find (wryly) amusing is that "history" is more and more often within my own lifetime. In this case, the Revolution of the title is the 60s revolution, political and sexual, and the key to one murder and one attempted murder in the present day is both sexual and political shenanigans at a 60s university, juxtaposed with the highly respectable life of a certain Lady Veronica Chalmers, one of whose young relatives is about to become politically very important.

 

If you see the words "politically very important", then of course you will understand that even though Banks solves the mystery, and we are kindly let in on the secret, there is a shadowy senior figure who makes sure the solution gets no further publicity and the case goes "unsolved". I thought Robinson cheated a bit on the ending - I was not in the least convinced that the murderous person who apparently committed suicide was in the slightest suicidal, but on the other hand, there was no indication that the shadowy figure was responsible for a cover-up. And believe me, I looked back and re-read, because I'm not used to saying, "well that's implausible..." as I finish up a Banks novel.

 

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed following Banks through all the twists and turns of his detecting, including the red herrings, mostly because as usual Robinson's characterizations are marvellous. I get only vaguely peeved when the whiff of male entitlement enters into Banks' relationships with his female fellow-officers or the latest lust object; meh, it doesn't bother me much. I'm happy to objectify Banks and his brain-power, so he can go ahead and objectify pretty young things if he likes. I'd prefer it if his much more substantial female co-workers (and, incidentally, subordinates) didn't have scenes where they seemed to be spatting over getting his attention and approval, though.

 

Four stars, because none of the basic virtues of the Banks novels are missing, despite my reservations.

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