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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 2018-01-11 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 SPOILER ALERT! 2017-12-22 03:53
The Birth of Venus (Dunant)
The Birth of Venus - Sarah Dunant

This is a not-bad coming-of-age story set in Florence during and after Savonarola's brief but ferocious anti-secular reign over the city. The protagonist is Alessandra, age 14, individualist and would-be artist, not at all happy about taking on the more traditional woman's role that her mother and elder sister are modelling for her. She barely has time to be intrigued by the young artist that is brought into their household (her father is a successful merchant) before Savonarola's opportunistic takeover begins and her marriage is hastily arranged with an older man who, it turns out, is the gay lover of her brother. Alessandra has a bad habit of wandering to unsafe places and into unsafe company (with the help of her Black maid Erila), and she eventually finds out that the young painter's secret is not - like her husband's - a sexual one, but an equally obsessive one with the human body as exposed through dissection. If I remember it correctly (and it has been some time since I finished), it was heavily implied that Michelangelo was one of the leading spirits of that scientific/secular movement. The young painter has a crisis of faith and she briefly "rescues" him into her husband's household and starts a sexual relationship with him, before things get more and more dangerous and everyone scatters to safer places. Her husband, who is actually a very attractive character, dies (I feared, given the hints being dropped, that he would be burned at the stake, but fortunately Dunant didn't go down that road); Alessandra ends up as a nun, and is allowed to practice her art and decorate the chapel; it was presumably well before she joined the convent that she acquired a body tattoo of a snake that shocks her fellow-nuns after her death (the framing story).

I'm not an expert on Renaissance Florence, but I thought the historical detail appeared to be researched and well-used; there were a few language slips that should have been caught by an editor (why do so many otherwise educated people have trouble with the difference between "flaunt' and "flout"?); and I acquiesce easily enough in an almost certainly historically inaccurate freedom of thought in a young female character. Dunant walks the line fairly successfully between what would have been historically accurate but difficult to read outright denunciation of the homosexual behaviour in the book and completely anachronistic acceptance of it.  She does this by characterizing Alessandra's outrage (which is considerable) as mostly caused by her husband's (and  her own family's) duplicity in not letting her know what she was walking into - especially the fact that her own brother is her rival. The description of Alessandra's wedding night is uncomfortable and fairly explicit without being outright ghastly.

This is not potboiler fiction; there is no enforced happy ending, and no use of the standard romance tropes. However, I found in it a lot of the cliche's of another genre, women's fiction in general. We must have our coming of age, our pregnancy and birth scenes described at length. There gets to be a certain sameness about all that, regardless of which historical era you set it in. Nonetheless, it was an amusing enough read, and I was at least engaged enough with Alessandra to be glad she finally had the opportunity to learn and express her art and raise her daughter quietly at a permissive and remote convent.

Recommended if you like women's fiction set in a vivid historical setting.

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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 2017-12-22 02:47
Rather Be the Devil (Rankin)
Rather Be the Devil - Ian Rankin

Rankin is reliable for me. I enjoy his individualistic officers, and I rarely anticipate more than small parts of his plot unravellings. That said, there were so many evil-doers of various stripes in this novel that, though I followed the denouement as I was reading it, I couldn't if you paid me reconstruct for you now the interrelationships between a cold case murder of a woman in a hotel, the murder of a retired cop turned bouncer who was looking into the cold case, some nasty international goings-on (including a brutal Ukrainian money-launderer) and power politics in Edinburgh's gang underworld, featuring Rebus' nemesis, big Ger Cafferty, and Cafferty's heir-apparent.

 

Doesn't matter much. There is a curious and persistent echo between Rebus and Cafferty, both nominally retired, both pulling themselves back from the brink of possible annihilation (Rebus has a threatening shadow on his lung), both essentially and very much "not dead yet." With only a fraction of the multitude of evil-doers meeting anything like a just fate, this strange, stubborn survival is what passes for a hopeful ending in Rankin's dark, complicated Edinburgh.

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