Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Anna Leventhal – Sweet Affliction

August 17, 2014

SweetAffliction-CoverWeb

Montreal based and Journey Prize nominated writer, Anna Leventhal, released her first collection of short stories, Sweet Affliction, earlier this spring and has crafted a subtle yet powerful debut. Most of the stories are set in her adopted city, yet as the book’s cover reveals, it is a Montreal flipped on its tête – one in which Moving Day is mandatory and sanctioned by the province, one in which Hasidic Jews socially interact with their non-Orthodox neighbours, one in which the Hippodrome is the set of a twisted reality show where illegal immigrants vie for citizenship, and one in which her characters feel justified in doing the wrong things for the right reasons.

Yet regardless of these creative tweaks to setting, Leventhal’s stories are all about her characters. She is skilled in character development, seemingly revealing so much about her protagonists, yet in reality giving her readers jussst enough to make them empathize and see and feel what her characters are feeling. A few stories are loosely connected by characters, giving us snippets of their lives from undergrad days living in a crowded house in Mile End to everyone grown up and dealing with issues like adultery, multiple sclerosis, academia, and donating sperm to a friend.

Leventhal is definitely not afraid to write about difficult subject matter, as cancer and terminal illness seem to be a motif that runs through several of these stories (“Wellspring”, “A Goddamn Fucking Cake”, and the title story). What’s more, she’s not afraid to put her characters in difficult situations as well – taking a pregnancy test at a wedding (“Gravity”), mourning the loss of a pet (“Horseman, Pass By), being exposed of date rape at a Passover Seder (“Maitland”), working at a rub and tug on Ste-Catherine Street (“A Favour”), and the list goes on.

This is a collection to be read slowly, and one that will stick with its readers after they’re done. With fifteen stories there’s lots to like here, with only a few that feel as if they don’t quite hold up in an otherwise strong collection. As a minor complaint, I find the endings of a few of the stories a bit lacking of a strong image or sense of cohesion, yet other stories like “Helga Volga” or “Horseman, Pass By” do a fine job of hitting the point finale on the head. And in the end, I had the same feeling that the narrator of “Wellspring” couldn’t seem to get rid of when I was reading Sweet Affliction – one of zzzzmmmmmmmmmm – joy.

Check out this book now.

Michael Winter – Minister Without Portfolio

December 3, 2013

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Michael Winter returns with his fifth novel, Minister Without Portfolio, a tale of guilt, loss, and renewal. The protagonist is Henry Hayward, and at the novel’s start he is a man adrift, trying to get over a split with his girlfriend, yet feeling unable to do so if he stays in St. John’s. Luckily, a friend finds him a gig doing contracting work for the military in Kabul and off he goes. But, just as Henry’s broken heart is mending, a bomb goes off, literally, and Henry is covered in guilt and the blood of his childhood friend, Tender Morris. Henry feels it’s his fault, because in the heat of the moment he accidentally grabbed Tender’s gun, leaving him unarmed against a suicide bomber.

Henry returns to Newfoundland, crushed, seeking renewal in the aptly titled town of Renews. There he begins to rebuild Tender’s dilapidated home and shortly after begins caring for Tender’s widow Martha, who is pregnant. Henry dedicates himself to Martha, wanting to make things right for her and her unborn child.

While Minister Without Portfolio does a good job of painting an authentic portrait of rural Newfoundland, the book doesn’t have the same verve and energy of Winter’s earlier work. The dialogue doesn’t pop like it did in The Architects Are Here and his protagonist Henry pales in comparison to the too similar Rockwell Kent of The Big Why. Like Kent, Henry is plagued with the thought that he isn’t living his life the way he should be, and he claims he just wants to be good, but he never quite knows how to truly be himself.

The problem is Henry isn’t that interesting, and Winter’s minimal and staccato prose doesn’t help create an evocative portrait. This novel would have been much more powerful if written from the perspective of Martha, the grieving, pregnant widow, rather than Henry’s. Perhaps Winter needs to veer away from the long-suffering, slightly unlikable anti-hero, which has been his go-to protagonist in nearly all his work to date. Sadly, Minister Without Portfolio feels like a bit of a misstep and a rehash. Like its protagonist, it seems to be searching for something yet never quite reaches its full potential.

Lynn Coady – Hellgoing (Anansi)

September 3, 2013

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For Rover Arts

Still hot on the heels of her Giller Prize nominated novel The Antagonist, Lynn Coady returns with Hellgoing, her first short story collection since 2000’s Play The Monster Blind. These nine stories will quickly transport the reader into familiar Coady territory: troubled families, big city vs. small town drunks, pregnant teenagers, strained amorous relationships, the literary world and devout Catholics. It feels great to hang around with such a varied cast of Coady folk again all at once. Long-time readers will notice, however, that Coady’s settings have shifted west just as she has. No longer do we see the rich Maritime dialogue of her earlier work; instead, many of her characters are west coasters with names like Rain, Hart and Ames, ex-hippies, writers and academics.

In all of Coady’s novels, except for her debut, she has written from the point of view of a male narrator (and has done so convincingly). However, in this collection eight of the nine stories are told from the point of view of women characters. In the title story, Coady writes from the voice of a forty-something feminist who is struggling to fit in with her family after her mother’s death. The acerbic wit of the woman’s father, and the relationship between him and his son will remind readers of Rank and his caustic dad Gord in The Antagonist. In “Wireless,” Coady skillfully depicts functioning alcoholics, as she writes in the voice of a female journalist who meets a kindred spirit in Ned, a burly musician from Newfoundland.

A couple of Coady’s stories bring to mind other great women writers. For example, in “Take This and Eat It,” Coady writes from the perspective of a nun who tries to talk a young anorexic religious fanatic into eating some food, and finally convinces her to eat the body of Christ. The story’s dry humour mixed with themes of religion and blasphemy is suggestive of the great Flannery O’Connor. Moreover, in “An Otherworld,” Coady tells the story of a soon to be married couple with a fetish for S&M, and its tone is reminiscent of Mary Gaitskill’s first collection of stories Bad Behavior. But in the end, the writer Coady reminds us most of herself, as she mines the same ground and themes of her earlier work. For example, the engrossing “Mr. Hope” harkens back to her debut novel Strange Heaven, and is written from the perspective of an apathetic woman who gets pregnant as a teenager.

The collection’s strongest story, “Dogs in Clothes,” deals with the world of publishing and a young publicist who tries to drown herself in her work rather than deal with the fact that her father is having a serious operation. Coady handles the juxtaposition well, giving her narrator compassion, while her sly worldview and clever turns of phrase never let the material get too sentimental. The story is compelling, yet feels imperfect, as it tries too hard to be subtle. And overall, this seems to be Hellgoing’s biggest flaw – the attempts at subtlety and imagery to tie a story together are arguably lacking.

Every story in the collection is an absorbing read, but many of the endings could have been stronger. This is a minor complaint because Hellgoing is an engaging collection of short stories from a writer at the top of her game. And these stories will serve us just fine as we wait for what Coady truly excels at – her novels.