You Want it Darker?

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle-class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission
To murder and to maim
You want it darker

-Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker”

Here’s a first-world reading problem (recognizing that all reading problems are first-world problems): when you expect to be emotionally devastated by a book, but you remained unmoved. You wish the characters made even worse choices, or that they suffered even harsher consequences. You may question your drive to see (fictional) people suffer, but the drive remains: you want it darker.

If you have that problem, here are some solutions.

Only this first example is legit. I read the first book, and specifically sought out the second because I wanted the same thing, only darker:

 

You want to read: Historical CanLit about sexual exploitation
You want it dark: The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay
You want it darker: Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue
For a book about a twelve year old girl sold into domestic slavery, and then to a brothel, The Virgin Cure is so light and inconsequential, from the plot points to the convenient feminist mentor/mother figure, to the main character’s name, “Moth”. There was no character development, no insight, and no dark, dirty horror – shouldn’t be tough given the story and the squalor of the setting. So, enter Slammerkin. Mary, another poor, unwanted young girl, sells herself into the sex trade – not on purpose, of course. But she’s soon whispering “fourteen and clean” at men on the street and meets her own mother/mentor figure, Doll Higgins, who is anything but convenient. These characters are real, the setting horrifically evoked as just as dirty and fetid as you’d imagine 18th century London to be, and there are several moments, not only the end but especially the end, that will leave the reader breathless. The Crimson Petal and the White would probably fall somewhere in the middle of these, for your gritty historical prostitute tales, but for unrelenting darkness, Slammerkin wins.

The rest of these pairings came to me in hindsight, and in some cases I read the “darker” book first. Continue reading

Before & After Canada Reads

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Each year around this time, I take a social media break, and in 2017 it’s more extreme than usual: for the month of March, I’m not only staying away from Twitter and Facebook, but also YouTube, Instagram, Goodreads… anything with a “feed.” And this blog. I’m going to pretend the internet stopped evolving after 2006, basically.

I’d be remiss if I took off with out reminding you all about Canada Reads, which is going down March 27-30 on CBC (I am allowing myself to watch broadcast TV on YouTube. I gotta keep up on Workin’ Moms too!) AND letting you know that Write Reads podcast is staging its own version of the national reading debate.

“After Canada Reads” will be released in a special edition Write Reads podcast in late April. It’s sort of a homage to Canada Reads, but also sort of an anti-Canada Reads. If you enjoy the general concept of debating books, but find the topics and criteria for those debates to be somehow both insipid and alarmist (“the book Canada MUST READ RIGHT NOW”) – or if you just have a lingering ick factor due to the ex-host – this maybe be the reading event for you.

Oh, and I’m taking part! Of course.

The theme: The best/most memorable/most inspirational female character in Canadian Literature.

The books:

  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  • Malarky by Anakana Schofield (this one is mine!)
  • The Break by Katherena Vermette (also on the legit Canada Reads)
  • A Chorus of Mushrooms by Hiromi Goto
  • Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Check out all of the defenders and their book choices here.

So, while you struggle through the official Canada Reads without my insightful commentary about who lays the best smack downs, who has the best lipstick, and who needs to shut the hell up, remember to read along and get ready for After Canada Reads. See you all in April!

The Corrections: A character study

Please welcome Meghan Hayes to #FranzeninFebruary! Meghan lives in my spiritual home of Saint John New Brunswick, and is one half of Bibliotaphs, one of my new favourite book blogs – this post in particular caught my eye. Her review of The Corrections takes a close look at each of the characters and reveals the contradictions at the heart of a funny/sad book.

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The Bibliotaph Cat approves

The Corrections is easily Franzen’s funniest book. I think the comedy that comes out of this story works because Christmastime is often hell for all of us, and nothing makes it more unbearable than all the pressure to “be with family.” It’s something we all relate to. The Corrections is similar to Franzen’s other work (notably Freedom and Purity) in that each section deals with another character and it often spans a generation.

This was the second Franzen book I ever read. I started with his essay collection How to be Alone and bought The Corrections immediately afterwards in a Target. So I first read this book ~five years ago. I decided to pick it up again so I could take part in Laura’s #FranzenFebruary.

Something that struck me as interesting in the book is that the characters are often trying to convince the reader that they are not “clinically depressed.” They all seem to be experiencing “depressive episodes” but they are always fighting the “clinical” label (e.g. Chip saying he is unable to behave like a depressed person by ignoring a phone call, Gary openly refuses the diagnosis by his wife).

I remember loving this line from a Chuck Klosterman novel where he says “I wanted to write about people who were depressed, but not depressed for any kind of specific cataclysmic reason. I mean the high school kid is kind of abstractly depressed, which I think is what a lot of people feel like. It’s not like they have anything bad about their lives and if you were to ask them if they were depressed, they’d probably say no.”

And I think this is what Franzen is doing in The Corrections. Each character seems to be depressed but in a way that any married / newly graduated / everyday-human can often be. It’s not necessarily biological, but they feel it nonetheless.

I’m going to divide up this “review” by each of the main characters … because this is the only way I’ll be able to organize my thoughts in any coherent way. Let’s goooooo: Continue reading

Jonathan Friendzoned: Some Thoughts on Purity

Our next #FranzeninFebruary guest post is courtesy of Matt Bowes, who’s pun game is on point (see post title). Matt is the General Manager at NeWest Press, my favourite Edmonton publisher. He sent me my very first review book  back when I was a just a baby book blogger. He used to dabble in book blogging himself, but these days you’ll find him podcasting about Bollywood movies at Bollywood is for Lovers.

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Jonathan Franzen can be a hard writer to like sometimes, but paradoxically I find him to be easy to love. The eternal English major in me thrills to see his recurring writerly tics crop up in each new fiction work, stuff like detailed descriptions of bird species, bathroom humour, the Club of Rome, and an uncomfortable sense of détente with the modern world. It’s one of the reasons people also like Wes Anderson: when an artist sets the table with recurring themes and preoccupations, it breaks down a sort of barrier, allowing readers to see what the deeper truth on offer is this time out. It’s like Commedia del’Arte, a set of agreed-upon motifs that act as a gateway to entertainment.

I’ve only read The Corrections, Freedom and now Purity, so I’m not entirely sure if these recurring traits appear in his earlier novels The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, but I would be surprised if they weren’t in there somewhere.

So while it’s easy to see a critic latching on to Franzen’s straightforward obsessions and calling them out as being on the nose, it’s this exact heart-on-the-sleeve nature of his work that makes me really like him, and stick up for him in conversation, even as Franzen the reluctant public personality often gets himself into trouble. His jeremiads against social media and its practitioners, his bemoaning the state of book promotion and his attempts to embody The Great American Writer archetype are well-documented and rightly mocked, but unlike some other claimants to that throne, Franzen always comes correct with the literary goods in the end. Continue reading

On not reading The Corrections

And now, the first guest post of Franzen in February 2017! The lovely Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses valiantly took on The Corrections, after promising to do so last year. Read on to see how she fared – though the title probably gives you an idea – and do check out her blog. Her Last Week’s Reading series is particularly good, if dangerous for the TBR; she is also a certified poetry concierge!

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I’ve read a few of Jonathan Franzen’s essays (hated the one on Edith Wharton, in which he repeatedly comments on her looks; thought better of the one on Antarctica) and I’ve caught the general flavor of his views on technology and the reading public. I’ve also been delighted to read Laura’s spirited posts about the novelist over the last few years.  All of this to say I came to Franzen in February wary of Franzen, but willing to be pulled in by his writing. Continue reading

Literary Jonathans

Portraits of the Jonathans as young men

Remember when Jonathan Franzen took a minor swipe at his not-quite-contemporary, Jonathan Safran Foer, in Purity?

“And are you a big fan of Jonathan Savoir Faire? So many of my students are…So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America.”

I don’t know that I’ve noticed a plague*, but I did just finish Foer’s latest, Here I Am, so let’s do a little comparing and contrasting.

Comparing the Jonathans

  • Breakout novels in the early aughts (The Corrections and Everything is Illuminated)
  • American Novels with side trips across the ocean: Chip’s Lithuanian vacation in The Corrections, Berlin in Purity, the whole Israel thing in Here I Am
  • Voice of their respective generations: Franzen gets that label more than Foer, maybe, but remember, Foer isn’t even forty**. Give it time.
  • Insufferable public personas: Do I really need to link to something for Franzen? And in case you missed it, Foer did… whatever this is.
  • Environmentalist: Franzen is all about looking at birds, Foer is all about not eating them.
  • Fascination and disgust with technology: I love how both include realistic technology in their novels (email exchanges in The Corrections, text messages in Purity; sexting, constant screen time, and a Minecraft-like online environment in Here I Am) but they both really hate it, too.

Contrasting the Jonathans

  • The generation they are supposedly the voice of: Franzen’s a boomer, and Foer is technically a Gen Xer. Really though, he’s on the edge of Gen X and Millennial – just like me. Some call us Generation Catalano, but I prefer baby Gen Xer or elder Millennial, depending on my mood.
  • Experimental vs realism: Franzen has a lot of range, but most of his writing is pretty straight up, realistic, and chronological. Foer experiments; not so much in Here I Am, which is much more Franzeny than his previous work, but in the invented language and mythology of Everything is Iluminated, and the flipbook at the back of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
  • Wunderkind vs Late Bloomer: Franzen was in his 40s with two novels behind him before he found success, while Foer was 25 and a debut novelist.
  • Adaptation: Attempts have been made, but so far, Franzen’s work has not been adapted (Purity was in the works as a mini series but I haven’t heard anything in quite some time.) Both of Foer’s previous novels were made into movies; I wonder if Elijah Wood is free to play Jonathan, I mean, Jacob of Here I Am?

As for the books, I’ve only read two of Foer’s but each of them affected me more than anything of Franzen’s. I love ’em both, don’t get me wrong, but Franzen’s writing is a bit too sterile to give me that emotional devastation I crave. I have teared up for Franzen – but only for The Corrections, and only for one late, revelatory scene which I won’t spoil. Foer’s books don’t just make me cry, they have me weeping through entire chapters. Or the last 100 pages, in the case of Here I Am.

So, who’s your fav literary Jonathan? Meet me here for #FoerinFebruary in 2018?

*Jonathan was the 124th most popular name the year Franzen was born, and the 28th by the time Foer was born in 1977. It peaked in 1988 at #15, which suggests that the plague of literary Jonathans is far from over.

**He turns forty on Tuesday!

 

 

Good grief, Franzen!

Jonathan Franzen is a Peanuts fan. Big time. It’s well documented in his memoir, The Discomfort Zone (excerpt here):

Like most of the nation’s ten-year-olds, I had an intense, private relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle. He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house… He was the perfect sunny egoist, starring in his ridiculous fantasies and basking in everyone’s attention. In a cartoon strip full of children, the dog was the character I recognized as a child.

I bet he set Freedom in St. Paul just so he could visit Charles Schultz’s hometown and these sweet statues:

statues

Photo by yours truly; also just realized that the heroine in Freedom is named PATTY

In The Discomfort Zone, Franzen draws parallels between Peanuts and his own life, but did he draw Peanuts into his fiction? Santa brought my boys a Peanuts collection this Christmas, and I’ve been compiling the Franzeniest strips. Here’s a selection with accompanying quotes:

Unnatural relationships with inanimate objects:

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The night of Alfred’s seventh-fifth birthday had found Chip alone at Tilton Ledge pursuing sexual congress with his red chaise longue. (The Corrections)

 

Brain chemistry

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Gary understood this feeling. He hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in three weeks. His circadian schedule was 180 degrees out of phase, he was revved all night and sandy-eyed all day, and he found it ever more arduous to believe that his problem wasn’t neurochemical but personal. (The Corrections)

Turning into the thing you hate:

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His conception grew dropsical and comprehensive. What if he was the city? More than centrally located: the thing itself? (The Twenty-Seventh City)

Adult-speak (panel wasn’t in this collection, but the passage was too good to pass up)

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“Noun adjective,” his mother said, “contraction possessive noun. Conjunction conjunction stressed pronoun counterfactual verb pronoun I’d just gobble that up and temporal adverb pronoun conditional auxiliary infinitive-” (The Corrections)

As an aside, we didn’t read Peanuts as kids, and I recently found out why: when my mom saw that Santa has brought the kids this Peanuts book, she told me that she hates Peanuts, and it’s the unfunniest comic strip ever. This was not an offhand comment; she was angry and rather suspicious of my (or Santa’s) motives. Henry adores it.

Franzen blaming

Sometime during the Purity publicity blitz of 2015, I added “Franzen apologist” to my Twitter bio. I was tired of defending every out-of-context interview quote and excerpt individually. The only truly snark-worthy event was the “adopting an Iraqi war orphan” thing, which I maintain was just a joke (right?).

So it’s rare for me to directly address Franzen haters, but, it is Franzen in February, and I’ve just come across an instance that’s too good to pass up. It’s not the usual “uh, I’ve never read him but he’s like, gross” hating, either. It’s a clear cut case of Franzen blaming.

Earlier this year, someone took it upon themselves to purchase the URL ciswhitemale.com and redirect it to Franzen’s Facebook page (try it, it still works as of this writing!) which is not the instance I’m here to write about today, but illustrates the phenomenon of Franzen blaming. Think about it, what’s the point of this stunt?

  • That Franzen *is* a cis white male (duh)?
  • That he only writes *about* cis white males (not true)?
  • That he only writes *for* cis white males (…nope)?
  • Or, that he is the poster boy and scapegoat for cis white male bias in the publishing industry (ah ha!)

Today, I direct your attention to “The Unsung Letter”, published by writer Helen McClory, “featuring one new(ish) under-hyped book, sung to the rafters by a different writer/poet/critic/book-pusher every time.” In its second issue, the writer is A.N. Devers and the unsung book is Helen DeWitt’s 2000 debut The Last Samurai – already on my radar as an overlooked classic, and it’s recently back in print. So far, so good.

Then this:

Why read The Last Samurai? For one, it is far superior to Franzen’s The Corrections, arguably as intellectually demanding as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and yet, DeWitt was never put on the cover of a magazine for The Last Samurai. She was never offered Oprah’s Book Club, and she never entered into the media’s great push to proclaim the new great American writers, Franzen and Wallace, who notably published their big books around the same time. There wasn’t room on the stage for DeWitt, somehow. She didn’t even enter get a piece of the conversation. I heard later it many times that it was partly her fault that she was difficult. Well.

Typos aside, we’ve got a classic case of Franzen blaming on our hands, with some DFW blaming for good measure! I double checked my dates when I read “notably published their big books around the same time” because… no they didn’t. The Last Samurai came out in September of 2000. Infinite Jest was published in February of 1996, so it’s a bit of a stretch to say DFW specifically was taking up all the room nearly five years later. DFW didn’t publish any books in the year 2000, and his next novel didn’t come out until after his death, in 2011. But sure, he was a well-known writer at the time, and a poster boy for a certain kind of bro-literature.

But Franzen? In September of 2000, he was the author of two critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful novels: The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. He didn’t start taking up cultural space until The Corrections came out in 2001, and the only thing “notable” about its publication date is that 9/11 happened nine days later. A full year after The Last Samurai.

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Franzen reacts.

I dug a bit deeper to see who was taking up literary cultural space in the year 2000 (I was 19 and the main cultural space I inhabited was Rum Jungle at West Edmonton Mall):

  • Margaret Atwood won the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin
  • Michael Ondaatje won the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction for Anil’s Ghost
  • Susan Sontag won the National Book Award
  • Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer
  • JK Rowling dominated the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list.

Not a cis white male* among them.

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Jonathan Who-zen?

Bias towards cis white male authors in literary culture is real. They are reviewed more; they are more likely to be the reviewers. They are longlisted and shortlisted for, and winners of, literary prizes in numbers that far exceed their natural incidence in the population. Did DFW and Franzen benefit from this bias? Surely. Are they specifically to blame for one novel by a cis white woman failing to find an audience, in a year in which neither of them published a book, and in which several women and people of colour enjoyed mainstream and critical literary success? Well.

*I’m not 100% sure about Michael Ondaatje’s ethnicity, and in light of recent events I hate to speculate, but his Wikipedia page says his ancestry is Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamil so I’m running with that.

 

When a comfort read is discomforting: Mary Green by Melanie Kerr

My latest review for Vue Weekly is up, and I need to write a different kind of disclaimer:

This review is not sponsored and I paid full retail for the book. The author did, however, make me sourdough waffles with homemade preserves. I swear it didn’t affect this review, even though they were the best damn waffles I’ve ever had.

With that in mind, here follows my director’s cut review. Or, click here for the shorter version that appears in Vue.

It’s worth noting the unintentionally hilarious typo in the print headline. Not sure whose fans are rejoicing; Stone Cold Steve Austin’s?

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Photo by Melanie Kerr

Continue reading

Franzen in February 2017

It’s that time of year when Reading in Bed pauses and takes a moment to alternately love, hate, and love-to-hate that great American novelist (it’s okay when it’s not capitalized) Jonathan Franzen.

Last year I debuted this feature and it was so much fun. I was drawing on a couple years’ worth of ideas, though, and at the beginning of 2017, I considered leaving it at that: a one-time thing. Do I have that much more to say? Two years out from his last book, the Fran Man is not in the news much lately, and reacting to his media presence is half the fun. Nor do I have any new conspiracy theories, unfortunately.

But then I kind of forced my hand by writing him a letter and letting him know about the whole Franzen in February thing:

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D’ya think he reads his fan mail?

So! Here we are. I have a couple ideas up my sleeve, and I hope a couple of you contribute a guest post or two. If you would like to review one of his books, or write anything at all, loving or not, get in touch in the comments. No sign ups or prizes, just good, clean Franzen fun. Here’s what I’m working on:

  • The start of a”Complete Works” project with a review of Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City
  • A review of Nell Zink’s Nicotine, which pairs nicely with Purity
  • Chip Lambert and Charlie Brown: The Influence of Charles Schultz on the works of Jonathan Franzen (sounds academic, right? It’s just going to be Peanuts comic strips and quotes from The Corrections, don’t worry)
  • Show and tell: my Franzen collection, from ARCs to signed first editions

In the meantime, check out this wonderful Author Spotlight at new-to-me book blog bibliotaphs, or check out the Franzen in February archives.

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On my shelf