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Real Life by Brandon Taylor

I don’t know Brandon Taylor in real life, but it sometimes feels like I do. He’s prolific on Twitter, but doesn’t stick to a particular persona or schtick. He tweets all kinds of stuff and in all kinds of moods. It’s the kind of Twitter account that draws me in, and in this case, convinced me to buy a debut novel (see also: Colin Barrett).

So while I acknowlege that Twitter is not real life and I don’t actually know Mr. Taylor, after following him for several months, I feel confident in saying that he did not write Real Life to educate the likes of me, a 39-and-three-quarters-years-old white Canadian woman, about racism and sex. There’s also this article in the Guardian that says so pretty explicitly. And yet!

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Blurbing the Blurb: A recommendation of Songs for the Cold of Heart by Éric Dupont

During my hiatus, I wrote a “recommend” for Canadian literary website 49th Shelf. Songs for the Cold of Heart has been on my mind lately, as various translated book award long and short lists are being announced. I was hoping to see it crop up – but alas, no Canadians at all are in the running for either the Man Booker International Prize or the Best Translated Book Award. Let’s take a moment and appreciate the book and the blurb, in both official languages. 

I am a blurb skeptic. Blurbs are, at best, the most biased form of literary criticism. Just check how often a blurber’s name appears on the acknowledgements page. At worst, blurbs are clichéd, or taken out of out of context, or of dubious veracity (did Gary Shteyngart really read all those books?).

The blurb on Songs for the Cold of Heart got all my skeptic senses tingling:

“If the Americans have John Irving and the Colombians Gabriel García Márquez, we have Eric Dupont. And he’s every bit as good as them.”—Voir

Like most Canadiens anglais, I didn’t hear of Éric Dupont until this English translation hit the Giller Prize longlist in 2018. I wondered if he was really as good as Irving and Márquez, two luminaries of world literature (and longtime personal favourites of mine). Or was this blurb just another bloated piece of hype?

Read the rest of my recommendation on 49th Shelf, as well as those of other luminaries, including Karen Hofmann, whose debut I reviewed five years ago and who since wrote another great novel with a very meta title: What is Going to Happen Next.

Thanks for indulging me with this mini-post while I try to get back in the swing of things! Let me know if you generally believe the blurb, or if you side-eye them as much as I do. Sadly, Shteyngart Blurbs is no longer updating, but I maintain that he must have been bullshitting at least some of the time.

The Full Monte Read-Along Chapters 21-40: Half Baked

If you have trouble maneuvering your ship into port at Marseilles, steer yourself over to the master post.

NOTE: This post covers the chapters from The Island of Tiboulen to The Breakfast, inclusive. The numbering varies by edition, and I’m going by the Penguin Classics edition, which seems to match Project Gutenberg. If you have the Oxford World’s Classics or some other editions, you might need to read up to and including chapter 41.

This week is another mixed bag, but unlike last week, where I kind of knew what to expect (false accusations, jail, escape, yada yada yada), this section has got me like:

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I have questions about 19th century French hashish, and French translations
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The Full Monte Read-Along Chapters 1-20: Edmond Dantès’ Right to Due Process

If you have trouble maneuvering your ship into port at Marseilles, steer yourself over to the master post.

The Count of Monte Cristo is best known as a story of revenge. But for the first 200ish pages, our boy Dantès doesn’t have a vengeful thought in his head. Or many other thoughts. He’s just a good-looking, lucky kid, on the cusp of gaining all the money, status, and love he could ever want.

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Dantès at his betrothal feast, about to learn an important lesson about the correlation between Money and Problems

This week, we read up to chapter 20, a totally arbitrary cut-off, but one that worked out wonderfully well. We follow golden boy Dantès until his arrest on trumped up charges, then we follow the conspirators, and the prosecutor who ensures he will stay in jail indefinitely, then we get back to Dantès in jail, and we stop right when it seems his escape is about to be foiled – though we know he must escape, because we still have 1,000 pages to go.

So far, Rick’s prediction that there may not be a lot to “discuss” seems apt. I don’t have an overarching theme to expound on, or a pop culture parallel to draw. So, here are my disjointed observations on this novella-length introduction to Edmond’s story. Continue reading

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi: Man Booker International Prize Review

 

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I picked up Frankenstein in Baghdad because it was the most accessible book on the longlist (in stock at Chapters!), not because I was excited to read about war. My last war book, Canada Reads contender American War, didn’t go so well, and right off the bat, I noticed similarities. Frankenstein opens with a leaked government document, a top secret report on the activities of the “Tracking and Pursuit Department” in Iraq. American War actually makes great use of leaked documents, transcripts, and newspaper clippings to frame its time-hopping narrative. The author is a former journalist, and probably got a feel for what government documents look like, so they feel really authentic. I didn’t buy it in Frankenstein, though. The language was too plain. Even the “Top Secret” stamp looked amateur.

Luckily, that’s the only such document in the book. The rest is a straight-up narrative set in contemporary Iraq. Frankenstein distinguishes itself from American War in one more important way: it leave room for the reader to think. Continue reading

How to follow a UK Prize from Canada or my foray into the Man Booker International Prize

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I made a snap decision today: I’ve decided to follow the Man Booker International Prize. I came to my decision, oh, about a half hour before the longlist was announced this morning. In my excitement, I filmed two videos before work: one about why I’m following the prize, and one reacting to the longlist. Scroll down to watch, if you wish.

Since my early morning burst of activity, though, I’ve learned some harsh lessons about following a UK prize from overseas: you can’t get the books.

Well, you *can*. And I knew it would be a pain – this isn’t my first rodeo (or my first Booker). But the combination of UK publication dates, translations, and this particular longlist’s preponderance of small press books makes the 2018 MBIP a real challenge. So, I did some research. Continue reading

War and Peace Newbies Read-Along Volume II, Parts III and IV: Phoning it in

Et bienmes readers-along, si vous n’avez rien de mieux à faire, go to the master post for the read-along schedule and more.

It happens every read-along: around halfway through, the host starts phoning it in. I regret to inform you that the time has come. I’m about to fly across the country to see my family in Atlantic Canada and between wrapping up at work and packing and regular summer time craziness, it ain’t happening this week, or at least, not with my usual attention to detail.

Let’s see who else is phoning it in these days… shall we? Continue reading

War and Peace Newbies Read-Along Volume I, Part II: Did you get the memo?

Et bienmes readers-along, si vous n’avez rien de mieux à faire, go to the master post for the read-along schedule and more.

THE FIRST OF THE DREADED WAR PARTS.

And it was okay! Fascinating, even. As a Canadian, I’ve read plenty about World War I. I read Fifth Business in grade 11 and The Wars in first year University. Both were stark, realistic portrayals of the horror and confusion of war. Lots of mud and gas. But neither got that deep into the bureaucracy of war. The posturing, the double speak, the sycophancy, the ass-covering…. the memos.

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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

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