reasons to love and fear Foster

After supper the other day, Foster took me aside and said, “I need to get a job. How do I get a job?”

“Why do you need a job?” I asked.

“Because I need some money.”

“Why do you need money?”

“Because there’s a Lego man Charlotte really wants and I want to buy it for her.”

“Oh, I see.”

“And I need two dollars so I can go to that machine in the mall, the one where you use a claw to pick up a toy, and try to get the blue bear for Charlotte. She really, really wants that blue bear.”

“Well, we’ll see what we can do,” I said and thought, awwww, quit breaking my heart, kid. Isn’t that the sweetest thing you’ve ever heard? How many ten-year-old boys do you know who spend their time daydreaming about what to buy their little sisters?

The next day, a Body Shop order arrived for me and included in the box were three little manicure sets – one for each kid. (They were marked down to $2 – go check it out if you need a manicure kit because there might be some left.) Inside each kit is a pair of nail scissors, nail clippers and a metal nail file.

Within a minute of receiving his, Foster held up the pieces one at a time to show me. “Look, Mom. The clippers are for snapping the lock on the gate, the scissors are for cutting the phone lines, and the file is for stabbing somebody! It’s The Ultimate Murder Kit!”

Uh, okay.

Sweet, loving, considerate, homicidal freak.

See this innocent little face?

If he asks for a two dollar loan, I’d just give it to him.


The Sentimentalists

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud. Winner of the 2010 Giller Prize.

From the inside flap: “Napoleon Haskell served in the Vietnam War, where he witnessed events which had a profound and complicated impact on his life and the lives of his family. As his health ultimately declines, his daughters move him from his trailer in North Dakota to the lakeside town of Casablanca, Ontario, to live with Henry – father of Napoleon’s friend Owen who was killed in action in Vietnam. When her own life comes unhinged, Napoleon’s daughter retreats to Casablanca as well, and is soon drawn into the shadowy stories that lurk below the surface of her life – like the ghostly buildings of the former town lying somewhere beneath the flooded lake.”

I really, really wanted to love this book. For one thing, it’s published by local heroes, Gaspereau Press. For another, it won the Giller. And for another, it’s Skibsrud’s first novel – imagine your first novel winning the Giller. Amazing.

But. I didn’t love it.

While there’s no denying Skibsrud has the knack for quiet, poetic, dreamlike prose, I sometimes found it a bit hard to take. Like when I didn’t know what the hell was going on, say. The story spans about four decades (I think – it’s kind of hard to tell) and during certain scenes I wasn’t sure where along that timeline the events were taking place. To make the insufficient detail even more annoying, her sentences tend to be long, descriptive mazes of feeling and sensation that left me thinking, huh? Wha? So I’d re-read them. And occasionally still wouldn’t get it.

Another criticism is the utter lack of interest I felt in any of the characters. Napoleon – father, Vietnam vet and cancer patient – is the most finely drawn of the characters and even that isn’t saying a lot. I felt like I barely knew the guy, which one could argue is simply a way of conveying his detachment from his family, but I didn’t feel like I knew any of the other characters, either. There were oblique references to happenings in their lives (the narrator leaves her fiance, for example, and her sister leaves her husband), but we hear nothing more than the barest minimum. We don’t even learn the narrator’s name.

The overall theme of hidden truths, as represented by the submerged town, is a promising one and my interest was briefly piqued at the beginning of the Vietnam section, during which Napoleon tells his war story for the first time. For a short while, the pace picks up a little and it seems like things are finally about to happen, but then it’s all lost again in vague, hazy half-recollections that left me more frustrated than intrigued. Napoleon’s experiences in Vietnam could have been incredibly moving, but instead we’re left with vague, confusing images and, at the end of the book, a transcript of Napoleon’s court appearance that didn’t do much to reveal how he felt about any of it. I was thankful for the transcript, though, since it was the only point at which I had a handle on what was happening. And even then, it went on a bit long.

So, overall opinion? Despite all my complaints, I can see how some readers would love The Sentimentalists. It’s subtle and thoughtful and filled with powerful imagery; there are certain lines I read over and over in appreciation for their beauty. But (and I have a big but – heh), I learned from reading it that I have a strong desire for in-depth character development and a compelling plot. I want interesting people doing interesting things at a rate quick enough to keep me, um…interested. In my opinion, The Sentimentalists didn’t quite make the cut.


Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal by Julie Metz.

From the inside flap: “Julie Metz’s life changes forever on one ordinary January afternoon when her husband, Henry, collapses on the kitchen floor and dies in her arms. Suddenly, the mother of a six-year-old is the young widow in a bucolic small town. And this is only the beginning. Seven months after Henry’s death, just when Julie thinks she is emerging from the worst of it, comes the rest of it: She discovers that what had appeared to be the reality of her marriage was but a half-truth. Henry had hidden another life from her.”

It was the cover that first attracted me to this book: so striking, so beautiful, and betrayal? Ooh, I’m in.

Considering the inside flap goes on to mention that Henry was unfaithful throughout the marriage, I don’t think I’m spoiling too much by revealing the bulk of the book deals with Metz’s attempts to come to terms with all the mistresses. This, for me, is where the book really shines. The immediate aftermath of Henry’s sudden death is interesting, of course, in a heartbreaking way, but it’s once the truth about his affairs comes to light that things really get cooking.

This is possible only because Metz is unflinchingly open about the details – about her bottomless grief and, later, rage; about her often ugly confrontations with the other women in Henry’s life; and about her inability to let go and move on and her friends’  impatience with her to start getting her act together again.

It’s only once Metz tries to re-enter the dating pool that I began to lose interest. As glad as I was to see her making new strides and learning how to re-create her life, her candidness suddenly started to seem like oversharing. This is odd considering everything she’d laid bare in the first two hundred pages, but the details about when and where she had sex with all the men she dated was too much for me. I understand it was all part of her process, but I didn’t need to hear all the nitty-gritty details, thanks. A general allusion to her adventures in dating and, more importantly, what she learned from them would have sufficed.

The same goes for the particulars of her daily life once the crisis has passed; pages upon pages of mundane details like childcare arrangements and moving and chance encounters with old acquaintances seemed a little self-indulgent by times. That’s the danger of memoir, I guess. The final hundred pages could have easily been edited down to fifty, at most, and would have made the story that much stronger.

Still, I found the first two-thirds of the book quite gripping and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

Anyone have a memoir to recommend?

insert your own snow pun

Although yesterday’s predicted snowpocalypse wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped, I’m not going to be one of those people who sneer, “Duh, it’s Canada. It snows. Get over it,” because I understand the advance buzz about these storms makes life a little more exciting and I’m all for that.

We weren’t buried alive in snow, but we did receive a fair amount – I’d guess between a foot and a foot and a half or whatever that is in metric. (Must remember to study up on the metric system soon because I “teach” it to the kids next month. Maybe they’ll know it and can teach me.) Anyway, I can’t gauge exactly how much snow fell because I’m doing all my guesstimating from inside where it’s warm and dry and requires slightly less shovelling.

Exhibit A: snow drift on the deck, taken during the storm yesterday afternoon –

 The table on the right that’s almost covered in snow is quite a tall table, so I’d guess the drift is a good two and a half feet, maybe three feet there. No, I will not go measure it.

Exhibit B – snow drift at front door, taken this morning –

Note the impression of the door panels in the compressed snow. Very classy.

Exhibit C: Murray met by wall of snow at back door, taken this morning –

Poor guy. Nowhere to look but up.

Winter Nature

Winter Nature by Merritt Gibson and Soren Bondrup-Nielsen. Illustrated by Twila Robar-DeCoste. From the back cover: “Though often associated with hibernation – for bears and humans alike – winter can in fact be a time of observation and discovery in the outdoors. Winter Nature provides the interested walker, skier or snowshoer with a guide to the mammals, birds, trees and shrubs found in the Maritime provinces during the winter months.”

I liked this book a lot. For one thing, it’s beautifully made, as are all books produced by Gaspereau Press. For another, I love nature guidebooks since they help me feel like slightly less of an ignoramus when I’m out and about and am able to identify the odd thing here and there. Even better, it’s a guide to local animals, birds and trees  – things I have a chance of actually seeing. The best part, of course, is the amazing range of knowledge on the part of the co-authors. It’s amazing. I can’t imagine ever knowing that much about anything. About anything useful, anyway.

The one thing I didn’t love about the book was the illustrations. Robar-DeCoste is incredibly talented and the drawings are amazingly detailed and accurate, but I find I need colour photography when it comes to distinguishing between different types of sparrows, say, or the dormant branches of trees. It’s still a good resource, just not quite as useful as it might have been with photos. Just my opinion.

Anyone else share my love of nature guides?