French Exit by Patrick deWitt

From the back cover:

“Frances Price—tart widow, possessive mother, and Upper East Side force of nature—is in dire straits, beset by scandal and impending bankruptcy. Her adult son, Malcolm, is no help, mired in a permanent state of arrested development. And then there’s the Prices’ aging cat, Small Frank, who Frances believes houses the spirit of her late husband, an infamously immoral litigator and world-class cad whose gruesome tabloid death rendered Frances and Malcolm social outcasts.”

The first thing I need to say about this book is that I liked it a lot. It’s funny and sad and strange and unsettling and everything I like in a novel. Take another look at the clues in that teaser: tart widow, dire straits, beset by scandal, arrested development, immoral litigator, world-class cad, gruesome death, social outcasts. Come on! All that in the hands of Patrick deWitt = A+.

The second thing I need to say is that, in thinking about what to write about it, I have struggled. For more than a week. I haven’t been struggling with trying to come up with good things to say about it (see point #1), but struggling with the idea of heaping more praise upon a book that is already on the Giller short list and upon an author who is a genuine CanLit superstar.

Where does this come from, this reluctance to further celebrate the highly successful? Is it the Canadian in me? (No one should ever be too big a deal – it’s unseemly.) Or is it the mother in me? (Stop hogging all the attention, Patrick, and let everyone else have a turn, too.) Or is it the woman in me? (Please please please do not someday reveal yourself to be a sexist jackass and make me regret having touted your work.) Who knows?

All I can say for sure is that when I was reading French Exit, I had to keep telling myself to slow down and savour it. And that when I wasn’t reading it, I wished I was. And that I’d happily read it again.

This Messy, Magnificent Life by Geneen Roth

From the inside cover: “…This Messy, Magnificent Life is a personal and exhilarating read on freeing ourselves from daily anxiety, lack, and discontent.”

Spoiler alert: the solution to daily anxiety, lack and discontent is mindfulness. I don’t think Roth ever actually uses the word, but it’s definitely what she’s talking about. Noticing and questioning our rampaging thoughts. Remembering to feel gratitude for all that is good about our lives. Dropping distractions to really, truly feel, hear, see, smell and taste. Being kind to everyone, especially ourselves.

I enjoyed her friendly yet brutally honest writing style and think this is a great book on the value of (and, so often, the difficulty of) trying to bring moments of mindfulness into our days, especially for those who might be turned off by the Buddhist-y overtones of books with similar messages.

I haven’t read any of Roth’s previous books, but will definitely be checking them out now.

Highly recommended.

at home with the Georgians

“Prize winning author Professor Amanda Vickery sets her sights on the golden age of homemaking – the 18th Century Georgian era. Through dramatic reconstructions, she traces the story of the unique relationship Britons enjoy with their homes, arguing that the Georgians’ obsession with decor helped to redefine the parts played by men and women in British society.”

Very enjoyable – I give it five chihuahuas out of five.

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About by Mil Millington.

From the back cover: “Pel Dalton leads an uneventful life. His days are spent bluffing his way through an IT job in the university library, pillow-fighting with his two sons, surviving family outings to the supermarket, and finding new things to argue about with Ursula, his German girlfriend. But things are about to change…”

Thank goodness for the glowing snippets of reviews on the book cover (“…wickedly funny…”, “…sharply written…”, etc.) because that back cover summary is lame and doesn’t come close to capturing the spirit or tone of the book. Pel’s life isn’t “uneventful” — it’s teetering on the brink of disaster. He’s consumed with trying to conceal just how out of his depth he is at work, is engaged in a love/hate (but mostly hate) relationship with Ursula and is overwhelmed with the demands of raising young children. It would be really depressing if the writing weren’t so witty and sly.

Millington’s novel is based on his website, which is so ugly and hard to read it makes my eyes bleed, but is very entertaining.

Final word: Highly recommended.

Mud, Sweat and Tears

Mud, Sweat and Tears: Tales from a Country Vet by Bud Ings. Acorn Press.

From the back cover: “Ings’ memoir is a rich, often humourous account of his first decade as a vet, at a time when there were few vacations, no modern tools of the trade, and no request too strange to attend to. It’s also the story of a past era, when PEI’s farms flourished and the animals were not only the backbone of the economy, but part of the family.”

I checked this book out of the library way back in July (yes, I’m slightly behind on my reviews) so I could take it to PEI for our annual week of eating, reading, beachcombing and eating. In an interesting turn of events, however, my father—who generally limits his reading to the newspaper and curling/golf schedules—saw it on the coffee table and snagged it for himself. His verdict? Two thumbs up.

Well sure, I thought, Bud Ings is not only writing about the PEI of my Dad’s childhood, but they also share the same exquisite taste in adopted first names. Would I enjoy the book as much as Bud Cameron?

::suspenseful music::

I did enjoy it. Ings’ details of farm life on PEI in the fifties are interesting, but even better are his descriptions of his encounters with the farmers—true characters, every one. Celebrity and tragedy memoirs are both more popular, I know, but I really believe these “regular person” memoirs are priceless for a glimpse at a world now long gone.

Recommended for fans of PEI, veterinary medicine or rural life in the fifties.

tales from outer suburbia

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan.

From the back cover: “Do you remember the water buffalo at the end of our street? Or the deep-sea diver we found near the underpass? Do you know why dogs bark in the middle of the night? Shaun Tan, creator of The Arrival, The Lost Thing and The Red Tree, reveals the quiet mysteries of everyday life: homemade pets, dangerous weddings, stranded sea mammals, tiny exchange students and secret rooms filled with darkness and delight.”

The cover of this book beckoned me from across the library one day and – I know I should be ashamed to admit this, but I’m not, or rather I’m mostly unashamed, but still a little ashamed, as with most things, come to think of it, since that’s just the way I am – I almost ignored it since I thought it was a graphic novel. Yes, yes, I know graphic novels are the way of the future and so awesome and revolutionary and whatever. Stop hounding me about how great graphic novels are. I don’t get the appeal, okay? Call me old (true) and inflexible (true) and a snob (somehow also true, despite my shame), but I have zero desire to read a graphic novel. (And don’t get me started on graphic novel versions of the classics because I will become truly unpleasant. What is wrong with WORDS? Words as they were written?)

In any case, I don’t need to rant about Tales from Outer Suburbia because it is a lavishly illustrated book of very short stories, not a graphic novel. It’s a picture book for adults, say. (Not those kinds of pictures for adults. I know where your lecherous mind went.) It would be perfectly suitable for kids and teens too, with its intriguing mix of the poignant and the absurd.

The illustrations are fantastic and I suggest you check out Shaun Tan’s website for samples of his work. Seriously, his talent and creativity make me want to barf. Life is so, so unfair.

Anyway.

Tales from Outer Suburbia: Highly recommended.

Shelf Monkey

Shelf Monkey by Corey Redekop. ECW Press.

From the inside flap:

“Thomas Friesen has three goals in life. Get a job. Make friends. Find a good book to curl up with. After landing a job at READ, the newest hypermegabookstore, he feels he may have accomplished all three.

All is not peaceable within the stacks, however. Discontent is steadily rising, and it is aimed squarely at Munroe Purvis, a talk show host whose wildly popular book club is progressively lowering the IQ of North America.

But the bookworms have a plan. Plots are being hatched. The destruction of Munroe is all but assured. And as Thomas finds himself swept along in the maelstrom of insanity, he wonders if reading a book is all it’s cracked up to be.”

1. I love the word ‘maelstrom,’ don’t you? I really need to find ways to work  it into casual conversation more often. I also like ‘skullduggery.’ And ‘fortitude.’ And ‘slipstream.’

2. I love the cover of this book. Kudos (ooh, another good word) to the designer, David Gee, because it was the cover that enticed me to pick up the book in the first place. Yes, I am that shallow.

3. I love the book. It’s smart and funny and creative and (as much as I usually cringe at this word) thought-provoking, raising questions about what qualifies as ‘literature,’ about how our opinions are shaped and by whom, about our compulsion to try to shape the opinions of others, and about the evolution of a society that wants everything to be as easy, comforting and unchallenging as possible.

Very highly recommended.