The Best Laid Plans

The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis.

The online blurb (in lieu of the back cover blurb since I don’t have the book to steal from): “Here’s the set up: A burnt-out politcal aide quits just before an election – but is forced to run a hopeless campaign on the way out. He makes a deal with a crusty old Scot, Angus McLintock – an engineering professor who will do anything, anything, to avoid teaching English to engineers – to let his name stand in the election. No need to campaign, certain to lose, and so on. Then a great scandal blows away his opponent, and to their horror, Angus is elected. He decides to see what good an honest M.P. who doesn’t care about being re-elected can do in Parliament. The results are hilarious – and with chess, a hovercraft, and the love of a good woman thrown in, this very funny book has something for everyone.”

Considering The Best Laid Plans won CBC’s Canada Reads this year, I scarcely think it needs my insignificant stamp of approval, but I’m giving it anyway, just in case your alien abduction coincided with the Canada Reads hoopla and you missed all the media coverage. It’s okay; I’m always several months behind the rest of the world too.

Much has been written about how Fallis initially had to self-publish this book because no publishers would take it on, which, believe me, says more about the publishing industry than the quality of his work. The Best Laid Plans went on to win The Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and only then was picked up by a publishing house. Crazy. After all these accolades, however, I doubt he’ll ever have to worry about self-publishing again.

Anyway. The book. It’s funny and smart and well-written and interesting, even though it’s about politics. (Seriously, I almost didn’t read it because I thought, politics? Snore.) The characters are enjoyable and while the plot is somewhat predictable, it’s still a pleasure to watch it unfold.

Highly recommended.

Have you read The Best Laid Plans? What did you think?

The Bone Cage

The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou. From the back cover: “Digger, an 85-kilo wrestler, and Sadie, a 26-year-old speed swimmer, stand on the verge of realizing every athlete’s dream–winning a gold medal at the Olympics. Both athletes are nearing the end of their careers, and are forced to confront the question: what happens to athletes when their bodies are too worn to compete? The blossoming relationship between Digger and Sadie is tested in the intense months leading up to the Olympics, which, as both of them are painfully aware, will be the realization or the end of a life’s dream.”

If you aren’t the superstar athlete I am, you might be reluctant to read a sports-themed novel, but fear not, my friends, because The Bone Cage is much more than jock talk. The characters are complex and realistic, the plot is absorbing, the setting is perfectly drawn, and the writing is clean and clear and a pleasure to read.

What elevates The Bone Cage above the level of ‘merely entertaining,’ however, are The Big Questions it raises: After years of pushing everything else (family, friends, education, occupation) aside to train, what does an elite athlete actually have once the athletic career is over? Are all those years of training and sacrifice worth the reward? What if there is no reward? What is it that drives athletes to devote everything to competition? Is this drive to be respected or pitied? Who are any of us without our careers, our talents, our obsessions?

The Bone Cage: Highly recommended.

The Book of Awesome

The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. From the inside cover: “The Book of Awesome reminds us of all the little things that we often overlook but that make us smile. With touching, warm, and funny observations, each entry ends with the big booming feeling you’ll get when you read through them: AWESOME!”

This book was in huge demand at the library all last summer and although I generally shy away from super popular bestsellers (having either truly superior or godawful taste – it’s open to debate), I felt the need for a little more awesomesauce in my own life.

So…I tried, okay? I tried to get in that ultra-optimistic, head-bobbing groove the book wants to create, but I just couldn’t. Don’t get me wrong – some of Pasricha’s awesome things really are awesome, like “Fixing electronics by smacking them,” and “Seeing somebody laugh in their sleep,” and “Saying the same thing a sports commentator says just before they say it.” Some I found odd, like “The smell of gasoline,” and “New socks day,” but whatever. He’s allowed to think those things are awesome. I’m understanding that way.

No, what bugged me most was Pasricha’s trying-way-too-hard-to-sound-hip-and-enthusiastic tone. Take this: “The other side of the pillow, folks. Because it’s flat when you’re sagging, fresh when you’re stale, and cold when you’re hot, baby.” Or this one: “Yes…you’re suddenly a Bus Fleet Fat Cat, swimming in tickets and tokens, commanding your private army of Sugar Rollers around town to pick you up and drop you off as you see fit. Baby, if you’re feeling this buzz, then there’s no reason you can’t get right into it too…” Or this one: “Head in the freezer, hands in the oven, whatever your move, just make it. Pick a temp, baby, then bake it. Pump up the thermostat, bang on the rad, or crank up the air.”

Looking at these Tidbits that Made Me Roll My Eyes (that name is in honour of the way Pasricha likes to make everything into a proper noun:  moviegoers are The Back Row Crowd, Middle of the Packers, La-Z-Boys and Girls and Front Row Crazies, for instance), I realize my first objection might be the repeated use of the word “baby”. I don’t find it funny or hip or even ironic – just irritating. And that sing-songy patter got on my nerves. Just speak normally, guy. I’m sure I can understand whatever it is you’re trying to express without you presenting it in the form of a schlocky pop song.

Would I recommend this book? Well, surprisingly, despite This Blog Post of Bitchy, I would. Why? For one thing, I truly believe gratitude is A Good Thing (that one belongs to Martha Stewart) and we could all practice it more regularly. For another, Pasricha seems like a nice guy and it isn’t his fault I have this life-threatening allergy to kitsch. I can see how most people would enjoy this book. For those like me, with ice water running in their veins and hearts of granite, I recommend reading the titles only and skipping the commentary. You’re smart enough to figure out why “The sound of rain from inside the tent” is awesome. I’m pretty confident of that. And the bonus is you’ll finish the book in about twenty minutes. AWESOME!

Candy and Me

Candy and Me by Hilary Liftin. From the back cover: “Acclaimed for its fresh, wry humour and candid confessional quality, Candy and Me unwraps the universal desire for connection and confection as Hilary Liftin chronicles her epic love affair with all things sweet. As she recounts her record-setting candy consumption, she also reveals the ways in which candy has seen her through many of life’s hurdles.”

This is going to sound like an insult, but it isn’t, I swear: Candy and Me is perfect reading for waiting rooms or subway commutes or any of those occasions during which you can’t/shouldn’t lose yourself in a book. Not that it’s boring. No, it’s a very entertaining memoir, but because Liftin recounts her stories of incredible candy obsession in tidy little vignettes and because candy – not slavery or abandonment or murder – is always at the centre, it’s what I’d call a light but intelligent read.

And you don’t have to be candy-bewitched to appreciate her story, either. I am most definitely not a candy lover (chocolate – oh yes; candy – not so much), which probably made her overwhelming love for it all the more intriguing. It’s kind of like when you find out a new friend loves something like Nascar or hunting and you try not to be judgmental, but you’re just so curious and, well, judgmental and everything comes out like, “You what? Really? Why? Really? But, but…Seriously?”

Oh, and I also learned that what we call Rockets in Canada are called Smarties in the States. So what do Americans call their Smarties? Nothing, because they don’t have Smarties. No Smarties, which should ensure my kids never cross the border permanently. I really don’t care because the best way to eat Smarties is to crack off and discard those stupid candy shells first. Right?

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

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?

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?

A Broom of One’s Own

A Broom of One’s Own by Nancy Peacock.

From the back cover: “An encouragement to all hard-working artists, no matter how they make a living, Peacock’s book provides valuable insights and advice on motivation, craft, and criticism while offering hilarious anecdotes about the houses she cleans.”

Since I was feeling particularly in need of encouragement this past week, I turned to this book, which has been, ironically, gathering dust on my desk for quite a while as I waited for what seemed like the right time to read it. What I should have realized is that any time is the right time for nice, sensible advice on how to balance what you want to do (write, for instance) with what you need to do (make money).

Despite having two well-regarded novels under her belt, Peacock was unable to make ends meet by writing full-time and continued to clean houses for fifteen years. Her mixed feelings about this (annoyance with being treated like dirt by snooty clients as well as gratitude for the ability to work on her own and set her own rules) make for interesting reading and reminded me to try to see the good in those activities I’d rather not be doing.

While I wouldn’t characterize her anecdotes as “hilarious,” (they’re often slightly depressing since people can be gross, rude, entitled pigs), I will say the book is an entertaining mix of  memoir, observations about writing, and nitty-gritty details about what it’s really like to clean a house that is not your own. Definitely worth a read.