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: 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.

kiss the joy as it flies

I just finished:

Kiss the Joy As It Flies by Sheree Fitch.

From the inside flap: “Panic-stricken by the news that she needs exploratory surgery, forty-eight-year-old Mercy Beth Fanjoy drafts a monumental “to do” list and sets about putting her messy life in order. But tidying up the edges of her life means the past comes rushing back to haunt her and the present keeps throwing up more to do’s. Between fits of weeping and laughter, ranting and bliss, Mercy must contemplate the meaning of life in the face of her own death. In a week filled with the riot of an entire life, nothing turns out the way she’d expected.”

I’m not sure what rock I was living under when this novel was released by Vagrant Press in 2008, but the first I heard of it was about a month ago as I packed it up at the library to ship out to a patron who had put it on hold. Ooh, I thought, what a great title. And it’s by Sheree Fitch, the incredibly popular and prolific author of kids’ and young adult lit. Very interesting. So I bumped that patron off the hold and took it for myself. Ha. No, I didn’t. Sometimes it’s tempting, but your friendly neighbourhood librarian would NEVER do such a thing. We’re big on freedom and fairness and all that crap, you see.

So, having waited patiently for my turn, the book came back, I dropped what I had been reading and started in. The first thing I noticed was Fitch’s poetic prose – not surprising from a poet, I suppose – and her eye for detail. Mercy notes the “high-pitched, train-whistling congestion” of her doctor’s chest, for example. At a yoga class, she watches how “Twenty people floated to the front of their yoga mats like synchronized swimmers in the belly of a pool.” And of her landlord and his wife, Mercy reflects, “They’d known it was Harold’s last Christmas even then. Doris had shiny puddles of grey under her eyes…Harold’s face was the yellow of dried mustard, and his eyes were bulging out of their sockets like the eyes of a seal, glazed over with morphine.”

I liked the basic concept too: woman receives threatening medical news, woman freaks out, woman makes last ditch effort to resolve some issues she’s been letting slide, woman learns a few important life lessons in doing so. Mercy comes across as a relatable character, with just enough personality quirks to seem real, but not so many as to make her outlandish. Her life is not unlike yours or mine – frequently disappointing and infuriating with just enough moments of happiness to keep her going.

My only criticism is about the last few chapters, which seem like a bit of an afterthought. A much anticipated trip to Africa lasts for one tiny chapter (compared to the doctor’s appointment at the beginning which carried on for six chapters) and the trip feels a little forced, as if its main purpose is to get Mercy out of the country so it can be all the more dramatic when she’s summoned back for an emergency.

I also have a bit of an issue with the “One Year Later” epilogue. For fear of ruining it for you, all I’ll say is, bitter hag that I am, I can’t stand happy endings in which everything conveniently sorts itself out and everybody’s just dandy. I start rolling my eyes and muttering darkly about unicorns and lollipops and fireworks and it’s all very unattractive.

So, final word: would I recommend it? Absolutely. Great writing, intriguing story and, as far as the ending goes, chances are good you’re much less pessimistic than me and will love it.

Writing Life

I’ve spent the past week conked out in bed and sprawled across the couch with The Mother of All Head Colds. Flus. Flues. Influenzas. Even though I know better now, I can’t quite shake my childhood belief that if you have a runny nose/sore throat/cough, you have a cold and if you’re barfing, you have the flu. Whatever. I was sick. Unfortunately, I was so sick I didn’t get as much reading done as one might expect considering I was horizontal for 23.5 hours out of every 24.

But I did read this:

Writing Life: Celebrated Canadian and International Authors on Writing and Life. From the back cover: “Provocative, candid, often very funny, personal, and passionately engaged, this inspired collection will take readers deep into the heart of the writing life.”

I love anthologies for the exposure to new voices and always come away with a list of authors to seek out. Seek out their work, I mean, not the authors themselves. Ugh, it’s nice to realize my brain fog hasn’t lifted much. Anyway, this anthology is no different: my love for Lisa Moore and Lynn Coady was re-affirmed and my hopelessly long reading list now includes Eden Robinson, Shyam Selvadurai, Susan Swan and Michael Winter. Of course, anthologies are also helpful in pointing out authors to avoid; if they can annoy, bore or ostracize me within ten short pages or so, I don’t need to suffer through a whole book, thanks.

The other great thing about this particular collection is the topic: writing.  Ooooh. I love a good book about writing. I love hearing about the experiences of published authors, love collecting tidbits of information here and there as if it will somehow help me. I’m a kid again, sitting on the stairs eavesdropping on my older sister and her friends and being impatient to be a teenager too since they obviously had everything cool and exciting and all I had was stupid used roller skates with ugly silver stars on the sides and an eight o’clock bedtime.

I am a voyeur when it comes to writers and want to know it all – the writing schedules, the struggles with confidence, the thrill of success, the reality of making ends meet, the challenge of raising children, the attitudes toward readers and critics. This collection didn’t have a lot of that nitty gritty detail, but I still enjoyed it. Most of it. But that’s the pleasure of a collection, right? It’s like a box of chocolates. Eat the ones you like and pass the rest off on your co-workers.