Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

My brother and his wife gave me this book for my birthday last month, and with it came along some very high praise. As you can tell from my reading log, I don’t read a lot of narrative nonfiction, but there’s no doubt that Erik Larson is a born storyteller and in its best moments this book is truly compelling.

The Devil in the White City is set during the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, IL and tells two separate stories – that of famed architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, who played an instrumental role in designing and implementing many of the structures that turned the 1893 fair world fair into a global event, and notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes, who was murdering a whole host of young women during the same period. The book goes into painstaking detail to reveal these two interrelated stories and presents a breathtaking portrait of an era in American history that is long gone but still infinitely fascinating.

There is no way to get around the thorough research that went into creating this book. It’s almost as if every sentence required some deep and laborious act of investigation in order to be crafted into existence. Despite this, Larson’s book is not a laborious read. It clips along with the well-structured pacing of a novel, weaving back and forth between its two stories and building to a shattering climax. With great skill, Larson turns the fair itself (and its near-endless problems getting off the ground) into a character that the reader roots for. It is a book that presents one man’s drive to make his dream of the world fair into a reality, and another man’s drive to exploit, betray and ultimately murder the women he brings into his life with a psychopathic tenacity.

The Devil in the White City is also a loving tribute to the city of Chicago. The `93 world fair was the city’s way of putting itself on the map, to show the world that there was more to America’s urban life than just New York City. Larson brings as much passion to capturing the spirit of that city as he does telling the compelling stories of Burnham and Holmes. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

It was perhaps apt that I read this award-winning novel by Joseph O’Neill immediately after finishing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Both books deal with the personal, domestic consequences of 9/11 and America’s subsequent forays into armed philanthropy in the Muslim world. But whereas Franzen’s novel is expansive, shattershot and, frankly, overwritten, O’Neill’s book is lean, taut and tightly focused on its thesis. This goes a long way to making it a superior read.

Netherland tells the story of Hans van den Broek, a financial analyst working for an unnamed bank in New York City whose wife Rachel leaves him and flees back to London with their young son Jake in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001. Hans spends every other weekend commuting between the two cities in order to see his son and try repairing his broken marriage. But on the weekends when he isn’t doing this, he’s busy rekindling his interest in the game of cricket, which is having a resurgence in the city of New York. He gets roped in with an ambitious but shadowy fellow immigrant named Chuck Ramkissoon who is looking to turn cricket into big business for the city, but doing so using shady connections.

What struck me about this book was the way that O’Neill creates a rich and compelling tale without relying on anything resembling a traditional narrative arc. Indeed, Netherland oddly reminded me of certain Canadian novels of the 1970s that rely heavily on character and theme at the expense of a consistent “plotline” that runs through the book from beginning to end. This isn’t an insult; it is, in fact, Netherland’s great strength. Because it relies on an episodic structure, the novel is able to use a kind of literary pointillism to draw attention to its broader themes.

Some of the book’s ideas are more obvious than others. The most observable one is this notion of cricket as a civilizing force in the international community, forcing global rivals to spend long stretches of time together on the pitch in the spirit of sportsmanship. And, of course, this civilizing force is thus corrupted in the post-9/11 world by Ramkissoon’s scheming aspirations for the game. Other explorations are less easy to spot. I’m thinking specifically of the notion of men being inexplicably abandoned by the women they love, a theme I’m exploring in my own new novel. In Netherland, this fate isn’t reserved solely for Hans; it happens to at least two other men he meets through his involvement in the cricket club. One jokes that he’s actually happy his wife left him, because it means he can now smoke as much as he likes; in fact, he’s smoking five packs a day. Another man, however, is rendered practically incapacitated by his wife’s departure from his life, and it’s left to Hans, comically, to comfort him in his hour of sadness.

The episodic structure also allows O’Neill to pull off some brilliant one-off scenes. There’s a hilariously Kafkaesque episode involving Hans at the DMV trying to get an American driver’s license. The scene is played for its sheer frustrating genius, but then concludes with this astounding passage that ties it all back to the novel’s larger project:

And so I was in a state of fuming helplessness when I stepped out into the inverted obscurity of the afternoon. As I stood there, thrown by Herald Square’s flows of pedestrians and the crazed traffic diagonals and the gray, seemingly bottomless gutter pools, I was seized for the time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.

Netherland is by no means a perfect novel. I found it, for example, highly improbable that Hans – with his high-powered career and its concomitant salary and status – would have nearly every weekend free to either play cricket or jaunt off to London to visit his son. I don’t know many financial analysts, but I suspect few would have such a succession of Saturdays and Sundays to spare. Hans also narrates his tale in a kind of elevated, literary diction, which I found unlikely for someone so ensconced in the business world, despite his background in the classics.

But these are small quibbles in a book bursting with so much brilliance. Netherland is both engrossing and unconventional, timely and timeless. It explores one man’s private, temporary loss in a world experiencing a great, more permanent loss. It shows both an expert, big-picture vision and a careful eye to the small, domestic details that comprise our deepest experiences.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

If I were one to include catchy subheads on my reviews here at Free Range Reading, I suppose the one I’d write for Freedom would read: “Lots of golden rings to be found in this big pile of shit.” If you’ve already read the novel, then you catch my reference immediately. I’m of course speaking of the section where Joey, the 19-year-old son of the Berglund family, accidentally swallows the wedding ring from his clandestine marriage to girlfriend Connie and eventually needs to wade through his own feces in order to retrieve it. For Franzen, this grotesque scene is a broader metaphor for the strife that each major character in Freedom goes through: to root through the effluence of their lives’ mistakes and bad choices to find something of value and permanence.

Unfortunately, this metaphor also sums up what it’s like trying to read Freedom itself: there is so much to admire and marvel at in this book – but man, do you ever need to wade through a lot of crap to get to it.

There have been countless summations of Freedom already posted to the web, so I won’t waste time doing another one here. But the story centers around the Berglund family: Walter, the soft-hearted father driven to near insanity by his obsession with overpopulation; Patty, the jock-turned-liberal mother who has an affair on Walter with his best friend, the intermittent rock star Richard Katz; Joey, the son who forsakes his family’s values to move in with his girlfriend Connie and her right-wing family; and Jessica, the relatively level-headed one of the crew who struggles in a low-paying job as a literary fiction editor. The novel is broken up into sections told through various points of view and through various literary devices. Franzen gives us gobs and gobs of background information on several key characters, including Patty, Walter and Richard. While some of these details and side plots are interesting, the majority of them feel like filler and a distraction from the main point of the book.

Indeed, I’m willing to go on record and say that the first 180 pages or so of Freedom could have been cut out completely, or at least substantively chopped down. My issue with this early section is its near-pointless focus on the character of Eliza, Patty’s mentally ill college roommate. Eliza’s sole function in the story, it seems, is to propel Patty into a disastrous infatuation with Richard that eventually leads to Patty deciding to marry Walter instead. Eliza plays no other role beyond that, and her involvement in the subsequent sections of the book is virtually nonexistent. Yet Franzen lingers on Eliza’s character too long, going into far more detail about her life and drug use and (frankly, less-than-believable) obsession with young Patty’s athletic prowess than we as readers really need. I nearly gave up on the novel during this section, and was not surprised when Eliza was summarily dumped from the narrative about a quarter of the way through. But the fact that she is points to Franzen’s inability do anything substantial with her once he created her.

There are other areas like this as well. The lengthy section about Walter’s relationship with his brothers could have been scaled back, as could the background on the middle years of Richard’s music career. There were just too many parts to Freedom that felt like they should have been excised from the manuscript after the first draft.

Now having said all that, the parts of Freedom that are brilliant are truly on par with the very best of American literature. Franzen has a preternatural talent for balancing his themes across multiple characters and multiple subplots until they achieve a kind of freakish literary Zen. In this case, it’s the endless, fascinating play on concepts of personal freedom: from Joey’s early capitalistic endeavours selling jewelry at Connie’s school to Patty's disastrous “creative writing” project and Walter’s bootless attempts to help an endangered bird through corporate means, this novel is constantly, endlessly about the boundaries and limitations of our own ambitions inside a so-called “free country.”

Indeed, Franzen shows tremendous force in revealing the double-edged sword of freedom and what it means at the dawn of the 21st century. It’s mostly a cynical view: that capital-F freedom ultimately means the sacrificing of your children’s future for your own present. This is played out again and again in Freedom. The worst embodiment of this is Patty herself. She constantly undermines and reproaches her children for her own in-the-moment gains, much like her own mother did to her. This is a very personal example of how corrosive freedom can be. Franzen also examines it on a much larger, more political scale: i.e. the Iraq War and the shady profiteering that was part and parcel of it (profiteering that Joey himself – improbably, I felt – gets wrapped up in.)

I think there is a brilliant novel locked somewhere inside Freedom, and it’s too bad that Franzen hadn’t worked harder to liberate (excuse the pun) it from the masses and masses of what ultimately feels like extraneous pages. The gold rings of this book would have shone that much more brightly had he wiped away a lot of the crap that surrounds them.

Four poems published in The Quint

Got word yesterday that the new issue of The Quint (Vol. 2 No.4) has just been published, and it contains four poems from yours truly. Poetry editor Yvonne Trainer originally accepted just one of my poems, "Northumberland Strait", but then ended up asking for some additional pieces from me about a month ago. I'm very pleased to see them there.

This issue is massive and includes a wide range of content. Because The Quint is based out of the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, its focus tends to lean towards Aboriginal or Northern peoples issues. But I was impressed by the range of other topics covered as well - including an essay on Yeats and a number of reviews of books from Canada and aboard.

I was especially impressed by fellow poet Garry Thomas Morse's contribution to the journal, a spiralling, dizzying experimental poem entitled "The Untitled (44)." I strongly recommend you go check it out.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"A holiday from harsh things"

From Howard Jacobson, in an interview he gave shortly after winning the Man Booker Prize last night:

"My job [as a novelist] is not to give people a holiday from harsh things
or the truth."

Here Jacobson was speaking about the difference between comedy/satire in literature and comedy in popular entertainment. But for me, this quote does a great job of summing up the difference overall between literature and pop culture: i.e. one is about illuminating various truths about our reality and perhaps finding creative ways of interpreting or processing them; the other is about escaping various truths about our reality. Very apt.

Here's the full video of Howard Jacobson's interview with The Guardian.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, and a birthday of sorts

Well, the Thanksgiving weekend is upon us here in Canada and I for one am geared up and ready for Sunday/Monday's big dinners. Earlier this evening I purchased a massive fresh turkey and several bottles of Sibling Rivalry white wine, which, if you're curious, goes extremely well with any and all poultry.

Thanksgiving has grown into a sort of grassroots tradition for me, my brother and his wife ever since I moved backed to Canada in 2006. It was that year that the two of them came down from Montreal to visit me when I was living in Guelph and we cooked our very first turkey dinner together - we all felt so grown up! It's funny how something so enjoyable can breed an annual routine just like that, and for the last four years the three of us (as well as friends and other family) have spent everything Thanksgiving together. It helps that the three of us all live in the same apartment building here in Toronto. This year is extra special because my sister, her husband and their little daughter will be visiting from PEI.

I should also mention that Monday will be a special day for me for another reason - it will mark the third anniversary of the release of my novel, Off Book. I'm sure nobody but me is interested in celebrating this, but I think I'll be raising a glass of white wine regardless. So happy early birthday, Off Book. It's been a blast. (And the little bugger continues to sell a few copies every now and then, don't ya know.)


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Girlfriends say the darndest things ...

On last night's dinner:

"I don't know what possessed me to make a clam and tofu curry. And put it in the freezer. And not label it."

- Rebecca Rosenblum, 6 October 2010, 8:30 EST.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Burning House, by Richard Lemm

This is the first of three books I received review copies for from Wolsak and Wynn after the Hamilton-based publisher blurbed my blog on its website back in August. I chose Richard Lemm’s poetry collection Burning House to read first because I feel a certain geographic connection to its author – he lives, writes and teaches in my home province of Prince Edward Island. I also heard very nice things about Lemm from my good buddy Trevor J. Adams, who enlisted his help in compiling the poetry contingent for Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books.

Burning House was not my first exposure to Lemm’s verse. I actually encountered three poems of his in the anthology Crossing Lines: Poets who Came to Canada in the Vietnam War Era, which I read earlier this year. (See my full review of it.) Two of those poems are reprinted in slightly different versions (and one with an entirely different title) in Burning House, and they typify Lemm’s poetic approach: strong, controlled lines and descriptions that bloom with recognition in the reader’s brain. One of those poems, “Hendrix of Arabia”, is a favourite of mine from Burning House. It opens with a sharp, imaginative description of Jimi Hendrix (“Rainbow scarves, peacock shirt, gypsy/ trousers, Robin Hood boots …) and then places him, fantastically, in heart of the Iraq War. The poem weaves in delightful allusions to some of Hendrix’s best-known lyrics, even as it presents Baghdad in the grip of sectarian slaughter. I love the image, “To escort him … past women in the foxholes of their veils.”

War and U.S. imperialism are huge preoccupations for Lemm, which makes sense considering that he came to Canada from Seattle during the height of America’s aggression in Vietnam. The ‘burning house’ behind this collection could be seen as America itself – a place Lemm may have once considered a loving home but is now engulfed in the flaming obsessions of conflict and conquest. It’s a dual image that the poet balances well – memories of idyllic childhood counterbalanced with all that is wrong with modern-day America. I must admit: at first blush I was tempted to see the images in the former category as what someone of my generation might call PBBN (Pointless Baby Boomer Nostalgia); but Lemm proves himself too talented, too multifarious to give in to such maudlin temptations. Each reminiscence in Burning House contributes to and enriches the broader, unifying themes that hold the collection together.

Plus, there’s a lot of fun to be had in this book, too. I absolutely love it when Lemm embraces his more whimsical side, in poems like “Retribution” (told from the perspective of one of Hannibal’s elephants), “In the Vincent Price Room, Journey’s End” (a poem about an undertakers’ convention in Charlottetown) and, of course, “Hendrix in Arabia.” These poems do a great job of lightening the collection’s mood without undermining its broader, headier themes.

When it comes to Richard Lemm and his poetry, America’s loss is Canada’s gain. With Burning House, he solidifies his place among Acorn, Helwig, MacDonald and Steinfeld as one of PEI’s strongest poetic voices.