Friday, January 04, 2008

Off To A Flying Start

My workload has been light this week (one class, 6-7:40 pm) and Mr. Bybee flew back to the US (mother, broken hip) so I've had a lot of time to read and blog. I'm also watching season 1 of Carnivale -- got inspired to watch it after reading the excellent Water For Elephants, which also takes place during the Depression. I guess I just wanted to linger in that kind of shabby but magical world just a little bit longer.

Anyway, Hello, 2008! I'm here with a vengeance! Here's what I've read so far:

1. We Are All Fine Here - Mary Guterson. When Nancy at Bookfoolery and Babble reviewed this book last May, I knew I was going to love it. Imagine my pissed-offness when I couldn't find it during my US book-buying binge. Miraculously, somehow Mary Guterson found out, and sent me a copy of her novel. It arrived the day after Christmas.

I was right; I do love We Are All Fine Here. If this review seems a little disorganized or incoherent (or, God forbid -- both!) it's just because I enjoyed it so much and I fear being trite. But anyway.

Julia, the heroine of We Are All Fine Here, is snarky, negative, has a very dark sense of humor, has a great deal of clarity, yet she just kind of lets herself be pulled along her life by circumstance. My kind of heroine. Julia won my heart with her ambivalent attitude about work, which closely mirrors my own at times:

"After the Oregon trip, I'm in no mood to work. I'd like to be able to say that my lack of motivation is unusual. In truth, the fact that I am actually expected to perform some sort of work when I show up at work is one of those things I've never been able to come to grips with."

And this paragraph had me laughing uncontrollably because I'm in Korea and there's nothing but mountains surrounding me as well as Koreans knocking each down to scramble up them at a breakneck pace on weekends:

"In my former Ray-life (Ray being her quintessential asshole ex-boyfriend) I tried to be outdoorsy, too. But I never really cared for any of it. Some people would rather look at mountains than climb them. Some people don't even mind if the mountain they are looking at is only a picture of a mountain. Those would be my kind of people."

During the course of the novel, there are 5 multiple-choice "relationship tests". They're hilarious. I found myself answering what I thought Julia's answer might be, then answering for myself.

A brief synopsis of the story: Julia had been married for 15 years, had a son almost exactly as old as her marriage, and she's still stuck on Ray, her old college boyfriend. This is not entirely Julia's fault. Ray plays her like a fiddle, calling her up drunk and saying he still loves her, developing amnesia as the booze wears off, carrying pictures of her in his wallet, and always asking her "When are you going to leave that guy?" meaning her husband. If anyone ever needed to be told to hasten down the wind, it would be Ray.

Julia and Ray sneak off and attend the wedding of two of their friends, and end up having sex in the bathroom. The next weekend, Julia's husband Jim decides to take her for a weekend getaway. A few weeks later, Julia realizes she's pregnant. Ray or Jim?

This story could have been a horrible, maudlin mess in the hands of a different author, a more earnest author, if you know what I mean. Guterson keeps it sharp. The length of the novel is perfect, too, coming in at just barely 200 pages. In many ways, Guterson reminds me of Lorrie Moore, which is the biggest compliment I can bestow. Both authors have superb control going from humor to crisis and back again, and sometimes, both at once. I hope Mary Guterson is hard at work on her second novel, because I'm going to read it.

One thing I did find startling: There's a reader's guide at the back of the book. My first thought was that the sight of it would make Julia hoot derisively.

2. The Book Of Proper Names -Amelie Nothomb. Although this novel is really short -- 126 pages -- the covers are too far apart. Give me back my time! This is the story of Plectrude, an orphan raised by her aunt after her mother kills her father when she's 8 months pregnant. The mother goes to prison, has the baby, hangs that unfortunate moniker on the girl-child, then hangs herself.

Encouraged by her aunt, Plectrude follows her childhood dream to become a ballerina, a dream that is darkened and finally obliterated by the nightmare of anorexia, which is actually encouraged by the prestigious ballet school in Paris that Plectrude attends. This part of the novel was more interesting, and I really thought Nothomb was leading up to a brilliant finish. No such luck..

The ending of the novel is tacked-on and stupid-absurd, and the whole thing, from start to finish is told in a sprightly and precious let's-listen-to-a fable tone that alternately annoyed and bored me, and worse yet, brought back bad memories of The Witch Of Portobello. I read this as part of a Bookcrossing bookring, and I can't wait to ship it off. My high-school French is rusty, but I remember this: Quelle merde.

3. Scoundrels and Scallywags: Characters From Alberta's Past - Brian Brennan. This has been on my TBR shelf since last spring, when Baldy gave it to me. If I'd been more cognizant of what I've been stockpiling, this would've worked really beautifully, doing double-duty for both The Canadian Book Challenge AND the In Their Shoes Challenge.

Brennan's book consists of 40 short biographies of Albertans who are infamous in one way or another. There are plenty of scoundrels like bank robbers and murderers, but Brennan explains in the introduction that he's using "Scallywag" as a synonym for "unconventional". No matter what, it just doesn't seem like the right word for, among others, an Edmonton alderwoman, a town crier, a septuagenarian jogger or a reluctant earl who quit his castle in England for a ranch in Calgary. I guess Brian Brennan was in the grip of alliteration and couldn't break free.

The title's just a minor gripe. Otherwise, nothing but praise for this book, which brings to life a plethora of characters dating back from the early 1800s to the present day. I was only familiar with two of the people, the above mentioned reluctant earl, Fred Perceval, and professional wrestler Owen Hart, whose tragic death occurred in Kansas City, not far from where I lived.

Other memorable characters include a Calgary brothel owner from the 1930s named Pearl Miller who allegedly inspired WWII soldiers to respond to the American slogan, "Remember Pearl Harbor!" with: "To hell with Pearl Harbour, remember Pearl Miller!" Another character was Wild Bill Peyto, (he's on the cover of the book) who shaved with a hunting knife and "once let a lynx loose in a saloon to see how quickly the drunken patrons could escape."

In politics, there was Edmonton's Fred Speed, who ran for public office repeatedly but always came out on bottom, and in sports, there was Harold "Goofy" McMasters who "turned defeat into an art form." McMasters set the tone for his career right at the beginning: In his debut match, "he tried to enter the ring by jumping over the ropes, caught his foot in a turnbuckle, and plunged headfirst into a water bucket, knocking himself out cold." Brennan wrote, "Goofy didn't just lose his bouts, he bombed in dramatic fashion... He had one knockout during his career, but unfortunately, it was a spectator rather than his opponent."

Of the scoundrels, the most memorable is Blackie Audett, an outlaw from near Fort MacLeod, who escaped Canadian prisons numerous times, went down to the United States, consorted with the most notorious gangsters of the day such as John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, and repeated his escape artistry to the consternation of American law enforcement.

An earlier outlaw was thief and murderer Ernest Cashel, (1882-1904). Cashel was also gifted at escaping, but he was finally captured and went to the gallows at 21, blaming his bad ways on the dime novels he'd devoured as a young boy.

I really enjoyed getting to know these quirky characters while learning a little about Canadian history. The index is impressive in that it's organized 3 ways: by name, by city and by category e.g., Crime, Eccentrics, Law, Scandal... Scoundrels and Scallywags is a delightful read; if you know someone in Alberta, persuade them to pick up a copy for you.

Well, back to reading now. I started Travels With Charley. In his Great Wednesday Compare, John at The Book Mine Set has pitted Charles Dickens against John Steinbeck. Guess who I voted for?


Lisa said...

Wow, this is pretty impressive since 2008 is not even a week old, yet! I enjoy reading your reviews. You always make me laugh. Have a great 2008!!

kookie said...

Thanks for the heads up on the Nothomb book. That one has been on my list I know I can move it further down the list without missing out. Appreciate that! :)

John Mutford said...

Most of our wild west stories come from the U.S., so it's nice that the Albertans are representin'!

Eva said...

I loved Travels With Charley! Almost made me want to get a big poodle, lol.

lazy cow said...

Cannot get into anything yet, must be the heat.
My favourite passage from We are all fine here is where Julia is talking about being a widow. That cracked me up (and haven't most of us thought the same thing on occasion - or is that just me?)

Bybee said...

I'm surprising even myself!

I feel as if I've performed a public service.

That book is a gem!

I know what you mean. I love the way Steinbeck describes the poodle and the way Charley goes "fft" when he's hungry or needs to go out.

The widow part was so dead-on true and made me laugh as well, but everyone quotes that part, so I left it out.

Jill ONeill said...

Three books in less than 7 days is downright intimidating to your idle readers. But I snickered at the bad review of The Book of Proper Names. Delightful snark is always invigorating!

lazy cow said...

Hey Bybee, can't find an email address for you so I'm answering your question here: the title is He died with a felafel in his hand by John Birmingham. Haven't read it, but my husband has and found it funny. A movie was made of it too.

Bybee said...

It's more fun to snark, gotta admit.

Thanks for your help! My email's on my profile, btw.

A screenplay of this novel seems like a daunting task, but could only make it better.

Melwyk said...

I agree with your analysis of Nothomb's book. I just read her latest, Sulphuric Acid, giving her another chance. Don't bother.

The Alberta book sounds like fun reading; that's where my parents live, maybe I can send them on a mission...

Dewey said...

I hope Mrs Bybee-in-law will be ok!