December 4th, 2014

Co-habitational reading challenge: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

My husband and I have lots of literary tastes in common and we’ve read plenty of the same books, but there’s an especial pleasure of reading the same book at the same time–it’s always exciting to sit down at dinner and say, “What bit are you at? What did you think about the part where…?” and know you’re both thinking about the same stuff.

So Mark Sampson and I try to sync our reading at least once a year. In the past, we’ve done rereads of books we’ve respectively loved and wanted to experience together (here’s the tag if you want to go back in time, though the posts are weirdly out of order). This year we wanted to read something new together, and chose kind of at random from the Giller Prize 2014 shortlist (what, they all looked good).

The book we wound up with was Heather O’Neill‘s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, mainly because we both got a hold of copies around the same time. But also it was a book we both hoped to love, as we had both adored O’Neill’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals a few years back.

My love of O’Neill’s writing goes back even further, to a wondrous column she used to write that no one seems to have read, in Broken Pencil, called “Goldstein on Goldstein” (I believe there was an earlier incarnation of the column written by Jonathan Goldstein, and they just never bothered changing the name when she took over). I’ve gotten so blank stares when I mentioned her good old “Goldstein on Goldstein” days that I resolved that I wouldn’t include it here unless I could find an online archive to prove I’m not crazy. And I did. And you should read’em, they are great.

To the book at hand: TGWWSN had a lot of the same everyday poetry to the language and rootedness in Montreal poverty that I loved about her column and her first book. It is narrated  from the point of view of Nouschka Tremblay. She is the daughter of a Quebecois folksinger, long loved for his quirky songs about things like an elephant with a peanut up its nose and his of-the-people style. But he did knock up a 14-year-old girl in rural Quebec and brought into being Nouschka and her twin brother Nicholas. The senior Tremblay abandoned the twins with their mother and she, in term, took them to their paternal grandparents and never came back. After the grandmother’s passing, they were raised by Etienne’s senile father, Loulou.

Whew–that’s a lot of setup. But it works, quite well, actually. It was amazing how Etienne’s localized celebrity–he is unknown to people outside Quebec and perhaps Anglos anywhere–seems completely realistic. It felt totally possibly that he actually existed, and I didn’t know it–the way people sang his songs in their wanderings and recognized him on the street, the way he go mixed up in the cause of Separatism without every really being that interested.

Lots of the press and bumpf about this novel consider the referendum a part of the events, but it isn’t really–it’s simply an ingenious way of grounding the TGWWSN concretely in time and place. It feels so specific, so exactly where it seeks to be–really brilliant on the author’s part. But this is not more a political novel than LFLC–politics might be architecture, or the weather. It is what it is.

Oh, and plot–there isn’t one for, in my estimation, more than half the book. Maybe Nouschka and Nicholas are too claustrophobically close, lost in their own twin-world, sleeping in the same bed (O’Neill very determinedly tries to make this not creepy and succeeds, barely). Maybe they need to find their mother. Maybe Nouschka needs to get a good job and get out of the fatalistic poverty in which her brother and grandfather live.

None of these are quite plot worthy, but we do gradually see the stakes rise (at the beginning of the book, with the twins noodling around their neighbourhood, the plot level felt dangerously close to nil. Nicholas becomes more self-destructive and Nouschka does her own bit on that front, by hooking up with, and then marrying (at 20!) the strange and disturbed Rafael. Things happen, the risk is real, and I got more gripped by the story in the final third. I don’t want to say I had been bored earlier–O’Neill’s gorgeous prose and my love of the quotidian kept boredom at bay, but I did wonder when something would, you know, happen.

In the last 50 or so pages EVERYTHING happens, so I guess that answered that. I ended the read a bit shell-shocked–it’s rare that a book feels both overlong and too tumultuous. But I don’t know that it was actually too anything–it simply wasn’t what I was expecting.

Even the more querulous complaints I had about the book were more questions than anything–from what point in her life was Nouschka reflecting on these events? The narrator is clearly not in the same time period as the protagonist–she keeps saying things like “I was so young” but you never find out where this narrator-Nouschka went in her life or how things turned out, or what called her to tell her story in this way. I was disappointed, but I do overthink things.

I also wondered how to think about a book written in English about characters who make a point of speaking only in French–who in fact distrust Anglos and are mystified by them. There’s many wondrous turn of phrase in this book, but they would all be completely different in another language. I wasn’t sure what to make of that, really–do you know?

And finally, the cats–they turn up every dozen or so pages, but I didn’t know why. Yes, I like cats and it makes me happy to see them in books, but there never seemed to be any point to them. Many of the cats belong to neighbours or are street cats, but Nouschka refers once to having cats of her family’s own, and then never again. No one had a relationship with any of the cats, just cutesy little descriptions that I actually really didn’t like. But again, I overthink things, especially things to do with cats.

I don’t have a letter or number grade for this book but I really enjoyed reading it and think Heather O’Neill is a wonderful writer despite the fact I didn’t like everything about this book. I also really loved reading the book with my husband (for his take on the experience, see here). It’s great to share a book in this way–a highly recommended experiment, whatever you like to read.


January 24th, 2013

The Co-habitational Reading Challenge #2: Wrap up

So I finished *The Information* and it was devastatingly sad and grimly ironic and brilliantly written–you guys already know I love this book. I probably shouldn’t have left it to the end, but I do have to address the one really problematic aspect in the novel, and that’s the portrayal of women.

I think there’s some rumours going around about Amis being anti-woman, misogynist, what-have-you. I usually don’t give too much attention, because a good book with creditable characters and a plot that affects me is much more valuable than political correctness. And Amis *can* draw a creditable, even sympathetic and interesting female character–the problem is he chooses to draw pretty much exclusively the worst of the feminine race–Gwynn’s wife, Demi, is depressingly familiar as a sweet nitwit whose husband doesn’t respect her; his and Richard’s shared agent, Gal, is familiar too as successful striver with a desperate fear of getting fat and an unexpected slutty streak. Lizette the teenaged babysitter lives only to give her boyfriend blow jobs in cars, and Belladonna the crazed fan just has sex with anyone who asks.

Amis is usually too subtle to write bad caricatures of simplistic female ciphers. He writes fully fledged women who can imagine meeting, though you’d probably try to avoid them. The only female in the novel who seems to have a braincell and be worth talking to is Gina, Richard’s wife. Unfortunately, she is one of the least believeable characters in the novel–written as a black box, because that’s what she is to Richard, I had no idea why she did anything she did, or what she truly felt about anything else anyone did. She seemed smart, but she did some questionable things–or did Richard just think she did? Or was she a woefully inconsistent character? I have no idea, and honestly, I didn’t care at all about Gina–she wasn’t human enough to worry me, even though the narration alleges that she’s much more sympathetic than Richard.

Well, who cares, right? This is a novel about men and what they do to each other–the women are only collateral damage. A few lame female characters does not really disrupt that. The only character I can really complain about is Anstice. A vicious parody or outrageous stereotype–take your pick–Anstice is the 44-year-old administrative assistant at Richard’s literary magazine. When she takes him to bed with her, he’s impotent, but Anstice–clearly a pathetic and elderly virgin–thinks his fumbling *is* sex and talks for the rest of the novel about his “hugeness” in her. She also melodramatically plots suicide since Richard is married and cannot be with her.

And then she kills herself.

And that’s it! It!! Don’t worry that I’m giving something away about the plot, but Anstice’s suicide is utterly immaterial to anything. There’s an incidental comment that this has happened, and then Anstice is simply absent–first conveniently, then inconveniently–for the rest of the novel.

This is, of course, supposed to be evidence of Richard’s immorality, lack of human emotion and empathy. And it is, repellantly.

The problem is not that no one cares that Anstice is dead-it’s that she was never a real character to begin with. She is a spinster, as Richard thinks and comments over and over again, and so alone in the world the doesn’t even bother to clean herself or her apartment. She not only doesn’t know how sex works, she’s weirdly over-confident enough to talk about her one non-sex experience constantly. And she has other no other characteristics, interests, or associations. She’s just a weird sad pastiche of what both men and women fear most about women.

I’m sorry to go on and on about this–women truly are a small part of the novel and the actual story is populated by fascinating horrible males–the whole book is about wretched people, but I just feel the wretchedness is far more accurate and active in the dudes than in the ladies. And Anstice is a bridge to far for me.

Nevertheless, I loved the book and again apologize for ending the series with this post, which is not representative of my feelings overall. Still, it had to be said.

It was a pleasure reading with Mark, who has now moved on to a new rereading project with James Joyce’s *Ulysses.* I won’t be joining for that one, but cheering from the sidelines.

August 11th, 2011

Update on the Co-habitational Reading Challenge

Well, Mark and I do agree that Irving is starting to rely more heavily on contrivances to make the plot work, but who cares when it is so funny? I was lagging behind in the reading, so when Mark was chortling away at my favourite scene in the book–the Christmas Pageant, of course–I wasn’t there yet and he couldn’t read to me. So when I finally got there, he made me read it to him, though he’d just read it to himself an hour before. So great, at few places I couldn’t speak, I was laughing so hard (mainly to do with the cows and donkeys). The kitten seemed to enjoy the read-aloud too; at least, he fell asleep without biting anyone, which is positive for him.

I’ve also been carrying the book around town and mentioning that we’re reading it, and reactions are always the same–everyone’s read this book, and everyone loves it. How amazing! My reading tastes aren’t avant-garde or anything, but I’m usually reading something most people haven’t heard of, or have *only* heard of but not read. It’s a rare pleasure to be able to have a fairly in-depth conversation about my current read with almost everyone.

A few people have made comments on how neatly Irving straddles the literary/commercial fiction line. One friend put it most succinctly when she said it wasn’t stressful to read, but she didn’t feel dumber afterwards. Actually, when I stop to analyze, I find the book pretty complex, especially th222222222 (kitten interference) the time structure. But as I read happily along, I’d don’t usually think about structure–I think about Owen, Johnny, Tabby and Dan, Grandmother Wheelwright, Lydia and Ethel and Germaine, and all the rest of them.

August 7th, 2011

The Co-habitational Reading Challenge

My partner, Mark, and I are both writers and voracious readers; we say, “What did you read today?” with the same frequency as weather commentary or requests for popsicles (near constant at my house). It’s obviously a much livelier conversation if the other person has read the book you’re commenting on; there’s only so much I can contribute to rantings or ravings if said comments are my only information on the book.

We’ve read a lot of the same material, but not hardly a majority. One book we both loved long ago was A Prayer for Owen Meany, but sadly now we forget a lot about it. The moving-in process has given us two copies of the novel, so we’ve decided to both reread simultaneously–hopefully the book is as a good as we remember, but either way we’ll get some good book chats out of it.

We’ll try to post the recaps of said chats, and invite any who likes to play along at home, either by (re)reading Owen and sharing your own thoughts on the novel, or by reading any book at all in tandem with your house-mate, and seeing how the conversations go.

Happy book-talking!

January 9th, 2013

Next: 2013

Some years I have a full complement of serious, specific resolutions; some years I have almost none. This year is…somewhere in between.

1) Read awesomely. Gotta start with the easy ones. Though I’ll leave off with the To Be Read Challenge after I finish the 2012 books (in a couple months, sigh) I don’t think I’ll abandon program reading–it’s fun and gives me a structure to work in. My last post was the first installment of awesome reading will be the Cohabitational Reading Challenge, wherein my beloved and read the same book, talk about it at meals, and blog about it. I’ll also be continuing with my super-great book club, and trying to make full use of my Kobo.

2) Cook everything in the Milk Calandar, preferably in the month in which the recipe appears. Also cook other new things–stop being culinarily boring/lazy.

3) Start writing fan letters to musicians, artists, writers, filmmakers, and maybe others that I like. I’m not above a “you suck and here’s why” note, as well, but largely I’d like to keep this resolution positive. I’ll post these as open letters on my blog as well–when someone is awesome at what they do, I think it’s worth spreading the news.

4) Finish a complete draft of my current book. That one seems really daunting, but originally I was supposed to finish it at the end of *last* year, so really, I should be able to manage it.

5) Don’t eat it just because it’s a cookie. There will be other cookies. Not all cookies need to be eaten.

January 8th, 2013

Cohabitational Reading Project 2: The Information, by Martin Amis

Longtime readers will recall that after we moved in together, my now-husband and I thought it might be charming to read the same book at the same time–dinner table and long drive conversation fodder. We also thought it would be cool to revisit books we had read separately in our unformed youth, the reassess their merits in the cold hard light of maturity (ha!)

The first read was A Prayer for Owen Meaney last summer. This winter’s read is The Information by Martin Amis.

Some background: I first read the book as an 18-year-old naif on my first (and so far only) trip to Europe, pretty shortly after it came out. Like anything cool I read in those days, a member of my family had hand-picked it for me–in this case, my younger brother, though my mom ended up reading it too so we could all discuss. Making the original read “cohabitational,” too, though I was technically on another continent for a chunk of it.

Reading the first few chapters, I am stunned at how much I liked the both in my naif-hood–how did I even know what was going on? This is an extremely cynical, caustic book, and if you think I’m saccharine now, you should’ve seen me on that art-student trip I’d waitressed so many hours for, off to see instructive European art and not drink any alcohol or talk to strangers.

*The Information*’s protagonist is Richard Tull, a novelist with 2 published novels behind him and 3.5 unpublished. He also works at a vanity press 1 day a week, and is an indifferent husband to Gina and father to small twin boys Marius and Marco. He’s also a terrible person, constantly drunk, taking any drug he can find, financially dependent on his wife, adultrous, and mean. His “oldest and stupidest friend,” Gwynn has in the past few years decided he wants to be a novelist too, and been monstrously successful at it.

Richard’s failure as a writer coupled with Gwynn’s success coupled with Richard’s general loathesomeness means that he is undone by Gwynn’s success. He actually strikes one of his little boys upon finding out that Gwynn’s second novel is on the bestseller list. He sets out, amid the ruins of his own career and his marginally less ruined life, to “fuck Gwynn up.”

I’m not accurately portraying how *funny* this all is–Richard’s loserishness and self-pity, Gwynn’s self-aggrandizement, the always looming spectre of London weirdness that pervades all of Amis’s writing–so much fun to read.

Of course, when I was 18, it barely even registered that these men were writers. To me, they were just old people doing stupid stuff. I wrote all the time, too, and even published a few things in high school, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer or having anything in common with these deluded gents.

Now, of course, I realize I’m only a few years younger than Gwynn and Richard, who both turn 40 in the first few chapters. I know all about little magazines, slush piles, vanity presses, agents, advances, PLR, and all the other writerly in-jokes Amis makes. I wonder what I was laughing at before, because despite the dreadful earnestness of me in my youth, I did realize the information was supposed to be funny.

Probably it’s the narration–Amis makes very VERY good on Thoreau’s comment that it is always the first person that is speaking. The narrator wanders the line between writing the book and living in it, and at this point in the narrative we aren’t sure how real the characters are to each other. As a youth, I was obsessed with narrative devices (no, I didn’t date a lot, actually) and this was and is one of my favourites.

But I’m not even 100 pages in and a *lot* more happens, I know. In fact, Mark’s already written a kickoff post and an update, and is out in the living room reading right now.

Have you read *The Information*? Do you read along with your co-locataires? Feel free to share experiences in the comments!

August 23rd, 2011

The End of the Cohabitational Reading Project

Mark has really covered the wrap of the Cohabitational Reading Project: the boredom, the improbability, the strangely tepid wind-down of over 600 pages. The second half–well, latter two-thirds, really–of this book reads like a sad sophmore follow-up to a brilliant first novel. Only in this case, the “first” novel is part of the same book. The beginning of Owen Meany really is wonderful and deserving of much praise. I had wondered why I remembered the early bits 10 years later with such vibrancy, but couldn’t recall anything from the later sections. It turned out I remembered the good stuff.

On the topic of the Project itself–good fun. I did sometimes feel bad when M was 50 pages ahead of me and urging me to catch up when I wanted to nap, but by and large it was really nice to be sharing the experience and talking it over every day. I think we’re both happy to be choosing our own reading matters for the next little while, but I’m sure while try a sequel CRP at some point.

Anyone who has thoughts or opinions on Owen Meany, John Irving, reading with your partner, etc., feel free to share!

August 17th, 2011


Addendum to Myths of the Full-Time Writer
Myth #5: If I’m free during the day, I’ll run all my errands during the quietest times in stores, banks, post offices, etc., and save tonnes of time. Nope. As it turns out, the stores and banks aren’t empty at 10am–they aren’t packed, but they are populated with another breed of people–people who are self-aware enough to know they are inefficient, annoying shoppers, and are trying to stay out of the way of the busy 9-to-5ers. These folks include people in wheelchairs and scooters (very hard to navigate in the narrow aisles of urban grocery stores, inevitably snagged on half-a-dozen things before they hit the dairy case); parents with small children (who are hard to navigate, period, and inevitably want to push their own strollers directly into the bread shelves and then stand in front of it, wailing); people who do not speak English but have a complicated transaction they need to request at the bank; shut-ins hoping for an in-depth conversation about current events with the bank teller; and people for whom simple tasks like remembering one’s PIN or selecting a yam are deeply unsettling and hard.

These people try to do us a favour by shopping at 10am, and I found that if I showed up at the grocery store also at 10am, I had to forbid myself from impatiently rolling my eyes at the lone parent completely outnumbered and overwhelmed by her children, who let them throw bananas on the floor because who could stop them. I didn’t cough aggressively at people who had *no idea* their credit cards had chips in them, and I never once glared (I don’t think) at someone who was simply standing in the middle of a crowded thoroughfare, blinking at the sky.

The daytime is for shoppers for whom efficiency is not the first priority, if indeed it’s even on the list of priorities. It’s wrong to bother those people when they try to avoid the crowded times, just like it would be wrong for them to show up at the post office at 5:30 and ask the pros and cons of bubble wrap vs. a padded envelope. You can run errands during the day if you want (I did, just to get out of the house), but it won’t save you much time.

Addendum to The Cohabitational Reading Challenge We both agree that *A Prayer for Owen Meany* falls off a bit in the second half, though I think, for a while at least, I was more dysphoric than Mark about the whole thing. I really love the high-school lit class discussions of *Tess of the D’Urbervilles* and *The Great Gatsby,* because I love a good close reading. But if you don’t, then those passages aren’t very well integrated and are too long–not good novel writing, even if good literary criticism. They exist mainly to unsubtly instruct the reader on how to read Irving’s own novel. Nick Carraway anyone? Ugh. I think Irving is a fine writer and deserving of respect, but no, not deserving of comparison with Fitzgerald. Yucky that he would suggest it, in my opinion.

In vaguely related news, I’ve ripped the cover partways off my copy, ensuring that Mark’s copy will be the one we keep. If you need a paperback of *Owen Meany* and don’t mind a ripped cover, I can get you one in about a week–for keepers!

August 8th, 2011

What’s Happening

Saturday: The Big Dream received its first review, in Publishers Weekly and it was good! I am hoping this starts a trend!

Sunday: Mark and I had our first Co-habitational Reading Challenge chat about Owen Meaney. We tried to record it for you, but it turned out the batteries in the recorder, *and* the spare batteries in the drawer were dead (???) I blame the kitten. Anyway, we’re both really loving the book this time round, which is a relief since it’s awfully long. We both love nervous, OCD Owen and his all-caps diction, and the way Irving is in such complete control of his narrative that it can swoop and dive in time and the reader never gets lost. I also have a soft spot for crotchety Grandmother Wheelwright (“it’s that boy again!”)

Monday (that’s today!): I am reading at the Toronto launch of the Fiddlehead fiction issue, tonight at the Dora Keogh on the Danforth. Mark Jarman, Leon Rooke, Kathleen Brown, and yours truly–so excited.

Thursday August 25: Jeff Bursey is launching his new novel at Type Books, and Mark and I are reading too. This will probably be my last reading before TBD launches, so I’ll probably read from *Once*–I haven’t in ages–for old time’s sakes.

What more could you ask from August? Well, actually, one of my most beloved-est friends is getting married on Sunday and I am maid-of-honouring it up, so this week may well be a write-off, writing-wise–there may be a mini-break in the blogging in order to attend rehearsal dinner, hair appointments, and sundry other fun frivolity. If someone takes a picture of me in my adorable be-crinolined purple dress and I don’t look insane, I promise to post it.

So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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