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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

Fall 2021 Reads - Part One

Nick Hornby, Just Like You

Dakshana Bascaramurty, This is Not the End of Me

Miriam Toews, Fight Night

Richard Scarsbrook, The Troupers

Nick Hornby, Just Like You

I give Nick Hornby a lot of slack because his first novel, High Fidelity, was such a joy to read. And then it got made into a movie that was a joy to watch. Ditto with About a Boy. So if he’s published something new, I’m interested. Let’s be honest, though. Not all his titles are winners. Sorry, people, this is one of those non-winners. The idea is sweet and good, but truly, I think there are only so many times you can write the same love story.

Just Like You is told in two voices: Lucy, a white forty-two year-old recently divorced mother of two, and Joseph, a Black twenty-two year-old soccer ref, football coach and butcher shop employee. The story is told in the year leading up to 2016’s Brexit referendum in the U.K. Lucy meets Joseph when visiting the butcher shop on a Saturday morning to purchase bougie artisanale-y expensive meat. He enters into her personal life by agreeing to babysit her children so she can go out on a date with a well renowned writer (insert “her own age” here). There is a kind of chemistry between Joseph and Lucy, but I must confess to you that it isn’t so much suggested or even explored as it is assumed. Lucy’s frenemy Emma is fond of objectifying Joseph (whom she insists on calling “Joe” in one of the book’s many examples of what microaggression looks like), winking horribly at him and making cougar-style suggestive comments. But it’s a bit of a surprise when we learn that, yes indeed, Joseph and Lucy kind of have the hots for each other.

It must be acknowledged that Joseph is a Black character and Hornby is a white writer. And that in many cases, white writers attempting to create the voice of a person of colour in their work is, well, fraught. Joseph’s “Blackness” isn’t exactly convincing, and I could never really put my finger on why. He is so different from Lucy in so many ways - working class to her middle class, young to her old(er), male to her female - that race is not the only thing that gets in the way of their romance. At the same time, it is so clear in the writing that Hornby understands Lucy’s very essence, that he is familiar with her type and is well capable of skewering her middle class values and blind liberalism. Joseph, as a character, feels a bit more tentative, a bit less defined, and this seems a disservice to him and his perspective.

It is true that I finished this book, and found it overall to be a pleasurable reading experience: then again, Nick Hornby fans already know how much he believes in the power and perseverance of true love. Here, the political contextualizing never quite lands, and that is a problem.

Kevin Lambert, You Will Love What You Have Killed

Man, this is a freaky little book. Set in Chicoutimi Quebec and partly narrated, autofiction- style, by “Faldistoire” a proudly gay and defiant citizen in a town that prefers its populace to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

The story switches narrative focus and time periods frequently, and is deeply confusing. It is at first about children in the second grade, classmates of Faldistoire’s, but they all seem so wise and articulate for eight-year olds. From there, it delves into reporting on a series of tragic, destructive events that traumatize children. Many children die in a series of increasingly horrifying accidents; they return as ghosts to the town that destroyed them, living out their lives as ghosts (kind of?) alongside living family and community members.

The children ultimately exact revenge in a spectacular way, but up until that point in the story, a very straightforward narration is used to describe extraordinary violence and harm. The crime of the people of Chicoutimi, Faldistoire makes clear, is their willingness to look away from their own crimes against children, to create a banal facade for their own ignorance.

The richness of Lambert’s description (even in translation) is so compelling that I found myself absolutely riveted by this grotesque tale. It is not for the reader who likes a straightforward plot, but that’s not any of you folks, right?

Dakshana Bascaramurty, This is Not the End of Me

This is a biography about a man dying of cancer. Dakshana Bascaramurty, a journalist, met the subject of her book, Layton Reid, when she hired him as a wedding photographer. They experience an instant rapport on that day, but part ways when Bascaramurty heads back to Toronto and Reid returns to his home in Halifax. A year later she receives an email from Reid, who has reached out to a few former clients with the news of his recent melanoma diagnosis, and a request for reviews of his photography services, anticipating a break from his job while he undergoes treatment.

Bascaramurty writes the review, but also flies out to Reid’s home, initially to support him. Ultimately she spends long periods of time with him and his family, observing his treatment process, and befriending his wife Candace and young son Finn.

It’s odd that she does this for someone she doesn’t know all that well. I don’t think that she intended to stay as long or as often as she did, nor did she intend to turn the experience into a book. Layton’s struggle to accept his illness is so thoroughly documented as to recreate the paradox of feeling both intense trauma and endless boredom of living through a situation like this. That is not an easy feeling to convey.

Reid’s primary motivation is to stay alive long for his newborn son Finn. He undertakes a gruelling, unproven and potentially dangerous treatment plan called “Gerson Therapy” that involves imbibing homemade juices hourly and five coffee enemas a day. The plan requires an unbelievable amount of time and preparation, and its weirdness (“Coffee enemas are the primary method of detoxification of the tissues and blood on the Gerson Therapy™, always taken in-ratio with the daily volume of juice”) speaks to how desperately Reid wanted to stay alive. It’s hard for me to imagine believing the plan could work.

Ultimately Reid’s cancer spreads to his brain, and there are no treatment options left. It is during this time that he seems to make peace with his mortality. He commits to creating a box of memorabilia for his son. He begins to write public posts on social media, sharing his experiences and feelings. He is creating a legacy.

Overall the book is intensely readable, but it is not nuanced or subtle, and I wonder if this is because its writer is a journalist. There are many excerpts of Reid’s writing included, and their narrative style and tone stands out in its difference from Bascaramurty’s, reminding us that, in the midst of the lengthy and multitudinous details of illness and challenge, there is a human being with genuine, terrible emotions that need to be worked through. His voice stands out. His voice is haunting.

Honestly, as much as this is an important and compelling read, I’m not sure I recommend it if you are a person who has had cancer or lost someone you love to cancer. The details are relentless, and from the beginning you know that Reid does not survive. The level of realness is high, and does not allow you to ignore or escape from knowing that your own death awaits somewhere down the line.

Miriam Toews, Fight Night

Oh, Lord. Miriam Toews. What a singular voice! I can think of no other writer this popular who has created such wise and memorable characters, all of whom speak like crass teenagers. Sometimes they are crass teenagers (A Complicated Kindness), but more often they are merely weird outsiders on the run from their religious upbringing. Always women, always former Mennonites, they struggle to understand the emotional pain of the human condition, the paradox of religious belief which is meant to provide comfort but is more often a tool of oppression.

Swiv, the nine year old narrator of Fight Night, does not attend school because of some never explained but clearly significant kid-to-kid conflict that caused her to be expelled. The teacher in me found this detail implausible. It would take a lot for a nine year old to be kicked out of school, especially a sweet, smart and clearly traumatized one like Swiv. Instead she is homeschooled by her grandmother, the formidable Elvira. They share their Toronto house with Swiv’s mother, Mooshie, an actor who is in the third trimester of pregnancy and whose husband has recently left her. Fight Night serves as Swiv’s letter to her absent father, though he is so very absent that I pretty much completely forgot about him. I’m sure this is by design. All three characters, Swiv, Elvira, and Mooshie, are suspended in a state of grief over the loss of Elvira’s husband and daughter to suicide.

Technically Elvira has moved in with Swiv and Mooshie to take care of them both, but Elvira is elderly and not exactly in good health. Swiv is responsible for helping her bathe, ensuring she gets her medication when she needs it, and eventually, travelling with Elvira to Fresno to visit distant family members. It’s an astonishing act of neglect, if you ask me, for Mooshie to allow her daughter to travel across an international border by airplane with her clearly very ill grandmother. This section of the book reads like an absurd play, a tragic comedy of errors. Elvira’s extraordinary good naturedness cannot repair her failing heart, and Swiv’s intense anxiety shines through her mask of irony. Fans of Toews’ writing will recognize this tone, the undercurrent of anguish standing out in stark contrast to goofy reality. This second half of the book is much more driven by action and suspense. Like Swiv, we are desperate to see Elvira stay well and entertained by her joyful antics. Having broken her arm in an unexpected fall while visiting a friend in a Fresno nursing home, Elvira tries to teach Swiv to drive stick so they can head back to her nephew’s place:

“People in other cars were looking at us like we were escaped tigers or something. I stalled again at a red light. Two teenagers got out of a car beside us and came over to ask if we needed help. They asked Grandma if she’d been in a fight and Grandma said you’d better believe it! They laughed and stood around like nothing serious was happening. Grandma asked one of the boys if he knew how to drive stick and he spread his arms wide like are you kidding me? This is the meaning of my life, driving stick. I was born to drive Canadian children and ancient, bruised ladies around without knowing where to.”

The young man who drives them home offers an act of kindness that, I’d say on a very literal level, saves their lives. And yet, he is so cool about it, so free in offering help, through his character Toews reminds us that in moments of chaos it is sometimes the simplest, most offhand intervention that allows us to see our way through. The uncomplicated kindness, offered from a place of grace and goodness, without judgment.

You will laugh out loud as you read this book. You will love Elvira as much as it’s possible to love a fictional grandma. (At least as much as you love Elvira Mistress of the Dark). And you’ll be reminded that in the midst of life we are in death. But we are also in life, which is the part of that crappy cliche most worth remembering.

Richard Scarsbrook, The Troupers

Full Disclosure: Richard’s younger sister Jen was my childhood best friend. In the 80s I spent a lot of time at his house, roaming the incredible property (which included seven cherry trees, an unbelievably ancient graveyard, a barn full of vintage cars and a tiny bubbling creek. It was kid heaven surrounded by cornfields and dirt roads.) So what you’re getting here may not be the most objective review, but honestly, if that’s your game, you are reading the wrong blog.

The Troupers is so much fun. It is narrated by Errol Trouper, the only son in a set of quintuplets born to John Lionel and Lily, set in Niagara Falls, the kitsch capital of the world. Set mostly in the 1970s and 80s, the book is informed by a thousand classic films and television shows, among them The Little Rascals, Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard, Bullitt, and Grand Hotel. John Lionel is the kind of tyrannical director/father whose commitment to sustaining his own ego drives every last one of his life choices. See, for example, the fact that he has children named after Joan Collins and Errol Flynn. They are homeschooled for years, fed a steady diet of classic films only, and given the work of acting in John Lionel’s multitudinous productions all staged at his extravagantly named Trouper-Royale Orpheum-Galaxie Theatre.

A book so reliant on intertextuality runs the risk of becoming nothing more than a string of predictable cliches, but Scarsbrook keeps the narrative tight - inserting actual scripts to convey scenes happening on stage. All the while Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls’s main drag, with its flashy casinos and hot tub hotel rooms, provides a tacky backdrop to the action. John Lionel believes he is creating capital ‘A’ Art, but the reality of his surroundings and the messiness of his life suggest otherwise.

Particularly enjoyable is what happens when Lily stops homeschooling the children, and they are sent to a public high school where they must quickly catch up on the years of missed popular culture. Violet, in particular, embraces punk rock with gusto, cheerfully forming a proto-riot girl band called Kitty Galore. Except for Joan, their father’s favourite, each child finds a way to rebel against John Lionel, slowly chipping away at his carefully constructed family persona and threatening what he perceives to be his own great importance to the theatre community. All we know about cinema and classic literature tells us this outcome is inevitable; John Lionel’s hubris must be the cause of his destruction.

Serving as a foil to John Lionel’s egomania, his wife Lily remains quietly loyal, maintaining a home and raising children despite his rampant philandering. This kind of work is too thankless, though, and she ultimately goes on strike, abandoning the role she’s been given in favour of day drinking and taking her children to see modern movies at regular theatres. Lily is the one character I wished to know a bit better. She’s clearly feisty, but ultimately succumbs to John Lionel’s power trip, ending up silenced and distant from her own children.

Combining the best elements of theatre, mystery and cinema, The Troupers will keep you engaged till the credits roll. #corniestmetaphorever

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Dec 16, 2021

Love the blog! Load my e-reader wishlist up with this titles and then get them out from my library when they come available.

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