Monday, October 16, 2006

Last Notes and Other Stories by Tamas Dobozy

I know I said that I'm not usually drawn to short stories, but . . . .

Last Notes is, foremost, a collection of character studies. The character holds more sway than setting or plot. And no character exists as comedy relief. Each occupies his(/her) own space and insists on being taken seriously, even while tottering on the edge of madness.

Subjects which would easily lead other authors to humorous writing are instead treated with all formality, credibility, and compassion, even in "Phillip's Killer Hat," the story of two brothers, one with an unidentified mental illness and the other who acts as his caretaker and his foil, and in "The Man Who Came out of the Corner of My Eye," the story of a man who alienates himself from his friends and his wife and then begins to see and hear a man who only appears in his peripheral vision, and who claims to want to make a business of helping people detach from their friends and family.

I found myself thinking fondly of literary critics (only because I don't have to tease out these ideas unless I actually want to) and what they would have to say about the resistance of the Hunagrian immigrant characters to accept Canada as 'home'. What would be made of the woman in "Tales of Hungarian Resistance" who had no stories of her own to tell, but only commentary based on her husband's stories? or of the two main characters who box out their marital issues in "Into the Ring"? And then there's "Radio Blik," a story with postmodern tendencies, and so many other critical crevices that I would have to turn to my old literary criticism book to even get started.

Dobozy's collection was a fast and furious switch from Carol Shields's stories. I found it harder to read cover to cover because the humor was darker, less playful, but no less impressive for its more serious nature.

Like a rich seven course meal, these stories are not to be ingested in giant gulps, but in small bites. Each story needs to be given time to settle before moving onto the next course; to try to inhale these experiences like a lunch in less than half an hour would be a mistake. This is a collection to savor.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Maid Marian: A Novel by Elsa Watson

I picked this up at a local bookstore. I've enjoyed Robin Hood literature in the past, and thought I would give Elsa Watson's book a try. Though it's easy to read, I am disappointed that the author doesn't take more liberties with the story. The characters are mostly flat, even Robin Hood.

Watson, through Marian, informs the readers of what they are to understand about the characters, rather than to let the characters' actions speak for themselves, and more often than not, the author's idea for the plot seems to define the characters and drive their (sometimes jarringly uncharacteristic) actions rather than the other way around.

If you're in the mood for a tale of Sherwood Forest, I would find another. If you're particularly interested in Marian's perspective, I would recommend Lady of the Forest by Jennifer Roberson. You'll find more interesting adventures and more developed characters, and (as I recall) far less character navel-gazing.

Dressing Up for the Carnival by Carol Shields

I don't usually go for short story collections when I select what to read next. Maybe they remind me too much of forced readings from school (both from my days as a student and as a teacher). Or maybe I've just been confused by what was supposed to be top notch writing in upper tier publications because I didn't understand them, or what about them was considered good. Lately, though, I've found myself gravitating towards a few different authors, just to try them out. First was Alice Munroe, whose collection Runaway I enjoyed, but I gave up on whichever collection I tried to read next.

Then came Dressing Up for the Carnival. This collection of stories--truly short, with the longest story being a mere 20 pages--is easy and pleasurable to read. I particularly enjoyed Shield's playful sense of language. "Absence" was delightful, ticklish to the intellect, a story about a writer with a stuck key on her keyboard ("But after she had typed half a dozen words, she found that one of the letters on the keyboard was broken, and to make matters worse, a vowel, the very letter that attaches to the hungry self."). Shields herself doesn't use an instance of that vowel in her story.

I intend to reread Dressing Up for the Carnival, to peel away some of the skins of the stories, because I'm quite certain I will love this book all the more for a second reading, and find quite a different collection underneath than the first reading presented me with. Other stories that I look forward to re-encountering are:
  • "Ilk"--the meeting of a pair of English professors at a conference; the narrative (as a mode) is treated almost as a debatable scientific phenomenon.
  • "Windows"--a couple of artists find the recently imposed "window tax" a new challenge to their creativity.
  • "Weather"--all of the nation's weathermen go on strike, and the country suffers a subsequent lack of weather.
  • "A Scarf"--an author on tour decides to search for the perfect scarf for her daughter.
I suppose I could just list them all.

About the book, from Random House of Canada