Monthly Archives: August 2011

Hooked, by Carolyn Smart

Hooked,by Carolyn Smart

Carolyn Smart’s Hooked uses a wickedly irresistible premise: a twisted chorus of famous/infamous female figures from history and letters expounding vividly on obsession. Smart has fascinatingly curated the stories of women who made misguided and horrific choices for their objects of desire, and determinedly saw that desire through to often tragic conclusions: Myra Hindley, serial killer partner to Ian Brady (for Canadians,  the pairing is clearly Homolka-Bernardo); Unity Mitford, aristocratically born contrarian who became a confidante of Hitler; Zelda Fitzgerald, gifted, increasingly fragile spouse of F. Scott Fitzgerald; Dora Carrington, a painter associated with the Bloomsbury Group who carried a lifelong, unreciprocated passion for writer Lytton Strachey; Carson McCullers, a renowned writer who struggled with relationships, ill health and alcoholism; Jane Bowles, a talented, underrated writer who lived an unconventional and peripatetic life with husband Paul Bowles; and Elizabeth Smart, a poet whose work was overshadowed in her lifetime by the scandal of her enduring passion for poet George Barker, with whom she had and then singlehandedly raised four children.

As perversely and diversely interesting as the subject matter and cast of characters are, the voices from segment to segment in Hooked are somewhat disappointingly similar. Rhythm, cadence and pace are not so vividly distinguished as one might expect given the women’s different nationalities, social upbringings, mental states and time periods in which they lived, not to mention the varieties of types of charisma and inaccessible attractions with which each was enraptured. In some cases, there is too much admittedly clever direct quoting of sources (clear as such because it is italicized), but not enough true transmutation and alchemy to turn those sources into fresh perspectives and something of Smart’s own.

Hooked has inspired me to revisit or expand my reading on all of these figures, both in biographical and fictional realms. Less so, Hooked has impressed me with Smart’s inventiveness as a poet, but her resourcefulness with respect to exploring subject matter will still likely compel me to seek out more of her work.

Thank you to Brick Books for providing a review copy of Hooked, by Carolyn Smart.

Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean

Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legends

Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean, is a book that will satisfy a variety of readers in a variety of ways. Orlean has researched with heart and commitment the story of US army corporal Lee Duncan, a lonely young man who discovers a litter of abandoned German Shepherd puppies in rural France near the end of World War I. He goes to great lengths to transport two of the puppies back to US with him, one of the puppies does not survive beyond her arrival on American soil, but the surviving puppy goes on to become the genesis of the Hollywood and television legend Rin Tin Tin.

The story of Lee and Rinty – their devotion to each other, their collective determination to succeed, their collaboration and dedication to an unusual type of performance craft and most importantly, their profound bond – is a sufficiently absorbing and heartwarming tale unto itself. On that basis alone, Orlean offers a book that will captivate readers who are pet owners and animal lovers.

But Orlean takes that story as a starting point for examining and meditating on much more. Thematically, she muses on and considers how some lose families and familial identification and forge new families and identities (as was the case with Lee Duncan), and how some live with animals and make them part of uniquely constituted definitions of family. Through Lee Duncan and subsequent dog trainers, breeders, fans and professional and amateur curators and archivists who contributed to the ongoing Rin Tin Tin story, Orlean scrutinizes, sometimes in person and close at hand, how some ascribe to animals the traits and qualities we aspire to, and how many seek to fill what is lacking in their lives and relationships with companion animals. On that basis, Orlean offers a book that will appeal to readers seeking a non-judgmental exploration of the ways in which people find professional, personal and even spiritual fulfillment.

Eventually, the physical reality of one man and one dog, who obviously couldn’t live forever, ascends into something bigger. Rin Tin Tin becomes a franchise (a series of dogs, some blood related, some not, take up the Rin Tin Tin name), a trademark, a brand, an idealization and a legend. Orlean offers interesting and even instructive insights into the entertainment and advertising realms.

Orlean makes clear throughout Rin Tin Tin that the ideas of continuity and enduring memories and values developed in the book had personal significance for her. She is a strong presence and even a participant in the later chapters of the Rin Tin Tin story, both confirming her devotion to and connection with the subject, but perhaps also provoking the questions:  Does Orlean in fact bite off more than she can chew thematically with Rin Tin Tin? Does she get too involved in the story, perhaps not leaving space for the reader to independently interpret and react to how different players in the story – including Orlean – are variously invested in the legend?

We all have our own motivations for being drawn to a character and entity like Rin Tin Tin and to a book chronicling his story and enduring value. Susan Orlean provides a range of intriguing entry points into a still fascinating story that will appeal to many.

The following is a brief interview with Susan Orlean about her experiences researching Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend:


Thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for providing a review copy of Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean.

Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara

Appointment in Samarra, by John O'Hara

Appointment in Samarra vividly traces Julian English’s calamitous and seemingly inexplicable path of destruction in 72 hours during the Christmas holidays of 1930. In his early thirties and from an affluent family, college educated, manager of a thriving Cadillac dealership in small town Pennsylvania, married to an attractive and admired woman – there would seem to be nothing significant to explain English’s reckless behaviour and decisions that precipitiously eradicate his professional, personal and even spiritual footing in a matter of days. Even more so than Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel that captures a doomed character’s similarly compressed and irrevocable slide into oblivion, Appointment in Samarra is a breathless read, where one simply can’t look away until it’s over.

O’Hara’s novel showed great daring for its time, with respect to language and subject matter, touching on everything from alcohol consumption to sexual relations, marital infidelity, criminal activities and even suggestive clothing. The narration and dialogue are brisk and jazzy, albeit somewhat dated, but still vibrantly capture the idiom of the Prohibition and pre Great Depression era. The propulsive action of the story – wherein English lurches from one social gaffe to increasingly more disastrous, perverse behaviours – while compelling in its own right, almost overshadows O’Hara’s equal daring with more experimental themes and stylistic approaches. These include the suggestions that English’s bewildering flameout is somehow predestined, suggested by the novel’s epigraph, hinted at in references to English’s grandfather and even prefigured by the time frame of the novel, where there are mentions of the looming economic and social storm clouds of the Depression. As well, O’Hara employs shifting voices and points of view, and even some striking stream of consciousness narration.

Finally, O’Hara brings the novel to a startling non sequitur of a conclusion that drives home a memorable, almost existential lesson: the irony of how one’s misdemeanours might never be forgotten, but one’s essence and value can vaporize from memory as soon as one is gone.

Essex County, by Jeff Lemire and The Boy in the Moon, by Ian Brown (by guest reviewer H)

I’m very excited to welcome my first guest blogger to the Bookgaga book blog – my 16-year-old niece H. Somewhat in the tradition of “Take Your Kids to Work Day”, I invited H to familiarize herself with book blogs, and to take a bit of a stretch beyond school book reports and try contributing some reviews herself. I selected the titles, and she very gamely read them, thought a lot about them and has put time and thought into her assessments.

Essex County, by Jeff Lemire and The Boy in the Moon, by Ian Brown are much touted and discussed books that I’ve read a lot about, am interested in … but have not yet read myself. I was curious as part of this exercise to see if H’s reviews would be consistent with other commentary and coverage, would bring some new ideas forth, and might possibly dissuade me on one count or the other. I can safely say that she has brought some fresh perspectives in, and while critical in places, her comments have further convinced me to keep both books on the tbr list.

I hope you’ll find H’s reviews and this new Bookgaga venture interesting and thought provoking.

Essex County, by Jeff Lemire

Essex County, by Jeff Lemire
(Guest review by H)

I found the book Essex County to be a light, easy-going story. It was a very relaxing book and I found it full of adventure, and writer Jeff Lemire used creativity, showing how all the characters share connections from their pasts which they don’t realize in the present.

You also watch the characters develop, building connections. I actually felt as excited reading a hockey game, with characters, Vince and Lou Lebeuf, as I would in an NHL arena.

The stories are made to be a light read, nothing really too dramatic or serious. I liked that it was portrayed as a comic book. It was a nice change of pace. I also found that seeing pictures makes it easier to create an attachment with each individual character and their situations.

The character I grew most attached to is Lou Lebeuf, who played for the Toronto Grizzlies with his brother Vince. The story shows Lou all grown up, and having difficulties. You then learn the past, and about regrets created between Vince and Lou, and the fates they cause.

This story I could see being for teenage or older audiences. The book is very mature, yet has a looser, easier edge. Essex County was a delight to read from beginning to end, and I would recommend if you haven’t read it to do so.

The Boy in the Moon

The Boy in the Moon, by Ian Brown
(Guest review by H)

I found great disappointment in such a promising book, as The Boy In the Moon by Ian Brown let me down.

After a quick skim of the cover the book looked as if it would be a heartfelt tale of a man who wanted to know his son through the disorders. But in my opinion the book lost its focus. The focus at some points seemed to be how Ian and his wife Johanna would like to know if son, Walker understands them. They want to know if Walker grasps how much they love them and the situation he is in. I think the book comes off as more of a complaint. Many times Ian would mention how no one would take Walker for a weekend, or how much work Walker is. He even became to view Walker as the reason his marriage with Johanna was beginning to hit the rocks.

It was also uncomfortable when they mentioned Walker’s sister, Haylee, and how they wanted to give her another “normal” sibling, since Walker wasn’t “normal”. Yes, I realize Walker is disabled, but I do not feel it is right to mention in a book that is dedicated to your child that he is not normal.

Ian Brown makes Walker come across as an inconvenience to him, Johanna and Haylee, instead of having Walker come across as a battle the family would fight. That is where I found the story really lost all meaning and heartfelt hopes.

The characters were also very hard to connect with. At first I could see Ian’s point of view in the marriage difficulties but he frustrated me how he would admit after taking the nanny, Olga home to her apartment he would head to strip clubs and bars behind Johanna’s back, even though he knew she needed him at home to help with Walker.

Johanna seems to have given up all hope on Walker, as it was mentioned in the book, her wanting another “normal” child sparked many fights between her and Ian. She also at one point admits she no longer feels like Walker’s mummy, and had she known he was disabled and would be so much work she would’ve had an abortion.

The overall story could have been more compressed. I found often information is being repeated such as how much work Walker is, and the tasks needed to keep him alive and well. I also found Brown uses a lot of big medical terms, that in all honesty I would’ve been clueless about had I not taken grade eleven Biology. I think it would’ve been a key aspect for him to have the meanings of those words, or at least have attempted a little more to clarify them for other readers than myself.

The last few pages I found though made up for some of the book’s shortcomings. The beginning caught my attention…but the twelve chapters between one and fourteen didn’t grasp the reader’s attention or build much of a foundation to cause a connection. The middle was a little jumpy and also, I would find myself losing interest and having difficulty digesting what I read. The book seemed less about Walker and more about Ian and the negative impacts of Walker.

But the last few pages show a side of Ian I would have enjoyed to see throughout the whole book. It showed the real father-son connection between Walker and Ian, and how yes, Walker in fact does know he is loved.


Norman Bray, In the Performance of His Life, by Trevor Cole

Norman Bray, In the Performance of His Life, by Trevor Cole

Norman Bray is a middle-aged, underemployed actor who perhaps is self-deluded as a professional skill and defence … or perhaps is just self-deluded. As career, home and relationships all unravel, events from his past start to bubble up for re-examination. As circumstances change more and more rapidly for Norman, does he learn and change personally? It’s hard to tell as this acerbic, at times funny, at times troubling story unfolds. It’s that “hard to tell” element that is the most authentic and lifelike aspect of this at times infuriating but always intriguing, surprisingly affecting book.