Saturday, March 17, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 2nd post

I'll only have a few minutes to write some thoughts on this short story collection and then circle back a bit later (it is due at the library today!).  The collection is Better Living through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner, a Vancouver-based author.  These are sort of sardonic views of Vancouver and North Vancouver residents, but in almost all cases, the characters are shallow stereotypes (to make some point or other) rather than actual characters.  Most of the stories are about different Vancouver "types" slamming up against each other, mixed with some surrealistic touches.  There is a place for this kind of writing, but it kind of strikes me as a less successful version of what Donald Barthelme did decades ago.

The only story that had any depth (to me) was "We Come in Peace" where 5 angels come to inhabit 5 high schoolers and totally change their lives.  A school bully becomes thoughtful.   A geek becomes popular.  An anorexic girl begins eating.  Etc. Their mission doesn't last long, and most of the kids are left off worse after the angels depart.  This was definitely the most interesting and successful story to me.

The title story kind of wimped out at the end, where it implies that a former anarchist has blown up her own son (because the city council won't actually implement road calming measures on her block!), but leaves it just open enough for the tender-hearted to imagine or arrive at a different ending.

While I didn't think "Once, We Were Swedes" was that successful, the set-up -- a woman heading into early menopause while her male partner seems to be getting younger and younger (and completely sidestepping responsibility) -- is interesting.  I will say that while I occasionally feel middle-aged, there have been several incidents here in Vancouver where college coeds have offered to give up their seat for me that have made me feel really aged (only took the offer once and that was when I had a large load of groceries).  Maybe there is something to the idea of Vancouver being so overrun by hipsters that it does make people feel prematurely old.

Edit to add: one element of the story which has stuck with me (the sign of an at least partly successful story) is that the man becomes a roadie for this alternative band who appear to be already famous on their very first gig.  The band does this call and response thing with the audience -- "I thought I saw a pussy cat" and they call back "You did, you did see a pussy cat!"  I can totally imagine something like that happening.  I'm imagining another pop hook based on "those meddling kids!" from Scooby-Doo, but the rest of the line has terrible rhythm, so maybe it would be best as part of a techno remix song.

One story I definitely disliked was "The Adopted Chinese Daughters' Rebellion" which basically took mockery of the trendy folks who adopt baby girls from China too far. The families in the neighborhood all outdo themselves in providing an authentic home life for their daughters, while the daughters just want to be typical Canadians and go to the mall.  That's ok as far as it goes, but then to have the parents bind their girls' feet!  Too far over the line for me. 

So she definitely shows some promise, but to me, the writer doesn't go beyond the surface of things and settles for cheap shots a lot of the time.  She definitely strikes me as someone who spends far more time reading other blogs than actual literature, and I'll leave it at that...

This is my second review of 13, and I have a long backlog of books I've read and now need to review.

I just realized that this is the 13th Canadian book I have read since the challenge begun!  This also means I have 11 reviews to get caught up on, but the harder part of the challenge is over.  One of my secondary goals was to read 13 different Canadian authors during this challenge, and Zsuzsi brings me up to 7 unless I have forgotten one.  In my next review, I will sketch out the books I am considering reading past 13 (some of which will probably roll over into next year's challenge).

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