Miss Montreal by Howard Shrier

This is the second Jonah Geller novel I have tried and I have NOT read them in order: I wanted to read the Canadian cities first and I was afraid that I might not like Boston or Chicago after being so enamoured with the Toronto location in Buffalo Jump which I reviewed here in December 2013 (check the archives). Miss Montreal did not disappoint one iota but I would recommend that you read Boston Cream before it just so you know what happened (also High Chicago) both of which I will read next.

This one starts out with a wonderful baseball story about two twelve year old boys, one of them being Jonah Geller, attending a summer camp:

“Sammy Adler was without doubt the least corrordinated, least athletic person, male or female in the camp. Tall, gangly, flat-assed, he ran like Frankenstein’s monster, knees knocking together, ankles weak, his feet slapping the ground like a bird headed for extinction. His height made him of occasional use in basketball or volleyball, but on the softball diamond he was what we then called a spaz. And still would. A glove on his hand was like a metal pan ready to clank. Balls hit or thrown to him caromed off his shins or bounced through his legs cleanly. To say he threw like a girl would be an insult to most girls in the camp. There was nowhere to hide him in the field, unless you needed a guy to turn and watch a ball sail over his head while everyone else yelled “Go!” And at the plate, he’d stand flat-footed, with the bat on his shoulder, and swipe at the ball, stiff as a turnstile, usually after it had crossed the plate.” So how did such a kid get a nickname like Slammin’ Sammy? It’s a great story and a very good opening to the events of the novel.

Here’s what Sam’s wife Camille tells Jonah about him:

“Sam was an observer of life. And a good one. He could be at the most fantastic party in the world, the greatest concert, the biggest gathering – like a Woodstock – and he’s be off to the side making notes, taking down the details, planning how he would write it in his magazine. …Sam was always somewhere else. Always in his head. His perfect night would be to eat dinner at home and watch a movie, or hockey….to get him out for something beside work, forget it.”

Shrier builds warm characters well (and not so warm characters rather well too). Here’s Miss Montrealhow he introduces us to Artie Moscoe, who is Slammin’ Sammy’s grandfather:

“Artie Moscoe was nineteen years old in the summer of 1950. Still living in his parents’ cold-water flat on DeBullion Street, the rent forty-two dollars a month, and still there were months when the family couldn’t pay. Cold months, winter months, when bailiffs piled their furniture in the snow at the curb and Artie had to check all the different clubs above shops on St. Lawrence where his father might be playing pinochle, to pry out that extra ten or twenty dollars his mother needed to pay the landlord. He was still sharing a room with his two brothers, Abie and Bernie. And despite being engaged to be married, still a virgin.”

Detail upon detail in Dickensian fashion, Shrier’s novels move quickly and are very cinematic. This is the first time I have met Jonah’s partner Jenn and although she plays a limited role in this story I am already looking forward to reading about her again. I am even drawn to his hit man Dante Ryan and his Hemi-powered Charger. Shrier ‘s main characters are drawn in sufficient detail that the reader accepts and trusts them as Shrier presents them.

The title comes from at least two references: When Artie Moscoe worked in Montreal’s fashion district at Dominion Dress Company,owned by his mother’s first cousin, one of the company’s higher end lines was called Miss Montreal. Artie had a serious relationship at the time with a woman named Micheline whom he called Miss Montreal sometimes. Their son is a character in the novel.

Shrier writes humour well too. While driving in Montreal with Dante Ryan, Jonah reflects upon the experience:

“I’ve been on some bad roads in my life. In Israel, for example, where you are more likely to die in a road accident than in any war or act of terrorism. In France where passing on blind-curves is a sudden-death national sport. Even in Ontario, where winter whiteouts make the tamest straightaways deadly.
Give me any of those anytime, day or night, over Montreal’s elevated highway: the Metropolitan. Narrow lanes, potholes the size of bomb craters, tailgaters, cars crossing double solid lines as if they weren’t there. Ryan was snarling like a Rottweiler by the time we exited onto Boulevard Marcel-Laurin and headed north into Ville St-Laurent.”

Anyway, enough said. Another exciting, fast-moving genuine adventure with a setting that inspires travel and characters that make good company. There are even some interesting social issues taken on in this one. If you haven’t tried a Shrier novel yet, I highly recommend the two I’ve read to date.


We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names“We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There  are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I’d rather die for guavas. We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.”

The narrator is ten year old Darling who lives in a shantytown in Zimbabwe and she and her friends (listed above) are heading out to “hit Budapest” where there are “big, big houses with satellite dishes on the roofs and neat graveled yards or trimmed lawns, and the tall fences and the Durawalls and the flowers and the big trees heavy with fruit that’s waiting for us since nobody around here seems to know what to do with it. It’s the fruit that gives us courage, otherwise we wouldn’t dare be here.”

The Durawalls come in different designs and a search on Google turns up various listings for them in Zimbabwe. Here is a picture of just one such wall which demonstrates howDurawall in Zimbabwe they were used probably in Budapest where the children have gone to steal the guavas.

Here are the answers to a couple of questions asked of the author in November 2013:

Sam Umukoro Interview: What influence has your background had on your work? Did your being Zimbabwean and moving to America have any direct impact on the book you have written?

NoViolet: The book deals with Zimbabwe in the last 10 years; it is a story of a country that is coming undone, and is falling apart; that is suffering for the first time since independence, a period of instability, highest inflation in the world, political violence, and social structure unravelling.  So, that environment makes the book what it is, because it is a book about undergoing crises.

Sam Umukoro Interview: Must a good book be about politics?

NoViolet: No, obviously not, it doesn’t have to be, it’s just what I care about at this particular time.

And this is also interesting (see link below):

An Interview with NoViolet Bulawayo

Photo by Mark Pringle.

Where do you think you learned to tell a story?

I was raised on orature – all around me people just told stories like it was breathing, but it was really my late grandmother, Gog’ NaEdeni who sat us down to stories every night as kids, and my pops, who shared his mother’s love for story, who really made an impact. Without those two I doubt I’d be the kind of writer I am today.

Have you ever stolen a book?

No, not a book, I stole like, books as a kid. I know how it sounds, but how else was I supposed to get them, through prayer? I mean nobody was trying to buy me books, and the libraries, besides being far, had a lousy limit of two books at a time, which didn’t work for me at all coz I was a voracious reader. Thankfully my thievery stopped around high school but of course by then my love affair with books had turned into a marriage.

Read the complete above interview here

The book is about the politics in Zimbabwe but it is also about Darling, Chipo, Bastard, Godknows, Sbho and Stina and about how Darling’s Aunt Fostalina comes to get her and take her to Destoyedmichygan. It is about the Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro and the Holy Chariot people and Mother Bones and Uncle Kojo from Ghana, about Tshake Zulu in Shadybrook Nursing Home and playing games like Find Bin Laden. It is about lives that we can only imagine but that NoViolet Bulawayo (Elizabeth Tshele) brings to life for us. And it is about leaving one’s country.

Darling’s friend Stina once said: “…leaving your country is like dying, and when you come back you are like  a lost ghost returning to earth, roaming around with a missing gaze in your eyes. I don’t want to be that when I go back to my country, but then I don’t really know because will Paradise (the shantytown)  be there when I return? Will Mother of Bones be there when I return? Will Bastard and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and Chipo and all my friends be there when I return? Will the guava trees be there when I return? Will Paradise, will everything, be the same when I return?

Stina also said “a country is a Coca-Cola bottle that can smash on the floor and disappoint you.”

The idea of needing new names comes from an innocent game the children play based upon the television show ER. Sbho explains that she has seen it on TV in Harare and it is “what they do in a hospital in America. In order to do this right, we need new names. I am Dr. Bullet (Sbho says), she is beautiful, and you are Dr. Roz, he is tall, Sbho says, nodding at me.(Darling)”

This is a powerful read and you don’t have to know a thing about politics in Zimbabwe unless you want to find out more than the book tells you! I think this book works for both adults and young adults who hunger for truth in fiction.

Addition: Bulawayo’s novel wins Etisalat Prize

The Crooked Maid by Dan Vyleta

I sat down just to sample this book because my library copy had 75 holds on it and I thought I should get started if I intended to finish on time. It was a finalist for the 2013 Scotia Bank Giller Prize and I had waited three and a half months to get it from the library. Well the sampling turned into 90 pages and I had read Book One Part One and it was lunch time. This was my first work by this writer.

There is a short two page background on the battle of Stalingrad and then the story begins: “The train was running late.”  There had been “several unscheduled stops between Basel and Zurich”.

“She had been on the train now close to fourteen hours.” Initially, the conductor had Crooked Maid (2)been very attentive and been in and out of her first class compartment offering tea and a variety of explanations to account for the unscheduled stops, all somewhat different but equally boring to the passenger. The woman’s companion in the compartment was an eighteen year old boy in black clothing who did not say a word in the first six hours. He had a wonky eye and shiny black shoes. It was unclear whether he was a boarding school student or a clerk. He was very short.

The boy appears to want to open a conversation or, rather, he smiles occasionally and gives that impression. He has retrieved a sketch book from his knapsack and the woman observes “a callus on his middle finger such as is formed by the routine use of a pen”. Their eyes keep returning to the other person’s eyes and finally he says to her “I got into a tussel.” Thus he explains to her how he got the wonky eye, introduces himself as Robert Seidel and asks her if she is any good at sports in reply to which she laughs and says that she is forty and “too old for games.”

Their conversation ends when a group of men dressed in French uniforms smelling of alcohol and tobacco  push into the compartment and arrange themselves on the remaining seats. They began flirting with the woman and teasing the boy. The men speak only French and begin to use the boy as a translator so that they can speak to the woman. Thus we learn that she is married and her husband was a soldier. She joins in the game for awhile but tires of it and eventually addresses one of the men in perfect French and makes it clear that his advances are unwanted and his commanding officer might need to be contacted. The men leave in the direction of the second class seating and the boy and woman laugh over her expertise in French and talk more about her husband’s war experience and the boy’s eye injury and his step-family and why he is going home. He also tells her his biological father was a famous detective with the last name of Teuben.

Once they arrive in Vienna the story begins to come from alternate points: from Robert Seidel and from Anna Beer. We are given more and more fine detail as we journey with each of these persons and they try to reestablish themselves in Vienna.Robert has been off at boarding school in Switzerland for several years while the war changed the face of Vienna and Anna has also been abroad where she left after a marital disturbance. She has not seen her husband for nine years but still has her key to the apartment they lived in and returns there to find he is not there although he had notified her that he would be returning there.

Robert arrives at his home to find his mother in a state and the home in charge of a crippled maid (the crooked maid of the title) named Eva and in complete disarray. His step-father is unconscious in hospital from a fall out a window apparently after an argument with Robert’s step-brother Wolfgang. In one of the bedrooms he also finds Poldi, a woman apparently married to Wolfgang, bedridden and listening to opera music on a victrola. It would be a challenge to imagine a more bizarre set of circumstances. His mother appears more interested in claiming his wallet and the money therein than in his journey or his state of health.

In her apartment, Anna finds the living room sofa made up as a bed and “a pair of boots stood at the end, dirty socks stuffed in their shafts”, “a rumpled blanket flung over the backrest” and “spotted with filth”, a photo “above their marital bed, of a young woman in a negligee, lying propped up on cushions”, “a palm-sized smudge, more black than red” below a light switch, “a roll of Reichsmark, now defunct” and a noisy row going on two floors below.

Conversation with Eva tells Robert that she came from an orphanage where she lived for seven years. Robert has been away at school for six years. Eva keeps an eye on Robert’s mother as far as the reader can discern but she doesn’t cook or clean. A nurse at the hospital tells Robert that gossip has it that both his step-father and his step-brother made use of Eva sexually: : “It happens in the best of families, you know.”

And as if this is not enough, Robert finds himself being followed by a vagrant man wearing a red scarf and whom he first saw at the station when he arrived in Vienna.

The entire book continues at this pace and it is very very hard to put down. When I read the following in the Acknowledgements I realized what was somewhat familiar about the style. Vyleta writes

“Structurally, the book owes much to Dickens. I read Our Mutual Friend early into its writing, and took note of Dickens’s daring in stacking incident upon incident (and coincidence upon coincidence); of his ability to connect characters high and low through crime, family scandal, and the brittle threads of chance; of his book’s unstable tone that drifts from comedy to tragedy and back and is capable, despite its author’s much-decried sentimentalism, of calling forth real emotion; and of his deft management of the book’s vast cast (Dickens would have made a good film director).

An extremely satisfying read. I am looking forward to reading both Pavel & I and The Quiet Twin.

Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove

Jennifer LoveGrove evokes the gossamer-thin line we must all walk to form identity inside family, faith, and devastation. She achieves this with compassion, wit, and charm. Watch How We Walk is an elegant, heartbreaking tightrope of a debut novel.”
-KATHRYN KUITENBROUWER on the back of the paperback edition

This story is told by Emily and here is what she has to say about her childhood:

“When I was a little girl and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said what everybody else said: a Full-Time Pioneer.That’s what we were all supposed to be – obedient brothers and sisters who spent all their time going from house to house, knocking on doors, spreading the Armageddon virus. The people would smile and nod in approval, at me, then at my parents, then back at me, their joyous, too-bright heads bobbing in a sea of Pharisees.

At the meetings – Tuesday nights, Thursday nights, and Sunday mornings – I would sit down, cross my legs, smooth my skirt, and open the latest issue of The Watchtower. We’d all read it together and answer questions about it, sing some songs, and pray. I thought it would be like this until Jehovah took over and killed everybody else off, and gave us – the loyal sheep, on the right hand of God – eternal life in Paradise on Earth.”

“As a teenager, I developed something like claustrophobia…it was the house, I told myself…but then I became claustrophobic within my own skin. …A chrysalis of numbness had grown thick around me.”

“Every weekend, Emily’s family and most of the other Witnesses go out in service, from Watch How We Walkhouse to house talking about the Bible.”  They have been to the Bales home: “Tammy Bales is one grade above Emily, but three years older and much bigger….Tammy throws rocks at her during recess and calls her a JoHo. …the one time Emily did try to stand up to her, “Tammy Bales grabbed the collar of her shirt and twisted, pulled Emily to her red face, bumpy with acne. …shoved her, disgusted. Emily landed face down in the sawdust in the jumping pits, choking.

It’s Emily’s turn to speak at the door. Her parents say she’s ready, they rehearsed for two hours the night before.”

“You know the rule. We knock three times before we move on to the next house.”(Emily’s father speaking)

“She closes her eyes and presses the doorbell one last time…They drive on, and at the next house, an old woman answers the door and listens, nodding, to Emily’s entire speech. She smiles, takes the magazines, says nothing, and closes the door.”

There are a great many rules at home, her dad’s rules mainly. There are no-talking-at-the-table nights and there is no talking-in-the-car a couple of times a week and no-talking-with-your-mouth-full along with the formal meetings three times a week and extra meetings at home. Emily is frightened of her father and abides by his rules. When she wants to be on the Library Staff at school she has to ask for permission. Here’s how the conversation goes:

“I want to be on Library Staff. At school. It’s not after class, it’s only –
You know better than that, Emily. You’re not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities.
Extracurricular activities are what worldly kids do. It means stuff at school that is not mandatory, and kids from the Hall aren’t supposed to be part of that, because it will make them miss some of the meetings or have bad association. But Emily knows that some of them join teams and clubs anyway.
But it’s only at recess or at lunch. It’s not after school so I wouldn’t miss any meetings. I’d be putting books away by myself instead of being outside with worldly kids.
Your sister doesn’t do extracurricular activities at the high school; it would be unfair.
I don’t mind. Why not let her spend her time in the library with worldly kids? I know what kinds of immoral things kids talk about at recess, not to mention the swearing – (Lenora throws her support to Emily).” Mother, Vivian, also speaks out for Emily and is reminded by their father to remember “moderation”. He concludes that he will talk to the elders to see if they find it appropriate.

Emily’s sister Lenora has always been a model for Emily: “elders’ favourite, straight As, never getting into trouble”.  Lenora has been allowed “to wear makeup because she is sixteen” but she has also been wearing black nail polish and has been swearing more outside the house and Emily has seen her in a car with Marla and Theo who are definitely worldly. Lenore says to Emily, when Emily asks about these friends, “Ems, just because they don’t go to the Hall doesn’t mean they’re bad.”

“Emily is confused. Aren’t all worldly kids immoral? Because they don’t know any better? That’s why they’re supposed to tell them the Truth, and what they can do to live forever. Maybe Lenora really is Witnessing to them.” She asks Lenora if these kids will be coming to Hall and Lenora slips over the answer assuring Emily that “they’re not evil” but that Mom and Dad “wouldn’t understand, so keep quiet.”

Lenora tells Emily that high school will provide opportunities to start over and she explains what that means:

“Be someone new. Be more yourself. If the other kids and teachers don’t have anything to compare you to, you can, I don’t know, be another person. A new version of yourself. Better.”

“Emily doesn’t know what to say. Their parents and the elders are always telling them to improve, to try harder, to please God, but this doesn’t sound like the same thing to her.”

Emily is also confused by her mother’s behaviours and by her Uncle Tyler’s behaviours.

Her favourite Hall song adds to her confusion:

“Let’s watch how we walk, and watch how we talk
That thus we may be alert and wise,
Buying out the opportune time,
Since this world in Satan lies.
Yes, watch how we walk and watch how we talk
That thus we may be alert and wise.”

The book pulls no punches. Here’s the opening paragraph and a few lines from the second page:

“The first line was small, timid, and red. I was scared, but it was the only way through. I breathed deeply and drew the line longer, pushed harder, and it bloomed.
It hurt. I clenched my teeth, then smiled.
I etched another line, perpendicular to the first. It burned, clear and pure, both pain and pleasure, sheer release. Red beaded and dripped down my arm, but I didn’t look away. Compared to everything else that had happened, it was nothing.
…I sat still and silent, trying not to move or even breathe, willing myself invisible.”

jenniferlovegrove2Here’s what the writer has to say in a review written by Chad Pelley: “Full disclosure: I grew up as a JW. While it’s not autobiographical, I wanted to write a novel that examined the often harmful and devastating effects of this isolationist sect on its members. It’s a fascinating lifestyle, very rigid, and one that few non-JWs know much about. While I resisted at first – did we need another losing-my-religion-coming-of-age-story? – in the end, I decided yes, this story and this perspective is unique and needs to be told.” 

The photo of Jennifer LoveGrove is by Sharon Harris and it and the above quotation can be found in Chad Pelley’s review.


The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

NOTE: there are very minor spoilers here which are from the early part of the story and will not interfere with your enjoyment of the book.

Sometimes coincidences happen which are simple but still almost incredible. A friend recently loaned me a copy of the movie version of Memoirs of a Geisha. I had read the book years ago but had never viewed the film. I was prepared for it to be disappointing but it turned out to be impressive and very enjoyable. Then I forgot to check my hold list at the local library in time to freeze my holds and so I received at a rather inconvenient time a copy of Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement. All 589 pages of the first Canadian edition!

Memoirs of a GeishaI have read The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Bonesetter’s Daughter and Saving Fish from Drowning. I have not read the two children’s books but will try them soon: the covers are very attractive. I did read The Opposite of Fate but need to have another look at that and the novels are candidates for rereads in the near future.

On Amy Tan’s website you will find some interesting background for this new novel and some fascinating photographs of the author’s grandmother and mother.

The novel is set in Shanghai in 1912 and starts out with the viewpoint of Violet Minturn,Valley of Amazement daughter of Lucretia, Lucia, Lulu Minturn who is the owner of a courtesan house known as The Hidden Jade Path. Since Violet grew up in The Hidden Jade Path i.e. actually lived there and because she was a curious child, her point of view on some of what happened there is unusual and refreshing. Her assessment of some of the patrons and of discussions she overheard are astute given her age and provide the reader with an understanding of what actually went on in the house. By eavesdropping on the individual courtesans and their clients, Violet quickly satisfies the normal curiosity of a child regarding sexual relations and has none of the puritan handicaps that many children develop. Her cat Carlotta aids and abets her investigations by acting as an excuse for going into certain rooms which are normally forbidden.

Her friendships with particular courtesans and with her mother’s business manager, Golden Dove, prove to be invaluable connections in her future as do some of her mother’s clients themselves.

When the Ching (Qing) dynasty is overturned, Violet is scheduled to return to America with her mother. Subterfuge, exercised by a client Violet’s mother trusted, results in Violet being left behind and false reports given to her mother claiming her death. And so at the age of fourteen, Violet’s life undergoes a drastic change. Things could have been worse but that would only have been seen by Violet with hindsight. Her birth certificate has been destroyed and the political situation in Shanghai makes it impossible for her to contact anyone who could help her and she comes face to face with the reality of becoming a courtesan. She has, in fact, been sold (part of the subterfuge carried out by a man her mother had reason to trust) to a courtesan house and will be trained and scheduled for defloration when she turns 16.

And so begins the long and complicated story of Violet’s life. And it has been criticized for being overlong. There was only a moment or two when I thought the story might be losing its focus or losing my interest but almost as soon as I thought that the whole thing changed again and I was compelled by the writing to keep going and learn how this young woman managed her misfortune. Many of those who have criticized the novel gave up in the earlier sections it seems (by their own admission) and most objected to the detailed nature of the sexual information although some preferred to object to the length. Tan herself has some interesting things to say about what the novel is about and not about in a YouTube video that is easy to find via her personal website.

Joy Luck ClubI think one of the cleverest things Tan did with this novel is to save the story of Violet’s mother until a much later point in the novel when it would work to reignite the reader’s interest and change the setting briefly to San Francisco and then to the Hudson River area. I found that my curiosity for Lucretia and Lu Shin’s story stayed with me from the beginning and I was pleased  to have this come to me when it did.

I think this is my second favourite read so far in 2014. The first was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I am also looking forward to rereading The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Saving Fish From Drowning, The Hundred Secret Senses etc. etc. etc. I have retrieved them from a storage box and have placed them in a spot where they will be more tempting: a perfect reread project for 2014.