The Blondes by Emily Schultz

Mesmerizing. Like Cormac McCarthy on estrogen. Emily Schultz tells a gripping, even haunting, tale in The Blondes, that is subtle, sophisticated, sensitive, quirkily observant, and horrific.

Hazel Hayes is a Ph.D. candidate in Communications Studies spending a term in New York City to pursue her research and, in effect, to avoid her thesis supervisor, Karl Mann, with whom she has inadvisably had an affair. Absence, from Karl and from her other friends in Toronto, does nothing to alleviate her mixed feelings or help her focus on her thesis. And the fact that she has just learned that she is pregnant doesn’t help matters. Her life, her whole world, is a mess. But that’s nothing compared to the mess that is about to ensue when a pandemic of rabies-like madness begins to strike blondes and those whose hair colour has been made blonde through dyeing. From an initial attack that Hazel witnesses in the New York subway to outbreaks at JFK and further afield (the Nordic countries are severely at risk), Hazel must negotiate her way through this field of mayhem in order to get back to Toronto.

That makes it sound like a horror story, but it’s really a meditation on representations of women in culture and advertising, a commentary on systemic sexism, a reflection on a woman’s control over her own body (exacerbated by Hazel’s uncertainty over whether she wants to carry her foetus to term), a searching examination of varieties of grief, and yes, of course, also a bit of a horror story. (Interestingly, “blond/blonde” is one of the few adjectives in written English to retain its masculine and feminine grammatical genders.)

The writing is measured, thoughtful, well paced, and crisp. It was a pleasure to read and think about and I would gladly read anything else Emily Schultz chooses to write. Recommended.

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

Anyone who followed Frank Bascombe through Richard Ford’s previous novels in this trilogy (The Sportswriter and Independence Day) will be forgiven for some trepidation on picking up the final instalment, which is situated during the Thanksgiving Day weekend of 2000. American holidays haven’t been good to Frank. They tend to induce introspection, disruption from the usual routine, and interactions with one’s family, all of which are somewhat risky activities. And for Frank, who is now settled in what he calls his ‘Permanent Period’, such moments of personal and national soul searching usual trigger transformation. A change is certain for the country, mired though it is in the aftermath of the disputed Bush-Gore presidential election. But what kind of change can come for someone in his Permanent Period? What’s next, other than the ‘Next Level’, and what can that be other than death itself?

Frank is estranged from his first wife. His second wife, Sally, has been gone for nearly a year, having followed her former husband (who had been presumed dead) to the Scottish island of Mull. He cannot survive even a brief conversation with his son, Paul, without nearly coming to blows. His daughter, Clarissa, is pursuing her own transformations. His Tibetan colleague in Realty-Wise is itching to climb another rung on the great ladder of being. And Frank is undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. Anxious might be too modest a word to describe Frank’s state of mind.

Once again, Richard Ford paints a masterly picture of the modern condition in this gripping conclusion to his Frank Bascombe trilogy. The prose is dense with hesitant metaphor and promiscuous symbolism as Frank asserts, contradicts, and reasserts himself, more acted upon than acting, and incapable, seemingly, of transacting the smallest bit of business without disaster—physical, emotional, spiritual—rearing up and biting him. It’s hard to imagine a character more in need of our sympathy, or less able or likely to accept it.

Of course, endings are very much the theme of The Lay of the Land. One way or another, it’s the end for Frank. Eschatology breeds an intemperate clamouring for teleology. But whether Frank can piece together his life as a whole is an open question. And the end, when it comes, is always a surprise, however much we prepare ourselves.

Recommended without reservation.

Reading – a year in review, 2012

2012 was a very good year for reading. I discovered new authors whose work I enjoyed: Tove Jansson, Richard Ford, Susanna Clarke, Colm Tóibín. The book club whose meetings I attend continued to give satisfaction. I reread a few favourite novels. And I discovered some new favourites.  I also wrote short reviews of each book I read this past year and posted them on LibraryThing, a few of which I re-posted here on this blog. I’ll continue with that in the year ahead.

Stats from my 2012 reading list:

  • 30 were borrowed from our public library
  • 15 have Canadian authors
  • 21 were chosen due to personal recommendations from friends
  • 11 are by authors who appear more than once on the 2012 list
  • 2 were being reread
  • 3 were read aloud by my wife and me
  • 22 are non-fiction

Books read in 2012 (88):

  • Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time: volume 2, Within a Budding Grove
  • Baker, Nicholson. Vox
  • Fish, Stanley. How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One
  • Watson, Mark. Eleven
  • Graff, Gerald and Birkenstein, Cathy. They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Persuasive Writing
  • Murakami, Haruki. Sputnik Sweetheart
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life
  • Tóibín, Colm. Brooklyn
  • Oatley, Keith. Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction
  • Roth, Philip. American Pastoral
  • Smiley, Jane. 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel
  • Stein, Sol. How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them
  • Clarke, Susanna. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
  • Cossé, Laurence. A Novel Bookstore
  • Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad
  • Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility
  • Clarke, Susanna. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories
  • Spurling, Hilary. Matisse: the life
  • Babbitt, Susan E. Impossible Dreams: Rationality, Integrity, and Moral Imagination
  • Stock, Brian. Ethics Through Literature: Ascetic and Aesthetic Reading in Western Culture
  • Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
  • Morrison, Toni. Beloved
  • Moore, Lisa. February
  • Jansson, Tove. Fair Play
  • Pym, Barbara. The Sweet Dove Died
  • Lapeña, Shari. Happiness Economics
  • Barnes, Julian. The Sense of an Ending
  • MacLeod, Alexander (compiler), Pick, Alison (compiler), and Selecky, Sarah (compiler). The Journey Prize Stories 23
  • Moore, Lorrie. A Gate at the Stairs
  • Patchett, Ann. State of Wonder
  • Jansson, Tove. The Summer Book
  • Fish, Stanley. Save the World on Your Own Time
  • Currie, Gregory. Narratives and Narrators: A Philosophy of Stories
  • Goldie, Peter. On Personality
  • Iyer, Lars. Dogma
  • Tournier, Michel. Vendredi ou La Vie sauvage
  • Yoshimoto, Banana. Asleep
  • Grossman, Lev. The Magicians
  • Poulin, Jacques. Mister Blue
  • Shields, Carol. Jane Austen
  • Grossman, Lev. The Magician King
  • Stewart, Trenton Lee. The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict
  • Sileika, Antanas. Underground
  • Murakami, Haruki. The Elephant Vanishes
  • Hedges, Peter. The Heights
  • Rosoff, Meg. How I Live Now
  • Hample, Zack. Watching Baseball Smarter
  • Mandanna, Sarita. Tiger Hills
  • Benioff, David. City of Thieves
  • Donoghue, Emma. Room
  • Calvino, Italo. Why Read The Classics?
  • Mars-Jones, Adam. Noriko Smiling
  • Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird
  • Tyler, Anne. The Beginner’s Goodbye
  • Jansson, Tove. A Winter Book
  • Prose, Francine. My New American Life
  • Cascardi, Anthony J. (ed.) Literature and the Question of Philosophy
  • Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre
  • Perkins-Valdez, Dolen. Wench
  • St. John Mandel, Emily. The Lola Quartet
  • Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights
  • Lamott, Anne. Bird By Bird
  • Jansson, Tove. The True Deceiver
  • Hough, Robert. Dr. Brinkley’s Tower
  • Baker, Nicholson. The Way the World Works
  • McEwan, Ian. Sweet Tooth
  • Saunders, George. In Persuasion Nation
  • Ford, Richard. The Sportswriter
  • Henderson, Eleanor. Ten Thousand Saints
  • Chabon, Michael. Telegraph Avenue
  • Walter, Jess. Beautiful Ruins
  • Strube, Cordelia. Milosz
  • Fforde, Jasper. The Woman Who Died A Lot
  • Christie, Michael (compiler), Kuitenbrouwer, Kathryn (compiler), and Winter, Kathleen (compiler). The Journey Prize Stories 24
  • Munro, Alice. Dear Life
  • Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel
    Perrotta, Tom (ed.). The Best American Short Stories 2012
  • Ellmann, Lucy. Mimi
  • Goldie, Peter. The Mess Inside: Narrative, Emotion, and the Mind
  • Moore, Lorrie. Self-Help
  • Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue
  • Ford, Richard. Independence Day
  • Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus
  • McCann, Colum. Let the Great World Spin
  • Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go
  • DeWitt, Patrick. The Sisters Brothers
  • Fitzgerald, Penelope. The Golden Child
  • Jonasson, Jonas. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared


Running – a year in review, 2012

I did better with my running this year. A personal best. Indeed, 2012 sees me surpassing my previous highest year total by 30 percent. This despite a couple of months of very little running as I nursed what I assume was runner’s knee. At least, I did manage to get out running every month.

Here are how the top 10 years now rank:

  1. 2012
  2. 2010
  3. 2004
  4. 2006
  5. 2011
  6. 2003
  7. 2008
  8. 2009
  9. 2002
  10. 2005

Can I do better in 2013? I really don’t know.

Independence Day by Richard Ford

Frank Bascombe has entered his Existence Period. It’s that time in his life when he is unconnected to those around him, cut off from his ex-wife and two children who have decamped to Deep River, uncommitted to the current woman he is seeing, and fundamentally distant from himself. He tools around Haddam, New Jersey, in his large automobile, encased in a kind of protective shell, observing, noting, scoping out the particulars of properties he may be in line to shift in his new career as a realtor, idling at the curb and in his own life. But the Existence Period is unstable, bound to collapse at the first sign of real emotion, whether that be despair or hope in the face of tragedy. And tragedy is definitely lurking. Everywhere.

A momentous Fourth of July weekend descends into a nightmarish world of crazed house purchasers, senseless murder, self harm and mutilation, and the constant threat of violence meted out by others or oneself (if one’s impulses are given free rein), which is met by vigilance in the form of patrolling police, private security, metal bars on domestic windows, handguns, or mace. Or it is allowed to overwhelm one, washing through one’s life like a purging torrent. And there is little doubt that Frank, loquaciously professing platitudes and realtor buzz to stoke up the confidence of himself and his clients, is not up to the challenges that he is about to face. Little wonder that it seems highly likely that his Existence Period is about to come crashing to a close.

Once again Richard Ford’s writing is a marvel of density and light. He effortlessly draws the reader into claustrophobic inducing proximity to Frank’s mutable conscience and visceral encounter with his environment. Much of what we encounter here is remembered experience—a lot of ground has been covered between the end of The Sportswriter and the time of Independence Day. But how much of that reported experience is dependable? Frank is such a cocktail of conflicted emotions and aspirations overlaid with jaw-dropping rationalizations. A reader can’t help but begin to feel sorry for him (even if he isn’t especially likeable). You begin rooting for him to break the surface of his supposedly placid Existence Period even if doing so may destroy him.

And break through he does, though not in any way he would have planned or wished. And change does look set to come to Deep River and to Haddam. Crazed homebuyers transform into peaceable renters. The literally barking mad are rendered merely speechless. And Frank looks hopefully toward his next period, which may, he tells himself, be his Permanent Period.

Riveting reading. Highly recommended.