Reads from Men

I don't want to give anyone the idea that I don't read male authors. In fact, in the last few weeks, I have read at least four, but there are only three that I want to talk about today. All of the authors mentioned below, save the last one, are winners of major literary prizes: the International Impac Dublin, the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. But only one of them can compare to the book listed at the very end. (Psst...the author is a woman.)

Now here's a question for you reader: Why do male authors seem to get so much more press and win so many more literary prizes?

In order to keep this positive, I'll start with the book I liked the most.

DeNiro's Game by Rawi Hage

In Hage's very first novel, we meet two 20-something best friends, Bassam and George, who have grown up in the Christian sector of war-torn Beirut. Bassam desperately looks for ways to escape to Europe, while George gets involved with the Christian militia.

Hage paints a vivid picture of the city, its casualties and the harshness of daily life, right down to the dust specks. No detail is beyond his ability to describe.  If you found the Lebanese civil war confusing with its Christian and Muslim factions and its Syrian and Israeli presence, this book may clarify things for you.

This is a beautifully written book with a great twist. It was also the winner of the International Impac Dublin. I will be giving this book away this week. See details at the top of the right sidebar.

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo 

Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo is an astute observer of  small town dynamics, particularly those in Upstate New York and New England. Unfortunately, none of those realistic details can be found in That Old Cape Magic. We do, however, get some of Cape Code through the childhood vacation memories of  Griffin, the main character. His insufferable Ivy-league educated parents, also the book's most interesting characters, found the Cape to be worthy of their annual presence after working as professors at colleges in the "Mid-fucking-West." Already a late-middle ager, Griffin has recently lost his father and finds himself driving around the Cape trying to find the best place to sprinkle his ashes. Griffin is also in denial about his grieving, which his wife Joy eventually finds too much to bear.

Compared with Russo's Empire Falls, Nobody's Fool and the very funny Straight Man, That Old Cape Magic is my least favourite. What I disliked the most was the lack of humour, something that the author has always delivered on in the past. Russo writes in his acknowledgments that he has recently lost his mother, so maybe that explains the lack of laughs and the departure from his previous books. The Washington Post called this effort, "Marvelous . . . Utterly charming." Whateva!

I'll be dropping this off at S.W. Welch's store in the near future.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Okay, I believed the hype, and I bought the hardcover version of Freedom. As you may have all heard, Franzen made the cover of Time Magazine for his latest book with the caption "the Great American Novelist." Nine years ago, he apparently said that he had not been comfortable having The Corrections, his previous chef d'oeuvre, be part of Oprah's book club. Not learning from her previous error, Oprah chose Freedom to be part of her book club, but Franzen was apparently not partial to having her sticker on his book because he was really trying to reach out to "male readers," and he didn't think that the dudes would go for it if they saw the Oprah sticker.

Aren't most writers just happy to have people read their book?

Anyway, the book is well written. The majority of it transpires in St. Paul, Minnesota. The characters Walter and Patty Berglund are environmentally conscious parents who always do the right thing. Patty is a stay-at-home mom who dotes on her children. Walter's best friend in college is punk musician Richard, whom Patty has always had a thing for. The characters are pretty bland. In fact, the most interesting character is Walter and Patty's son who rebels against his family and becomes a Republican. Somehow I got the impression that Franzen used Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine to flesh out his storyline. Yes, the story reveals many of the contradictions that we are living with today, but the book is not that memorable. The most interesting female character is Patty's sister, an actress who lives in New York.

I'll be dropping this one off at S.W. Welch's store in the near future too.

Heave by Christy Ann Conlin

Now, this book is a gem. A used bookstore that owed me money paid me back in the only thing it had--books. This happened to be among the books I chose. Heave opens with Seraphina Sullivan, our main protagonist, spinning out of control. Although she's only 20 years old, she has both a drug and alcohol problem. She still manages to maintain her lifelong friendships with her less than perfect mates in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. Conlin writes beautifully and creates compelling characters that remain simple and completely believable. Serrie's mother is overworked because her father, although kind, does not have any skills that make him even remotely employable. Instead he collects outhouses, which he installs on their property. They also live with the grandmother and aunt who are both understanding and irritable in equal measures; in other words, the family dynamic makes for some hilarious reading. Serrie's life eventually picks up after she gets out of rehab, but she has an understandable relapse. The root of her initial breakdown is revealed at the very end.

I've never heard of Christy Ann Conlin, but the Toronto Star said that the book should come with the warning, "Excess of Talent," and I think the reviewer is right. The Globe and Mail named it one of the best books of 2002.

This is Conlin's very first novel, which is on par with Hage's first effort in terms of the quality of the writing. So where's Conlin's international award?

I'll be giving away Heave next week.

Tell me, Shonda, what do they put in Maritime water? Why do so many great writers come from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland?

Other Reviews and Related Posts
The Nikolski Coincidence
Hard Times and Used Books 



Shonda | October 17, 2010 at 3:14 PM

I feel like I'm under enormous pressure to respond to this post. ;-) I don't know if there is an excess of talent per se from the East Coast, but I think Canadian funding for literature has played a huge part in bringing our country's talent to the forefront. At least, until this administration came into power. So glad you've found some good reads to recommend. I've taken note of them all. You should definitely suggested Heave to the upcoming Canada Reads list... I had never heard of him/it myself, so a little CBC visibility might go a long way!

Heather | October 17, 2010 at 7:22 PM

Good suggestion Shonda. I think I will make that suggestion. As I've stated above, there are so many great writers that go unnoticed. It's such a shame. Sorry for centering you in the blogosphere like that. I know it can be embarrassing.

Lazarus | October 19, 2010 at 11:04 PM first time reading this blog, very thought-provoking. I agree with your take on Richard Russo's book. My fave of his is "Risk Pool," check it out sometime, hilarious and moving. I was disappointed by "That Old Cape Magic," even though I received a personally-autographed copy from him. Won't tell you why. I haven't read "Freedom" yet, but "The Corrections" was one of the most astounding books I've ever read and I find it hard to believe that Franzen doesn't deliver again. The man is brilliant. Norman Mailer, before he died, called Franzen the best contemporary writer. I will read your recommendations, eventually. Great post, keep it up!

Heather | October 19, 2010 at 11:22 PM

I've never read Risk Pool, but now I think I will. Funny, I read a lot and I didn't think that the Corrections was that great. What exactly about it did you like so much? I didn't find the characters very likeable... Do tell.

Yvette Doucette | October 21, 2010 at 6:20 PM

LOVED HEAVE!! Christy Ann rocks!

Heather | October 21, 2010 at 8:27 PM

M so with you on that! H

Unknown | October 29, 2010 at 8:32 PM

Christy's great. Heave's great. I gave my copy to the library a few years ago (I sometimes have far too many books, because I review them as part of my work) and would love to have another. Just so's you know.

Heather | October 29, 2010 at 9:02 PM

hi Jodi! I'll put your name into the draw. Thanks for stopping by and the follow. I appreciate it. H

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