Travels with Charley

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Travels with Charley: In Search of AmericaTravels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
Published: 1962
Narrated by: Gary Sinise
Length: 07:58 (214 pages)

I love Steinbeck and I love travelogues, so I had high hopes going into this one, and thankfully it did not disappoint. It’s the first of his non-fiction work that I’ve tried, and I’m excited to read more. His fiction is often quite dark, and while there certainly is humour, he has to hold it back a bit to maintain the tone. He’s free to let loose in this book, and the result is a continuously amusing account of his trip around America in 1960.

Charley, full name Charles le Chien, is an elderly black French poodle, and Steinbeck decides to take him on the trip for a little companionship. They have a sweet relationship, and I really love how he wrote about Charley, getting in his head and finding motivation for each action. It really brought him forward as a character, rather than just another generic dog companion.

The two of them hop in his camper truck, named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse, and leaves his home in Long Island. He drives up New England with a brief stop at the Canadian border and then back down and westwards across the country. His trip takes him right over to the west coast, down to California, through Texas and into the deep south, and then back up home, essentially completing a loop of the entire country. Steinbeck said he’d spent his life writing about America, but he had lost touch with the country and needed to reconnect.

I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation – a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every states I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.

At one point, Steinbeck stops in Texas for a ‘Thanksgiving orgy’. In Canada, orgies are more of an Easter tradition, so I was briefly taken aback. I’m still unsure if this was a common usage of the term in the 60s or if Steinbeck just decided to employ it to give the Thanksgiving party a sense of vulgar gluttony. It was a meal of Chili con Carne, and I feel like the two images don’t mix well. I read quite a lot of older literature, so I’m used to outdated vernacular. I don’t give a second thought when Watson ejaculates mid-conversation or Batman pulls a boner, but this was my first encounter with an innocuous holiday orgy.

There were scenes in this that did feel embellished, conversations and scenarios that seemed to fit a little too perfectly. After finishing, I read a bit more on the book and there is some confusion over what is and isn’t fictionalized. He was 58 with some health issues when he left on this trip, apparently against the recommendation of his doctor, so many people believe he only slept under the stars a few times and mostly stayed in expensive hotels.

Regardless of how much of this is true, it’s still a fantastic read. I love how he writes, his insights into human nature, and how he manages to find comedy in the mundane. The chapters near the end detailing the racist attitudes he found down south, and his witnessing the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in which a group of middle-class housewives calling themselves The Cheerleaders would scream vitriol at the black children trying to attend school, was heartbreaking to read. I obviously knew these things happened, but I often forget just how recent it was. The young girl, Ruby Bridges, is only 63 today. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that traces of that hate, so strong that grown adults would scream like animals at those poor children, can still be found in America today.

Beyond my failings as a racist, I knew I was not wanted in the South. When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not want witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble.

I love Steinbeck even more after reading this. It also left me wanting to jump in a truck and travel the country with my dog. Although, if I were to do such a thing, I would also be secretly staying in comfortable hotels the entire trip, if only to be well-rested for the Thanksgiving orgy.

November in Review

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Books Acquired:
Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi by Anthony Bourdain
The Amateur Gourmet by Adam D. Roberts
A Girl and Her Pig by April Bloomfield
Food Artisans of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands by Don Genova

Books Read:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb
The Amateur Gourmet by Adam D. Roberts
Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

After a busy October, it was nice to spend November unwinding a bit. Normally I might need that, with stressful holidays coming up, but Christmas should be smooth sailing this year. I’m staying in town for the first time in over a decade! I’m actually ridiculously excited about not entering an airport for the entire month.

I wasn’t planning to buy any books this month, but Lee-Ann and her mom left me in a bookstore while they ran some errands, and THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS. I’m still reading through A Girl and Her Pig and haven’t made any recipes from the book yet, but I’m excited to try some. Bloomfield was on season 4 of Mind of a Chef, which I love, and even though her episodes weren’t my favourite, it’s pretty clear that she holds a lot of respect with her fellow chefs. So far, the main entrées look a bit intimidating, but there are quite a few sides and breakfast items that I’ll be trying. I may have to work my way up to her recipe for whole lamb’s head, brain-in and tongue-in.

I read some great books this month and feel like I’m getting over the reading slump that’s been plaguing me. The Amateur Gourmet helped with that. Even though I was lukewarm on parts of it, it’s quick and funny and relaxing to read, just like his weblog. I need to seek out more books like this – food writing by enthusiastic home cooks. I’ll gladly take any recommendations!

Movies watched:
The Double (2013) – This is the second film Richard Ayoade has directed, and it was great. A retelling of Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same title, it stars Jesse Eisenberg and is dark, funny, and strange. He took chances with the cinematography and the score, and the result was a really unique experience. It will leave you as befuddled as the book did.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine (2016) – Great food documentary on the history and struggles in Israel, told through their food culture and focusing on how their diet has been influenced by the country’s mixed heritage.

TV watched:
The Mind of a Chef: Season 5 (2016) – I just love this show. The first half of the season follows Chef Ludo Lefebvre in LA. I was disappointed that the second half of the season, which would normally follow a new chef, was just highlight compilations from the whole series. Enjoyable, but obviously not as good as new content.

Stranger Things: Season 2 (2017) – I’d heard this second season wasn’t as good as the first, but I think I liked it even more. It’s at least on par, in my opinion. Good fun.

Games played:
Battlerite (2017) (PC) – The only thing I really played this month was the free-to-play game Battlerite. It’s a fun arena battle game with a lot of depth. I’m not sure if I’ll put any more time into it, but it was fun to check out.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

Three Men on the Bummel

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Three Men on the Bummel (Three Men, #2)Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
Published: 1900
Narrated by: David Case
Series: Three Men #2
Length: 06:59 (208 pages)

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) was my favourite novel last year. It was completely new to me and a great surprise. I was excited to discover a sequel existed, although I approached it with some trepidation knowing it almost certainly wouldn’t live up to the first book.

“A ‘Bummel’,” I explained, “I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when it’s over.”

The three men, sans dog, decide to take a cycling trip through the German Black Forest. Like the first book, the trip is really just there to provide an opportunity for Jerome to deliver his witty observations. It was interesting how relatable most aspects of the trip still were today, 117 years later – from trying to communicate through phrases in a guide book to struggling to understand your train ticket. A big difference in Three Men on the Bummel is that each scene feels more structured, with more focus put on the set piece itself rather than the anecdotes and rambling thoughts that come with it, but in a way the confinement of a slightly more refined narrative is what holds this book back from the level the first reached.

A barrage of rambling thoughts and anecdotes with no plot to hold it together would not normally be a positive for me, but every page of Three Men in a Boat was hilarious and insightful. There might literally be a quotable line on every page. This book has some hilarious moments, and I very much enjoyed reading it, but I don’t think it will stick with me in the same way. In fact, I know it won’t, because I read this a couple of months ago (I’m behind, don’t judge) and managed to lose my notes when switching phones, and I am having a bit of trouble recalling more than a few specific scenes. Not sure if that’s an indication of this being less memorable, though, or just the normal for my awful goldfish memory.

I hate when people come back from a trip and suddenly decide they have insights into the psyche of that country’s citizens, from speaking to a couple of people on a train, a bartender, and a taxi driver, but that said, this observation at the end of the novel did jump out at me as somewhat chilling, considering the wars that were still to come:

The German can rule others, and be ruled by others, but he cannot rule himself. […] Their everlasting teaching is duty. It is a fine ideal for any people; but before buckling to it, one would wish to have a clear understanding as to what this “duty” is. The German idea of it would appear to be: “blind obedience to everything in buttons. […] When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine.

Despite my lack of gushing, I did thoroughly enjoy this. Jerome K. Jerome was a comic genius, and I plan to read everything he’s written.

Microserfs

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MicroserfsMicroserfs by Douglas Coupland
Published: 1995
Length: 371 pages

This one took me ages and ages to get through. It’s a good example of the sort of book I need to learn to put down and come back to later – not a bad book, but one I just wasn’t feeling it at that moment. Instead I did my usual, suffered through, and essentially stopped reading. Maybe one of these days I’ll learn, but most likely not.

This is the story of a group of Microsoft programmers in the early 90s who leave the company to form a start-up in Silicon Valley. It’s written as journal entries on the protagonist’s PowerBook. It’s a fun trip back to that decade, and while you’d think all of the pop culture references would leave it horribly dated, the central themes the characters obsess over – finding meaning in what you do, balancing work and personal life, health, love, loss – are all timeless. The nerdy side of it even feels quite fresh and forward-thinking for the time. They were developing something similar to Minecraft in their start-up, and the idea of trying to make it big with a small start-up is easily as relevant today as it was back then.

It’s a simple plot, a techie slice-of-life novel, which I found very relatable as a programmer in the future version of this world. But the characters all felt a bit flat to me. They just didn’t come to life at all, and while they worked as vessels for Coupland to present his hilarious and interesting philosophical musings and rambling observations through, they left me with no attachment to the story. He did do a brilliant job near the end of finally bringing in actual human emotion, but that could have hit so much harder if I had felt anything prior to that.

I really wish I had read this in the 90s. I would have absolutely loved it. Reading it now just made me want to re-read JPod, a mid-2000s take on a programmer’s life and the spiritual successor to Microserfs, which I see now isn’t nearly as similar as I was led to believe. I typically find Coupland’s novels to be entertaining and quick reads, and despite my issues this time, I think I could return to it at some point and get a lot more from it. This time, it was just alright.

Back, Sack & Crack (& Brain)

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Back, Sack & Crack (& Brain): A Rather Graphic Novel About Living With Embarrassing Health ProblemsBack, Sack & Crack (& Brain): A Rather Graphic Novel About Living With Embarrassing Health Problems by Robert Wells
Format: Original Graphic Novel
Illustrated by: Robert Wells
Publisher: Robinson
Published: 2017
Length: 224 pages

We came across this in Forbidden Planet while we were browsing nerdy things this summer in London, and I was excited to see what it was all about. In this graphic novel, Robert Wells details his long-term struggle with various health issues, namely stomach problems and chronic, intermittently crippling, groin and back pain. He writes about how these symptoms first presented themselves, his difficulty in trying to get a diagnosis, and how these problems have affected his everyday life for the past twenty years.

I have Crohn’s disease, and as with most people with any kind of chronic intestinal issues, it took quite a few years to get a proper diagnosis. I spent over five years in and out of doctors’ offices, each time being told I just had irritable bowel syndrome before being immediately dismissed. None of the drugs prescribed seemed to help at all, and it was a very frustrating and frightening time in my life. I wasn’t always sick, but there was no way to predict when I would be and seemingly no way to treat it.

So a lot of what he describes in this graphic novel really hit home for me – the fear of not knowing what’s wrong with you, the frustration of struggling to get to the doctor’s office while sick for an appointment that amounts to nothing, the anxiety of getting on public transportation with no access to a washroom, the initial shame of having an embarrassing disorder (irritable bowel, I mean really?), having to miss out on social events with vague excuses.

#CrohnsLife in comic form.

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When you’re sick with an unknown illness over a long period, it can feel very lonesome. It feels like there’s no one else who understands what you’re going though, so when someone does show interest, it can be difficult not to unload on them hours upon hours of details – this doctor ignored me, the next two said I had this, one finally prescribed me this drug, it didn’t work so then I went on this, we then tried a different dosage, meanwhile I was trying this on my own – and on and on. There’s something in you that really wants to get across the full frustration of what’s happened. He’s been quite ill for a huge part of his life, so that’s a lot to unload, and this comic unfortunately falls into that trap a little too much. It is a memoir of his sickness, and sometimes I think he prioritized minute details over entertainment, although it does feel like that was a conscious decision. I imagine this was very therapeutic to write and draw.

A running theme in this is his doctors telling him the problem is in his head, and while he clearly hasn’t imagined all of these issues, he does come to the realization by the end that the stress of worrying could be making his symptoms worse. Reading that was a nice reminder to myself. Stress can really affect Crohn’s, and I have the uncanny ability to see everything that could possibly go wrong at any moment. I worry about getting sick, which in turn can make things worse, which then makes me more anxious, and it becomes a self-destructive cycle. While we were in Australia last month, I did try to be mindful about how much I worry about my illness and remind myself that I can’t control everything. I feel like it really helped, actually.

There’s no cure for Crohn’s, but I’m on drugs now that control it fairly well at the moment, and I have a wonderfully patient and understanding girlfriend, so I’m in a much better place. I have off days, and I still struggle with some drug side-effects and lingering anxiety, but Crohn’s can get quite nasty for people, so I consider myself lucky.

I really enjoyed this. I’m not sure how it would read to someone who couldn’t relate to what he’s going through, but he does do a great job of conveying what it feels like to live with chronic pain and an embarrassing illness. And props to him for having the confidence to write this. He really doesn’t hold back, particularly when drawing himself nude. I mean, give yourself at least a bit of a break, man. No one would know.

The Dinner

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The DinnerThe Dinner by Herman Koch
Published: 2009
Narrated by: Clive Mantle
Translated By: Sam Garrett (from Dutch in 2012)
Length: 08:55 (292 pages)

I’ve stated before that I enjoy unlikable curmudgeons for protagonists. Not in every book I read, but when I come across one I do consider it a treat. There’s something exciting about reading a character who completely personifies your worst Monday morning attitude, and this is one area where The Dinner succeeds.

Two couples meet at an expensive restaurant. The husbands are brothers, one was a school teacher and the other is a politician months away from an inevitable win. Over the course of the dinner, a dark family truth is revealed and we learn how they discovered this and how they plan to cope.

It’s a difficult novel to summarize, because a large part of the enjoyment of this is the slow reveal of the truth throughout the novel, the truth of the events that occurred as well as the true personalities of the characters. The novel, when not in flashback, takes place entirely in and around the restaurant. It’s the sort of story that depends completely on pacing, and Herman Koch really nailed that.

A terrible criminal act was committed, and the question of the novel is how the family will react and why they’ll react how they do. It’s interesting to see unfold, particularly when the characters are unsavoury and unpredictable.

Spoiler

What I didn’t enjoy is how Koch explained the behaviour of the protagonist and his son, how he essentially implied that Asperger’s was the cause of these people being violent sociopaths. He said in interviews that he didn’t want to name a disease, that he kept it vague to avoid people calling it a crude caricature, but in so obviously hinting at it the result was the same, even if he tried to rid himself of any personal responsibility.

There was really no need to even include this in the story. Trying to link this behaviour to a hereditary medical issue actually comes across as less believable than linking it to his environment and upbringing.

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Anyhoo, despite some problems, I found this to be a compelling read. Having a story take place throughout a dinner, with the actual narrative being divided up by course, was fun as well. I liked how he gave character clues around how they interacted with the food and service staff. The reviews on this seem to be very divided, with some people absolutely hating it, but I had a fun time listening to this one on audiobook.

Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens

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Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz ChickensBelieve Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard
Published: 2017
Narrated by: Eddie Izzard
Length: 14:37 (368 pages)

I’ve always been a fan of Eddie Izzard, so I was excited when I saw he had written a memoir and narrated it himself. I love self-narrated comedian memoirs. The book spends quite a bit of time on his young life, revolving around the early lose of his mother, and then continues on with his decade-long struggle to launch his comedy career – from street performing to live sketch comedy, and eventually to stand-up.

During this period, he was also coming to terms with being transgender. Coming out as trans today must be terrifying, but I can only imagine how that must have felt back then, with essentially no support. These days people at least have the Internet and a few public role models. It doesn’t mean their home life will be any easier, but at least there’s online support and evidence of people leading healthy and happy lives. He started trying to research this over thirty years ago in a library and eventually found a local support group, after first trying to reach out to a medical professional who essentially ignored him.

I always assumed his coming out must have been made easier by being a famous comedian. Society just tends to be more lenient on performers in that way, writing anything off as artistic eccentricity, but he came out before he was even street performing. I don’t think I’d have the confidence to walk out in public in a dress today, let alone back then. Thankfully it all seemed to go quite well for him. His father was accepting and, while he did have some confrontations, he seemed to be able to live openly quite peacefully.

This really jumps all over the place, covering a wide number of topics and stages of his life, just like you’d imagine a book written by Eddie Izzard would do. It finishes with his amazing charity run of 27 marathons in 27 days, which is just ridiculous. Sometimes I have trouble getting out to buy groceries.

This is definitely one to get on audiobook. He’s constantly going off on footnote tangents in his meandering way, the same as he does in his stand-up and in interviews, even looking things up live on his phone during the audiobook recording. It really adds a lot to the experience.

October in Review

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Books Acquired:
The Happy Numbers of Julius Miles by Jim Keeble
The Amateur Emigrant/The Silverado Squatters by Robert Louis Stevenson
My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci
I Am the Wolf: Lyrics and Writings by Mark Lanegan
If We All Spat at Once They’d Drown: Drawings About Class by Sam Wallman
Dear Writer Revisited by Carmel Bird
Law School: Sex and Relationship Advice by Benjamin Law, Jenny Phang
Pickled: Pickles, Vinegars, Kimchi and More by Freddie Janssen
Appetite by Nigel Slater
#takedown by David Blumenstein

Books Read:
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
Nod by Adrian Barnes
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

I always have big plans to read on vacation, but it almost never happens, and last month was no exception. Very little reading, but we spent three weeks in Australia, so that’s a fairly good excuse.

Lee-Ann used to live there, and has travelled around the country quite a bit, but this was my first visit. For the first week and a half we were in Western Australia, staying in Mandurah. We spent a couple of days eating and drinking our way through the Margaret River region and also managed to spend a bit of time in both Perth and Fremantle. We got to go out on the water a couple of times as well. I drove the boat one day, which was very exciting, and a we were lucky enough to find a few dolphins while we were out there. I’ll put a short video up on my Instagram and Twitter once I get around to editing all of my snippets together.

Will be sorry to leave Falcon in a couple of days. It's been a great trip so far.

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Spent the day in Castlemaine today. What a cool, laid-back town.

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We like to try to take selfies with animals when we travel. From a safe distance, of course. Side note: I don’t know how to smile for the camera, so I just open my mouth.

Continuing the tradition with a kangaroo selfie!

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Alpaca selfie!

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We did visit quite a few bookshops and buy quite a few books. I noticed that several of the shops had these blind date books, where they wrap a novel in paper and write vague descriptions on the front, which I thought was a fun idea. I decided to pick up one, and managed to choose a book I hadn’t heard of and didn’t own.

Saw a couple bookshops with these @ablinddatewithabook stands. Thought I'd try one!

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Movies watched:
The Big Sick (2017) – Sitting on planes for about forty hours this month, and having a touch of motion sickness that made reading tricky, I watched a lot of movies. I’ll just list my favourites here, and this was one of the best. I loved it. Having been a fan of Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon for years, I was excited to see this story of how they met after hearing about it on podcasts and such in the past. Funny and touching.

Hidden Figures (2016) – The inspiring and true account of a group of black mathematicians and their integral involvement in NASA during the race to space. Loved this also – a perfectly paced story.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010) – We watched this in the office on Halloween, and it was so much better than I’d anticipated. Hilarious and surprisingly smart horror comedy.

Wilson (2017) – I read this comic just before I started this weblog and really enjoyed it, although it hit weirdly close to home for me at the time. The main character is quite unique in how he’s both misanthropic and desperately searching for human connection. Very funny dark comedy, and I wouldn’t have considered Woody Harrelson for the part if you’d asked me, but he did a brilliant job.

TV watched:
Chef’s Table: Season 3 (2017) – I love this series! I’d forgotten that we’d never gotten around to finishing this, so we watched the last few episodes. Great as always.

Games played:
Golf Story (2017) (Nintendo Switch) – I’ve only played the first couple of hours of this, on the plane to Australia, but it was a fun little concept. I’m not sure if it’s going to hold my attention to the end, but I plan to eventually get back to it.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

Ninefox Gambit

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Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1)Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Published: 2016
Narrated by: Emily Woo Zeller
Series: The Machineries of Empire #1
Length: 10:52 (384 pages)

Captain Kel Cheris is a brilliant captain in a very strictly run army and finds herself disgraced by running unapproved formations while trying to keep her soldiers alive, but she is given one chance to redeem herself. To do so, she must take back a lost fortress with the help of a master tactician from the past. He has never lost a battle, but he’s also a murderous traitor.

The first chapter of this was so confusing, with so much unexplained terminology, that I nearly gave up. A lot of people seem to see this as part of the book’s charm, throwing the reader in headfirst and letting them slowly figure things out, but charmed I was not. I listened to this as an audiobook, and when I listen to a book I want to absorb just as much of it as I would if I was reading it on the page. I’ll let my mind wander during podcasts or music, but for audiobooks I actively listen. So a book like this, that is purposefully unclear, really throws me for a loop. I appreciate the author trying to avoid info dumping at the beginning, but it just leaves the reader feeling like they missed some required exposition. I listened to the first chapter twice, thinking I must have missed something.

Once the book gets rolling, it has a gripping story with some fascinating characters that also happen to have a refreshing take on the theme of gender identity and sexuality, something that isn’t focused on but is there in the background. The characters change and surprise you throughout the novel, and the ideas he’s come up with really do feel fresh, but the writing made it difficult to appreciate. This is the first in a trilogy, and I’m still unsure if I should continue or not. Now that I have a grasp of the world, maybe the second book will be a smoother read?

Good Bones and Simple Murders

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Good Bones and Simple MurdersGood Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood
Published: 1994
Length: 165 pages

This is a collection of short stories and essays covering a wide variety of topics. I was never a huge fan of collections like this, and while I have warmed up to them over the last couple of years, I still had a hard time with this little book.

A lot of these felt like writing exercises to me, the sort of thing that can be more fun to write than to read. I like the idea of short, experimental fiction, but a lot of the pieces here felt very by the number. The topics were varied and interesting, but her handling of each of them felt very similar and, because of that, predictable, even when many of the stories or essays seemed to want to surprise the reader. I think if I read one story a month, I would have enjoyed a lot more of this, but you can really see the stitching when you read them all one after another.

That said, a few of these I absolutely loved. I was happy to see In Love With Raymond Chandler included in this, which is a piece I posted about six years ago, in which she gushes over Chandler’s writing in the form of an imagined love affair. Murder in the Dark and Happy Endings are two others that come to mind as favourites.

I may have to re-read parts of this. I have a feeling I’ll enjoy more of it when I’m in the right frame of mind and spread out the reading a bit more.