Steven Galloway’s Houdini is as stageworthy as the man himself. And Martin Strauss, the man who killed Houdini, is his own elusive character. The Confabulist is a great story about magic, illusion, and escape artists.
I’m a fan of Steven Galloway so in many ways I felt predisposed to liking The Confabulist. I found it as page-turning as I remember Finnie Walsh being, on par topic wise with Ascension, and the style of writing as intriguing as The Cellist of Sarajevo.
Having recently read Bruce MacNab’s nonfiction account of Houdini and Bess’ tour of the Maritimes in The Metamorphosis, a lot of the Houdini stories seemed very familiar to me. But that’s the wonderful thing about celebrities. The general public can revel in thinking we know a lot about a person who quite often portrays a public persona that is quite different than the private one.
What I love about Galloway’s novel is that fiction lets us speculate more freely about the private persona.
Houdini was a great showman and certainly understood marketing and publicity. He was one of the most photographed men of his time and even though he died in 1926 (the first time *wink*) I feel like I’ve seen him perform.
Houdini and Magic
The famous and infamous are always fascinating, especially entertainers. Frank Sinatra, for example, is so lauded but also many say ol’ blue eyes wasn’t a nice guy. These men at the top of their game need such an ego to perform, I’m sure that if they don’t start out nasty, as Julia says, they develop that as a coping mechanism. What I like about Galloway’s version of Houdini is that he gives us the entertainer and a version of the man behind the scenes. Both are inventions.
Houdini invented himself: the name, the act, everything. And that’s the great American promise, that you can come from nothing and build your fortune. What a perfect illusion.
Speaking of invention and illusions, there’s something uncanny about Houdini. His life is a lovely dichotomy. He spent 26 years in the 19th century with horse and buggy, telegrams and struggling to make a name for himself and then 26 years in the 20th century with automobiles, telephones, radio and riches and celebrity.
The technological advances alone must have seemed like magic to people. Then for a magician as practiced in slight of hand and flexibility as Houdini to use that technology in his act, it must have been a double whammy for the audience. Oh, the great power! No wonder the spiritualists were excited.
Memory, Madness and Conspiracy Theories
I have a fondness for fools who speak the truth, everything from the characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the jesters in Shakespearean plays. So Martin Strauss has my ear from the beginning of the novel when he introduces himself and the fact that the constant ringing of tinnitus can lead the afflicted, not that he is, to madness and suicide. What an opening!
Speaking of opening, the epigraph is from Aldous Huxley, “Every man’s memory is his private literature.” The more I thought about that, the more interested I became in Martin. Houdini is his own creation. He’s telling himself stories about who he is. So is Martin.
In the grocery store parking lot, Martin can’t unlock the door to his car. That’s because it’s not his car. Indeed, he’s never owned a green Chevrolet yet he has a clear memory of pulling into the lot and parking that particular car. He says that he tries to dismiss these small incidents but that they come with a memory, a recollection that he knows is false but which seems real.
Sometimes we tell stories that we makeup about ourselves. I’ve experienced that with jokes. A funny incident happened to me and one night at a party, my husband retold the story as if it happened to him! Well, he said, it sounds better in the first person. Houdini has showmanship as the reason behind his stories (as well as affairs that he wants to protect Bess from), but why does Martin fabricate his identity? Do we tell these stories and alter our memories because of something we are proud of or because of something we are ashamed of, or likely both?
When it comes to conspiracies, Houdini seems both proud of and ashamed of his participation with the CIA. The mystery and intrigue and prestige that is awarded him plays into the persona he’s creating, and yet it comes with its own faults and secrets that can’t be shared.
I don’t want to spoil the mystery and intrigue of Martin’s character, but there are so many great quotes so I’ll try to choose one that doesn’t reveal too much. He’s talking to Alice about confabulations and why certain false memories are so persistent and he says, “nothing is in the past for me. Because I remember it in the present, it’s in my head right now, though it’s always reconstructed. And reconstructions can’t be trusted. I can’t be trusted. None of us can.”
I love characters who warn us poor readers not to believe them.
The female characters in The Confabulist really have supporting roles to our two stars, Houdini and Martin Strauss. In the case of Houdini, it’s steadfast Bess who knows Harry’s signs both on stage and off. He trusts Bess above all others and it’s Bess who sticks with him. She seems secondary both to the act and to the story Galloway is telling. For Martin, the girl is Clara but he mistrusts her love and doesn’t stick with her. Clara is also secondary to the act of Martin punching Houdini on that ill-fated night in Montreal. Then there’s Alice, who is the audience for the story that Martin is telling about his encounter with Houdini and the events that led to him killing Houdini, twice.
There are similarities though too. Both men idolize their mothers. There are two beautiful scenes in the novel about the death of a mother. The first is Houdini saying farewell to his mother when he sets sail for Europe, and the grief he experiences upon learning of her death shortly after. The second is Martin consoling Alice when he learns that her mother is dead. “Being a parent is a monumental thing. You shape reality for another person. You cannot be an illusion … If you have done a good job, what remains is the part of you that was magical.” I thought that was a lovely thought but also curious because “if you have done a bad job, or no job at all, what remains of you is proof that the world is an unfeeling place.”
Both men idolize their mothers, and those mothers appear magical to them, but they also treat the world as if it is an unfeeling place. They are mistrusting of the outside world, they have one-night affairs, and they have illusions and disillusions about politics, women, and life in general. These are strange men and they make for interesting characters, which is perhaps why the women in the novel don’t take centre stage.
Loved the book.
The Confabulist by Steven Galloway
Published by Knopf
Vancouver Sun Book Club Chat with Steven Galloway
Posted by Monique at 10:35 AM.
Book Reviews •
I always cite 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as my favourite book and Alistair Macleod as my favourite author. To have lost both authors in such a short span of time is heartbreaking even though it’s been years since either put out a new work. What I loved about both was that neither ever misplaced a word. The sentences were tight, the quality of the storytelling was epic and their magnitude as authors was greater than great.
I never met Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I did spend 2 months in his country of birth and the culture of that part of South America was heavily infused in his writing. Reading Marquez was a way to venture back to that place and to basically feel like a time traveller.
A Nobel Literature prize winner. A great author. He died on April 17 at the age of 87.
My favourite copy of 100 Years of Solitude is in shabby condition, thanks to an ill-fated lending of said copy to my now husband. I should note that he bought me a lovely collector’s edition as an apology, but I held on to my original version and still prefer it.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Love in the Time of Cholera are two other favourites. And there are countless scenes that will stick with me forever, in particular the clouds of yellow butterflies.
I wish Alistair Macleod had stayed with us until 87 but he was only 77 years young when he passed away on Easter Sunday, April 20.
His first short story collection, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, is a slim volume that packs a hefty punch. Each story is a masterpiece. Before I was properly introduced to Alistair Macleod’s writing in a Canadian literature class in university, I was familiar with the cadence of his voice from listening to some of the stories read on CBC radio. Every time I read Macleod’s writing, I can hear his voice. It’s a wonderful experience.
When he published No Great Mischief in 1999 I had the pleasure of meeting him at BookExpo in Toronto. I had two girlfriends who were working at McClelland & Stewart at the time and one had the task of typing up pages and pages of text from Macleod’s handwritten, yellow foolscap. When he won the $10,000 Trillium Book Award, he chuckled that the kids could get another topping on their pizza now. I have my signed copies of Lost Salt Gift of Blood, No Great Mischief and Remembrance.
Macleod and his economy of words will always be my barometer for good writing. Be brief, be brilliant, be gone. I suppose it’s fitting that the last time I saw Alistair Macleod was at the Vancouver International Writers Festival and he read from his short story “Remembrance.”
Officer of the Order of Canada and multiple award winner, Alistair Macleod will be greatly missed.
Posted by Monique at 01:10 PM.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel
You can tell from the writing style that Maria Semple writes for tv (Mad About You, Ellen, and Arrested Development. There’s the charm and gentle funny nature of Mad About You, the snark of Ellen, and the quirkiness and mindboggling reality checks of Arrested Development. The basics of the story are this: Bee is 15. Her mother has disappeared. Her father is cagey about the reasons. The novel is pieced together in emails, invoices and the absolutely funny school memos.
This is the clarify that Bernadette Fox, Bee Branch’s mother, was driving the vehicle that ran over the other parent’s foot. I hope you all had a wonderful weekend despite the rain.
Head of School
Some of the funniest moments, without spoiling the story, are about blackberry abatement, 5-way corners in Seattle, and parenting in a world without school grades.
I highly recommend this for people who like funny, quirky characters, non-traditional novel writing and are generally willing to laugh at themselves. Undoubtably there’s something of all of us in these characters.
Posted by Monique at 10:01 AM.
All the Broken Things is this month’s Vancouver Sun Book Club read. Since the book club members get a say in what we read, I’m predisposed to like the books we pick and All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is no exception. It’s well written, the story is interesting, the characters are true characters and parts of the book are stuck in my mind.
All the Broken Things is about a Vietnamese family who moves to Canada in the early 80s. They are suffering in various ways from Agent Orange. The father died on the boat. The mother has sores that she keeps from the children, the youngest was born deformed and the boy Bo is mentally scarred by the experience. Bo oscillates between fight or flight and after one particular bout with a boy named Ernie, he’s picked up by Gerry who’s working the circus circuit and is looking for a bear wrestler. No seriously.
Although the book is set in 1984, Kuitenbrouwer mentions in the introduction that bear wrestling was a fixture in Ontario sideshows until 1976 and she’s simply shifted the timeframe to suit the story.
Bo joins the circus and the rest of the novel is about the tension of two captive bears, a boy who feels like a captive, the atrocity of war and circus Freak Shows. It’s strange and beautiful at once. The majesty of the bear, the hilarity of her on a bike. The beauty of Bo’s mother, the sullen, drunk. Orange the sister, Agent Orange.
I’m looking forward to what my fellow Book Club members have to say about the novel.
Bob Sherrett was born today in 1923. He died July 1, 2012 and I miss him dearly.
Bob joined the Royal Canadian Air Force on his 18th birthday, graduated as a Sergeant Air Gunner and proceeded overseas in early 1942. He was stationed in Linconshire with 57 Squadron, 15 Bomber Group, flying in the rear turret of Manchester and Lancaster aircraft. Bob returned to Canada in 1943 and, while stationed in Toronto, met the girl he would marry after the war, Joan Wetton. In April 1944 Bob volunteered for a second tour of duty. He flew back to England where he served in an all-Canadian crew, as Gunnery Leader on 431 Canadian Squadron, 6 Bomber Group, with the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Bob survived being shot down in the English Channel in November, 1942, and again, a year later, he was the only member of his air crew to survive after their aircraft was badly damaged on the Peenemünde Raid. Bob was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, bar to the Operational Wings, and was mentioned in Dispatches.
I recently discovered this BBC Radio 4 program that tells the story of Wynford Vaughan-Thomas’ report recorded aboard a Lancaster Bomber during a raid on Berlin.
Here’s the set up:
In 1943 the RAF contacted the BBC with a dramatic offer: they were willing to send a two-man radio crew on a bombing raid over Berlin. The BBC chose Wynford Vaughan-Thomas for the mission. He accepted, knowing he might never return.
So on the night of 3rd September 1943, Vaughan-Thomas recorded for the BBC live from a Lancaster Bomber during a bombing raid over Berlin.
Those hours aboard the plane clearly remained a defining time in his life. Forty years later, he called it “the most terrifying eight hours of my life. Berlin burning was like watching somebody throwing jewellery on black velvet - winking rubies, sparkling diamonds all coming up at you.”
Here’s the link again, it’s about 1 hour:
I’m sorry there was ever a reason for Bob (or anyone else) to be bombing people, and I’m glad he returned from that experience. My life is richer having heard his stories. Happy Birthday Bob.
Posted by Monique at 09:37 AM.
My friend Rachael Ashe presented at Creative Mornings a month ago on making things by hand and I found her presentation really inspiring. A few of the things that stood out for me:
1. iPhone photography has taken away the hands-on, tactile aspect of shooting images. We don’t have film, slides to advance, prints to handle. So maybe we should think about all the other ways that touch screens and digital tools have made us too “hands free”.
2. Build time in your schedule to make. Think about yourself as a maker. DO Things. Especially if it’s just for play.
3. Play and practice is how you refine your skills, and that can lead to paid work (if you’re interested in that sort of thing).
4. Say YES, I don’t know exactly how to do that but I’ll give it a go.
5. The first time you do anything, it will probably suck. Hooray!
Also, I like Rachael’s quiet sense of humour and little jokes in her presentation. I’m proud of my friend. I’m pleased that she overcame the nerve-wracking experience of speaking in front of an audience, and that she did a bang up job at preparing, practicing and presenting.
Ease into your chair. The talk is 30 min then there’s 15 min of Q&A. Rachael hits her stride around the 8 min mark, but don’t skip ahead, just relax, get inspired, and then go make.
This is my favourite presentation this year. Last year it was Tori Holmes talking about being the youngest woman to row across the Atlantic Ocean. I still think about that presentation and how to turn the impossible into the possible. A theme that carries through in Rachael’s talk.
Shop for Rachael Ashe’s work on Etsy.
Follow her on Facebook, where you can also sign up for her newsletter.
Posted by Monique at 07:52 AM.
Party Tricks •
Well, Perfect by Rachel Joyce is a perfectly sad little book. Perhaps sad isn’t the best word, morosely melancholic?
Perfect opens in June 1972 with 11-year-old Byron worried about the addition of 2 seconds. Apparently the 2 seconds will be added to bring clocks back into line with the movement of the Earth. His best friend James has read about it in the paper and Byron can’t stop worrying about when those seconds will be added. “It’s the difference between something happening and something not happening.” Indeed!
What does happen is that Byron stabs his wristwatch in front of his mother Diana while she’s driving and she hits a little girl. Diana doesn’t realize she’s had an accident until Byron’s anxiety about it spills out a month later. What transpires over the next 4 months is the undoing of this little family.
Byron and James plot a way to save Diana from persecution but instead drive her into the hands of the seemingly distraught (yet totally conniving) mother of the little girl.
I missed reading Rachel Joyce’s first novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry so I’ll have to it pick up.
Perfect is quirky, well written and, I suspect, just as great a book club selection as Harold Fry. If you like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time you’ll also like this title.
Posted by Monique at 09:41 AM.
Book Reviews •
Mark Medley @itsmarkmedley has compiled the 25 most anticipated Canadian books of 2014 along with the best reads of 2013. Of course I want to read all of them, but there are a few on that list that immediately stand out. Also, I’m looking forward to what 49thShelf.com calls out as the top reads since they often has a handle on the smaller presses as well.
1. Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue (HarperCollins Canada/April) I didn’t read Room but this topic is intriguing: 3 former circus performers in 19th-century San Francisco.
2. The Confabulist, by Steven Galloway (Knopf Canada/April) I have loved all of Galloway’s novels, in particular Finnie Walsh and The Cellist of Sarajevo. This novel is about the life and death of the legendary magician Harry Houdini.
3. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins Canada/May) I enjoyed O’Neill’s Canada Reads-winning debut Lullabies for Little Criminals. It was dark. Not sure if this one is as dark but it’s about the twin children of a famous Québécois folksinger.
4. Walt, by Russell Wangersky (House of Anansi Press/September) Anansi always publishes very clever, quirky fiction and I’m really looking forward to this one about a grocery store cleaner who believes the police are trying to frame him for his wife’s disappearance. And as Medley says, “Oh, I forgot to mention his peculiar quirk: He collects discarded shopping lists people leave around the store.” Love it.
5. The Doomsday Man, by Ian Weir (Goose Lane Editions/September) Weir’s debut, Daniel O’Thunder was a pretty fun read. I’ve been participating with Ian in the Vancouver Sun Book Club and having heard about the novel first hand, I can’t wait to read his exploration of early surgeons and amputations. Seriously.
6. Into the Blizzard, by Michael Winter (Doubleday Canada/November) Winter is a crazy guy and I enjoyed The Big Why and All This Happened. I haven’t read Minister Without Portfolio so I’ll have to add that to my list as well. This book explores the history of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
More to come once I see what 49thShelf is touting!
Posted by Monique at 09:23 AM.
January: Birthday Parties & New Year’s
February, 16: Finlay
March: Beautiful Spring
April: Getting Cuter
May: Upgraded to the Tableware
June: Scott & Amanda’s Wedding
July: Harrison Hot Springs with Friends Rachael, Boris, Andrea & Mark for Rachael’s art show
August: Sooke with Chad & Gillian
September: James’ Birthday Boat Ride
December: First Christmas
Posted by Monique at 06:04 AM.
Party Tricks •
And then there’s The Food Lab: The Science of the Best Chocolate Chip Cookies
The long and shortening of it:
Butter: keeps cookies tender because it inhibits the formation of gluten (flour + water from the eggs). The more butter, the more tender the cookie, and the more it spreads as it bakes.
Ideal ratio: 1 part butter to 1 part sugar to .8 part flour
Don’t go for shortening
Melted butter = denser cookies, whereas creamed butter = cakier cookies
Eggs: “By keeping the total mass of egg added to a dough the same but altering the proportion of white to yolk, you can achieve a variety of textures. Two whites and a yolk, for instance, produces the more open structure of the top cookie in the photo above, while three yolks and no whites produces the denser, fudgier texture of the cookie on the bottom.”
Extra egg whites = taller cookies; extra egg yolks = fudgier cookies
Ideal ratio: 1 yolk to 1 white (oh, they way eggs come naturally)
Sugar: Blend only the white sugar with the eggs to give a jump start on caramelization then add brown sugar later with the melted butter.
Chocolate: Hand-chopped chocolate = most intense flavour and interesting texture.
“Here’s what we’re working with so far: White sugar is beaten into whole eggs until it dissolves. Butter is browned and chilled with an ice cube to add back lost moisture and hasten its cooling, before being beaten into the egg mixture, along with brown sugar and. Flour and baking soda are folded in very gently, along with chocolate.”
Salt & Vanilla: Salt is essential to balance the flavour of caramelized sugars, and a good amount of vanilla is a must. Press coarse salt to the cookie tops when they first come out of the oven.
Cooler oven = wide cookies, hotter oven = compact cookies That said, caramelization occurs at 356 degrees so if your recipe calls for the oven to be set at 350 degrees, you’re out of luck. Crank up the heat.
Let the dough rest overnight for superior flavour
Posted by Monique at 08:30 AM.
Party Tricks •
A report published in this month’s edition of Libri: International Journal of Libraries and Information Services ties Vancouver and Montreal for the top spot, while Chicago, San Francisco, Shanghai, and Toronto rounded out the top five.
Posted by Monique at 08:39 AM.
Leaving the Sea: Stories
Love this cover. Reminds me of The Flame Alphabet, which is his previous book. I loved the writing but couldn’t get into the story (too dark for me as a new sleep-deprived mom, it was about children’s voices killing their parents) so I’m looking forward to reading these short stories instead.
Considered one of the most innovative and vital writers of his generation, Ben Marcus’s new collection showcases 15 tales of modern anxieties and peculiarities.
Ben Marcus is the author of three books of fiction: The Age of Wire and String, Notable American Women, and The Flame Alphabet, and he is the editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. His stories have appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Granta, Electric Literature, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Conjunctions. He has received the Berlin Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, three Pushcart Prizes, and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Posted by Monique at 08:31 AM.
Critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo pick the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923—the beginning of TIME. And, I’d read whatever Lev tells me to read. I’ve bolded the ones I have read below. I guess this is my new “to-read” list.
See the full article for links and info on how the list was created.
A - B
The Adventures of Augie March
All the King’s Men
An American Tragedy
Appointment in Samarra
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
The Berlin Stories
The Big Sleep
The Blind Assassin
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
C - D
Call It Sleep
The Catcher in the Rye
A Clockwork Orange
The Confessions of Nat Turner
The Crying of Lot 49
A Dance to the Music of Time
The Day of the Locust
Death Comes for the Archbishop
A Death in the Family
The Death of the Heart
F - G
The French Lieutenant’s Woman
The Golden Notebook
Go Tell it on the Mountain
Gone With the Wind
The Grapes of Wrath
The Great Gatsby
H - I
A Handful of Dust
The Heart is A Lonely Hunter
The Heart of the Matter
A House for Mr. Biswas
L - N
Light in August
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
Lord of the Flies
The Lord of the Rings
The Man Who Loved Children
Never Let Me Go
O - R
On the Road
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The Painted Bird
A Passage to India
Play It As It Lays
The Power and the Glory
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
S - T
The Sheltering Sky
The Sot-Weed Factor
The Sound and the Fury
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
The Sun Also Rises
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Things Fall Apart
To Kill a Mockingbird
To the Lighthouse
Tropic of Cancer
U - W
Under the Net
Under the Volcano
Wide Sargasso Sea
There are a couple of letters there that need attention.
Read more: TIME.com http://entertainment.time.com/2005/10/16/all-time-100-novels/slide/all/#ixzz2nsdhtOyf
Posted by Monique at 06:31 PM.
Why are book lovers obsessed with bookshelves? Maybe because our imaginations are so vivid that we just like to look at books and spaces for reading those books and are magically transported to other worlds upon viewing interesting shelves. Maybe. Just maybe.
Posted by Monique at 10:06 AM.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love was The Afterword Reading Society book club selection for Nov 26. I stupidly, and for a second time in a row, was not my usual 100% and I missed submitting my information. That said, my untimeliness in no way represents how much I enjoyed this book, nor how much I appreciate receiving a copy of this fine novel.
Alma Whittaker, born Jan 5, 1800, bears witness to the vast changes taking place in science, religion, commerce and class, all without leaving her home White Acre. Ok, she does leave near the end of her life, but what leads her to that point is such a sweeping tale of botany, early childhood education, colonization through cultivation of plants for medicine and food, charity (misplaced or not) and a family lineage that is fearsome in its tenacity. The story is told through Alma’s interactions with a number of visitors who come to White Acre to meet with Alma’s father Henry Whittaker. Henry Whittaker made his fortune travelling the seas as a young lad on behalf of Joseph Banks and the Kew Gardens. He was a swift learner and had few scruples so he quickly used his knowledge of botany and commerce to his advantage. When the time was right, he picked a wife, moved to America, set up a partnership for a profitable pharmaceutical company and continued to add pennies to his pockets through his expeditions.
The story moves from Henry’s travels to London to Peru to Philadelphia, then follows Alma’s trek to Tahiti and Amsterdam. There are beautiful descriptions of orchids, mosses and other botanicals. There’s adventure on the high seas, a retracing of human history, Darwin’s theories of evolution, and the push by abolitionists and adventurers to reconsider the world.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It reminds me of Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, which was a nonfiction look at the cultural baggage this bulb brings with it. The Signature of All Things: A Novel is The Tulip’s fictional counterpart.
Check it out on ElizabethGilbert.com along with the reading group guide and other goodies, including a Signature of All Things cocktail. Yum.