The World by Bill Gaston is this month’s Vancouver Sun Book Club read and I’ve been enjoying re-discovering Gaston. I was first introduced to his work when I was at Raincoast and I’ve followed his career but haven’t really dipped into his books. Too bad I waited!
The World is both the title of this novel and the title of a novel in the book, written by Hal, one of the main characters. Hal has Alzheimer’s and is in a home and we don’t really get to his story until the final third of the book, but he is introduced early. The book begins with the sad life of Stuart Price who is a high-school shops teacher, recently retired. Stuart is split from his wife and has poured his energies into paying off his mortgage. Indeed he has just paid it off in a lump sum and, in burning the mortgage papers on his deck, burns the place down. Oh Stuart. To add insult to injury, he has forgotten to pay his insurance premium.
Stuart’s meltdown, or rather burndown, takes him on the road. Whether he’s running away or running to somewhere is questionable. He’s swiftly decided to drive his ancient Datsun from BC to Ontario in order to visit his long-lost friend Mel who is dying of cancer. It happens that his insurance company HQ is in Toronto and he wants to plead his case in person.
Stuart is hilarious, and a bit insane, so his third of the novel is pretty funny. The middle section begins with Mel bailing Stuart out of jail and continues from her perspective. It’s a bit dire in comparison to Stuart’s tragedy, but really it’s just another personal crisis from a different perspective. With Mel, we also finally meet Hal, author of The World which is about a leper colony on D’Arcy Island. Hal is quite the character and he and Stuart together are certainly a pair of looney tunes.
We’re going to be discussing Bill Gaston’s The World for the next couple of weeks in The Vancouver Sun so I’ll save my thoughts for that.
In the meantime, check out this gushing review in the National Post.
The World by Bill Gaston
Published by Hamish Hamilton
A melancholic love story
The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson is a series of short, interconnected love stories set before and after World War I in Paris. The most prominent storyline is of Emile Notre-Dame, thinnest baker in Paris and his wife Immacolata, who have a son Octavio. Both father and son cannot read but are amazing storytellers and Boulangerie Notre-Dame becomes rather infamous among its regular patrons who come for the buttery croissants and baguettes but also for the stories.
The bakery occupied the ground floor of a narrow flatiron building known throughout the neighbourhood as the cake-slice. As far back as anyone could remember the letters above its windows, in their carved wooden flourishes, had spelled out:
BOULA GERIE NOTRE-DAME
the N having long since vanished.
The story of the N’s disappearance is a regular request from the bakery’s patrons, the most fantastical version being about thieves who spread across France stealing Ns and the most favourite being that of Napolean stealing the N himself.
The love of books is another thread through the story. Despite not being able to read, Octavio is a regular buyer from a book stall near the Louvre. For both Octavio and the bookstall owner, books have a special meaning, and lead to friendships and relationships.
CS Richardson has crafted a very fine story indeed. His cast of characters each contribute to the overarching story while having their own backstories as well. Emile, Immacolata, and Octavio run the bakery as I mentioned. Then there’s the fashion designers Pascal Normand and his wife Celeste, who hide their daughter Isabeau from view because of a facial scar from an unfortunate childhood accident. And we have three generations of the Fournier family who own the bookstall. On top of that, there’s a blind watchmaker, a starving portrait artist and Madame Lafrouche whose husband Alphonse gifts Emile The Arabian Nights which becomes the first book in Octavio’s collection and eventually makes it into the hands of Isabeau.
I was first introduced to CS Richardson from my publishing ties. Richardson is an award-winning cover designer for Random House and his first novel The End of the Alphabet was my favourite book in 2008. The Emperor of Paris is a strong contender for 2013.
April is national poetry month and I thought that I’d celebrate by re-reading some of the poetry collections on my shelves.
Excerpt: “at night cooley listens” published in Sunfall by Dennis Cooley (Anansi, 978-0-88784-580-2)
at night cooley listens to his body
an answering service he bends over now
the day’s over the day’s messages
the rest of the day he does not listen
does not pay it much attention, his neglect shameful
cooley knows he shld do better shld take it out more often
show it a little more affection
once the noise of the day drops like shoes untied away
every night when the tired switch clicks night on
the body becomes importunate spouse
it’s about time you listened to me
you self-centred bastard the body says you barely listen
the body rehearses a long list of grievances, sniffling
there are violins
Dennis Cooley is one of my all-time favourite poets. I find his poems to be flamboyant and a little crazy. Some of them are incredibly heartfelt, while others use tone and timing to turn otherwise casual observations into challenges or wisecracks. He’s the only poet I keep coming back to. Others I enjoy and soon forget whereas I’ll eagerly read, and re-read, Cooley. This poem in particular makes me giddy in the same way that episodes of Seinfeld do.
Excerpt: “Wolf Tree” by Alison Calder published in Wolf Tree (Coteau Books: 978-1-55050-359-3)
The wolf tree’s arms reach out
in a question that is also an answer,
as we seek another name for what we have.
The tree embraces us in its branches,
holds the buds of our tender dreams.
What happened, it says, what happened
to the farm grown over, the buildings
sagging into slope-shouldered grayness.
The wild comes back, as lilacs
explode over the woodshed,
irises and roses bloom beside
Alison Calder’s whole collection of poems is wonderful to read, in particular because each poem offers a wonderful balance of dream and reality. I also like her poems because many are set on the prairies. Calder grew up in Saskatoon and I first met her at the University of Manitoba where she was teaching CanLit and creative writing. I’ve admired her work ever since and perhaps became a fan of prairie poets because of her and Dennis Cooley, along with David Arnason, Robert Kroetsch and newer poets like Alexis Kienlen. I enjoyed the “bee” poems in her recent collection 13.
Poem: “The Home Inspection” by Jamie Sharpe published in Animal Husbandry Today (ECW, 978-1-177041-106-7)
Before I even step
into this house
let me point out
Those leaves on
that there bush
were new in spring;
given it’s late July
I’d say they have
two months tops.
I doubt they’re
Jamie Sharpe is new to me, and I appreciate that he sent me a copy of this collection of poems because I’ve been enjoying exploring it. Like the poems above, Sharpe’s poems are accessible while still being lyrical. It’s a great collection.
What poems strike your fancy? If you’re keen to share, consider checking out the poetry contest on 49thShelf.com for a chance to win a prize package of new Canadian poetry.
Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory is one of those books that makes the mind tingle. The novel’s caustic sense of humour and irony had me eagerly turning the pages and thinking fondly of Ayn Rand.
Like Rand, Houellebecq (pronounced “Wellbeck”) is equally controversial in his own way. His protagonist Jed Martin, an emotionally stunted and highly successful artist, befriends French novelist Michel Houellebecq in his quest to have Houellebecq write the catalogue for his forthcoming exhibition. The novel version of Houellebecq is a satirical fictionalization of the author himself. Houellebecq describes Houellebecq as having a reputation for drunkenness, strong misanthropic tendencies, and a fondness for charcuterie. Surprisingly he is brutally murdered in the third section of the novel.
Let me get to that in a second. In the first two sections of the novel, we experience the artworld through Jed Martin’s eyes. He approaches life with neutrality and often with distain, but it also seems understandable that he, like the reclusive, fictional Houellebecq, wants as little human contact as possible and the space to create his art. The modern art world presented in the novel is one of consumerism and one-up-manship, where Martin’s portrait-style paintings of CEOs and architects fetch millions of dollars and become cause for murder.
Yes, speaking of murder, the third section takes a distinct turn, both in perspective and writing style. Instead of the high-minded, sophisticated writing style of the first two sections, we get detective, genre writing. It’s quite the contrast.
The Map and the Territory isn’t a book for everyone, but I found it masterful. As Jed Martin’s father remarks, “he [Houellebecq] is a good author, it seems to me. He’s pleasant to read, and he has quite an accurate view of society.”
Posted by Monique at 07:52 AM.
Book Reviews •
My last read of 2012 and it was written by friend and colleague Julie Wilson. A lovely end to a year of fine reading.
Also on the Globe and Mail’s top 100 books of 2012 list!
Seen Reading is a collection of microfictions written by Julie alongside literary voyeur spottings from her SeenReading.com heydays.
READER: Caucasian female, late 30s, with strawberry-blond hair, wearing brown skirt and lime-green blouse with sleeves rolled and buttoned at the elbow. Sunglasses sit in lap.
The Kite Runner
(Anchor Canada, 2004)
On the opposite page is “Ends” a short (short) story about a couple sitting at opposite ends of a couch and one of them noticing all the little age marks of the other before noticing her own flaws. When did this happen?
The book itself is a beautiful little object worth keeping on a coffee table or bookshelf. The paper and production quality is lovely and the contents are witty, quirky and worth savouring.
by Julie Wilson
Posted by Monique at 07:14 PM.
Book Reviews •
If you’re looking for that blockbuster summer read, it’s here! The latest in the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny arrived in stores on August 28.
The Beautiful Mystery
Buy on Amazon
More details at Raincoast Books
No outsiders are ever admitted to the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, hidden deep in the wilderness of Quebec, where two dozen cloistered monks live in peace and prayer. They grow vegetables, they tend chickens, they make chocolate. And they sing. Ironically, for a community that has taken a vow of silence, the monks have become world-famous for their glorious voices, raised in ancient chants whose effect on both singer and listener is so profound it is known as “the beautiful mystery.”
But when the renowned choir director is murdered, the lock on the monastery’s massive wooden door is drawn back to admit Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Sûreté du Québec. There they discover disquiet beneath the silence, discord in the apparent harmony. One of the brothers, in this life of prayer and contemplation, has been contemplating murder. As the peace of the monastery crumbles, Gamache is forced to confront some of his own demons, as well as those roaming the remote corridors. Before finding the killer, before restoring peace, the Chief must first consider the divine, the human, and the cracks in between.
Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache delivers again and again. Traditional mystery fans will like the whodunit plot, but those who have a literary bend like me will appreciate the well-written dialogue and excellent story arch.
Indeed, it is a page turner, but Louise Penny’s prowess is in delivering fallible heroes in a way that still makes us cheer. I’m speaking of course of Inspector Gamache, but also of Lieutenant Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who is suffering from an addiction to painkillers.
The evil twist, beyond the murder at hand, is the psychological foul play used by the police force’s headman who has it out for Gamache and his team. I won’t tell you any more about what happens here because it is all too irksome.
For a book set in a monastery with an ancient secret to hide, this novel sure is illuminating. I 100% am in love with Louise Penny’s Inspector, the village of Three Pines and this awesome series.
If you haven’t read Louise Penny, I really liked A Trick of Light, which seems like a natural place to start before getting into The Beautiful Mystery—this is book 8 in the series. There is so much revealed in book 8 that I wouldn’t want you to start here. If you have the time and aren’t itching to read The Beautiful Mystery right this minute (which you should actually), then read the full series. It does not disappoint.
The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny is also available as an audio book
Listen to an audio clip
And if you’re in Vancouver, Louise Penny is at the Vancouver International Writers Festival on Oct 20.
Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle
One of the magical things about a Guy Delisle book is the fly-on-the-wall perspective of countries that are inaccessible (or relatively so) to Westerners.
His previous graphic travelogues were about Burma, Pyongyang and Shenzen. I loved both Pyongyang and Shenzen, but Pyongyang has a special status as it was my first Guy Delisle encounter.
I’m not sure if having been to Jerusalem aids in the enjoyment and depth of Delisle’s account of the Holy City but I’d still recommend it to anyone curious about Israel or the Middle East in general as I think there’s a tone that runs through the region that is incomprehensible to most outsiders.
The book opens with the introduction of Delisle’s children. His parner Nadège is working with Médecins Sans Frontières and the family is on their way to Jerusalem for the year. Guy hopes to work, as he’s done on other trips, while minding the children. (Good luck with that!)
The opening scene portrays a seemingly Russian Jew with concentration-camp numbers on his arm distracting Guy’s collicky child. They don’t share a language but Guy makes a ton of assumptions, and checks himself, all within a few frames, which really sets the stage for what’s to come. Jerusalem is a land of mixed emotions, assumptions, perceptions and deceptions.
Throughout the travelogue, we get treated to the differng points of view Delisle encounters: Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, and Muslim, as well as those of Médecins Sans Frontières staff, Nadège, their cleaners and childcare providers, tour guides and reporters he meets along the way.
Delisle doesn’t claim to understand each of these perspectives and he has a certain skepticism or cynicism whenever strong binary positions are presented, but it’s a real treat to see Jerusalem from his vantage point of a year-long adventure vs a few days or weeks as a tourist. Delisle is in the region long enough to have some of his initial ignorance disappate and he has time to see the underside of the official messages or points of view in the press.
Although Delisle doesn’t offer a completely neutral account, he’s not judgmental either. Jerusalem is subjective observation but from a rather level head.
Posted by Monique at 02:45 PM.
Book Reviews •
The Chaperon by Laura Moriarty reminded me a little bit of The Paris Wife. The book opens in 1922 during a summer in Wichita when not much is happening for Ms Cora Carlisle. Both her sons are grown and moved away, her husband’s successful law practice keeps him busy and Cora is idling away her time. What seems like an adventure is presented to her: chaperon 15-year-old Louise Brooks to New York City for her dance audition.
Cora, of course, has her own private reason for making the trip, and it’s not just boredom. We quickly find out that Cora was orphaned in New York and was sent out on an orphan train to be adopted by willing parents, who have since died. Her plan is to accompany Louise and seek out her birth parents. The orphanage has already refused to provide that information by mail, but Cora is optimistic.
The part of the story that reminds me of The Paris Wife is the insights into the 1920s. It was a time of transition where skirt lengths (above the ankle) were still shocking and girls were coached that no man would want to marry an unwrapped piece of candy. At the same time homosexuality, the bob haircut, jazz and other shocking disregards for convention (like black and white people sitting side by side in the same theatre) were part of daily life in a bustling metropolis like NYC.
Cora takes all the shocks in stride, in particular the difficulties posed by Louise’s free-spirit attitude, and really finds her own place in the world. She goes by to Wichita with quite a backbone.
The Chaperon by Laura Moriarty
Published by Riverhead Books (Penguin Canada)
Available in hardcover on amazon.ca
Book Of A Thousand Days by Shannon Hale was recommended to me by my friend Rachael. I was keen to read it because when I worked at Raincoast we had distributed some of Shannon Hale’s previous titles.
The story opens with Dashti becoming a maid to Lady Saren and promptly being locked up in a tower with her for seven years. Saren’s father, in a rage, has bricked her up into the tower because she has refused to marry an evil lord from a neighbouring realm. Instead she is in love with Tegas, a more gentle lord, and another neighbour.
This love is rather tenuous though and Lady Saren insists that Dashti speak to Tegas when he sneaks into the tower and knocks at their locked door. Of course, Dashti complies, falls in love with Tegas, has to fight for her safety when evil Lord Khasar later shows up at the door, fends for herself and Lady Saren when they manage to escape and then sets them up, under a disguise, in Tegas’ own household.
Dashti is a heroine in the classic sense and a terrier in a modern sense.
Hale’s tale is pulled from a long-forgotten Grimm’s tale, but she adds her own twists and interpretations. Overall it’s a great teen read, and good for adults looking for light fantasy and easy, compelling reading.
The Red House is the latest novel by Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and A Spot of Bother. The novels are getting more and more experimental and deeper into the psyche of the characters. In some ways A Spot of Bother and The Red House remind me of Martin Amis novels in that we get a low-class to middle-class view of the British and the protagonists are losers in some way, and continue to be losers even at the end of the novel.
In The Red House we have a brother and sister, Richard and Angela, who’ve drifted apart but are reunited after the death of their mother. Richard, who is younger and more successful—a doctor, albeit with a lawsuit pending—has invited his sister and her unemployed husband and three children on holiday. Richard also has his new wife Louisa and her teenage daughter Melissa in tow. Louisa seems to be the least developed character. She’s initially presented as the trophy wife who is amenable to everything and everyone. She has a small triumph in confronting Richard midway through the book but otherwise isn’t as developed as her daughter, who is beautiful outside but not inside, Alex the athletic son, Daisy the Christian, Benjy the little kid, Angela the self-proclaimed underachiever who is losing a grip on reality or Dominic the weak father. But then again, the novel really isn’t about anyone.
The crazy thing about this book is that the perspective shifts, almost at every paragraph, from one character to the next. This is a bit of a challenge in the beginning because on top of the shifting perspective, some of the characters are reading books so you get their interior monologue as they read.
Overall, the book was enjoyable but not my favourite Haddon novel, which still remains Curious Incident. Regardless, if you’re a Haddon fan, then give this one a go. Like Spot of Bother, it’s not an uplifting ending but it’s not depressing either.
The Red House by Mark Haddon is published by Doubleday Canada.
I absolutely loved this book. Every woman (and man) who loves Mad Men should read Mad Women by Jane Maas, which is about what it was actually like to be in advertising in the 60s. Jane Maas has great insights here because she began her career at Ogilvy & Mather as a copywriter in 1964 and climbed the ladder to creative director and agency officer. The book offers a ton of little stories and tidbits on what it was like to work at the agency and with David Ogilvy. Maas also ran her own agency, was a Matrix Award winner and an Advertising Woman of the Year, and if you have no idea who she is, think about the I Love New York campaign. Maas was the director of the campaign and shepherded it to greatness.
Mad Women is a book of anecdotes about Maas, the agencies of the 60s, career women and what’s accurate (and less so) in the tv series Mad Men. I thought the book was hilarious and intriguing. I mean it is a bit of bragging, but so what. Peggy Olson is a ringer for Maas, who rose through the ranks based on merits and managed some rather large accounts. The book is well written and if you’re at all interested in storytelling, it’s like having lunch with Maas and shooting the shit about the golden days of advertising.
The big takeaways: Career women seem to have all the same challenges today that they did in the 60s, although perhaps the discrepancies between men and women are more muted today than they were in the 60s. And advertising campaigns and their behind-the-scenes battles are pretty much the same.
Maas references a ton of great campaigns and the women behind them. For example, Clairol’s hair coloring. Coloring your hair in the 60s was a topic more personal than sex, mostly because only showgirls and hookers colored their hair. The woman behind Clairol’s “Does she ... or doesn’t she?” slogan was Shirley Polykoff.
I Love New York is one of the most famous ad campaigns in history and many people claim to be the creator, but Maas was the liaison between the agency and the governor, the Department of Commerce, the state legislature, the regional tourism offices, the League of New York Theaters, the Statue of Liberty, the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Rockettes, the White House, and the Olympic Committee.
Mad Men: True or False
Was there much sex in the office? Joan Lipton, one of the grandes dames of advertising says “of course people were partaking, but you have to understand that at the time I was married, had a three-year-old child, and was living in Connecticut. In her interview Maas suggests then that Lipton was aware then of the sexual activity. “Aware?” Joan sniffed. “Heavens, I partook.”
Was there that much drinking? One account man complains to Jane, “it’s not at all realistic. We never drank in the morning.” Seems that it was customary to go out for lunch/liquid lunch most days. “We’d then have wine during lunch and a Rusty Nail (a combination of whisky and Drambuie) or Stinger (a lethal concoction of white creme de menthe and brandy) to finish. Then — unbelievably — we’d all go back to our offices at about 2pm to work.”
From an Adage interview: Do you think Mad Men is accurate in its portrayal of women? Maas says “Yes, I do. For instance, Peggy Olson has a career path very similar to mine; she started off as a secretary and then got to writing copy by pleading, and then writing copy on nights and weekends until finally she was promoted to a copywriter. Still, a lot of her ideas are met with poo poo because the men think they know better. I think that’s very realistic in terms of how women copywriters were treated in those days—they were only allowed to work on certain types of products like baby food and things like that.”
The smoking: Maas recounts, “just an hour after my daughter Kate was born, a nurse brought this tiny 5lb infant to my hospital bed and I remember cradling her in one arm and smoking a cigarette with the other hand.”
The hats are missing: Women copywriters wore a hat all day long. It was a badge that signaled your position above the typing pool.
Stuff I Learned
1967: The teamwork school of creativity where the copywriters and art directors come up with ideas together was a new Doyle Dane Bernbach concept only recently implemented by agencies. Bill Bernbach decreed that at his agency, copywriters and art directors must work together on all advertising—even radio scripts. Maas, “We hear that at DDB some art directors can’t even draw. Imagine.”
The Schools of Advertising:
Doyle Dane school: tell it like it is, avoid hyperbole, have a little fun with the products. Ads like “Think small” for Volkswagen. “You don’t have to be Jewish to like Levy’s Jewish rye,” for a bakery in Brooklyn ... and “We’re only #2. We try harder” for Avis.
David Ogilvy school: persuasive ads that often have long headlines and a lot of copy, packed with facts. One of DO’s most famous headlines was for Rolls-Royce, “the visual was simply a sleek photo of a car. The headline said: ‘At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.’”
Ted Bates school: “hard-hitting, hard-selling advertising that drives the message home with powerful visuals and taglines repeated over and over. Hammers pounding on an animated head for Anacin; stomach acid bursting into flames for Tums. When people talk about how irritating advertising can be, it’s usually this kind of work they have in mind.”
Gene Grayson is a school unto himself. “He specializes in mnemonic devices—usually a visual effect that helps the consumer remember your brand and what it stands for. For Maxim freeze-dried coffee he created the slogan ‘Turns every cup in your house into a percolator.’”
To whet your appetite for mad women, listen to The Age of Persuasion on the great women of advertising. And do read Mad Women one. Totally fun and worth the ride.
Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ‘60s and Beyond by Jane Maas
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Among Others by Jo Walton is a novel that got a lot of attention online and positive reviews. So much so that I thought I’d missed out and secured myself a copy. My basic summary is that it’s a novel written from the perspective of a 15-year-old Welsh girl in stream-of-consciousness diary entries. She extremely well read, especially in SF, and she can see fairies (unverified until the end when her boyfriend is also able to see them) and she uses magic sparingly to form protection charms against her witch mother (the witch status is also unverified until the end when mom throws fiery darts at our fearless narrator).
My issue with this book is that it’s a fantasy novel that’s not quite fantasy. It’s a British school girl novel, that’s not quite that either. And it’s a standalone novel (as far as I can tell) that reads like the middle book in a 3-book series. The best part of Among Others is that it compiles a fabulous list of science fiction and fantasy novels.
The book reviews and blurb quotes I think are overly effusive, and something that Mor (our narrator) rallies against when encountering a new book with title blurbs comparing the work to “Tolkien at his best.”
Among Others is about the love of reading, the magic of libraries and the reality that sometimes the world feels like it’s full of magic that you don’t quite understand and can’t quite control. I liked it, but it’s not a favourite and I disagree with all the rave reviews.
Posted by Monique at 07:11 PM.
Book Reviews •
The Book of Lost Fragrances: A Novel of Suspense peaked my interest because one of the main characters is a niche perfumer. Plus part of the promotional campaign included receiving a sample of a perfume mentioned in the book and there’s nothing I love more than a perfume sample. (Although, I never did receive a sample.)
MJ Rose is a well-known author and she does a great job researching her subjects. There were lots of little perfume factoids in the novel that were woven pretty nicely into the storyline.
The story is a mystery. Jac and Robbie are siblings and heirs to the L’Etoile line. Robbie is a practicing perfumer and Jac, who has the better nose, has left the business to pursue her career as a reality tv host of a show on mythology.
Robbie discovers an ancient Egyptian clay pot of perfume that he believes is a memory tool created by a L’Etoile ancestor. Jac—who regularly on her show finds proof of myths—refuses to believe the mythology of the L’Etoile ancestors developing a scent that would aid in memory, let alone provide insights into past lives.
But Robbie wholeheartedly believes this to be true, and as a Buddhist who believes in reincarnation, he wants to gift the clay pot of perfume to the Dalai Lama.
Chinese mobsters determined to prevent that transaction plus a famous psychologist who treats children suffering from past-life experiences are both independently seeking the memory tool. So when a dead man ends up in the L’Etoile workshop and Robbie is no where to be seen, it’s left to Jac to sniff out the truth.
I certainly liked this book because of the perfume references but this type of mystery isn’t my favourite genre. It lacks the refinement of Louise Penny’s A Trick of Light, which I greatly enjoyed. But, it was still a pretty fun read.
See what other people on Goodreads say.
Posted by Monique at 08:48 PM.
Book Reviews •
I recently read The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit as part of the Vancouver Sun Book Club and was deeply impressed with JJ Lee’s ability to weave his personal story with the history of menswear. In books where there are two parallel stories, I often find that they do run parallel and I favour one over the other, but here the two are interconnected in a way that moves both stories along nicely.
The Measure of a Man is great for women readers who are interested in a memoir about family relationships as well as curious about men’s fashion. JJ offers lots of little insights into why certain buttons are buttoned or not buttoned and where women go wrong in “helping” men with their wardrobe. And it’s great for men who might be drawn to the sartorial education provided in the pages but also curious about how the suit makes the man and how the anxieties of trying to measure up or measure yourself against your father are faced in this particular story.
The opening of this memoir is a great setup to the story. Perhaps it’s because JJ Lee is so practiced at telling this story. He tailored it first to be a radio documentary and also a series of talks, including this one I attended at Interesting Vancouver.
JJ Lee @Interesting Vancouver 2010 from Interesting Vancouver on Vimeo.
Just like the suit JJ is breaking down and restructuring, the memories of his father are like suit seams being sewn and ripped and sewn again.
The Meaning of a Man
As the suit has evolved over the last four centuries — moving from the tailcoat and morning coat (both short in the front and long in the back) to the long-skirted frock coat (imagine Abraham Lincoln) to the lounge suit (essentially our modern-day suit) — it has accumulated layers of meaning, signifying different things to different people at different times. The suit has baggage. It carries the weight of male history and shifting ideas of manhood and fatherhood, success and failure, class and beauty.
From birthday suit to funeral suit, Lee uses his father’s suit to talk about what makes a man, specifically what made his father who he is and what makes JJ Lee who he is today.
During our Vancouver Sun live chat on March 16, JJ said:
It’s a weird book in some ways. Many people see it a fashion book and others see it as a family memoir but I suppose my point was the sartorial lessons are part of the male relationship and that it has its echoes through history.
Early on in the story, JJ Lee introduces readers to his father, who was raised by grandparents in Sherbrooke, married young and became a successful restaurant owner. JJ’s father worked hard for his place in the world. “Even then he liked clothes and was searching for how clothes could make the man. I see his ambition.”
But things bottom out for the Lee family when JJ’s father starts drinking too much, starts abusing his wife and the children, and then loses the house after a series of failed business ventures.
As we get deeper into the book, Lee’s nerve to tackle the suit matches the determination he’s mustered to tackle the memories of his father. And they are not at all good.
I’ve burrowed the blade deep enough into the seam to begin cutting the threads, which offer the same meaty resistance as when I slide a knife through the joint of a chicken thigh. Inside I find more of the alarming spewing guts of the suit: thin wafters of synthetic material are stacked to make the shoulder pad.
The suit might look good to the non-tailor, but a true tailor can see its faults. The sloppiness. The falsities trumped up so that together they appear to be greater than they are. The suit offers a wonderful metaphor for JJ’s memories of his father.
But it’s not a dower read. For example, in cutting out the bad in the suit, JJ makes a novice mistake. He’s taken out the shoulder padding and restitched the sleeves to the suit only to discover, “my head looks enormous.”
There’s an absurdity to the childhood memories that needs to be massaged into something more mature, something less distorted.
The Scent of a Man
Scent plays a strong role in JJ’s story. The suit itself smells of vanilla, cigarettes, and sweat. JJ Lee describes having a visceral reaction, a flood of memory. Perhaps my interest in perfume sold me on Measure of a Man.
In A Natural History of the Senses Diane Ackerman writes, ‘Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years. Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.’
On trying to gather pieces of knowledge and stitch them together, JJ says:
I will map its terrain; lapels, notches, side pockets, buttons, sleeves, die seams, and vents will be its features. Some I will alter. Others I will leave along. And maybe, like a construction crew trying to get a job done in Jerusalem, I will stumble upon the ruins of my father and they will tell me something about out downfall, the tumult he brought upon himself, our family, and me.
Lee is not cut out to be a tailor but he’s a good storyteller.
During his first foray as apprentice with Bill Wong of Modernize Tailors (still operating in Vancouver), JJ Lee is instructed to sew a set of parallel lines then turn the material around 90 degrees and stop the machine when he reaches a line. Bill quickly shoos JJ off the machine and in expert fashion writes “JJ Learn to Sew” in perfect cursive over-stitching. I love it.
Much of the sartorial education JJ shares with us in the book is on the history of the suit, the right way to wear a suit and the prominence or decline of particular suit designs.
For example, a true tailor will call the turning of the lapel from the inside out the “roll.” Done properly, labels don’t fold, they roll out, blooming like a flower petal. “They are wool labia opening out with an irresistible lushness”. It’s fascinating to think of the suit, with its start as a suit of armour, having a feminine opening, which is usually adorn with phallic shaped tie.
So lets talk about manly men! JJ recounts The Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 and how it was also a debut of The Beatles iconic suits. The strong diagonals of the lapels, the shirt collars, the narrow ties that matched the dynamism and energy of the music and the men themselves. JJ has a way of making fashion iconic just in his recollections of sartorial moments in history.
Midway through we’re introduced to a series of famous tailors, including David Wilkes, who is an anomaly because he went to school to be a tailor. Raised in Dartmouth, NS, David wanted to be a tailor since he was fourteen. He enrolled in Dalhousie’s costume design program then after graduating continued to apprentice through autodidactic means using manuscripts and works from as early as the 1700s. (Darren: Sounds like something you’d do.)
In addition, there’s Hedi Slimane who in 1997 became the head designer for Yves Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear line for men called Rive Gauche and moved men’s fashion from the Armani cut (big and blousey in the front with the tight bottom in back) to the narrow shoulders and slimmed down cut of today.
And each of these tailors and suit designs play into JJ’s recollections of what was in his father’s wardrobe and how his father sized him up and found him wanting, and how JJ sized up his father and found him wanting as well.
What’s in the closet comes out in JJ’s tales of abuse at the hands of his drunken father but the memoir doesn’t end on a sour note. JJ uses architect Robert Venturi’s criticism of modern architecture in his 1966 work Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture to suggest that he too can adopt a “Both And” perspective. Venturi’s Both And phenomenon suggested that a building detail could be both good and awkward, big and little, closed and open, continuous and articulated ...
My father’s suit can be my Mannerist edifice. It will remain Both-And. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be something of my father that is also for me.
Suits are like bras
Part way through JJ’s explanation of the lost approach men take to the suit, I realized that this is much like approach many women take to bra shopping.
JJ reminisces about how a man used to take his a son to a tailor for his first suit. Through the fitting, the boy learned about the shape of lapels, the cut of the jacket, the collar, and what worked for him. Without this early lesson, he is lost to find his fit later in life.
Seems much like girls going for their first bra fitting. This was likewise a more formal affair than it is today, which is probably why so many women wear bras that are ill-fitting and, like a suit gone wrong, look terrible to the trained eye.
Stitching It All Together
As we near the end of the exploration of the suit, and fathers and sons, JJ realizes that the suit is what it is. That the suit can be Both And is an acceptance of his relationship with his father and an understanding that the measure of a man does not have to be against his father.
I like that the story ends with JJ Lee completing the suit. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, surely you too were hoping for a happy ending.
There is only the circle made by a tailor’s hand as he quietly pulls the thread that connects all the parts together.
A fantastic job, well done JJ Lee. Oh, and JJ says to watch for red jeans, they’re going to be all the rage.
The Magician King by Lev Grossman is hilarious. Following The Magicians, The Magician King picks up where it left off. The Fillorian Kings & Queens, Eliot, Janet, Quentin and Julia, are aimlessly enjoying the riches of Fillory. Quentin in particular is a tad bored by their royal status, which involves lounging, drinking and indulging in reckless games and overeating. This is the problem really. Quentin is bored. He’s looking for an adventure. After two years as king of Fillory, he’s got a little paunch and a bout of kingly aspirations to rule something or conquer the unexpected or to find some thrill in the routine that is now his day.
In case a memory spell has been cast upon you, the quartet are mere mortals who’ve come to rule Fillory via Brakesbill College (for wizardry) and a subsequent series of adventures much like an adult version of The Chronicles of Narnia.
What I love about Grossman’s writing is that it’s fantasy with questions. In Harry Potter and the Narnia books, the characters just accept that this is magic and it is what it is. But Grossman’s characters comment upon it. “Two years as a king of Fillory and he (Quentin) was still shit at horseback riding” ... “The news that real dragons lived in rivers, and didn’t go thundering around the countryside setting trees on fire, had come as a disappointment to him” ... and then journeying to the underworld “it wasn’t a perfect system—every time he got up a decent head of speed he would get stuck and have to scooch again, his butt squeaking loudly in the pitch-black.”
There’s something more real about characters that would comment on the world around them, and the descriptions of magic are visceral. Grossman describes the smell of casting a spell and the wonkiness of magic cast by those untrained, or the differences between old magic and newer magic. Old magic usually had any obvious bugs or loopholes worked out long ago, for example, you could expect that if you had a key that it would fit into an invisible lock even if you were on a moving ship vs. standing still on land.
I hope Lev Grossman continues to write this series. I won’t spoil the ending but I’m left with an intake of breath and wondering “now what?”
Oh, and Grossman’s novels always have me dreaming in magic, just like Harry Potter. It flips a switch in my brain, like when you ski hard all day and then dream of skiing.