Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Cordelia Strube's 'Milosz'

   Besides being as perfect as possible for a collection of linked short stories to be, Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women has proven terrific for lit classes because students relate well to Del Jordan's experiences and perspectives and because Munro's handles coming of age themes—identity, death, spirituality, sexuality, individuation—with such impressive, complex depth.
   Still, for some students the book reads as historical fiction since it (published in 1971) speaks of small town life fifty years before they were born.
   From their POV the period is so remote they may as well be reading Jane Austen. A contemporary coming of age novel (that works well in the classroom) has resulted in a number of one-offs for me: novels I thought incisive and engrossing (and criminally underappreciated: such as Lynn Crosbie's Dorothy L'Amour and R.M. Vaughan's Spells) overwhelmed students (too much violence, too much literariness, ao much negativity). While others, like Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Far Euphrates, Andre Alexis' Childhood, George Elliott Clarke's George and Rue, and Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony fit well in CanLit classes, the quest for a suitable contemporary pairing for Munro continued.

   Lemon was Cordelia Strube's eighth novel, and I'd managed to altogether miss it and the previous seven (re: lots of books, not lots of time). The story of an articulate and bright high school student in contemporary Ontario, Strube's novel caught my eye one day while coming up with the course texts for a second-year CanLit class. Just past midpoint I put the novel down, halfheartedly promising to return to its depressing setting (I mean notably depressing for Canadian literature, and that's saying something). I could say I got busy with other projects, but the truth is I didn't really like it and felt that spending more time on its relentlessly grim outlook was less desirable than, say, going on a bike ride or caring for the aphid-plagued plants on my balcony.

  For her latest novel, Strube takes apparent pleasure in flirting with comedy of the absurd as well as with romantic comedy. Its protagonist is a colossally failed everyman actor (it may be possible to read the novel without thinking of Dustin Hoffman early in Tootsie or Kevin Klein performing Death of a Salesman in Soapdish, but I found it a challenge) whose life generates mess on nearly every level. Strube never completely abandons her pessimistic views of humanity and historical progress, but the levity throughout infuses the story with a welcome lightness of touch and a sense that even though humanity and the earth are constantly sliding toward ruin, the movement isn't inevitable, not necessarily.

[My better composed review appears online in The Winnipeg Review.]

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