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Summer Reads- Trevor Cole, Zsuzsi Gartner, Susan Juby

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I have been lax in my reviewing duties. June was the month from hell  – report cards, Play Day and year end parties. Then I had to prepare for my UBC course with Joseph Boyden, which meant 3 pages of critiques for each of the seven other students in my workshop. Right after UBC, I went right into teaching at the Fernie Writers’ Conference. I’m back now and will do a few posts to catch up on some summer reads.

Trevor Cole – Practical Jean and Fearsome Particles

If you haven’t read Practical Jean or Fearsome Particles, you’re missing out. Practical Jean is the winner of the Leacock Medal for humour. And it’s funny – a sick, dark funny. Jean, a woman who, upon losing her mother to illness, decides to give her closest friends the wonderful gift of not having to die a long, painful, drawn out death. The gift of one last blast of fun and then bam! Quick and merciful is the way to go. As a good friend, Jean takes care of that. Does she ever.

When Jean starts taking care of business, you’ll laugh out loud. Then you’ll stop and realize that it’s the kind of hilarity that is a little bit off, the kind of giggling that happens at the most inappropriate moment. At a funeral, for example. Under the black humour lies more than one universal truth about how we treat our dying, our friends and our spouses. It’s sleight-of-hand. It’s standing solid on a carpet that you have no idea will be ripped out from underneath you. It’s original, fun and heartbreaking.

I picked up Cole’s second book Fearsome Particles on the strength of Practical Jean. There is humour here, but it is more muted, the overall tone more melancholy. The characters are exquisitely drawn in such a fresh way.  It’s the story of a family in crisis, but it turns out it’s a crisis that has permeated their existence for a long time. The description of Vicky’s toenails alone is worth picking this one up. The title refers to those minuscule particles that enter our homes and our bodies, infecting us, sickening us.

In both books, Cole is able to amplify common feelings to near-absurdity. He takes what we feel, be it anger and sadness at the death of a loved one, or the paranoia that comes with our fear of literal or figurative “infection” and gives it free rein. (As a writer, I found his use of symbolism in this book brilliant.)

Zsuzsi Gartner – Better Living through Plastic Explosives

I read this book early this summer, just before heading to BC where I had the chance to meet Zsuzsi and listen to her speak on a number of panels. She’s hilarious. She writes like no other I have ever read. Her stories are biting and satirical and sadly funny. (Not “sadly, funny.”) It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite from this collection, but there are two I tell people they must read: The Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion and Floating Like a Goat. Both stories hold us as members of today’s society up to a bright light. What is exposed isn’t pretty, but it’s recognizable.

This book deserves its own separate review, but all I really need to say is: Read it. Soon. Now.

Susan Juby – Nice Recovery

In the 80’s, the average attendee at a 12 step-program was male, in his 50’s and was addicted to alcohol. The average attendee these days is 24, can be male or female and is addicted to many different stimulants, some all at once. On average they start drinking at twelve. Susan Juby stopped drinking at twenty. It’s nice that as a YA author, she is able to bring some strong lessons and support forward for young alcoholics and addicts. The book will take you right back to the eighties, with references to Nick Rhodes and leg-warmers, but it’s very pertinent today, too. It’s funny, written in a slightly self-deprecating (my favourite!) tone. It’s a hopeful book. She addresses how absolutely attainable a good, sober life can be. And she’s been sober over twenty years, so she has credibility. This is a book I would totally recommend to anyone, teen or not, who is on that long journey to sobriety.

I think that with my school commitments, my reviews will get shorter, though I am hopeful I can still stay on top of them. Thanks for sticking around.


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