Winnipeg Free Press Newspaper Archives Jun 27 2015, Page 99

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Winnipeg Free Press (Newspaper) - June 27, 2015, Winnipeg, Manitoba C M Y K PAGE 1 BOOKS D24 Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, June 27, 2015 ON THE NIGHT TABLE Chris Frayer Artistic director, Winnipeg Folk Festival “ Growing up as a kid in the 1980s, I loved lying in bed and listening to records, digesting their liner notes word for word and staring at the artwork from back to front. I knew every single band member’s name, as well as all the guest musicians. Continuum Books’ 33 1/ 3 audiophile series takes that to a whole new level by delving deeper into some of music’s best cult classics, and there’s no bigger cult classic from the 1990s than Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1997 indie folk- punk classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea . Kim Cooper’s book of the same name is the ultimate companion piece: a book written by a music nerd, about music nerds and, best of all, for music nerds.” Ar ly kn we P ORTNOY’S Complaint by Philip Roth came out in 1969. It was purposefully crude and screamy, outrageously explicit and sexual — in some ways even by today’s standards. It was undeniably and inexcusably misogynistic. It was also searingly smart and outrageously funny. Some of it was awful, and some of it broke real ground. A Free Man by Montrealborn, Torontobased Michel Basilières shares all of the above qualities with Portnoy’s Complaint with the unfortunate exceptions of “ funny” “ smart” and “ groundbreaking.” The book’s story is largely a plotwithin- a- plot. The unnamed narrator ( implied to be Basilières) opens the door one evening to find his old drinking buddy Skid Roe on his steps, whom he hasn’t seen in a decade. Skid holds up some cheap wine and a sack of weed and invites himself in, and begins to tell the strange tale of where he’s been all these years. Mostly, where he’s been is working retail at a Chapters- like book chain, smoking fair amounts of green, watching large amounts of porn, and lusting after a startlingly young co- worker, whom we are to understand is a ditzy, oversexed shrew. However, Skid’s story starts getting interesting when an all- powerful robot named Lem becomes increasingly ensnared in his life. Lem attempts to convince Skid to time travel to a nearly human- less future and help Lem repopulate the human race. Initially Skid resists, but after some hijinks — which include government forces surrounding his house — eventually he goes to the future, with the promise of drugs and sex forever. It turns out, however, the future isn’t so great. The book, which has dabbled in the lightly ruminative so far (“ The essential problem of life is to deal with the outside world... How much do we have to sacrifice to its demands?”) veers into the completely existential by the end, and Skid opts to come home. Is there a takeaway as we get to morning, when the unnamed narrator finds himself dazzled by Skid’s story? Not much. This is uncharitable, but the fact that the book ends with two stoned dudes on a couch saying, in essence, “ We just gotta, like, live, man!” is a fair representation of what’s on offer. If a reader is in search of an accurate window into the unadorned thoughts and feelings of the modern smelly porn- guzzling man who doesn’t particularly like women — and nothing else ( save an unemotional time- travelling robot) — then A Free Man may be the book for them. Basilières also wrote the novel Black Bird , which won a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year award. Certainly there is space in our literature for despicable narrators; coupled with incisive writing and sharp prose, this can make for some beautifully complicated books. Raymond Carver wrote men who were largely sad and mean alcoholics, and his stories are full of gorgeous, empathetic prose about the destruction of working- class America that holds up decades later. And that is precisely how A Free Man fails: There is little empathy, the prose is not gorgeous. There just isn’t much behind the curtain. Readers should look elsewhere. Casey Plett wrote the short story collection A Safe Girl To Love and has as much fondness for unlovable boors as the next profane whiskey- drinking transsexual, but she has standards too. T OWARD the end of Harmless , protagonist Joseph is hiding in a deep, dark forest that surrounds a marijuana plantation where bikers and a pot grower are inspecting the crop by headlamp. He can tell by their talk that they will kill him if he is discovered. He tries to slip away and is entangled by a cobweb that he tries to brush out of his hair. But the cobweb is not gossamer — it is fine steel wire, and the pain he feels in his finger is not from a spider’s bite but from the barb of a fish hook. He tries to flick the spider away and instead sinks the barb deeper, to the bone and out the other side of his middle finger. He has been snared, or rather hooked, by a simple but effective early- warning system. Bewildered and in agony, he moans and thrashes just enough to alert the bikers and the heavily armed armed pot grower to the fact that they are not alone. For the next four pages, Toronto author James Grainger milks every cringe- inducing tug and twist as Joseph desperately tries to get off the hook — back it out, cut the line, pretend to throw a baseball and, finally, run until the line grows taut and the hook rips free. It is an exquisitely horrifying passage that hooks the reader for the final 40 pages. Unfortunately, as good as the final 40 pages certainly are, they come about 200 pages too late in Grainger’s debut novel, a sort of horror/ thriller/ generational exposé/ mishmash. Which is too bad, because throughout Harmless Grainger shows the bursts of skill and storytelling that won awards for an earlier short- story collection. As already mentioned, the ending is first- rate and throughout the book Grainger shows great promise; Joseph’s internal dialogues and observations often are telling putdowns of contemporary middle- class narcissism. Scenes can be riveting, descriptions sublime and similes of compelling originality. But it’s as if he bit off more than he could chew — odd given that, as a former review editor for Quill & Quire , he should know that if you want to tackle a sprawling Stephen King- style plot you do it in 700 pages, not 288. Short books do not begin by introducing a dozen characters in the first 16 pages, none of whom have last names, most of whom have important sexual- psychological entanglements, and some of whom are important but are not present at the farm where these old friends get together for an impromptu reunion. The characters are shallow, self- important failures of one sort or another, none of them in the least bit attractive, good looks notwithstanding. They are drunk and stoned when they discover two of their daughters went missing while they were reliving their party pasts around a fire one night. Joseph, an online columnist out of money and almost out the door, and Eric, an embittered activist who envisages an everyman utopia while railing against the “ locals” and “ inbred” rural politicians, decide to go looking for the girls in the forest, where damaged ex- soldiers live like hermits. The two men, former friends who have come to hate one another with good reason, are armed with a rifle, a razor- edged knife and a dark determination. This is where the core of Harmless actually begins, and where the book should have begun. Gerald Flood is a former Free Press comment editor. F OR many readers, actress Kate Mulgrew will feature somewhere in their pop- culture pantheon, and her showbusiness notoriety is what will undeniably bring them to her book. But it’s not what will keep them turning pages. Today Mulgrew is more than four decades into a career on the stage and screen, where she has created not one, but three indelible small- screen characters. In the 1970s, she originated the role of the plucky Mary Ryan on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope . Today she’s part of the stellar ensemble cast of the critically acclaimed and fan- adored Netflix prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black , where she embodies Red, a sturdy Russian mob wife turned ersatz quartermaster for her fellow inmates. Most famous, though, is her 1990s role as the first female Star Trek captain on Star Trek: Voyager . Mulgrew’s impressive and resilient career is purely the setting for her life story, told with grace, vitality and ultimate commitment not to encyclopedic detail but to emotional through- line and theme. We get the first hint that this is not your ordinary entertainment memoir when Mulgrew begins her tale with some of her earliest childhood memories as a member of a rambling, eccentric Irish Catholic family. These memories include one where a four- year- old Kate is left by her mother to supervise her infant sister. Mulgrew recalls feeling resentful of this duty, as well as the moment when she feeds her sister a bottle of ice water, expecting it will kill the baby. It doesn’t, but the guilt over the homicidal impulse remains. Mulgrew weaves a life story about more than just the constant struggle to maintain personal and professional life balance that is so familiar to woman of her ( and any) generation. For Mulgrew, the “ professional” is less a simple profession than a passion and a calling. She would say it was her good luck that she knew that at a very early age. When Mulgrew became pregnant while unmarried at 21, not long after her big break arrived in the form of Ryan’s Hope , she knew keeping her baby would only serve to repeat the cycle by which both Mulgrew’s mother and her children suffered. Unwilling to abort, Mulgrew made the excruciating decision to give birth and give her daughter up. Mulgrew’s writing is compact and evocative as she takes us through the chapters of her life. Yes, there is glamour: travel, wealthy suitors and romance. There is also tragedy and vulnerability — some of Mulgrew’s siblings died in childhood, and she also discloses a brutal sexual assault. Mulgrew describes the challenge of being a divorced mother to school- aged boys while starring in a TV drama where 18- hour days are the norm, giving ample credit to Lucy, her long- serving nanny. Most relevant to Trekkie readers will be her take on how creating Captain Janeway in the 1990s was no easy feat: she had to be commanding but not off- putting, feeling but not over- emotional. Not to mention the continuing ordeal of getting Janeway’s hairstyle just right — hardly a concern for the male captains before her. Born With Teeth is an entertainer’s memoir with very little industry dish. But when you have a rich story and a magnetic main character who is willing to examine the rough edges and tough choices of a life well- lived, who needs it? Jenny Henkelman is a Winnipeg writer and editor. Reviewed by Gerald Flood Clutter at novel’s outset mars gripping narrative Harmless By James Grainger McCelland & Stewart, 288 pages, $ 22 Reviewed by Jenny Henkelman Born with Teeth By Kate Mulgrew Little, Brown, 320 pages, $ 31 Reviewed by Casey Plett Little to love in sci- fi screwups A Free Man By Michel Basilières ECW Press, 215 pages, $ 19 Fantastic voyage From Star Trek and beyond, Mulgrew’s bio shows a life well- lived DIANE BONDAREFF / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES JOJO WHILDEN / NETFLIX Mulgrew is Galina ( Red) Reznikov on Orange Is the New Black. D_ 24_ Jun- 27- 15_ FF_ 01. indd 1 6/ 25/ 15 6: 14: 15 PM

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