Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ray Robertson's Moody Food: A quickie review

Last week wasn't a banner week for me in terms of reading and writing. The writing part is obvious: I haven't posted in a week. The reading part is less obvious, but suffice to say I struggled to find a book I could sink my teeth into. Maybe I needed a week to simply veg. It was a busy one at work - yes, let's use that as my excuse (lame as it may be). (I did, however, read Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed, the much-anticipated sequel to her mega-hit Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, Virginia, I'm probably not the intended audience for this book. But I was a fan of Gilbert's writing before she struck it rich, largely because of this piece she wrote for the NYTimes, which has everything a humour article should have (ie., yuks). And I read Eat, Pray, Love while I was in the midst of my own break-up, so it had definite resonance. Anyway I will eventually write more about this book and Gilbert, hopefully in my long-promised post about memoirs. Particularly since I'm halfway through another sort-of memoir: Michael Greenberg's Beg, Borrow or Steal - what's with these three word titles?! - which is such a great, fun read, particularly if you've ever tried to make it as a freelance writer.)

I've never been accused of being a decent reviewer. I love my books and films, without a doubt, but that doesn't necessarily translate into being thoughtful in words when I'm done. This truth is particularly evident when I read insightful and incisive reviews by others. (For example, Kerry Clare's more thorough review of Hair Hat put mine to shame!) But I'm ok with this because the reviews that I conjure in my head are enough for me. Something seems to get lost along the way when I try to convey the jumble in my head to the tips of my typing fingers. Put another way: "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

All that preamble aside, I do want to write a few words about Ray Robertson's Moody Food, the second book I've read for Canada Reads Independently. I had high hopes for this book based on the backcover blurb: "... is a critically acclaimed sex, drugs, rock'n'roll-suffused modern tragedy." Sign me up! There aren't enough rock-and-roll novels, after all (although my friend P. is trying to get one he wrote published). Not to mention I'm fascinated by the novel's setting: Toronto's Yorkville in the mid-1960s, when hippies and folk music ruled the neighbourhood. (I can barely stand to walk through Yorkville these days, except when I visit the Pilot on a Saturday afternoon for jazz.)

There is certainly much to enjoy in this novel. It has a fairly strong narrative thrust. The book is narrated by Bill Hansen, a charming and idealistic hippie who works at what sounds like the coolest bookstore in the world (located on Harbord St. no less). He's somewhat adrift until he meets Thomas Graham, who introduces the impressionable Hansen to roots-based music. Eventually the two, along with Hansen's girlfriend Christine, form a band called The Duckhead Secret Society (Hansen is the drummer, even though he's never played drums before), first playing locally before they're "discovered," after which they set out on tour through the U.S. on their way to L.A. to record an album. Hansen and Graham, however, eventually get hooked on cocaine, and the two veer toward self-destruction, all the way Graham is working on music that he hopes will transcend the time.

This book is a proverbial page-turner, to be sure, propelled forward by the narrative. The journey, beginning with the Toronto scenes and proceeding through various towns and dives through the U.S., is fun and engaging. This is a dialogue-heavy book, which makes it accessible and easily digestible. But for me, there was just something ... missing. There's not time spent on introspection or reflection: more like "this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened." I love plot, of course, but I like something more than just plot. My real beef however is with the writing itself, which I found fairly sloppy and clumsy in spots. (Was this deliberate, I wonder? Maybe someone can enlighten me.) It's been a long time since I read so many run-on and jumbled sentences. This book could have used a strong editorial hand.

But hey, what the hell do I know? I'd recommend this book since I found it a frolic, but it doesn't have near the same depth as Carrie Snyder's Hair Hat. (It's also one that will not take a permanent place on my book shelf. It's up for grabs, basically, for anybody that wants to borrow it - on "long term loan.")

I'm still not sure what Canada Reads Independently book I will next take up. I couldn't find either Ray Smith's Century or the Katrina Onstad in my local bookshop - and I couldn't remember the title of the fifth book nominated - so I'm sort-of in a holding pattern. This has been a fun exercise, and one I will continue. Despite my less-than insightful reviewing.

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