By: Julie Booker
House of Anansi, March 2011, 236 pp, Paperback $22.95 CDN
Reviewed by: James Onusko
Author Julie Booker has written a wide-ranging collection of short stories that will almost certainly inspire you at certain turns, disturb you at others, but will undoubtedly leave you feeling moved as a reader. Booker’s skills as a writer are many and I believe this collection of short stories heralds the introduction of another very good writer to not only the Canadian literary landscape, but the international one as well. Through dark humour, compassion, empathy and love, the author manages to explore the full range of emotions with an eclectic mix of characters amidst an impressive series of stories.
Booker lives in Toronto and has recently given birth to twin baby boys. She has published several short stories in magazines and anthologies. One of her finest career accomplishments is winning the Writer’s Union of Canada’s Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers in 2009. More are sure to come in what should be a long and successful writing career.
There are numerous strengths in Booker’s collection. The first is that she is willing to engage with some complex themes such as: death, sexuality, love, alienation, and family within the confines of the short story genre. Not only does she do this in several stories, but she also tackles several of these themes within a single story. Yet these stories do not read as flippant or uncaring. Another strength is that she features mostly female characters as they struggle with some of life’s biggest questions with much humour – we continue to need more of this in both Canadian and World literature. Nothing is off limits for Booker and she displays great courage in infusing laughter into storylines where most writers would and could not. Great sorrow is often a bedfellow of laughter in literature and in life, and vice versa; the author has taken this to heart. This collection is guaranteed to induce some laughter, and likely some tears for many. A final notable strength is the writing itself. Booker displays creativity and resourcefulness with her lively writing. Yes, most of the stories challenging and oftentimes, require a second or even third reading with their many nuances, but this should be welcomed by all readers.
In this excerpt from “Thixatropic,” Booker explores work, body image, ageism, and artistic creativity in a handful of paragraphs with biting humour:
“Thixatropic,” Heather says, as if it’s an interesting word. As if Nadine should scribble it down in her notebook.
“Oooh.” A squeal from the back of the “studio,” which, it turns out, is a roadside industrial garage near King City.
Nadine’s paying big bucks for the week-long course. “What’s that? she asks.
Heather has a man body with breasts. Her shoulders are well defined softballs, arms hanging straight down. A beginning sculptor’s failed piece. Her golden curls are youthful but her face has obviously never worn sunscreen.
“It describes the property of certain mixtures that become temporarily fluid when shaken or stirred, then revert back to the gel state.” Heather scans the ground as she talks, never looking into the eyes of the dozen students surrounding the chart on a stand. Nadine’s not like the others. These people are her parents’ age.
“What the hell?” Nadine whispers to John, with his past-expiration corduroys. She tolerates him in case she needs to remember the ratio of cement to aggregate. The rest, with their polyester pants and floral appliqué sweatshirts, she dismisses. Housewives and hobbyists, empty-nesters exploring their sublimated creativity in the form of garden ornaments.
Up Up Up is not without some weaknesses, although these are not major. I have never read a short story collection in which every story is great and this collection is no exception. Some of this might be that certain stories were exceptional – making the other ones seem relatively dull in comparison. The ones that were not as strong, simply failed to engage me as the other ones did – possibly a testament to how good the best stories such as “Death on the Nile,” “Geology in Motion,” “Thixatropic” and “Up Up Up” are. Most of the weaker entries suffer from an inability to provide compelling characters and at times, the stories seem to end in a hurried and nearly thoughtless manner. This is puzzling from a writer with skills such as Booker’s, but one that can and will be remedied with more sophisticated editing as she continues to write. Related to this is that some stories are simply too short to impart much, even after a re-read or two from careful readers. While I understand that neat and tidy bows are not required at the ends of all stories to satisfy readers – some of the stories bordered on cryptic. With all this being said, it is encouraging that the more sophisticated of Booker’s longest stories are the best – boding well for the time when she may want to move to novel-length projects.
Julie Booker has written a provocative and interesting collection of stories. Her writing exudes confidence, fearlessness and intelligence. Her obvious wit cannot be questioned. I challenge all readers to read this collection and not find at least one character that they have encountered in their everyday lives. Many of these characters would not ‘make the cut’ in many books in the sense that their many weaknesses and flaws would make them difficult for a lesser writer to champion; but it is their foibles and struggles that will draw in readers. Like Steinbeck and Munro, Booker chooses the commonplace in exploring the human condition. If you like to be both entertained and enlightened when you read fiction, Up Up Up is highly recommended.
*An advance copy of Up Up Up was sent to me to read and review by House of Anansi. It was not purchased.